By Kellie Schorr
For the record, I am not afraid of the dentist.
I am afraid of that weird octopus chair with metal arms that dips so far backwards I feel like I’m in zero-G training at NASA. I’m afraid of every single one of those glistening spikey implements laid out neatly on the tray, even the mirror. I’m afraid of getting my tongue stuck in the suction machine, the emergency equipment in the corner of the room, being lost for days in the cavernous office, and the hygienist’s resentful sigh when she sees I just totally lied about flossing.
But—my dentist? She’s alright. Instead of stickers for good behavior, she gives me dharma lessons, unaware.
My dentist has no spare moments. To quote Charles Dickens, “This one thing you must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous.” In a large, busy practice, she generally has three to four rooms running at the same time, and if you listen carefully over the drilling and chatter, you’ll hear her little sneakers padding back and forth from one patient to another.
She’s not tall or physically imposing in any way, but she moves like quicksilver. I’ve seen assistants half her age and twice her height struggle to keep up. She has a low steady voice that can be heard despite the shrillest instrument, and a laser-sharp mind. So much so that I’ve only had about three appointments in eleven years in which someone didn’t interrupt her work with a question on behalf of another dentist, patient, or staff member.
One sunny summer morning a few years ago as I was having a root canal, a small child with a different provider made enough noise in the room next door to drown out a twin engine plane.
My dentist had already gone in that room once to “take a look” and offer advice. A harried assistant called to her from our open doorway.
“He wants to know if you’ll do it.”
She stopped drilling for a second, never took her eyes off my tooth, and said, “I won’t do it unless the mom is in there.”
“She’s not in the waiting area. I think this was a drop-off,” the assistant answered. Now my dentist turned to look at him.
“Nobody drops a six-year-old at the dentist. She’s outside, either smoking or on the phone. I won’t do it without her in the room.”
The assistant shrugged and left only to return minutes later to whisper, “you were right” and point to the room next door. My dentist nodded, never wavering. Shoving a tray of impression putty in my mouth and then giving me a box of tissues, the assistant left me to drool in my chair, repenting for my dental sins, while they went next door. I could hear my dentist’s fluid voice, like a cavern stream, bubble under the screaming.
“You should be numb. Can you feel this?” my dentist asked.
More cries and protests.
“How about this?”
“I think you might just be a little scared, because I didn’t touch you that time.”
I wiped my chin. Sorry, kid. She’s a pro.
“Your mom is right here with you, and because she is, there’s no reason to be afraid. You’re numb and this isn’t going to hurt you. I want you to focus on your mom and just look at her and I’ll be done before you know it. You probably won’t feel it at all. Keep looking at your mom. She’s right here. There you go…”
Sure enough, the sound boiled down to oatmeal hissing on warm burner then disappeared. My dentist popped in to put on my temporary and started work on another patient. While I was paying, I saw the little girl holding her mom’s hand as she walked out the door carrying her new toothbrush and smiling.
Never in my life had I seen such a complete teaching of bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta is one of those words that is a lot easier to feel than spell, or translate. It’s a Sanskrit word often described as the state of having an enlightened mind or an awakened heart motivated by deep compassion. It is a kind of fearlessness that operates on an instinctual level for the good of others. You don’t get out of bed one day and decide to act with bodhicitta. It has to be cultivated in a garden fertilized by compassion, awareness, and generosity. Then, when it is needed most, it will bloom like a lotus in the morning.
Driving home that day, running my tongue along the edge of the silver cap so the other teeth could meet the new girl, I was struck by the sheer generosity of what happened in the room next door. A dentist with no time for extraneous anything carved enough space in her work to not only fix another tooth, but to remind a mom in the most gentle, organic way, that being present is a big part of what parenting is all about. There was not one hint of judgement, self-righteousness, or reprimand. No lecture. No egotistical congratulation. There was just the girl and her mom, retying a string the dentist happened to see was coming loose and cared enough about to pull the ends back together.
When we study bodhicitta we tend to take a goal-directed approach.
What is it? How do I get it? How do I give it to others? Turns out, that’s not really a helpful path. Bodhicitta can’t be bought like an app (with a bonus pack of suggestions for $2.99). It is already inside, waiting for us to pay attention and open our hearts so the sun of awareness can ripen it, our care can feed it, and we can generously, spontaneously act through it. Bodhicitta, like the blackbird who sings in the dark of night, waits and finds its own moments to arise.
One of the great joys of an awakened heart is the element of surprise. Don’t look for it on the news or those viral feel-good Facebook videos. Practice awareness and you will see it in the everyday miracle of ordinary places, even the dental office.
I’m still terrified of that weird bib clasp you can’t take off by yourself, the swinging arm on the x-ray machine that I’m convinced is going to take out an eye someday, and that light that always hits me right in the eyes. But I’ve been given professional care by someone whose skill heals me and whose innate goodness inspires me. So, I’m not afraid of the dentist.
Kellie Schorr works as a commissioned novelist who writes mystery genre novels for publication services. Her published writing credentials also include: journal articles, short stories, and a two-year stint writing for a web-comic. Kellie’s fiction is represented by the Kathryn Green Literary Agency. Kellie has been practicing meditation for over 15 years. She studies Dharma and took Refuge vows in the Shambhala lineage of Buddhism. When she’s not sitting down to write, or sitting on her cushion, she enjoys comic books, computer games, tea, and movies. She lives and works in rural Virginia with her partner, Cathy, and three beagles. Her favorite word is chiaroscuro.
Editor: Peter Schaller
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