Going to the dentist shares many of the hallmark characteristics of a religious duty. Begrudgingly, one enters the shrine of a sanitized temple, prostrates themselves before a robed cleric of a special order, and confesses their regret and remorse at the inconsistency of their flossing. After paying penance — a gruelling ritual that involves having many ceremonial objects thrust in the mouth — the supplicant avows to renew their adherence to the creedal doctrine of daily brushing. All hail, mighty fluoride! Finally, after making a large donation to the institution of the priesthood, the penitent is finally released to tend to the concerns of secular life.
I was recently thinking about these similarities while myself waiting for my turn in the great motorized, reclining, chair of confession. But the analogy has a big problem: as much as my annual pilgrimage to the dentist might have many ecclesiastical trappings, for me it is more like a vision of a most unsatisfactory afterlife. Indeed, it seems to me that the dentist’s clinic is a scene that is conspicuously absent in Dante’s Inferno.
If I had grown up in an Eastern tradition of thought, would I approach the torturous ordeal of the dentist differently? Instead of describing the dentist’s office as a cleansing ceremony for my iniquity (and the restoration my stature before the gods of respectable oral hygiene), what if I thought of my appointment only as an inevitable sequence of physical sensations? After all, what is my experience of all this scraping, probing, and drilling, other than a bunch of little signals that my mind is processing? At this level, going to the dentist is no different than anything else I experience in life, right? It is simply something I feel, describe, and make judgments about. Nothing more, nothing less.
A guru might point out that my fixation on this ‘disagreeable’ situation (specifically, a bunch of metallic instruments abrading the inside of my head) is ultimately a state of mind. If I could fully control my own mind, theoretically, I could see these sensations for what they are and choose not to attach my emotions to them. Oh, what’s that? An ultrasonic scaler grating my central nervous system like fingernails on a chalkboard? That’s nothing, really. Just some data in my brain. Why should I bother clinging to my hate for it? I choose to be unattached to practice of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ sensations.
I decided to give it a try. Here I am: a lotus in a dentist chair! Obviously, this is the worst place to begin experimenting with such mental disciplines. The likelihood of my mental capacity outstripping the oral hygienist’s weaponized assault on my plaque buildup is approximately the same as the likelihood that I could begin levitating on the spot. I might as well try to get my X-wing starship out of a Hothian swamp just by thinking about it. Needless to say, my attempt to psychologically override the rest of my physiology was a terrific failure.
There’s an old, corny joke that goes like this, Why did the Buddhist refuse Novocain before his root canal? He wanted to transcend dental medication. Well, let me just say this, until you have actually tried it, you have no idea how incredibly significant such a skill would be. I can only imagine it in the most theoretical of terms. As far as I’m concerned, the words of Shakespeare are as relevant as ever: “there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently” (Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, Scene 1, Line 34-35).
This lesson suggests to me that the state of my mind is irrevocably related to my physical environment. Could I, with rigorous discipline, learn to sever the dependency that my mental and emotional well-being has on the world around me? And if I could, would I want to? If I could rise above pain of this ordeal, would I have any incentive to brush and floss? And if all my teeth rotted out of my skull, why would I even care anymore if I possessed the miraculous power of permanent self-tranqualization?
Would the power to ignore a cavity, like Shakespeare’s impossible philosopher, really make a better person in any way?
The dentist’s office is not really a confessional booth. And it may not be the road to enlightenment either, but it is a reminder of the paradox we find ourselves in: we cannot untangle our personal well-being from our personal choices and, at the same time, it is impossible to say that our well-being is wholly dictated by the power of our minds. Perhaps serenity, as the famous prayer goes, really is simply about coming to appreciate both sides of the equation.
Either way, it is probably still a very good idea to floss today.