01 Dec Dental Meditations
A few years ago I went to the dentist and wrote about meditation practice. The other morning I went again and found myself thinking about meditation in a slightly different manner. About a week ago I saw a post about Sam Harris’ meditation app and downloaded it. Well over a decade ago my partners and I shot a series of interviews at the New York Public Library and one of them a discussion between Sam Harris, who is a devout rationalist, and Oliver McTernan, a priest who works for peace. I found Mr. Harris difficult to listen to because his brand of rationalism dismisses any belief in spiritual matters. It is simply cold hard, “if I can’t prove it, I won’t believe it,” skepticism. While I think it is reasonable and important to be skeptical I also find out rejection of the “ineffable” to be kind of sad. It’s akin to the theft of hope. Rational skeptics tend to dismiss Dr Sarno’s work because he didn’t do randomized control trials of his theories, and can be quite dismissive of anyone who tries to explain how they healed. In
Harris’ app didn’t defy my expectations. While meditation tapes often strike me as being a bit too ethereal/spiritual, “mindfulness” programs can seem to be trying too hard to separate themselves from any whiff of religious connection. Harris often makes me think of Ben Stiller pretending to be Sam Harris, meaning that Harris can often sound like a parody of a rational skeptic. Still I did sit for a few days in a row of his brief (10 minute) sessions. As hard as I try to keep with it, I simply don’t meditate every day, so having an app or a program like Deepak and Oprah’s 21 day programs can keep me practicing.
When I arrived for my cleaning I thought about my first formal attempts at meditation. When we moved to North Carolina I went to the library to get a book called “Stabbed in the Back” by Nortin Hadler, a rheumatologist at the UNC hospital who was also my father’s doctor. The book details all the ways in which the medical industry increased the incidence of back pain. It was ignored in America but got Hadler a medal of honor in France. While the information in the book mostly supports what Dr Sarno talks about, Hadler largely dismisses Dr Sarno’s explanation that repressed emotions cause back pain, because he sees back pain as a normal part of life that comes and goes and isn’t directly related to emotions. In any case when I went to get that book the book on the shelf next to it was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness”. I took it home and began doing the work. These coincidences have no meaning to a rational skeptic, but for me the odd connections of life do have meaning, which is why I am skeptical of the skeptics.
As I sat down. the dental hygienist in training asked me about how my business is doing. She knows I’m a filmmaker because we talked a great deal on my last visit. When people ask us questions about our lives we end up at a fork in the road. The easiest pathway involves politely explaining that everything is fine. In general people that we meet in the course of our daily lives don’t want, or need, to know about the complexity of our lives. However, I knew that she was truly interested- yet it’s not a simple thing to discuss. When she asked about “business” it was clear that she was referring to revenue flow. Our revenue flow is not good. However, we don’t make films with the goal of making money on them. Of course we need money, and we’d love to have a strong stream of revenue to support our work. I explained that “business” isn’t good, but that we’re doing good work that we are excited about. This issues was front of mind because I had been thinking a lot about “value” earlier that morning. Value is such an amorphous concept. I think that our work has great value, but it isn’t something that often leads to revenue. I find that when work chases revenue it can lose a great deal of its social value. Yet it can be difficult to find that balance between making work that is seen as valuable in its time (which means people will pay for it) and work that has value later. These thoughts inspired the image that I posted to our Facebook page just before running off to the dentist office.
After explaining all that she took my blood pressure. It was a little high, probably because I had just discussed these ideas about value, and it’s always stressful to think about our sense of our own value. I asked her take my blood pressure again, and this time I focused on my breath and it was back in the normal range. After that there wasn’t much room for talking so I spent the time trying to meditate.
The day before when I had listened to Sam Harris’ app the focus was on paying direct attention to the sounds around you. I go to the dental school for my cleaning and it’s like a factory floor so I listened to the veteran in the next stall talk about having 4 of his teeth removed by an army doctor in Germany. His discussion kept getting drowned out by the suction device that the hygienist had to hold as she cleaned my teeth. She explained that she hated to use it because it is so loud, but she has to. When one is the dentist chair there’s a lot of listening and not much talking. I continuously brought my attention to my shoulders and found them tense, so I had to keep gently relaxing them.
I thought about the first stage of the mindfulness book and how it asked the reader to be mindful while brushing one’s teeth. About once a month I remember that admonition and slow down. However, I’m still not a great brusher. My teeth are in pretty good shape though, if a little stained from coffee. Every time I go to the dentist I’m reminded that I don’t have a doctor. We’ve been in North Carolina for 5 and half years and I haven’t been to one here yet. However, I’m healthy and I have almost never had a good experience with a doctor. I run about 25 miles a week, do the 7 minute work out a a couple of times as well, and I eat mostly healthy food. Still, I will look for a doctor.
The cleaning went pretty smoothly and I walked home from the dentists office and got to work. In the afternoon I went for a long run and thought about value, and practice, and my own work. I’ve become quite dependent on both exercise and meditation to keep myself balanced. Over the past few months I’ve settled into an increasingly longer route. I head out through my neighborhood for about a mile then cross the highway over to a mile long hill, laurel hill, that leads to the UNC campus. When I first started that route I would take a quick left across came South side of campus and loop back home, which was about a five mile run. Then I started to head into campus which made it a 6 mile run. Since then I have tacked on a loop around a neighborhood just off of campus making it a 7 mile run. I started this route when the humidity and heat were quite high, and as the weather cooled I found myself both in a little better shape, and more capable due to the cooling air.
As I did the mile loop, which comes right after the big hill, I thought about how running the same route makes me a bit less mindful and aware. Because I know what to expect in terms of where I am, where I am going, and how hard it will be physically I tend to get more lost in thought which leads me to be less present than I might be. If I am thinking about my past runs while also projecting myself into the future, gauging how far I have to go, I am less in touch with what’s going on in the moment. At the same time I thought about how being more secure in this knowledge makes it possible for me to run a little farther. That evening I checked in near the end of the route and found myself moving with more power and speed than I used to.
A couple of days later I took my daughter to Karate on a Saturday morning. I tend to run in the afternoon but I decided to bring my shoes and go for a run while she was at her class so I wouldn’t waste time driving across town and back again. On the way we passed a park where I ran cross country while growing up. I have been there once since we’ve lived here and decided to do some loops on that trail. My memory of running there is either totally shot, or the trail has changed significantly. It’s not really well maintained any more for running; rocks, roots, and small galleys make it impossible to traverse without being very aware of where you put your feet. I run on some trails behind my house quite often, but for the most part they are well worn without too many obstacles to worry about. Still, when I first started running again 5 years ago my left ankle was so weak that I sprained it almost every week. I actually haven’t hurt it in months, so I was a bit worried this morning. I thought about how much harder both physically and mentally it is to run in these conditions. I had to be so highly engaged that I didn’t have the opportunity to get lost in thought. However, I did think about how I might take these insights and add them to this post. This is one of my greatest problems with meditating. As soon as I sit down to focus on my breath I often get great ideas, the kind that I want to hold onto. The same is true when I run. I do a lot of writing when I run, but forget most of it by the time I get back to the computer. Thankfully I held on to some of this