Minding the Gap

Managing Pain with Mindfulness Meditation

It was necessary to have a tooth removed recently. My London dentist and I explored the available options and decided that the best way was just to have it out altogether.

The extraction became complicated. The tooth, though loose, would not budge. It took a long time. Cracked into pieces. I became tired. The surgeon began to shave away parts of my jaw. “Your jaw’s like concrete!” he grunted as he pared away.

And then one last pull: it was done. And my journey as a toothless old hag began. (Less one tooth, anyway.)

A few days later I flew to Florida to visit family. It was then that the pain started. I knew there would be pain--of course there would. So at first I did nothing because it was expected. Then the pain began to take shape. It was stunning how much near-embodiment the pain had; like a song, or like the wind: it couldn’t be seen but it had a shape, a heft, a resonance as though it were a thing. It crept along my jaw and into my ear. It crackled like lightning from my hairline to my clavicle.

I saw three dentists in three days.

“Infected,” said one.

“Not infected,” said the second, “but you’ve pulled the blood clot out. Dry socket, it’s called. It’s one of the most painful conditions known to medicine; right up there with kidney stones. But you won’t die.”

“Dry socket--and infected in the bone,” said the third. “But you’ll heal. In time.”

It’s remarkable how much of the distress from pain is not from the pain itself, but from trying to escape it. Clenched muscles, furrowed brow, straining abdomen held at ready to run. But there is no running, near or far, that will allow you to escape something in the very fabric of your bones. That is what I thought about as I tried to separate my mind and the reactions of my body from the presence of the pain through mindfulness meditation. The pain was still there; I could feel its shape like a sea anemone blooming on my face, livid tentacles snaking down my neck and up into my hair. But I didn’t mind it so much.

I didn’t rely on meditation alone. There was also medication, particularly a little magic potion called dry socket paste which really made the difference. It really did feel like magic--as soon as the paste was applied, covering up the raw exposed nerve endings, it was as though the anemone had sensed the ebbing tide and retracted. It was still there--after all, there was a hole in my jaw; of course there was pain--but it was not dominant.

I learned a lot about myself through the application of the will not to run away, but to allow the pain to exist without seeking a conflict with it. There was something profound and extraordinary about the experience. The pain was there, and I was there. And then, eventually, it wasn’t there at all.

Caitlin McDonald
Caitlin McDonald

Award-winning scholar & writer on digital communities, data science, and dance. Tweets @caitiewrites. Holds PhD in suitably unexpected & obscure subject. Very tall. Frequently a bit silly.

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Minding the Gap