Two things are true for me: I’m grateful for health care and I’m afraid of the dentist. My appreciation for medical professionals doesn’t alleviate the anxiety I feel when a stranger pokes around in my mouth with sharp metal objects.
The other day I went to the dentist for the first time in a while. I wanted to get my teeth checked out since this is my last year on my mom’s insurance.
As part of the examination, the dentist jabbed a needle* down between my tooth and gum. I recoiled from the sensation of a raw nerve being stabbed. I shrank in the chair as the remainder of my mouth was skewered, tooth by tooth.
*that’s what it felt like anyway!
Finally the dentist stood back and announced: “there’s extreme gum recession. You have the gums of an 80-year-old.”
I felt devastated. Really? I brush and floss every night. I always swish my mouth with water after I eat sweets because I’m so paranoid of getting cavities from residual sugar. I don’t smoke, well, I did, but only for one year. I guess that did it, huh? My gums just gave up and pulled away from my teeth.
“You’re not gonna like this,” said the dental hygienist, “but I need to clean the sensitive teeth especially well.” A mask and face shield could not hide the sympathy in her eyes.
I smiled and said okay. My stomach felt squished yet stretched, like a rubber band ball.
The hygienist turned on a machine that hissed loudly over the 80’s Pandora radio station. I braced myself for the next jolt of pain as she started scrubbing away.
While I stared at the ceiling, my jaw aching as I strained to keep my mouth wide open, I realized every single muscle in my body was flexed. Maybe being so tense was adding to my misery.
I knew I couldn’t force myself to relax. But I decided this would be a good time to meditate.
There are as many ways to describe mediation as there are people who practice it. To me, mediation is like a mental workout. It’s like holding a plank and also like reaching for my toes in a forward bend. Except instead of my abs getting stronger, I am building my focus. And instead of my hamstrings getting more flexible, I’m increasing my awareness.
Mental strength is focus and mental flexibility is awareness.
The mind is strengthened when I practice holding my attention on one thing. And the mind becomes more flexible when I keep returning my attention back to the point of focus, no matter how many times I am distracted.
I meditate by paying attention to my breaths. How the air feels in my nose, in my lungs, in my stomach. Since I haven’t been practicing for very long, I still get sidetracked by a thought every 0.2 seconds. That’s alright. I try to bring my attention back to my breath every 0.3 seconds. My flexibility is being tested more than my strength right now.
When I listened to my breaths instead of the sound of tools scraping my teeth, the rest of my body slowly uncurled itself. I still winced from pain at times, but the moments in between were less horrible.
I left the dentist with clean teeth and a (relatively) calm mind and body. If you go to the dentist and feel anxious, I recommend trying meditation while you’re sitting there. And if you’re looking for a sign to quit smoking, let my unhappy gums be your motivation.