In celebration of our little deaths

rosesHave you ever noticed how beautifully roses fade away at the end of their lives?

At the touch of my fingers a petal crumbles, a leaf turns to dust. Yet their original beauty remains intact. Still yet present. Still…life. Even more sublimely perhaps in celebration of a full cycle completed.

Life is thus formed of endless such cycles of new births and little deaths. But notice that the light of the soul, which permeates all, persists and persists. It can never be extinguished.

Roses spontaneously transformed into dried flowers reminded me today that behind each quiet death there is an overwhelmingly loving essence, which knows no fear nor darkness, and lingers on and on as longing does in life.

“This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
And lads and girls;
Was laughter and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls;

This passive place a summer’s nimble mansion,
Where bloom and bees
Fulfilled their oriental circuit
Then ceased like these.”
– Emily Dickinson

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Let silence speak

Last week I came across a delightful article from 2014 by the late John Berger, in which he says that upon translating, the translator needs to return to the concept that pre-existed the word in the original language.

“True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.”

His translation theory aside, what excited me about this quote was the idea that words are mere labels to a conceptual “thing” waiting to be expressed and interpreted, just as an image can be captured in a painting in a multitude of ways as filtered through the eyes and soul of the artist. Berger was not only a novelist and poet, he was also a painter, and this is probably how he viewed all three forms of art.

While discussing the Berger theory, a friend informed me that Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki referred to a similar idea in the introduction to his Some Prefer Nettles.

“It is good form to keep a thin sheet of paper between the fact of the object and the words that give expression to it.”

This, to me, is reminiscent of the act of becoming aware of “the gap between two thoughts”, which, in spiritual terms, means awakening to the consciousness behind your thoughts. It is that moment when you discover you are not the thought but the presence behind the thought, observing the thought.

I suspect I’m not wrong in stating then that truly evolved writers must be at once actively involved with their words while being totally detached and observant, and it is this very detachment, this ability to dis-identify from words and see beyond the obvious, that allows their creative spark to flow and flourish. That is what distinguishes the inspired from the mediocre writer.

Also in music, experiencing the gap or, in this case, silence, plays a significant role. I love the two or three seconds after the orchestra has played the last notes of a movement, with only the faintest hint of music still lingering in the air, while we listen intently to sheer silence. It feels like allowing time for the fairy dust of divine music to settle into the depths of our inner selves before we snap back into consciousness and burst into applause.

Alfred Brendel, one of the world’s greatest pianists, talks in this piece about silence being both the birth place of music and the place to which it returns, but silence can also be found behind the notes.

“Silence is the basis of music. We find it before, after, in, underneath and behind the sound. Some pieces emerge out of silence or lead back into it. […] Remember the anagram: listen = silent”

Because we live in a world of relativity, music cannot exist without its opposite, silence, just as we could not comprehend the concept of light without its absence, that is, darkness.

In order to be able to listen with accuracy, we need to hear the silence as well as the sounds.

Isn’t this evident in our everyday communication? Often two people talk and talk and not a single word has been heard because no one was listening. While one was speaking, the other was thinking about the words they’d say next. Other times, we have understood everything the moment our eyes met, even though no words were exchanged.

Words, sounds, body language, we tend to think of these are the basics of human communication, yet, without true listening skills, they are wasted energy.

It is by being able to see and hear the gap not only between but also behind the words that we position ourselves in a place of deeper understanding, by which I don’t mean acting as if we were characters in a Harold Pinter play. Still, we must remember the multiple pauses in his plays are always pregnant with meaning.

Mastering the art of living life meaningfully requires being in touch with a certain inner stillness that knows everything and connects everyone, as it transcends language. Just as artists need to be able to stand in that silence space in-between to access their true genius, we can express ourselves best and hear others on an entirely different level when we become comfortable with it.

Learning to listen to that between what wants to be said and what is being said could literally change the world from a place where we constantly judge, attack or defend based on what we perceive on the surface to one where deep peace, love and compassion permeate our every word and action.

