Now, anytime a challenge comes up, I compare it to that experience and the toothache that preceded it, and it instantly makes the obstacle feel more manageable. Got a flat tire? Oh well, at least it’s not wisdom teeth surgery. Overwhelmed by all the things I have to do? I’ll take it over a toothache any day. Stepped in dog poop? No big deal. It really helps put things in perspective. The non-toothache meditation, inspired by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and spiritual leader Thích Nhất Hạnh, takes a similar approach.
What is a non-toothache meditation?
Thích Nhất Hạnh said: “When we’re having a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. Yet when we don’t have a toothache, we’re still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant.” In other words, the fact that you don’t have a toothache is reason enough to feel happy and grateful.
Kim Trimmer, a yoga and meditation teacher and owner of InsideOut Yoga studio in Seattle, explains that when you’re experiencing something unpleasant like a toothache, the only thing you can focus on is how much better you’ll feel once it goes away. Once there is a relief, however, the mind will soon find another source of suffering to focus on.
Enter the non-toothache meditation, which is essentially a gratitude practice. “The premise is that we focus on the fact that it feels good not to have a toothache," Trimmer says. "Of course, this is most meaningful after a recently relieved toothache. However, the practice is about conjuring up that feeling of relief.” She adds that this practice goes beyond just thinking and knowing you don’t have a toothache but really feeling the pleasantness in your body of what it feels like not to have it.
And it doesn’t just work with toothaches. Trimmer says you can also use this gratitude practice to appreciate that you’re not dealing with anything unpleasant or challenging: backaches, headaches, being stuck in traffic, etc.
With practice, this gratitude ritual begins to train your mind to dwell on what is good and right in your life versus what is wrong and needs fixing. “By meditating on what is going well, we can shift the state of mind in a more positive direction,” Trimmer says.
How to practice a no-toothache meditation
According to Trimmer, there are two ways to put the non-toothache meditation into practice. One is as a seated meditation practice, and the other is by feeling appreciation in the moment.
This is how Trimmer instructs doing the seated meditation practice: Find somewhere you can sit comfortably and bring your awareness to your breath to help you connect with yourself and quiet your mind. Then, focus on the fact that you do not currently have a toothache or other unpleasant thing going on. “Let yourself actually feel the pleasure of not having a toothache,” she says. “This may be more accessible if you first conjure up the last time you had a toothache.” Then hold that feeling for at least 20 seconds and repeat as many times as you want.
If you don’t have the time to sit and meditate on it, practice it as needed in the moment.
“When you notice a cessation of unpleasantness [or] pain, pause and feel the relief or joy,” Trimmer says. For instance, when your neighbor’s dog stops barking at night, your car is done getting repaired, or you finally checked something off your to-do list that you’ve been avoiding, these are all opportunities to pause and feel gratitude and appreciation that you no longer have to deal with those things.
Trimmer also suggests incorporating the non-toothache gratitude practice into your daily routine by choosing a particular time of the day to do it, such as when you get in the car in the morning or before you go to bed. “It may take some time [to make it a habit],” she says. “However, stick with it, and you will surprise yourself one day when you automatically appreciate your non-toothache-y moments.”
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