Nothing, and I mean nothing, brings you into the moment like extreme pain. Actually the moment you realize with absolute certainty that its arrival is impending, now that is the moment of maximum mindfulness.
At the risk of losing those of you who were on the fence about my sanity, I share this experience. A few weeks ago a piece of my tooth broke off. It’s a tooth with a very large old mercury filling. Today I went to the dentist to have the old filling removed and prep work (drilling) done for a new crown.
The dental hygienist led me to the chair saying, “I’ll take care of numbing you first.” Her jaw dropped when I told her I don’t get numbed for dental work. Just then, the dental assistant walked in and said, “Oh, right, Stephen doesn’t get numbed.”
I started getting dental work without any anesthesia or novacaine about 10 years ago. You see I hate that annoying numb feeling that stays with you long after visiting the dentist and even more, I hate all the shots in the gums. One visit, it dawned on me that I didn’t have to be numbed. It’s my right to do without it. That first time, when I had a cavity filled without any anesthetic, my senses were heightened beyond belief. I think the dentist was as nervous as me, too. He was worried I would flinch if he touched a nerve, which would have created a real problem for both of us. He gave me the warnings, then set up a signal I should use if I couldn’t take it any more.
I won’t lie, it hurt like hell. The endorphins started to flow and that’s when it happened. I recalled a story about Dale Earnhardt, when during a race, he began snoring over his radio and his pit crew had to verbally wake him up. His ability to maintain calm to the point of sleep, even under the most extreme duress, earned him the nickname, The Intimidator. Some people are challenged by marathons. I am challenged to maintain calm under extreme physical duress. This was my Ironman triathlon.
I close my eyes and focus on every breath. I try to get a fix on my heartbeat and then physically slow it down with my mind. I visualize the instruments being used, how the tooth is being transformed and most of all, I create a mental image of the nerves. As they are sparked, I imagine something like a laser being shot from the end that was triggered up to my brain. By visualizing what is happening, I feel a sense of control over it. It’s difficult to describe, but it converts the pain from a feeling into something tangible, which is observed rather than experienced. (Is any of this making sense?)
Anyway, since that time, I have had a tooth pulled, two root canals and many old fillings replaced, all without anesthesia and today was no different. At one point, the dentist used some kind of water/laser gadget that works like a drill but instead of spinning, it pounds away at the target. It turns out I have a cavity in the tooth next to where he was working and while trying to take care of it too, he bore through a good chunk of my gums as well (see picture). I saw colors and felt the pain radiate from every nerve in my body, but I never flinched. The assistants both even commented on how they were watching my hands to see if I was clenching my fists, but they saw no sign of anguish. I was focused on my heartbeat and breathing. I was aware of the pain, but I was merely witnessing it. It can’t be ignored and you can’t avoid it. I felt every bit of it, but it didn’t matter.
When he was finished, I was good as new. No numbness or pain. I said to the dentist and his assistants, “I can’t be the only patient who comes to you who does without anesthesia.” They all thought and looked at each other before answering, “Actually, you are.”