It is time we made room for silence to speak.

A related post you may also enjoy: 

How one ice-cream can change the world

[This blog post was originally published on On the Dole, On the Ball, my blog journaling life as a jobseeker]

It’s been a month and a half since I became unemployed. My bank account is starting to feel the strain but so are my nerves. Round-the-clock job hunting can be soul destroying, and all the days in the week seem to blend into one long despondent journey…

One of the few luxuries I still indulge in regularly, for the sake of my mental health, are classical music concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. I am such a classical music aficionado, if it ever came to a choice between going to a concert or eating, I’d happily starve for the music.

Luckily, such a drastic measure hasn’t yet become necessary. The main reason I now frequent the RFH more than any other venue is that it offers cheaper tickets, at the lower end of the scale, than the Barbican, the Cadogan and the Wigmore Hall. For £10-11 you can get a seat at the back end of rear circle or top of balcony with unobstructed view of the stage and great acoustics. It’s a small price to bear for a two-hour immersion in classical heaven and incomparably cheaper than shoes-and-handbag shopping.

The RFH also offers heavenly ice-cream tubs in multiple flavours at £3 a shot. Ice-cream at concert halls is like popcorn at the cinema – junk food you know you shouldn’t be having but whose consumption enhances the totality of your experience.

A few weeks ago, however, I made a decision to abstain. I convinced myself that if I ate an ice-cream every time I attended a concert, I’d put on weight, and there could be nothing more degrading than being unemployed and fat.

But that isn’t the main reason I sacrificed ice-cream consumption. I reckoned if I didn’t buy one, I could suddenly afford to give away £3 to at least a couple of the homeless people that gather along the Southbank’s Golden Jubilee Bridge in the hour before and after a concert.

I never used to give money to beggars before I lost my job. But the moment I realised that no matter how little you have, you still have enough to give to others, was hugely empowering. Instead of feeling sorry for myself that I no longer had an income and might soon be so impoverished I’d have to give up on my concert treats, I gained back control…over my capacity to make a difference in someone else’s life.

One ice-cream not purchased was all it took to make a couple of rough sleepers happy and make me feel a little wealthier (and healthier). Of course I have no way of verifying these men and women are indeed homeless. Some of them may be using the money to purchase alcohol or drugs; even then, they’re less fortunate than me.

This attitude has kept me in a mindset of “enoughness” and has greatly helped reduce my anxiety over work and money. I stopped suffering in anticipation from the effects of a tragic destitute future, which may never arrive. I stopped starring myself as the heroine of a tear-jerking movie. In other words, I got real: things are a little bit bad, yes, but in relative terms, if I think of Aleppo, or if I think of the homeless population in town, I still have enough to be grateful for

The secret is this: remind yourself circumstances don’t create unhappiness but your thinking about them does. Stop being a victim.

You can choose to be anything but unhappy whether you have a job or not. It’s not so much about thinking positive(ly) as it is about being positiv(ity).

When I go to the JobCentre to have my dole signed off, I’m not thinking, “I hope my advisor will be nice to me today.”  I am cheerful and courteous regardless of her attitude towards me. Whether I’ve been having an amazing day or I’ve accidentally stepped on stinking dog poo on the way to the JobCentre, I’ve got enough sense of humour left to share in case anyone’s having a tough day.

Compare the two perspectives below.

  • Thoughts of lack: I’m so poor I can’t even spare £1 let alone £3. The homeless may not have a roof over their heads but I may lose my roof soon too, so my situation is just as dire, why should I help. I don’t have. I may lose. It’ll be taken away from me.
  • vs. Thoughts of sufficiency: I didn’t buy ice-cream. I have £3 to give away. I made someone happy today. I’m happy too. I have. You need it more than me. You can have mine, there’s enough.
  • Thoughts of lack: I’m unemployed = I need everyone to have compassion for me = I’m not in a position to give compassion to others = how come you’re not feeling sorry for me?!  I don’t have a job, money nor status; I feel like a nobody, poor poor me.
  • vs. Thoughts of sufficiency: I’m unemployed = yay, new opportunity in life = I’m compassionate and understanding = who can I offer my compassion to today? I suffer, therefore I understand your suffering. I have compassion. How can I help? 

