I never hated my trips to the dentist until the anesthetic injection didn’t work and I felt everything the dentist was doing as he relentlessly drilled my molar. We eventually figured out why the injection didn’t work and solved the problem. I have had numerous pain-free visits since then, yet each time I’m in that chair my mind is anticipating impending doom.
The last time I went to the dentist, I decided to try a different approach. Instead of sitting in the chair anxiously awaiting all the things that might go wrong, I decided to “zoom out” in my mind. I watched my thoughts and reactions, just to see what would happen. I found that each time I thought I might experience pain, I tensed my jaw, tightened my fists, my heart raced and I made myself uncomfortable. The dentist wasn’t causing any pain in that moment, so the only thing making me uncomfortable was my reaction to my thoughts of “This is going to hurt. Get me out of here!”. I tried refocusing my attention, bringing myself into the present moment. If there was no pain, I didn’t need to be bracing myself for it. If there was a little pain, I was able to be with it in the moment instead of feeling it and then painting a worst-case scenario about how much longer it would last and if it might get worse.
Pain is inevitable, but we are masters at increasing our suffering. We draw our attention to situations in the future when the pain might get worse, when the suffering might surface again, when something might go wrong, etc. We feel like we are protecting ourselves by being realistic, but in actuality we are creating unnecessary suffering in our lives. In Buddhism, they talk about two “darts” of suffering. The first dart of suffering is any true physical or emotional pain you are experiencing. In my case, the first dart was any real dental pain I was experiencing. The second dart is what we inflict upon ourselves. In my story it is the thoughts of anticipation and the bracing against whatever future pain there may be. By being in the moment with our experience, we can deal with the first dart and avoid the second dart.
We also have ways of unleashing the second dart of suffering even in the absence of a first dart. Sitting in an airplane at takeoff we sometimes have worrisome thoughts that toss the second dart at ourselves. We may even cause suffering in response to positive events! When someone gives us a compliment and our first reaction is “Oh, they are just lying to me to be nice, there’s no way that is true”, we are experiencing second dart suffering. Because of this, second dart wounds greatly outweigh the first dart (real) wounds. By getting our second dart throwing under control, we can make a big impact on our happiness.
Next time you are experiencing pain or suffering, try being with the pain. See what happens when you stay in the moment and don’t avoid the sensations or ruminate about what comes next. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works. I like to practice in moments of minor pain, so I’m ready for the larger events. When I’m in pigeon pose (a deep hip stretch) in yoga, instead of thinking “My hip is killing me, how much longer are we going to sit here? This teacher must be a masochist!” I stay in the moment. By practicing staying in the moment in times of mild discomfort I’m teaching my brain that I’m strong enough to handle pain and that ruminating and catastrophizing only makes things worse. This practice helps me remember that all pain is temporary and I have the power to affect my suffering based upon my reaction.