You don’t appreciate not having a toothache until you have a toothache. Sitting in the endodontist’s chair last week, I was asked if my tooth ached. I paused for a long moment, and then replied, “ache is a very vague term”. We both laughed. Pain is difficult to measure. Equally difficult to measure is joy– elusive and fleeting.
Thich Nhat Hanh used the toothache analogy when he spoke to a group of therapists many years ago. “When you have a toothache, you are enlightened—you know something very important—that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. “
He further elaborated; “when you do not have a toothache, you don’t seem to enjoy it—peace is there in the present moment, but we find it boring and that is why we look for something more exciting”. It feels so good when a toothache finally goes away. If only we could appreciate the absence of that pain all the time.
Not all pain can be resolved by a dental procedure. We are surrounded by pain in our work. We see so many varieties of suffering, some themes repeated like a familiar chorus, others particular and unique to a single human being. Our hearts ache with the daily news from places both remote and in our own backyards. But when we experience extraordinary pain, we remember how fortunate we were for the time when pain was absent. Most of the time, however, we slug through our days, not noticing the absence of pain.
During the root canal, I listened to a favorite playlist on my iPod. Steve Jobs had died a few days before. I could not help but silently thank him for the music that distracted and entertained me, drowning out the sound of the drill. Like many, I shed tears when I heard the news of the great man’s death. Grief is too strong a word for my feelings. Rather, I felt a tender softness for the man I never met, for he enhanced my life at almost every turn. From the podcasts that enrich me, to the MacAirbook that keeps track of my notes and projects, power points and photos, to the iPad that keeps me from double booking my clients (most of the time) and gives me a library full of books, and finally to that most magical of devices, my iPhone—that lets me check the weather, the news, the map, and gives me countless sources of entertainment.
Technology has enhanced our lives. We have become experts at multitasking. But it is in the moments of quiet, when our senses are awake, that we can feel the absence of ache.
Autumn has arrived. October is my favorite month. It is the month of my birth, but that is not the main reason I love it. I love the long shadows and the harvest moon. The light and the darkness meld into one another as the center of day holds until it succumbs and leaves the evenings long, for soup, for hearth, for stories.
And with the arrival of autumn, the holiday season approaches. Our clients feel the tug of opposing emotions—joy, gratitude, resentment, and disappointment. We listen. And we try to help integrate their dark and light.
But at the end of the day, we must shed our helping selves for a time, so that we can appreciate the absence of ache. So that we can enjoy the moments that, when strung together, give us that delicious taste of all that is good in our lives.
“Be hungry, be foolish.” Mr. Jobs spoke that advice at Stanford after hearing of his cancer diagnosis. As we head into this holiday season where autumn fades into winter, let’s remember to be hungry for creative urges, for love, and for all that feeds us around the hearth. In our consulting rooms as we listen deeply to our clients as they work with their pain let us be present.
I remind myself to be playful and look for newness even if it seems foolish. Mindful living is to be in touch with life—in order to enjoy the presence of your non- toothache.
Originally published: President’s Column October 21, 2011
couples counseling, and Mindfulness-based therapies in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years.
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