Can you see the difference? When your perspective is one that focusses on having maybe not much but certainly enough, the power’s back in your hands. You’re not waiting to receive anything from anyone (except your benefit payment..) and looking for opportunities to give what you have enough of: money, security, love, kindness, compassion. When you’re in “give mode”, you don’t feel life (with all its hardships) is happening to you but that you’re in charge of your destiny, making life happen through you.

Try starting each day with a prayer of gratitude even before you get out of bed. You can address it to God, Jesus, Allah, Buddah, a dead relative, Tinker Bell or your teddy bear depending on your faith or lack thereof; it makes no difference as long as you actually feel grateful in your heart.

Be thankful for what you know you have but also for what is still to come. By thanking rather than pleading/asking as in traditional prayers, you’re not allowing any doubt to creep into your mind that these things will happen: “Thank you, Tinker Bell, for the new exciting job coming my way, which will be aligned with my values. Thank you for the material abundance it will bring me. Thank you for the opportunities it will give me to fully express who I really am. Amen.”

Unemployment give us all the reasons in the world to be miserable: no job, no money, no dignity. No ice-cream in my case. Depressing JobCentre appointments. Yet when I choose to be what Maya Angelou called “a rainbow in somebody’s cloud“, like magic, a rainbow dissipates my own clouds… I can see clearly again.

Try it. You too may come to the conclusion there are greater pleasures in life than eating ice-cream on your own.

How to ecologically recycle a dead bee

I have a resident spider in my bathroom, who has spun a cobweb in the corner between the wall and the sink. Deciding it was a she-spider, I named her Mrs Spindley. I greet her every evening, when she makes an appearance, and I try not to disturb her, even though she often gets a fright when I dry my hands on the towel, which causes a current of air to blow her way.

As of late, Mrs Spindley doesn’t seem to be having much luck catching any insects in her web. I told her maybe its location may not be so propitious… (Location, location!) But I guess that was arrogant of me. She is a pro; she probably knows a thing or two about dinner hunting that I’m totally ignorant of, as I usually get my mine from Lidl and Waitrose.

This morning I found a small dead bee on the carpet of my living-room. It must have died of natural causes, poor thing. I was going to bin it, but, on second thoughts, I scooped it up with a piece of cardboard and carefully dropped it on Mrs Spindley’s web. The cobweb is so transparent it is hardly visible to the naked eye but the bee got safely nested in there. Nature’s amazing technology…! No sign of Mrs Spindley. Too early in the day.

Less than half an hour later I returned to the bathroom and the bee had vanished. Completely…! I checked the floor – nothing. Mrs Spindley must have carefully secured her unexpected dinner offering and carried it to some secret hole underneath my sink, where she will savour it later. “You’re welcome, Mrs S!”

I shall call this bio-recycling. Mrs S. disposed of the dead bee for me. I’m happy; she’s fed. And the bee didn’t die in vain. Win-win-win.

Depression and the social media trap

CC image courtesy of Penelope’s Loom on Flickr

It is amazing the ripples that news of a celebrity suicide can trigger in social media circles. Since the first reports of Robin William’s death started circulating earlier this week, half a dozen friends and colleagues “came out” on blogs or social networking sites about their own depression and accounts of suicide attempts.

Mary Hamilton, from the Guardian, who never made secret of the her battles with mental health, wrote an excellent post on her blog, later published in the Comment is Free section, condemning the way in which some newspapers reported suicide, with little consideration to the increased risk to the vulnerable and the depressed.

A Facebook friend publicly admitted she has been on “happy pills” for years since her divorce and still relies on them to function normally, despite her having found happiness again. A colleague revealed in a blog post that she tried to kill herself as a teenager and questioned why the event has always been shrouded in silence.

