I was recently fortunate enough to be on retreat with Bhikkhu Analayo studying and practising the Satipatthana Sutta. We were introduced to a meditation practice where before each period of open, unstructured awareness Analayo led us through several body scans. The first three scans were an abbreviated form of what’s known as the ‘Anatomical Parts’ practice. The Buddha likens the parts of the body to different types of grains such as rice, held in a bag (i.e. skin). Each day we scanned through the body noting ‘skin’, then ‘flesh’ and in the third scan, ‘bones’, looking to help bring about less identification with the body.
The practice came back into my mind at a recent visit to the dentist.
The thought of a visit to the dentist used to fill me with anxiety and tension. “Don’t be silly” I remember the unsympathetic, white coated, woman saying as she prepared to stick a needle into my 9-year-old gums. All I’d done was unconsciously take a sharp in-breath and a death grip on the arms of the plastic chair I was lying rigid in.
As a child, I had a lot of ‘work’ done on my teeth. As it turns out, much of it was not strictly necessary, but a sign of the times. Dating a dentist in my early 20’s taught me that the pain and cavalier attitude I’d experienced was the sign of a bad dentist rather than something I’d been too cowardly to put up with.
Over the years of adulthood, better dentists, and a lot of practice, the experience has changed. Watching my mind with interest means I’ve been able to observe habitual fear and aversion before it gets too much of a hold. I’m able to relax and notice other things – the lights, sounds, close contact with another human being – rather than contract around a single unpleasant object. Generally these days I’m pretty calm going into the chair.
As I write, I’m at home following minor dental surgery – an implant at the back of my mouth. Apart from a small tear at the corner of my mouth, there is no discomfort at all.
Despite some initial apprehension (watching the thoughts the day of the surgery as they focused on what might go wrong) I found the experience quite interesting. The dentist was pretty good at telling me what was going to happen but I realised he was also leaving things out, presumably for my benefit!
The first time I didn’t know what was happening was feeling a scraping in my mouth and realising it could not be the familiar sound of a metal instrument against a tooth. There was no longer a tooth there so the sound had to be metal on bone…which meant the shoving and pulling of the previous ten minutes had been the cutting and scraping back of my gums! Whooh!
There followed a few ‘burr holes’ into the bone of my upper jaw to establish the best line to angle the implant ‘post’. The bone was unusually dense so the vibrations caused by the drill intensified, and crackling sounds and sensations, like a car driving on gravel, spat out at regular intervals.
After much deliberation and several x rays, the post was screwed in by what I imagined was a tiny dental spanner, each twist securing the post into the drilled hole. Finally, the retracted gums were sewn back together with several stitches. I caught glimpses of the black thread coming into my field of vision and felt the pinprick of the needle. All this happened within an hour and a half of much pushing and shoving of my mouth and cricking of my neck.
While all this was going on I was aware of different levels of ‘happenings’. There was the level of wanting to make it happen as quickly and smoothly as possible. My mouth was readily open as wide as I could manage, I lay still and worked against the choking sensations of water, not caught by the suction pipe, hitting my throat. I was as model a patient as I could be!
Then there were the resonances between the procedure and daily life. Wrenches, spanners, needle and thread all seemed part of a different world – one I’m becoming more familiar with as a new homeowner. How could the same objects and concepts used for hemming curtains and bleeding radiators be now digging into my precious flesh and bone? I was amused by the mental second takes that tried to make sense of this. I’ve watched plenty of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in my time, with its fictional digging around in human bodies, but that’s not the same as having the same thing happening to my own.
I was also noticing the thoughts, views and feelings around that mental perturbation. The surgery was a minor assault on ‘self’, invading beyond the boundary of skin and flesh. It was also an opportunity to see where ideas of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ were hiding out. There was a sense that going beyond skin, cutting into flesh was not only an invasion of ‘self’ but that skin and flesh themselves were hiding the reality of what I take to be ‘me’. The notion of me was challenged when usually unseen parts were cut open and drilled into and then sewn up again.
Watching all of this I was keyed back into the mindset of Analayo’s retreat. The body scans that set up our sitting practice were there to facilitate an attitude of detachment – an aspect of Right View. And that I could observe the mind at ease, aware of subtle resistances and protestations, showed me that there was some degree of detachment there – as well as some degree of attachment! But, hey, wisdom was working in the mind to some extent.
Detachment and wisdom are friends to awareness, allowing the mind to observe more of its own workings. And the mind that is aware and curious can use any object to investigate its own nature. Eventually, the mind starts to intuit its own ‘nature’ and realise there is nothing to hold onto.