“Remember to breathe, now.”

I smiled.

Or, at least, I tried to, what with all the sharp dental objects protruding from my mouth, and my lips half-numb with Novocaine.

But even in my lightly-medicated state, the irony of the dental assistant having to tell the mindful lady to remember to breathe did not escape me.

I’ve had a little bit of a dental adventure (ad-denture?) lately — a tooth that kept giving me painful zingers, which we tried to soothe with a filling that didn’t work, which led to a root canal, and then, finally, the fitting for my crown, which brought me to the dentist chair again, bracing in sheer terror as my poor tooth was drilled and filed away.

“Remember to breathe, now.”

Hearing those words, I realized my entire body was rigid, propelled into a fight-or-flight state by the horrifying sounds of drilling, the discomforting sight of tooth particles flying in the air, and the knowledge that just a slight tremor in the dentist’s hand could result in my face being tattooed by an errant drill (Perhaps that’s actually not knowledge… I was a History major, after all…)

I took a deep breath, allowed my muscles to release a bit, and remembered the formula I often share with students in my mindfulness classes:

suffering = pain x resistance

I realized that my entire body was resisting, tensing in fear and wishing for the procedure to be over, desperately wanting to be anywhere but HERE.

So I took another deep breath, softened a bit more, and tried to settle in to the moment. I was THERE, whether I wanted to be or not. I could fight the moment, or I could allow it to be as it was.

I then did what comes naturally to me in moments like this: I started composing a blog post in my head: Mindful Dentistry. YES! That needs to be a THING! How can we be mindful at the dentist, and what can we learn? (I KNOW you have done this, too…)

Here’s what I learned….

We Resist Pain… Even When There is No Pain

I was suffering in that chair even though I WAS NOT FEELING ANYTHING THE DENTIST WAS DOING. My lips, gums, all of it were completely numb, yet my amazingly evolved prefrontal cortex was doing a FANTASTIC JOB, thank you very much, of reminding me of all the pain that COULD possibly happen.

OMG What if he sneezes? Would he drop the drill in my mouth? What if the Novocaine didn’t really work or he missed a spot and OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD HOW MUCH WOULD IT HURT IF THAT DRILL ACTUALLY HIT A SENSITIVE TOOTH OR MY GUM OR MY TONGUE!?!?!?!?!?!

One of the gifts evolution has bestowed on us homo sapiens is the ability to respond not only to actual physical threats in the environment, but also to threats that do not even exist. Our incredibly creative frontal lobes have no lack of imagination when it comes to envisioning all the terrible things that could happen to us but aren’t actually happening right now. And our incredibly responsive nervous system goes right ahead and responds to all those imagined scenarios as if they were reality. So we manage to suffer because we’re resisting pain that isn’t even there!

I’m sure you can think of about 4,782 times when you have done this, too, at some point in your life.

But all the worry about the things that could go wrong during a dental procedure is the price we pay for knowing how to DO these procedures in the first place. At one point, my neurons activated the memory of the scene in Cast Away when Tom Hanks had to remove his infected and painful tooth with the blade of an ice skate while stranded (with no drugs!) on an island in the Pacific for four years. Now THAT is legit SUFFERING.

And although sometimes our ability to worry about things that don’t even exist is a drag, I’ll gladly find ways to work through those fears in exchange for all the amazing things the three pounds of gray matter in the human cranium can do!

Pain is Temporary

While my mind continued to go wild imagining all the terrible misfortunes that could befall me in the dentist chair, I tried to soothe myself with the mantra, “Pain is temporary.”

I told myself that if, by chance, a bee got into the office and stung the dentist, causing his hand to slip and his drill to attack a neighboring, unmedicated tooth, the pain would be incredible, but temporary. Because lots of things in life are incredible but temporary.

Every day my breath comes and goes, a bunch of emotions arise and fade away, and about a billion thoughts appear and disappear… it’s all temporary and shifting and if something bad DOES happen, it will, as all things do, eventually pass.

Plus, I’m in a building with lots of doctors and powerful drugs, so that will help, too.

People are Really Nice

I can’t imagine how many procedures the dentist and his assistant perform each day, on people who are probably way more freaked out than I am (and who maybe don’t even floss!)

Yet they both did everything they could to make sure I was comfortable, breathing, and aware of everything they were doing. The dentist kept informing me about how much drilling was left, what he would do next, and how the procedure was going. In addition to pain, I often resist uncertainty, so I appreciated his kind words that helped soothe my overactive imagination.

The dental assistant, who could see just by my body language how nervous I was, did everything she could to make me comfortable. For some reason, I was particularly touched by her continually wiping up my drool as I held my mouth open for such a long period of time. Maybe it was the drugs, but it was a very tender and human gesture, and it reminded me that we’re all just here to be kind and help each other.

So, yes, mindful dentistry can be a thing.

Breathe, soften your resistance, find a helpful mantra, and remind yourself that people are really kind.

(Especially dentists. I mean, they stick their hands in people’s mouths all day. That’s something I would totally resist.)

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Sarah Rudell Beach

Executive Director at Brilliant Mindfulness
Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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