While I read in the Guardian that less than a third of people with mental health problems in the UK get treatment at all, a journalist friend was posting on Facebook horrendous details on the way in which her partner had taken his life under the care of the NHS. And how she too subsequently became suicidal.

Chain reaction
Each depressive that “came out” triggered a few more “me toos”.

Had Facebook been in the midst of conducting their cheeky experiment on emotional contagion through social networks, to prove that a controlled feed of mostly sad posts would invite other sad posts, they’d have had a field day.

Sighs of relief were almost audible on Facebook, as everyone realised they were not the only ones battling inner demons, that there was no shame is publicly admitting they too suffered or had in the past suffered from mental health issues.

I don’t believe this was a case of misery loving company, however; more an act of liberation: each confession giving permission for more to come to the fore.

Taboo
Depression has long been a social taboo, a no-no topic of conversation, secretly worn like a scarlet letter of shame, as homosexuality once was.

People don’t like talking about subjects that force them to confront their deepest fears. It is like tapping into that dark place in your soul you’re well familiar with but are too frightened to admit. Silence is a form of self-denial, head in the sand.

Attention-seeking bitch
The other day, while having a rant online to a couple of friends about some work-related frustrations, I was called an “attention-seeking bitch”. It was meant as a joke, a humorous way of telling me to stop being so negative. I laughed it off and didn’t take it personally, but it later occurred to me that, had I been so low to the point of needing medical help, being labelled “attention-seeking” would have made me retreat even further into the dark recesses of my mind.

I stopped ranting after that and apologised for having caused stress to everyone who had been on the chat. Yet, inside, I felt sick that I had to say sorry for feelings I had no control over. Feeling bad for feeling bad. What the heck.

No one said, “Shall we go for a drink later so you can tell me how you feel?”

Every man for himself
Such is modern life. Everyone’s too busy dealing with their personal crises, up to the brim with their problems. Very few people have the head space and time to truly listen. It is not so much that people don’t care. Everyone is stressed, suffering from anxiety, insecurities, phobias, paranoias, having dilemmas about their relationships, their jobs, their finances. They are barely coping with their daily lives; they don’t need your negativity and your problems to burden them even more.

I include myself in this category. When I’ve been working late for weeks on end, sleeping badly at night, suffering from exhaustion, generally burning the candle at both ends, I find I need as much solitude as possible outside working hours in order to recharge. I do not mean to be selfish or uncaring, but sometimes life becomes so overwhelming, I need to cut out all the noise from outside, and actively ignore people and their demands so I can listen to myself, attend to my own needs.

Communication overload
The internet and social media have made it almost too easy for people to connect and share. On a typical day I am bombarded with messages from friends on Gmail, Messenger, What’s App, mobile SMS, Twitter, then I come home and find my mother, who doesn’t own a computer or a mobile phone, has left several voice mails on my landline complaining I haven’t called her in weeks.

Bloody. Too. Much.

Friends want to share stories, links to interesting articles they’ve read, update you on gossip, their love lives, the course they’ve signed up to, show you their latest holiday pictures, they want you to sign a petition for a cause they’re supporting, or they just want to see you for lunch. If you’re not out there frantically “liking” people’s updates and photos, replying to emails within 24 hours, texting back within five minutes, you look unsociable and unfriendly, so you multi-multi-multitask your messaging back and forth.

But is anyone online really listening, or just talking fast over one another?

Maybe I’m getting old, but I often find this pace of communication far too intense and fragmented. Especially when I’m at breaking point, I need quality rather than quantity communication. What happened to the good old heart-to-hearts, those intimate conversations over a glass of wine that dragged into the wee hours? The eye-to-eye contact?

Happy people only
On Facebook there seems to be a tacit understanding that you should only share things that are positive, or funny, or critical of an issue but not on a personal level. Personal negatives are to be kept private so as not to spoil everyone’s fun, although some would argue that seeing our friends ‘happy’ on Facebook can actually make us sad.

