A few years ago I read an essay in a meditation-oriented magazine by someone who claimed he didn’t need medication any longer when he had dental work, because he was able to go into a meditative state, and “transcend dental medication.” I remember thinking, “dental procedures and childbirth are two experiences I would never choose to have unmedicated!”

Recently I had a dental emergency and needed a procedure I’d never had before, which had me reaching for a Tylenol #3 before the dentist even finished explaining what was involved. As it turned out, I would need large doses of both medication AND meditation, plus a bit of Lamaze breathing, to get through it. In the process I was given a valuable lesson on how mindfulness works.

(If you’re already feeling a bit queasy after reading the words “emergency,” “procedure,” and “dentist,” in the last paragraph, you might want to skip the next four paragraphs, and proceed directly to the last two.)

First the dentist gave me a little shot, a local anesthetic to numb the area around the tooth, and I took the Tylenol #3. After a few minutes’ wait, the drilling began. I was thinking, “this isn’t so bad” as I focused on my breath, noting the sound of the drill as simply “sounds,” and tried to stay relaxed in the chair. Then I felt some pain, held up my hand as I’d been instructed, and he stopped. I asked how much longer, and the hygienist said, “we’ve just started.” The dentist gave me another shot.

While we waited for that shot to take effect, I got my appointment book and phone out, and texted my next client to cancel. This was going to take longer, and involve more facial numbness, than I’d planned. The drilling resumed, and this time I tried one of my favorite visualizations, “flake in a lake.” Whether it was from the meditation practice or the codeine kicking in, the lower two thirds of my body was completely relaxed, and my breathing and heart rate were regular. I’m guessing about ten minutes passed this way – and then I smelled an acrid burning smell.

Instantly my heart rate and breathing sped up, I tensed, and I felt pain. I raised my hand, but the dentist didn’t stop drilling. I raised my other hand, and he still didn’t stop. Finally he stopped, and at that point my heart was pounding and my whole body was tense again. “You didn’t tell me about the smell! Are we almost done?” I asked. “There’s still a lot more,” was the answer. He gave me another shot, and I picked up the phone and cancelled the next client.

When he started up again, my breathing had slowed back down, and as I scanned my body, I noted that it was relaxed from my toes up to my shoulders. I tried to keep my focus there, in the 80% of my body that was not feeling any pain, but the pain in my mouth kept getting stronger and pulling at my attention. Finally, I raised both hands, the dentist paused; I said, “I don’t want any more meds,” and he said, “I don’t want to give you any more.” That’s when I started the Lamaze breathing, and we proceeded this way: he drilled, the hygienist suctioned, then I did rapid exhalations.

During the drilling, I tried to stay focused on the relaxed lower part of my body, but soon these thoughts came: “The pain is here. There’s pain, in my tooth and jaw, right now. That’s what is.” As I acknowledged this, two things happened: I felt my body relax just a little more, and I found myself feeling kindness and compassion for my tooth and jaw. “My tooth and jaw are suffering right now, but I’m OK. This is just how it is.” And it felt as if I was giving myself a gentle hug as I repeated these words to myself, acknowledging the pain and the suffering, accepting what was happening, without trying any more to resist it, and without any fear. And then I really was OK, all the way up until the dentist said, “That’s all, we’re done.”

So, the lesson I learned? From the minute I first heard about the procedure, and during most of it, I feared the pain, and tried to keep it at bay. My meditation practice was to focus on something other than what was happening in my mouth. But each time the pain broke through the medication (and my meditation) I tensed up and got scared, which made it worse. It was only when I truly accepted what was happening in the moment, acknowledging “the pain is already here, in my mouth,” that I was able to relax fully. And then I was able to feel kindness and compassion for the suffering of the affected parts of my body. Mentally giving myself a hug, I was able to experience the pain directly, as simply “pain,” while I felt safe, relaxed, and comforted in the dentist’s chair.