A real-live princess gives a clinic in working a room and being in the moment; my real-live hygienist gives one in working my mouth and (I hope) being in that moment. Where’s a real-live Buddhist when you want to talk about mindfulness?
She stops and holds out her hand. A simple question gets the ball rolling.
Where are you from?
Mumble mumble, in response.
Are you enjoying retirement? This, noting the medals on the business suit, marking the wearer as retired military.
And so it goes, back and forth a few times until, on the completion of one mumbled response, her eyes shift left and she moves on to the next person. She holds out her hand. A simple question gets the ball rolling.
Where are you from?
Some exchanges engender more animation, more back-and-forthing; some, less. But all end the same way. Mumblers finish a sentence, her eyes shift left, and she moves on. There is no leave-taking, no conclusion. The interaction is, simply, done. An hour-or-so later, the room is also ‘done’: Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, has spoken to every one of the one-hundred-or-so people assembled.
It has been a beautiful display of how to execute the job of being a public person: graciously, completely naturally, comfortably, unhurriedly, and—seemingly—effortlessly. If Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne were a golfer nearing a round of fifty-nine, we’d say she’s been giving a clinic. In every moment, she is fully in that moment: no reaching ahead, no looking back. When talking to a given mumbler, that’s all she’s doing.
As I watch her move through the crowd, trailed by at least two plain-clothes security guards who also seem to be fully in the moment, I move out of the moment myself and think back a few days to the last time I thought about this very thing.
Reclined, I’m trying also to relax, but it isn’t exactly a ‘Lie back and think of England’ moment. No, there is a masked woman sitting just beside my left shoulder, wielding a piece of tempered steel (sharpened to a surgical edge) inside my mouth.
We go through this procedure every four months; indeed, I pay to go through this procedure every four months. My ability to relax depends on how well I’ve handled my dental hygiene since the last time I was in this chair. If I’ve done well, the tartar is not built up, my gums are not tender, and the piece of tempered steel (sharpened to a surgical edge) causes little or no pain. If I’ve not done well, all bets are off.
I know I should relax. Tension is worse than useless, it’s counterproductive, actually exacerbating whatever pain there is. But I can’t quite get my mind off the wicked curve of the scraper even now sliding along each tooth surface. What if the next swipe cuts? What if she hits a sensitive area?
As I try to relax my shoulders and to stop gripping the armrests, I contemplate the irony of it all. I won’t let anyone near my hands or feet with a sharp implement, and yet here I am, opening my mouth—all full of soft tissue as it is—to a blade more diabolical than any used in a pedicure shop.
I cast about for something—anything—to think about rather than the sound of that damned scraper and my uncertainty over its next move. What occurs to me is that even without knowing the source of the much touted Buddhist dictum of ‘mindfulness’—also known as being ‘in the moment’—I could have guessed that it didn’t emerge from a society with significant experience of dentistry.
Worrying about the next swipe, maybe I’m just not achieving the right degree of mindfulness, but there are some moments for which I prefer to practice forgetfulness: being somewhen else altogether. Dental hygiene appointments are on my list of such moments, as are mammograms. Colonoscopies are on everyone’s list; hence the standard sedative-induced forgetfulness.
Where are you from?
Mindfulness, or forgetfulness? Being in the moment, or being somewhen else?
As I rejoin the reception, I think, not for the first time, how easy it would be if I could find a one-fits-all-situations philosophy. Instead, life demands that I master diverse practices and select the one that, well, fits the moment.
I just hope that my dental hygienist is like Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne: a be-in-the-moment sort of gal. At least for every moment that she wields implements of tempered steel, sharpened to a surgical edge (did I mention that?), inside my mouth.