Fear management is the key skill underlying all martial arts. If you are not afraid of getting hurt or killed, there’s something wrong with you. But if you are frozen in place by that fear, prevented from acting, then your training has failed.
As you may have read, I am a great big fraidy-cat, and so am always on the lookout for ways to practise handling fear. And there is nothing scarier than the dentist. I have sensitive teeth, which doesn’t help; that metal spike thing they use to poke and scratch around your teeth feels to me like sticking splinters under my nails. But in my mouth. In addition, and for no good reason, people prodding about in my mouth has a similar shudder-inducing effect on me as scraping nails down a blackboard. Seriously, if you want information out of me, don’t bother with the waterboard; the threat of dental torture would break me in no time. Not like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.
This irrational fear is of course excellent and very useful, because as a responsible parent I have to set a good example and get a check-up once a year. I went the other week, and was horrified to hear that an old filling was cracked and needed replacing. Which meant THE DRILL. We made the appointment for the following week, and I had seven whole days in which to build up a profound sense of dread.
What can I say about the drill? Except that if it doesn’t terrify you, with its hideous shriek, happening inside your head, and the promise of pain (which never comes; what an improvement in oral anaesthesia since I was a kid!) then there must be something wrong with you. Really. It’s just a nightmare made flesh. It’s actually worse than the anaesthetic injection, and, to me, a hypodermic syringe is an object of terror. I loathe and fear those things. When someone is giving an injection on TV or in a movie, I close my eyes. It’s just wrong on every level. I spend my professional life working on ways to NOT get stabbed, and you want me to let you stick a spike in me? Are you mad? When someone comes at me with a syringe, it takes all my willpower not to disarm them and stick it in their eye. Which is also totally irrational, but there you are. Knives, swords, and guns? Not scary. The tools of modern medicine? Fucking terrifying.
Let me point out here that my dentist is a lovely, kind, and expert woman, gentle and professional. But she’s still a DENTIST. Indeed, all my dentists have been good, and gentle, and caused no unnecessary pain. This is a totally irrational fear.
So there I was, as my dentist started to work… and actually quite relaxed. Pulse under 80 the whole time (well above my normal 55 or so, but manageable). Manual dexterity ok. Maintaining full use of my rational faculties despite gibbering terror.
I chose to focus on something else.
I experimented in the chair with several different approaches, and the one that worked best was to place my attention on my breath. After every ten breaths, I went through a manual dexterity drill (finger wiggling, to the uninitiated), then back to my breath.
The hard part was staying still; every now and then I had to bring my attention up to my neck, because the effort of not moving my head was causing stiffness. Relaxing my neck was harder than keeping my pulse down.
I was hugely pleased at one point when she stopped to ask me something, and I hadn’t immediately noticed that the drill had stopped. That was a major success.
So, how do you cultivate the ability to choose your focus to this degree?
The answer is meditation. It is the best and fastest way to develop focus, because it isolates focus and works on that to the exclusion of all else. The routines I use vary hugely, but the one I used in the chair was a variation on this very simple exercise:
- Set a timer, for 5 minutes or so.
- Sit or lie somewhere safe and comfortable (before you try this in the Chair of Terror)
- Breathe normally.
- Pay attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.
- Count each in-breath.
- When you get to ten, reset to zero.
- When you get distracted and lose count, start again at zero.
- When your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your breath.
- Keep doing this until the timer goes off.
Repeat daily; or more often; do it for longer if you like. The point is that your mind will wander, and you then return it to your chosen focus. The enemy is frustration or annoyance with yourself; it's a distraction (and a powerful one at that!). Be gentle with yourself, and remember that the exercise is not the paying attention to the breath, or getting to ten, the exercise is controlling your wandering mind despite its tendency to wander. Distinctions of “success” or “failure” are irrelevant. If you absolutely must have one, here it is: do this diligently for 5 days in a row, and I hereby declare you successful. Does that help?
And now for something completely different:
A couple of years ago, after a particularly intense dental hygiene session, I wrote this on the way home:
To my dentist and her team:
I sit in the torture chair,
My mouth is open wide.
A highly trained professional
Pokes around inside.
Carefully she grinds my teeth
Carefully she scratches,
Polishing the grime away,
It comes off in batches.
Black coffee, chocolate, and the red,
Red wine leave their trace,
But what is life without them,
Is this not the case?
Teeth are there to be of use,
To strain the fiery brew,
Is it really tooth abuse,
To smile drink gnash or chew?
The dentist though, I hear her whine
D’you think you’ve gone too far?
With coffee, chocolate, red red wine
And the odd cigar?
I do it just to keep my team
Active in their profession.
If I only did as I was told,
There’d be no future session!