There’s no room for sorrow, except communal sadness, like shared grief over the death of a celebrity. Facebook is a massive playground where everyone comes out to play, and anyone spoiling the fun will be blocked out of the game.

The rule is “don’t be an attention-seeking bitch”, although the irony is that everyone is doing just that – hoping for an audience, for “likes” and comments.

So where do depressed people go?

Isolation
At a time when we socialise and share far more online than anywhere else, I wonder how much social media is responsible for making people feel ostracised and inadequate for not being “as happy as they should”. If people can’t come to the common playground to declare they’re as depressed as hell, for fear of making themselves unpopular, the only alternative is to hide behind a curtain of silence.

There is also the question of how much to share.

Your boss, your colleagues past and present, your exes’ family and friends, your ultra conservative friend of yore, your parents and siblings may all be on your Facebook network. Where do you draw the line on what you share? The flip side of sharing too much is not sharing at all. Or sharing only the innocuous, harmless and superficial stuff, which do not give away how you’re feeling, even if you’ve just swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills because there was no one “real” to talk to.

Help, I need somebody…
Wanting to talk is not about soliciting attention; it is about having your negative feelings acknowledged and understood, feeling less alone in the darkness, seeking reprieve from the hell you keep getting sucked into. Yet many a cry for help falls onto deaf ears.

A few days ago I saw a journalist on Twitter reacting to someone’s tweet “Why is it a bad thing if people kill themselves? If living is total agony it’s sadistic to maintain life,” with the comment: “I assume you are trolling?” This, only a day after the journalist had tweeted the Samaritan’s guidelines on reporting suicide. It was clear to me the person wasn’t a troll at all; just a depressed person needing to vent.

What is the point of a journalist sticking to best practice codes on reporting suicide if they cannot even empathise with the suicidal?

Clown
I am not suggesting depressed people can be effectively stopped from harming themselves by being showered with sympathy on Facebook or Twitter; they’d probably be best helped by a trained mental health professional. But since so much communication already happens on social media, we need to remind ourselves that sometimes all people need is a little space and the right to say “I’m hurting and I need help,” without being ridiculed in return.

The suicide of Robin Williams is particularly tragic because he was a man who made a living out of making people laugh. Just because someone is always cracking jokes, it doesn’t mean they can see the funny side of their own life.

Is a clown really laughing or is his face a weeping one?

Please let us judge less, listen more. With open hearts.

Photography: your camera can make you wiser

Photo credit: Sara Denise

For my birthday this year I indulged and bought myself a present I had long been lusting after: a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I learned photography some 20 years ago with an all-manual film camera, a Nikon FM2, a beauty to hold and to behold, but who takes pictures with film these days? It was time for an upgrade.

 Of course the new camera wasn’t cheap but since my “nirvana” moment on the dentist chair the other day (you can read about it here), I stopped being so paranoid about death by poverty and bailiffs knocking on my door and decided to liberally invest time and money on things and activities that are in sync with my dreams and goals in life.

This week I started carrying my new Nikon D5300 in my bag wherever I go – work, shopping, taichi lessons in the park – in hope that I will come across some serendipitous photo opportunities on the way.

The beauty of digital is that you need not fear making mistakes, wasting rolls and rolls of expensive film and development fees. The sky is the limit for digital cameras; you can shoot away to your heart’s content, then retouch, crop, edit or delete.

But more possibilities also mean more decisions to be made per shot.

Choices

With my film camera, there was a combination of three things I needed to get right: the ISO sensitivity of the film, the aperture of the lens and shutter speed for the correct exposure. Of course I could attach filters to it, or a flash, but mastering the three key functions was all you needed for starters. The rest was down to your eye as a photographer, legwork (how close to the subject you want to be), your choice of lens and depth of field, a steady grip to prevent blur (or the use of a tripod), framing and composition. Some knowledge about light – types and strengths – also helped.

