(5 min read)
Ah, the sounds of the dentist drilling into your tooth. Soothing, right?
I recently went to the dentist with a sore tooth which turned out to be due to a cavity that had formed. And just my luck, he had a cancellation right after my appointment so he had the time to fill the cavity right away.
He started to work, and so did I.
The dentist began with the local anesthesia, which for most of us (myself included) is not very pleasant. Knowing what the needle would feel like, I closed my eyes and started to focus on my breath and other physical sensations in my body (my feet against the chair) as the anchor of my attention. Any unpleasant sensation that came up during the anesthesia process I met like any distraction during mindfulness practice. Notice. Let go. Return attention to the chosen anchor(s). Repeat (and repeat, and repeat).
This worked surprisingly well for the physical discomfort of the anesthesia process which, from personal experience, can be much worse if I let myself get entangled in it rather than just observing it, letting go, and shifting my attention consciously elsewhere.
Mindfulness: 1, Dentist: 0
Next came the drilling, essentially removing the bad part of the tooth before it can be filled.
This was surprisingly loud, and I can only describe it as someone operating heavy machinery right next to my head. The dentist and his assistant kindly assured me that it didn’t sound loud to them – it was just because the intense drilling vibrations from my tooth were (naturally) going straight into the rest of my head.
Another excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness.
When I teach the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, one of the key themes is integrating mindfulness into everyday life. When someone first starts practicing mindfulness, it can be helpful to find a quiet place to practice (there are enough distractions going on inside our heads as-is!) However, over time, we want to start to be able to practice mindfulness in any situation, to be able to drop into the present moment regardless of external circumstances. If you’re learning to meditate, start with a quiet place. It helps. Over time you can start to experiment with other locations, or even simpler, open a window so the sounds of traffic or birds singing come in (and keep focusing, not listening to the sounds!)
In my case, I got the opportunity to practice mindfulness with what seemed like a busy construction site going on right outside the window.
Attention on the breath, body => distraction appears! Breath/body, breath/body => distraction! Breath, body. And repeat.
It worked quite well – even I was surprised how calm and constant my breathing was due to the particular way I was paying attention in the moment, despite the extremely loud drilling happening at that exact moment in my head.
Mindfulness: 2, Dentist: 0
Then the dentist said: “Surtout, monsieur, ne bougez pas.” (Now, sir, definitely do not move). I thought I had been still. So why was he saying this now? What was I doing wrong? Or, better question, what was about to happen?
A moment of panic.
My thoughts started racing towards endless possibilities of what was about to come.
I could feel my body tense up, my breath become shallow.
Mindfulness training kicked in – I consciously noticed these things happening. I realised had the ability to choose my reaction; I wasn’t being controlled by them.
Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Reconnect with the physical sensations of breathing. Reconnect with the physical sense of contact against the chair supporting the weight of my body, countering gravity.
Back in the moment.
Breath and heart rate back to normal, quite slow in fact.
Mindfulness: 3, Dentist: 0
The rest of the match played out uneventfully, having overcome the most challenging events.
A decisive win, then, 3-0 for mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be practiced formally, at home in a quiet place. In fact, it needs to be trained this way to build the capacity to be more mindful. Nothing replaces regular practice. The good news is that this training pays off and it can be applied directly in any situation.
Next time you’re experiencing a difficult or unpleasant event, try connecting with the physical sensations of breathing in the body. Notice them. Experience them. Use them as the anchor of your attention, as the thing that keeps you in the present moment. Every time you notice the attention wandering, choose to bring it back to the breath. Repeat for the duration of the event.
The great thing about mindfulness is that you don’t need to believe in anything special for it to work. It’s not a placebo. Try it out and see for yourself!