Sitting with aches and pains and occasional discomfort is a normal part of Zen practice, something I would just sit with, incorporating it into my practice. A raging toothache however, was for me an altogether different situation.
It began the second day we arrived at Ringsfield Hall, the beautiful rural setting of the Suffolk sesshin. An irritating twinge whenever I ate something soon let me know that it wasn’t going away without a fight and soon developed into a gnawing and relentless toothache. By Tuesday I knew I had a problem; I wanted more than a sixpence from the tooth fairy for this one.
Whilst sitting I couldn’t focus on anything, counting breaths or working on my koan was useless, so I just sat with the pain as best I could. I knew I would have to get to a dentist. I was about to phone a local dentist when Sensei wisely advised I should just turn up before they opened the next morning, clearly someone who’s been there and got a tea shirt or two. Sound advice that I followed, driven there by Janet, a genuine bodhisattva who helped me keep my mind off the ache with a sense of humour so similar to my own. It turned out they could fit me in, at 12: 25; deep gratitude, even if it seemed ages away.
By the time we set off later that morning my jaw felt as if it looked like American Dad’s jaw. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a look next time it’s on TV and you’ll understand. When I finally sat in the dentist’s chair I thought I would just be offered some antibiotics and sent on my way. Without going into too much detail the tooth in question was a failed root canal treatment I had twenty years ago; an extraction had been recommended then but I stubbornly said no, When I was offered an extraction this time I didn’t hesitate; I bit his hand off. Well not really, I was in too much pain. Oh the bliss of the anaesthetic; this was my kind of Nirvana.
Later back at Ringsfield Hall I decided to miss the afternoon sitting and get some sleep. Coming down to supper that afternoon I’ll never forget the sense of gratitude I felt, for not being in pain, and for the supper of beetroot soup, rice with vegetables and a red current cake that was absolutely delicious. Wow! I don’t think I’ll ever forget that meal. My sense of taste and my awareness seemed to be on another level, as was my sense of gratitude. John later told me about the same thing happening to Thich Nhat Hanh and how, while waiting to be taken to a dentist said to himself ‘What a wonderful thing not to have toothache.’ So for me, out of this came a deep sense of appreciation for the kindness shown to me by everyone on the Suffolk sesshin for helping me get through it, the wonderful supper that Wednesday evening, and the abiding gratitude of ‘Isn’t it wonderful not to have toothache.’
Keith Shingo Parr