I’m often asked (okay, twice) “What does it mean to be a Dharma Dentist?” Just last month my little nephew asked, “Uncle Doctor Ronnie, can I become a Dharma Dentist?” And it breaks my heart to have to say, “No, Morty, you can’t. But you could become a meditation teacher. There are a lot of them. Or get enlightened. That’s easier. Then you’d have lots of friends. And they’d come and sit at your feet and ask you the same questions over and over and over again.”
All kidding aside, I have found dentistry to be a rich environment in which to practice meditative principles. Certainly the concentration required to do the intricate and detailed technical work can only help keep me present and in the moment. There are times when the drill seems to know where to go and what to do without my needing to direct it. It’s as if the drill is moving itself, effortlessly, with nobody behind it. In these moments, when the mind is so focused and absorbed, there is no “I”, no “doer”, just “doing”. As unlikely as it may seem, at these times there is an easy flow that feels similar to meditative states I’ve experienced on retreat.
All is not bliss, however. I think it’s fair to say that most people do not look forward to or enjoy going to the dentist. There is often fear and anxiety associated with the possibility of pain, the expense, etc. In my fifteen years of dental practice I have heard more times than I care to remember, “I hate going to the dentist. Not you personally, Dr. Stark, but . . . ” For this, and many more reasons, I believe the opportunity to practice patience, empathy and compassion is as great in the dental office as in any arena I can think of.
It is important for me to recognize my own aversion to pain and fear. While all dentists try to minimize their patients’ discomfort, how I relate to my own limitations, as well as those of my patients, can be quite challenging. Although technical expertise is certainly of paramount importance in dentistry, attention to nontechnical issues like patience, understanding and compassion, both toward my patients and myself, is vital. It is in these areas that I’ve found the dharma and what I’ve learned from my meditation practice tremendously valuable.
Still, the perils of professional practice are considerable. It has been reported that dentists have one of the highest rates of alcoholism, divorce and suicide of all the professions. In my small graduating class of eighty-five there have been three suicides, including the person who graduated number one in my class. While I don’t mean to suggest that there’s a simple answer to these complex problems, I do believe the lack of attention to psychological and spiritual issues, particularly in stressful work environments like a dental office, can lead to these kinds of self-destructive choices.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to understate the joy I get as a Dharma Dentist from interacting with the interesting mix of patients I see in my office. Many of them have a regular meditation practice and are wonderful yogis “on the path.” They are almost always on time and, being used to retreat schedules, no appointment is too early for them. I was once asked if I had an opening at 5:30 a.m. More than one yogi has shown up wrapped in a blanket. (He very mindfully left his Birkenstocks in the waiting room.) These patients usually like me to ring a bell when their appointment is over. Also, being more familiar with altered states of consciousness, yogi-patients are not shy about asking for nitrous-oxide sedation. My dental assistant always runs to make sure the tanks are full when she sees one of those “meditation types,” as she calls them, on my schedule.
As a Dharma Dentist I probably shouldn’t be surprised when I’m asked where I keep the dana basket. In one case I had done a bridge and two crowns and the lab bill alone came to $700. After final cementation my patient gave me a big hug and whispered “breathe with me.” Then she handed me an envelope marked “Dentist Dana” which contained a check for $20. Another envelope marked “Staff Dana” had five one-dollar bills for my lab man. Also, some of my dental associates were amazed to learn that you could actually trade dental work for paramis (merits). “That’s right,” I told them. “Two, three thousand dollars worth of free dentistry and you’re practically assured an easier life next time around.” My colleagues appeared less than convinced. While I’m flush with paramis I think they still prefer cash.
In the ’80s it’s easy to trade dentistry for just about anything. Many meditators are in health-care related professions. I could easily trade bodywork or therapy (especially in the San Francisco Bay area) for dentistry and be busy until the turn of the century. Yogis who earn their living as craftspeople are abundant. My car trunk is full of designer zafus and macrame meditation benches. Of course, my practice is in Berkeley, California—the land that time forgot.
I’ve learned that I have to be more careful about advertising myself as a Dharma Dentist. In Inquiring Mind I made the mistake of mentioning “Taped Dharma Talks” directly under “Evening Hours Available” [in an advertisement] and found ten yogis lined up outside my office waiting for the 7 p.m. talk. Also, “Personalized Care” does not mean I make miso soup or serve chai in the waiting room.
I hope you can see that becoming a Dharma Dentist was not easy. It took years of dental training, meditation retreats, and, hardest of all, having to sit through eleven “go-arounds” at the end. There is an ongoing responsibility to maintain empathy and compassion as well as a high level of technical skill. In return there can be a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and service. As difficult as it is, I love being a Dharma Dentist and wouldn’t trade places with anybody. Well . . . maybe the point guard for the Boston Celtics.