DSLRs are a totally different ball game. Learning to photograph with one of those is like going into a new relationship: it is all about discovering, by trial and error, which buttons to push and when.

Whereas on going out with your new boyfriend, the only decision you may need to make is whether you want to eat Italian, French or Thai, a date with a new DSLR is equivalent to making additional decisions on: a choice of what to wear from 20 dresses and 20 pairs of shoes, going with or without lipstick, which could be one of 15 colours, gloss or matt, and would you like to reach the restaurant by private car, taxi, bus, train, tram, on foot or on horseback?

I am dreadful at decision making at the best of times. When asking me what drink I’d like with my dinner, offer me red or white wine but please don’t even mention rosé or the possibility of having champagne or Prosecco instead, or I will go into a meltdown with”over-choice”.

Faking it 

The abundance of choices and technical combinations on a DSLR camera may excite geeks and pros, but to me it feels overwhelming and unnecessary. My camera comes with a wide variety of settings I can use for the best photographic results in every imaginable situation, location, time of day or night, but how spontaneous can you possibly be if you need to adjust a dozen settings before you even point the camera at the subject?

I love the idea of using the saturated colours’ setting when taking photos of autumn leaves, for example, but it seems more important to me that a photograph is saturated with sentiment, imbued with life, that it tells a story and fires up the imagination of the viewers. This is where the capabilities of a camera’s mechanics end and the creativity of the photographer begins.

Browsing through Flickr I often see photographs that communicate nothing more than “here’s a nice shot”, one-dimensional, aesthetically pleasing, curious, even clever, but utterly soulless. Everyone can “see” what you and I can see, but the great masters of photography have the ability to move us with their images because they see through an inner eye of wisdom, which can delve beneath the apparent, understand beyond the obvious.

Focussing

The way you look at the world changes when you take up photography as a hobby. In your head, you start framing everything you see through your camera’s viewfinder. Would this landscape make a good composition? How do I apply the rule of thirds here? How do I crop off an interesting micro-scene from the macro-scene it belongs to? You also start paying attention to the small things that enter your field of vision, which you may have missed if you weren’t looking for things to photograph: the bee that just landed on a flower, a dewdrop on the fence, the dimple in the corner of someone’s cheek.

When observing people, strangers, reading a book on a park bench, lying on the grass, walking a dog, kissing in a dark corner, you start to mentally angle your vision from high and low, right and left points of view, looking for the most dramatic shot; you start playing with possibilities. Suddenly every inanimate object, every colourful wall, every tree and flower, every distracted stranger becomes an object of camera desire and a potential work of art.

Life lessons 

Similarly we go through life seeking friends, partners, jobs, hobbies, etc that fit the theme of our projects but how often do we break down each situation into its component parts and recognise value in them? How often do we notice the beauty of a given routine moment or life pulsating inside a leaf? How often do we look at someone’s eyes and see past their irises, into a much deeper place where you might meet and connect?

It occurred to me that looking at life with the eyes, or should I say lens, of a photographer, would make me live more attentively and more wisely. The expression “look at the big picture” takes a literal meaning – the question to ask yourself is how it [whatever decision you may be contemplating] fits into the picture of what you want to create.

But if it can open my eyes to so much more, can it also make me into a better person? Can photography change anyone into a better person? Of course it is not an automatic correlation. I hear you say some photographers you know are cocky and arrogant SOBs… I’ve come across those too. I guess it all depends on whether your “seeing lens” is located in your head or in your heart. And on how open your “aperture” is, how much light you let in.

Inner photographer

Whereas owning a camera may not automatically turn you into a Dalai Lama, it can teach you a thing or two about relationships. When we say we “clicked”with someone else, it is probably because our inner lenses found each other interesting enough to want to mutually record the moment in a mental photograph.

With others, the photoshooting may be less instantaneous, require longer exposure and slower (shutter) speeds, but it still is a good exercise in experimenting with and learning about focus points, focal lengths, right distances, angles and framing – the foundation of all human connections – discovering if something or someone is worth that “click” or not.

