I’ve learned so much from Thich Nhat Hanh’s books over the years, and I think like me he may have had some issues with his teeth because he has many quotes about toothaches and "non-toothaches" as a way to practice mindfulness and to cultivate joy and happiness. Here are three of my favorites:
“When you have a toothache, you call your dentist and ask for an emergency appointment to relieve your pain. You know deeply at that point that not having a toothache is happiness. Yet later, when you don’t have a toothache, you forget and do not treasure your non-toothache.”
“When you have a toothache the feeling is very unpleasant, and when you do not have a toothache you usually have a neutral feeling. However, if you can be mindful of the non-toothache, the non-toothache will become a feeling of peace and joy. Mindfulness gives rise to and nourishes happiness.”
“When you have a toothache, you think that not having a toothache will make you very happy. But when you don’t have a toothache, often you are still not happy. If you practice awareness, you suddenly become very rich — very, very happy.”
I’ve got a long history of issues with my jaw and teeth, most notably braces twice (including head gear, rubber bands, all the accoutrements), wisdom teeth removal, and jaw surgery to correct an overbite that gave me severe TMJ and that left me wired shut for a month and with four titanium screws in my jaw. I could go on, but you get the idea.
So perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t like going to the dentist, not even for a routine cleaning. I definitely have an aversion to all things dental. And so I try to use my time in the dentist’s chair as a rich opportunity to be aware of my aversion and to practice cultivating mindfulness, because if I don’t make an effort at practicing, I’m definitely wishing it was over and that I was somewhere else.
Yesterday was my 6-month cleaning appointment, and like usual, I silently chanted mantra while the hygienist scraped, poked, and examined my teeth. That’s one way I practice while at the dentist. Chanting mantra keeps me present in the moment I’m in, and it reminds me that I’m not my body (or my teeth, or my jaw…). I also try to breathe consciously to help me stay present and to invite my parasympathetic nervous system to activate so that I relax. I try to practice gratitude too: Gratitude that I have access to dental care, gratitude for dental insurance that helps to offset some of the cost of treatment, gratitude for the hygienists and the dentist who provide care, gratitude that my visit is for a routine cleaning and not for a problem….
…They found a problem. Even though it didn’t feel like there was anything wrong, there was a “pocket” that hadn’t been there last time, a dead nerve, a referral to the root canal specialist. So today was my first root canal. It’s a long story, but thanks to the long ago jaw surgery, the root canal was rough, it hurts to talk, and I now find myself full of ibuprofen, with ice on my jaw, and having to get my classes subbed for tonight. I have to slow down this evening, even though I don’t want to.
Krishna Das says, “Practice while you can. You’ll need it when you can’t.” I try remember his wise words and to draw on my years of practice when unexpected (and usually expensive) dental or medical issues arise, along with their sometimes painful procedures and uncomfortable recovery times. When due to things like root canals I have to limit my own physical practice or cannot go to teach, I am grateful for my practice because thanks to it I notice more quickly when I’m drifting into aversion, into wishing things were different, into impatience, into resisting pain. I’m reminded to lean in, to be present with what is rather than wishing it was different, to be patient, to remember that I am so much more than this body or its pain and discomfort. I’m reminded to be grateful for the “toothache” that serves as a mindfulness bell for me to remember to treasure my “non-toothache” time.