Mindfulness at the dentist’s

I went to the dentist today. It was just a routine check-up. I’m a recalcitrant patient though, stubbornly resisting the six-monthly reminders they send me. This time I was especially tardy, leaving it for fifteen months, maybe longer.

My dentist is an excellent fellow, but he managed to punish me for my negligence by finding that a filling had gone missing, and proposing to replace it today, rather than making an appointment to replace it later.

How could I refuse? When any backward step would be interpreted, quite correctly, as cowardice.

But that’s not all. My worthy dentist informed me that I could choose not to have the local anaesthetic injection if I wanted, so that I didn’t have a numb jaw for the next few hours. He said I might ‘experience some sensitivity’ during the drilling, but that it would probably be OK.

I suppose if I really was the Renaissance Man I pretend to be, I would have said ‘No, give me the anaesthetic’, because I’m so in touch with my feelings and I am not ashamed to admit that I don’t enjoy having my teeth drilled.

But I was brought up in the seventies, when boys were expected to display the characteristics of men as quickly as possible, and men were supposed to grit their teeth stoically in the face of pain (although that wouldn’t work very well at the dentist’s would it?). So of course I said, doing my best Clint Eastwood impersonation, ‘Forget the injection. Let’s just do it!’ (actually the exact words I used, which I can’t remember, were probably much less impressive and manly than that, but the information content was the same).

It wasn’t just about pretending to be macho though. I have been dipping my toe in the water with Buddhist Mindfulness techniques recently, trying to learn some basic meditation skills. I’m too busy at present to take classes and learn it all properly, so I’ve just read something about it and listened to a podcast. It seems to be mostly about focusing attention on physical sensations, and gently but firmly sending away the other thoughts that try to crowd into one’s mind. Breathing is the classic sensation to focus on, but apparently it doesn’t have to be that. I sometimes practice focusing on my breathing when in bed at night, and I think I’d be much better at it by now if it weren’t that I always fall asleep within a minute or two of starting.

Before the drilling, the dentist did some cleaning and scraping, which was really most uncomfortable and provided an excellent opportunity to practice before the Big Event. I tried to focus on the feel of the electrical scraper against and in between my teeth, a feeling of pressure and vibration, and every now and then a minor surge of pain when a tender spot was probed too inquisitively. I found that, for as long as I could focus my attention entirely on those sensations, batting away thoughts such as ‘I wonder what the drilling will feel like’, the experience was not altogether unpleasant. The sensations were objects of interest or wonder. It’s a little like when you realise what a peculiar word ‘kettle’ is and you say it slowly over and over to yourself to contemplate its sudden unfamiliarity, its strangeness.

Sensations are strange things. They are impossible to describe because the only thing they can be like is themselves, or other sensations that are so similar that expressing the likeness gives no further information. It’s like replying to the question ‘Where does Betty live’ with ‘Oh, she lives next door to her neighbour Bob’. My natural tendency is to try to describe sensations visually, such as saying that cool breeze feels ‘white’. For me this is not synaesthesia but rather just an indication of the impossibility of expressing a sensual experience in words. I think the reason I reach for a visual simile is that for most sighted people, vision is the dominant sense, and we tend to primarily think of things in visual terms. I imagine it is very different for someone born blind.

This peculiarity and strangeness of sensation is useful at the dentist because it makes the object on which we are trying to focus attention peculiar enough to be worthy of that attention. It is easier for me to focus attention on a physical sensation than it is to focus on a mental image of sheep vaulting a hurdle in the old, but mostly useless, ‘counting sheep’ technique for getting to sleep. Sorry sheep, but I just don’t find you interesting enough!

Maybe I was a wimp. I don’t know. I can’t objectively evaluate my internal bravery level because I’ve never been anyone else. I did my best to show no outward signs of wimpiness, and the shambolic, amateurish attempt at mindfulness helped with that.

But I really don’t like having my teeth scraped, descaled and whatever other things he was doing to them.

The funny thing was, when he finally got around to drilling for my filling, it didn’t hurt a bit! It would be nice to think that’s because my attempt at mindfulness was working. But realistically, it’s much more likely to be that he was simply telling the truth when he said it would probably be OK.

I think I have a lot of work ahead of me if I ever want to be able to tolerate unanaesthetised wedge resection, passing kidney stones, or maybe even chest-waxing, with equanimity.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2013

One Comment on “Mindfulness at the dentist’s”

  1. johnson says:

    nice story. i will have to try that mindfulness too. I was having dinner with a friend then I suddenly thought about a good way to eat. Maybe mindfulness at things we do could make the situation more fun.

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