As in digital photography, we sometimes edit the truth, enhance it, blur it, make it artificially sharp or vivid in order to create what we want to see. You can live life like an Instagram picture gallery, full of glam-up filters that make everything look good all the time. Or you can go back to basics and let your inner photographer guide you to an unadulterated masterpiece.

At any rate it cannot be a bad thing having an extra eye to view life from, whether the world is smiling on you or not. On rainy days you can find inspiration in the rain drops on your window. You may even see a rainbow beyond.

Time to get that camera out: be greedy with your seeking, generous with your seeing, focussed with your clicking.

Photo credit: Alison Tutton

My root canal treatment enlightened me. Really…

Photo by Alen Vlahovic / CC BY-SA 3.0

If you thought meditating regularly and studying Buddhism were the only way to achieving enlightenment, you may be amused to hear I recently reached nirvana on my dentist’s chair.

For dramatic effect, I could have bellowed something along the lines of “Eureka”, as Archimedes did in his bathtub, except I was undergoing a root canal treatment at the time, and my tongue and the bottom part of my mouth had been muzzled by a green latex sheet called ‘rubber dam’, which dentists use to isolate the tooth being treated. While Hannibal Lecter would have not only chewed himself free but also swallowed the darn dam thing in a show of defiance, average mortals like myself end up looking as charming as Donald Duck being waterboarded.

Horizontal 

The worst part of root canal treatment is not to do with pain at all. Pain management in dentistry is so advanced these days even the pinch you feel when the anaesthetic injection goes in has less of an ouch factor than the bill the receptionist presents to you upon checkout.

The worst part is really being immobilised for an hour and a half per session, with nothing but the ceiling to stare at, while your tooth is being drilled open, prodded into, filed, disinfected, then stuffed shut again. You can’t even look up the dentist’s nostrils for a laugh because surgical masks cover their noses, and the blinding miners’ helmet-like lamps they wear round their heads ensure you are always the observed, never the observer. Isn’t that why bright light is used in torture scenes in movies?

So I am lying there, like a corpse at an autopsy, legs and hands crossed for want of a more comfortable position, my upper body in rigor mortis tension, and since the situation was not really conducive to daydreaming about holidays, food or men, I decided to use those 90 minutes mindfully, for reflection, with my eyes wide open.

Whenever I am on the reclining chair at the hairdresser’s with my head stuck in their hairwashing sink, I shut my eyes and blissfully enjoy the shampooing process, but closing your eyes on a dentist’s chair somehow feels wrong. I did not want her to think I was so relaxed I had fallen asleep and she needed to clamp my mouth open, nor did I want her to take me for a wimp when I really am not afraid of dentists.

It was then I became a little enlightened.

Reflection

It dawned on me, during my open-eye/open-mouth meditation, that the dentist treating me was, regrettably, not my original trusted dentist of many years but her temporary replacement. My dentist had gone on maternity leave, but she had warned me of the need to have a root canal treatment two years before; I had only myself to blame for having put it off for so long, and for reasons I now know were idiotic.

Had I not been so obstinately protective of my savings (the one I keep “for a rainy day”) and paranoid in my visions of imagined poverty, which I came to believe the dental treatment would lead me to, I would have been in the care of a lovely dentist, who would have asked me if I was okay during treatment, would have told me to email her in case I had any questions out of hours, would have sent me home with plenty of advice on pain relief in case the treated tooth started to throb in the middle of the night, as it did.

Dentists are like hairdressers – once you find one you like, it’s a commitment for life: you swear loyalty to them for all (your capillary and) dental needs.

Letting go

Although I do not consider myself a stingy person, I have always had a primal fear of parting with large sums of money. What if I needed the money for an emergency and had to incur debts? What if I never recouped the money spent and couldn’t buy what I needed as a result? A year ago I had just moved into a new flat and needed to furnish it. Wasn’t buying a dining table for my new home a more pressing issue than a weak tooth that could wait a year or two?

