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This place matters

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fear Itself

I used to be terrified of the dentist. I mean light-headed, sick-to-my-stomach, terrified of the dentist. I had a root canal once and I was shaking so hard that the entire chair was shaking, even the light over my head was shaking. I think I cried.
Then I couldn't afford dental care for a long time. My mouth hurt and broken teeth collected in my head like overdue bills. And when I finally had the funds to get back in the black, dentally speaking, there were a whole lot more abjectly terrifying visits to the dentist. Every time I went, I'd sit in the chair and quake - heart rate speeding, stomach roiling, and hands shaking so hard I couldn't hold the magazine still enough to read it. 
On one of those visits, a hygienist saw my shaking and said "yeah, Novocaine does that to me too."
Wait, what?
Turns out that first of all, the stuff they stick in your gums is totally not Novocaine. Dentists stopped using Novocaine something like 30 years ago in favor of more effective and less allergenic topical anesthetics like lidocaine.  (Fun fact: Google Chrome's spell-checker flags lidocaine as a misspelling. Right-click for suggestions, and you get Novocaine.) 
Lidocaine is in the same family as its predecessor Novocaine and both descend from cocaine. That is not, however, why the stuff my dentist shoves in your gums makes me shake. Seems that most dentists use a solution of lidocaine and epinephrine - also known as adrenaline. The thing  that controls your fight or flight response. Among epinephrine's side effects: increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and tremor. 
It wasn't so much that I was afraid of the dentist; it was that the medicine the dentist gave me made me experience the physical symptoms associated with fear. I was afraid of fear itself.
In addition, I was afraid of the dentist. Just not shaking-, panicking-, hysteria- afraid.
Reframing is a psychological term for changing emotions or behaviors by changing your response to the thing that triggers them. For instance, I was once very angry with someone and texted my friend Maya to ask her to remind me why it's a bad idea to beat people about the head with heavy things. Maya suggested I pretend the person with whom I was angry was a Zen master giving me a particularly difficult kōan. 
A kōan is an exercise used in Zen Buddhism meant to stimulate great doubt, which is supposed to lead to deep thinking and eventually enlightenment. Kōans are stories or questions that appear to be nonsensical and unanswerable riddles, like "imagine the sound of one hand clapping." However, Buddhism holds that they are not nonsense at all, and that finding the insight to find the answers leads to awakening. 
It has just occurred to me that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is essentially a kōan. The doctrine holds that when a priest consecrates bread and wine, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ, even though they appear unchanged. It always irks me when people speak derisively about the sacrament - with many going so far as to mock the Catholics for practicing cannibalism. The Eucharist is a sacred mystery that Catholics begin to ponder as children and ponder throughout their lives. Perhaps it is a reminder that all things are sacred - and thus all things are the body of God. Or perhaps it is a reminder that the people are now the vessel that holds the divine. Or perhaps it is a tool to find the insight that leads to awakening.
Another kōan: I must once again replace my laptop power supply because Puck once again chewed through the old one. Yet I have not murdered Puck; in fact, I love that stinking cat like you can't believe.
Okay, maybe that one is a nonsensical and unanswerable riddle.
In summary: dentistry>pharmacology>psychology>Maya>Buddhism>Catholicism>Cat story.

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