My first thought when I woke up that morning was of the dreaded date with destiny ahead.
There would be no more escapes, no more attempts to get out of what was inevitably coming. Along with the dread though, there was also a sense of surrender.
I knew there would be no way out and was resigned to what lay ahead.
The usual healthy morning breakfast was replaced by a Belgian waffle extravaganza, a luxury afforded me given what the day would bring. I had never put peanut butter, raisins, walnuts and syrup on a waffle before but I figured, “If not now, then when?”
My belly full, I was transported to the facility where my karma was scheduled to ripen.
I was greeted with respect and professionalism, and was exceedingly grateful for that. If I’ve learned anything on the path of meditation these years, it’s that everything is appearance to mind. I was glad that even though what awaited me on the other side of the door was a particular version of hell, at least these people seemed professional and civil. Perhaps they didn’t take masochistic pleasure in doing this to people. It was, after all, inevitable given the karma I myself had created through my own actions.
After some preliminaries and the requisite bureaucratic paperwork, I was escorted into the small room where two uniformed men awaited me. It’s funny how my whole life I’ve hated sitting around waiting but on this particular day, I would have gladly waited for hours.
I would have no such luck.
The two men, whose faces were partially covered by masks, had me sit in the dreaded chair. Wires and dangerous looking torture weapons surrounded the room. The harsh lighting and metallic surfaces made my senses even sharper as the clock kept on ticking down to the moment I feared the most.
I had spent so much time thinking about this very moment. Running away from it, dreading it, planning any last-minute fantasy escape I could. You could say that my levels of aversion were through the roof.
I recalled my training and preparation and felt a bit like Luke about to face Darth Vadar:
Keep the focus on your breath. No matter what they do to you, just keep the focus on your breath.
A conflict arose inside the body-mind continuum. The body tensed up naturally while the amygdala fired up with terror about what lay ahead. At the same time, the other part of the brain, the frontal cortex that had been getting trained for years, was doing something different.
Relax. Surrender. Focus on your breath. Don’t resist this, just accept it.
Bring your awareness to the left foot. Then the right foot. Come back to the breath.
Remember your training.
Surrender and accept the present moment.
Each time the electric drill started up again as the crown on my tooth was being prepared, the terror arose. There had been such trauma in the past in dental offices much like this one that my body involuntarily tightened and tensed up in resistance. And even with the topical anesthetic which actually eliminated most physical discomfort, the mere sound of the drill triggered the brain’s reptilian response.
Again and again and again, for what seemed like ages, the mind went on a loop. In slow-motion, it was something like this:
Come back to the breath.
In an endless loop, again and again and again, the triggering event - the sound of the drill - was met both first with the involuntary reaction of the old brain, where the fight-flight-freeze response resides - followed then by a response by the newer part of the brain which could soothe it. As long as I sat in the chair, I kept practicing diligently.
I took it up a notch, too, by wishing the team working on me loving-kindness. Wishing them happiness, health, joy and all manner of good things. It felt good to do something to transform this opportunity into an occasion for practice.
After all, there isn’t much else you can do while strapped in the chair, so why not make the best of it, right?
And although this experience at the dentist was no walk in the park, the terror of the electric chair was somehow mitigated through the practice of mindfulness and meditation that day.
So many people struggle with meditation because it really does take some time to actually be able to start receiving some of its greatest benefits. Habit-patterns in the mind are so strong that practices like mindfulness (otherwise known as insight meditation or vipassana) take time to develop. And in an era and culture of attention-deficit, it’s hard to create motivation to meditate daily.
Each of us has to face this daily challenge of sitting down to meditate and take our seat, or do something else. When the to-do list is long and time seemingly short, motivation to simply do nothing can be hard to find.
In my own experience and serious squeamishness about medical and dental procedures, I’ve found meditation exceptionally beneficial for dealing with such trauma - and so have my clients and students. It’s something I can do both before the procedure to relax, calm down and prepare my mind, and during the procedure when it seems that nothing else is within my control. Given how many of us postpone much needed medical and dental visits, exams and procedures -- oftentimes to significant peril to our own health - meditation can be a powerful tool to help us cope with such stressors.
Indeed, even inmates on death row through projects like the Insight Prison Project at San Quentin Prison, have found the practice of meditation profoundly transformative.
Most of us will never have that kind of an extreme experience. But we each have our own versions of hell. And with regular practice, even those can be transformed.
When the procedure was over, I walked out of the dentist’s office to the reception area.
The receptionist was holding a tiny baby. She couldn’t have been more than 3 months old. There were little white booties on her tiny feet, and she wore a sparkly purple bow that covered half her forehead. She asked if I wanted to hold the precious baby for a moment and I gladly agreed.
We locked eyes and held the gaze of one another in a reciprocal dance of awareness.
Consciousness looking back on itself, and nothing less.
She was at peace, and so, alas, was I.