Zen and the Art of Dental Maintenance

While strapped to the chair during a six-month check-up, I asked Sherry, my dental hygienist, how my teeth were looking. "You could leave me a little more tartar to work on," she deadpanned through her obligatory blue face mask.

You see, ever since my braces were removed after my first year of college I have been the kind of brusher any dentist would dream to have in his chair.  Yes, just like they boasted in the Pearl Drops toothpaste commercials of the 70s, I, too, gloried in repeatedly sliding my tongue along the smooth surface of my front teeth after years of their enslavement to metal and caught food scraps.

I brushed and flossed with a vengeance.  My teeth deserved it.  After the years of pain and embarrassment braces had wrought, I was proud of my pearly whites and the ability to keep them sparkling clean.

"I'm worried about the gums on the right side of your mouth. Upper and lower," Sherry  said, interrupting my self reverie.

I was immediately taken aback.  She was worried? Hadn't I always been pearly perfect? Well!  It seems I have been brushing a little TOO enthusiastically!

"Your gums are receding," she said, as though reading my mind and explained how over brushing can have this effect over time. "You need to be more gentle with them!"

Wow. How had I not noticed? "I guess I go on automatic pilot when I brush," I admitted, somewhat sheepishly.  

"Don't we all," she replied, giving me a knowing smile.

Being a psychotherapist, naturally this got me thinking (and not just about expensive dental procedures, which I may have to endure if I am not more careful!). On a deeper level, it got me wondering about how often I "space out" in the course of an ordinary day.  How often do I walk or run the lake without noticing the varying shades of blue in the sky and the fullness of the trees? How many times does July arrive and cause me to wonder, "Where did spring go?"  How often am I with my son in the morning simultaneously washing dishes and herding us out the door to really pay attention to him and his latest favorite YouTube video?

I realize similar things happen to most of us.  In moderation, dissociation can be an OK part of modern life. Who hasn't jotted a grocery list or love note during a dull lecture? Who hasn't cut their nails while on the phone, or folded laundry while watching TV?  Granted, such multi-tasking can free up our lives so we have more time for the important stuff.  But if we make it too much of a habit, how much life are we missing?

One solution, according to ancient masters and modern prophets such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh lies in a phenomenon commonly referred to as "mindfulness," which suggests living in full awareness in every moment.

After years of "mindlessness" (to which, as my brushing habits demonstrate, I am all too prone), "mindfulness" seems sort of intimidating.  Admittedly, it does take practice, yet I see how living more fully in awareness or "in the present" can be as simple (and challenging) as doing just one thing at a time.

When eating, simply eat.
When resting, rest completely.
When petting a cat, tune into petting the cat.
When fixing lunch, focus only on fixing lunch.
When cleaning the bathroom, just clean the bathroom.
When stretching, totally experience the stretch.
When playing with the kids down the street, really play.
When talking to your spouse, fully attend to your spouse.  

When one's attention wanders, as it inevitably will, I find that simply acknowledging that my attention has wandered, I can then return to the task at hand.  Once this becomes a habit, you will be both developing and practicing mindfulness.  As have I, you may feel that your life is fuller, richer, and more rewarding.  

In my case, brushing my teeth in gentle awareness is not only a refreshing spa experience for my mouth, but I get to have my gums back.  Plus, Sherry is really proud of me, now!