The untreated tooth got infected for the third time in two years, just as London Book Fair opened this year. Sod’s law. I had also lost one of my contact lenses a week before the fair, so I spent the week selling books to my customers while partially disabled  – with only one fully-functioning “eyeball” (as I call my contacts in jest) and half a mouth to masticate with. The idiocy of my indecisiveness suddenly hit me. After more than a year, I still hadn’t purchased a dining table and my bad tooth was playing up again.

I let out a long sigh through my nose while the dental nurse shoved the suction tube into my mouth making a hoovering noise. What folly, I thought, then accepted that was that, and there was nothing I could do to change the fact it was not my dentist of choice who was digging down the canals of my tooth.

Surrender

As a stress-control strategy, I have been practising living in a state of permanent surrender. If I work late, arrive at the station and realise I have just missed my train and have to wait another half hour for the next one, instead of becoming angry or stressed, as I would have in the past, I just accept that this is the situation right now: work is busy, my days are long, yes I am very tired, yes I may be eating dinner at 10.30pm again, or pass out on the bed straight away, without the energy to cook or eat. I accept all this without attaching any emotion. Then I look for the positives: an extra 20-30 minutes means I can go buy a snack or a coffee, check my Twitter feed, or get my Kindle out and read another chapter of whatever I happen to be reading.

Whether I stay cool or lose my rag, my train will still take 30 minutes to arrive, so I choose to be ‘zen’ and tell myself all is well and perfect.

Surrendered to the moment on my dentist’s chair, I realised that we save things for the future because we believe tomorrow there will be a better reason for us to do anything: spend our money, start an adventure, learn a new skill, take better care of ourselves. We tend to think the future will always be a better time to do something than the present, whereas in reality the present is always perfect as it is. The future can only become an improvement on the now when we make the best of our present.

Pema

You must be wondering if the dentist injected me with a hallucinogen instead of anaesthetic. But that is what I instinctively realised without being aware. We carry a large amount of untapped knowledge inside ourselves, and it only takes a small trigger for us to be re-united with it again.

In the days following my dental treatment I happened to read Pema Chödrön‘s When Things Fall Apart and found her Buddhist teachings resonated with what I had been reflecting all along. Pema says:

“The real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachment and give away what we  think we can’t. What we do on the outer level has the power to loosen up deep-rooted patterns of holding on to ourselves.”

“We don’t experience the world fully unless we are willing to give everything away.”

Godot?

Realising the pointlessness of attaching oneself to money, or anything else, for a future that may not come liberated me to spend money, time and energy more freely but wisely. That camera I always wanted to buy, the training course I wanted to do, the challenge I wanted to set myself, the targets, the dreams, the truth I wanted to reveal. All good things that will enrich me as a person.

Why on earth was I in a state of permanent waiting, as if I were in a Beckett play?

I understood at last it was not the actual money spending that would make me poor but my poor thoughts robbing me of much of life’s opulence. No wonder I felt I never had enough of anything.

Maybe I can see this now because I’ve reached a stage in life when you hear about deaths almost as often as you hear about births in your inner circles. My own dearest friend passed away last year, in his early 50s. The certainty of death is sobering for the human mind; it reminds you to live and live and live…now, not tomorrow.

Nirvana

I paid the dentist’s hefty bill and thought no more about it. Later this week I’ll be back there to have a cavity filled – child’s play after what I’ve already been through.

The treated tooth eventually needs to be capped with a crown, but Dentist tells me it is best to wait a couple of months in case the treatment was unsuccessful and requires a second treatment, which, apparently, can happen in 10-15% of cases.

A wave oft nausea rises in me. I feel like screaming, “WAT? I just paid you the equivalent of an entry level monthly salary in publishing and you tell me there is a chance your treatment was a failure?!”

I don’t (scream), of course. I am enlightened.

“I see,” I say and leave the room with dignity. I will save the screaming for when it actually happens, for chances are it will never happen.

I will be safely ‘crowned’.