Zen Dentistry and Other Acts of Courage


So, I was talking to my shrink yesterday. We determined that I had not seen him since 2009, as he was in his former location, not as fancy as his new place. Must be a high demand for therapists these days. I understand from whence this comes, being a card carrying member of the Highly-Functioning Merely Neurotic Club. Even we need an occasional tune-up on the couch. I did not lay down.

I did lay out what I called the churn. The dreaded churn, my mind churning over and over what I now consider to be far too familiar content. Do you ever feel trapped in the mental boxing match of “I have thought about this 9,000 times!” and yet, you still go one more round of contemplation?

My friend Lynn said, “you’ve got analysis paralysis,” as we were sipping vodka tonics, sitting out in her backyard, admiring her freshly planted flower bed the other night.  Good friends are good stand-ins for shrinks. They don’t charge a buck-twenty an hour either. We had covered everything from men to motherhood and whether or not we’ll have enough money to get by in our old age, with our old homes and misbehaving dogs when we landed on my obsession to try to work all this shit out. Her strategy is to visualize a trap door in the back of her brain, behind which she just stuffs all this unresolved stuff, admitting that it does concern her that the back of her head might just blow off some day. To alleviate that danger, I seek a professional opinion once every five years.

After providing a status report on my kids, (this is the same fellow who counseled us collectively through some major upsets) the wise man and I quickly got down to my anguish du jour; relationships, loss, unfulfilled dreams, oh, and fear. It mostly comes down to fear, my darling friends. For a woman who set off of an uncharted journey of nearly 9,000 miles, with less than one month’s salary in the bank, who posted up in Econo-Lodges from Toledo to San Louis Obispo, complete with cockroach ridden shag carpeting, for a gal who used to stand in front of burning buildings or raging floods or grotesque crime scenes and deliver live reports on TV as nonchalantly as picking my nose, one might ask, “what the hell is she afraid of?”

Downtown San Luis Obispo, after the roach motel

Downtown San Luis Obispo, after the roach motel


Well, I’ll tell you what, baby, we’re all afraid of something.

“I can’t imagine I’ll ever find someone I would really want to be with,” I told the shrink, prompting his “aha!”  moment. “That’s the problem,” he said, “You need to imagine it.” Duly noted. Not being one to squander an hour, I quickly moved on to, “I’m running out of time to accomplish my writing goals.” He took a breath, (wise) and offered something from Ram Dass, suggesting that perhaps I should be less attached to the outcome, “it takes you out of the present.”

Okay. I get it. Hell, I’m a disciple of Be Here Now, I’ve experienced it first hand, I practice it every single day, even while getting my teeth drilled. Not very many people I suspect, connect root canals with moments of meditation. But I took a different tack from the customary sturm und drang associated with any dental appointment blocked out for an hour and a half, (which clearly signals torture) by purposely leaning into it.  Why the hell not, right?  There wasn’t anything else I could do! With zero dental insurance, $950 cash up front and only a 50/50 chance the repeat drilling would hit pay dirt, (i.e. no more nerve) there was nothing I could but surrender to the moment. I gazed alternately into the shiny, marble-blue eyes of the red-headed dental assistant, whose hair was shaved on one side of her head, and tucked behind her mutli-pierced ear on the other, and the ceiling tiles, which look exactly like you’re imagining them right now, because obviously there is only one manufacturer of dental office ceiling tiles in the entire nation, and in this deliberate observation I experienced a zendodontist moment.

There is something quite peaceful in the surrender. Out of your hands, no longer in control. You can not levitate out of the chair. You can’t close your mouth, you can not move, you can not sing, or dance, or scream, or scratch your nose, or respond to the dentist’s cruel and insipid questions. You can’t text, or paint your nails, or check your bank balance or read a newspaper or chew gum. All you can do is nestle in a little deeper into your lavender scented neck cushion and try to relax your jaw. Everything is totally and completely out of your hands, so you might as well be there then.

But it takes courage to let go and let them. It takes courage and faith in love. Yep, faith in love.

My son Patrick asked me recently what I wanted to write about when I was having an angsty long-distance moment with him. I was going through the normal dance of indecision over what path, which story, what kind of writer I am. He asked me flat out, “what do you want to write about Mom?” And I said, “I want to write about love, Patrick.”

Because that’s all that matters, really. Self love, puppy love, passionate love, dental and maternal love, brotherly love, global, God, physical, boundless, therapeutic, swirling, gritty, challenging, maddening, easy, life giving, enduring, love. It’s always love. Love is the cure. Love is what conquers our fear and stops the churn. It helps us appreciate the pretty-damn-good-right now versus the much-better-later.

But don’t we all fall victim to the wish I was there already? We focus so heavily on the sublime that we don’t appreciate the delicious ridiculousness of right now. I am bathed in love and so are you. If we have one person on the planet who loves us, I ask you, what do we really have to fear?
Imagine that.


About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Yes. That’s the word that came to mind at the end of your post. Just yes. Hope your dental surgery was a success.