This week I had one and a half teeth out. The roots of the second one will have to come out another day. It wasn’t pleasant, but I stayed calm during the 20 minutes or so my mouth was wide open, most of the time filled with fingers and surgical pliers.
During the 4 days that followed there was some pain and a number of pain-killers taken. There were also several photos taken of the blood clot/hole/grey ‘granulating’ matter on top of the hole and a certain amount of anxiety culminating in another trip to the dentists to find out I was not suffering from the dreaded ‘dry socket’ infection!
The contrast between my calm with the more acute but short-term dental chair moments, and the restless anxiety that followed during the week after, reminded me of a friend’s explanation of why we often cope better with more demanding and immediate situations (being chased by a tiger!) than with more on-going difficulty (noisy neighbours). He says the imminent challenge changes our consciousness and pulls something more out of us. Perhaps our hormones get involved too enabling adrenaline and nor-adrenaline to help us meet the situation. In contrast, the longer-term issues are dealt with by our everyday state of mind; we get a bit fed up, worn down by the discomfort or restrictions, we get into waiting to feel better, and hoping it will go away.
When I’m in the dentists chair or during some other ‘peak’ moment, whether of difficulty or when the pressure is on a different consciousness comes about because I am more in the moment. Being chased by the mythical tiger, there is no option but to be fully present and run, or be eaten.
The anxiety about pain and infection is about ‘futuring’. I’m worried I won’t be able to lead my next retreat because of a sore and infected mouth so I spend more time thinking about whether I should contact the dentist again, and making google searches to see what should be happening. Fear, anxiety and hope, even in small doses, project me into the future and into the realm of concepts, or ideas about what might happen.
By its nature it is not always possible to live in the heightened state of just responding in the present moment. Planning needs to happen. I need to book trains in advance if I don’t want to pay a fortune. Keeping an eye on whether my socket is healing is sensible but what is ‘extra’ is being carried away by imagined dramas. There are plenty of helpful ways of being more present and interested in what’s actually happening and just doing what is necessary.
The teaching about karma at the moment of death is sometimes presented in terms of a horse race. Death proximate karma (traditionally seen as the most significant) starts off well, Weighty karma has real power propelling it along the race course. But it’s Habitual karma, with its millions of repeated thoughts, words and actions over a life-time, who makes headway over the long haul. This points to something important. The Dharma life is not so much about our peak moments of spiritual experiences. Whilst they are ‘weighty’ and important, in the long run, what we do with our minds everyday is more significant. Do we bring a wise attention to our reactions of craving, hatred and delusion? Do I really see clearly when their opposites, generosity, love and wisdom, are flourishing in the mind and heart.
So while it’s good that I can watch my mind during all sorts of unpleasant moments and can pull out the spiritual stops when under pressure, it’s not enough. What about when I’m tired or just a bit low or all the other moments when I’m going about my life without much awareness or wisdom?
Ordinary mind needs to be transformed at every level to determine whether the race is back towards Samsara or on the right track to Nirvana.