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ZEN AND THE ART OF DENTAL HYGIENE

By CATHERINE

Everything is transient.  I read that in 2005 on page 18 of The Three Pillars of Zen.

Nowhere better epitomizes this than the dreaded dentist’s chair.

The other day, Regina, my hygienist, made her way around my mouth as I tried to simultaneously focus on being present with the cleaning she was administering and not getting caught up in the discomfort.

I don’t have to be in this chair forever.

The suction tool dangled out of the left side of my gaping mouth as she worked with her mirrored instrument and sonic cleaning device. I imagined her device to be a miniature pressure-washing hose chipping off the plaque or whatever had built up since my last cleaning six months earlier.

My attempt at being present with the the tools in my mouth, which frankly felt like an X-ACTO knife nicking my gums, led my mind to search for an image of water to contrast the water causing pain in the mouth.  A giant, gentle waterfall came to mind, and suddenly, for a second, I was soothed. Then I decided to mentally follow the water-blade around my mouth as she progressed from tooth to tooth. 

During this attempt at distracting myself from the excessively long minutes passing, Regina turned her head and coughed over her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I sometimes get thirsty, and then I get jealous because I see all that water in your mouth.”

We both laughed – she behind her mask, and me with the suction-thing dangling and gurgling up saliva and excessive water her cleaning device was generating. No hygienist or dentist had cracked a joke about what it must look like to be peering into someone’s mouth as it filled with mouth juice and water and whatnot for the duration of a cleaning! How hysterically disgusting to think of drinking that mixture!

Several years ago, I heard a patient in the next bay admit to the hygienist that it had been eight years since his last cleaning. I couldn’t imagine what lurked inside his mouth or what kind of mini-dental-jackhammer it was going to take to get the crud off his teeth.

Suddenly I realized how brave one is to choose a profession in the peer-in-someone-else’s-mouth fields. What mysteries lie behind the front teeth we bare to the world! These folks have the courage to go in there, make sense of it, and do their best with what we give them in the time we’re away from them.

Maybe they, too, tell themselves, I don’t have to work in this mouth forever. I just need to clean up and make sure all these teeth and fillings and crowns stay put for another six months…or eight years! Everything is transient. 

© 2017 Catherine M. Greenspan