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​Nitrous and Meditation: When the Perfect Metaphor Goes Awry

Girl sitting in meditation posture out in nature.

I’d been struggling with writing a blog about meditation for more than a month. There’s so much I want to convey about how and why I meditate but, in striving for brevity and comprehensibly, I end up tying my sentences into tight knots.

Then it comes — the perfect metaphor — while sitting in the dentist’s chair.

My previous hygienist was impressively kindhearted. Even after she numbed my entire face I’d still squirm in the chair when she inserted her electronic tool into the deep pockets of my gums. Rather than persevering and letting me wince, Sharon backed off, promising she would get in deeper next time. But there was no next time. My gum recession kept getting worse. When I was forced to switch over to a periodontal office, I encountered a new hygienist.

The first time I squirm in Mindy’s chair, she makes it clear she has no patience for writhing. She offers me nitrous. “A lot of patients do really well with it,” Mindy assures me when I question its efficacy. “We can start slowly and see how it goes.”

I can feel Mindy’s eagerness to get on with the cleaning. Whether I agree to the nitrous or stay with the ineffective novocaine, I know she isn’t going to back down. So I agree to the gas, wondering if it’s possible to have a bad trip on nitrous.

Mindy deftly attaches the nasal band around my head, making sure to move my mound of hair so as not to tug on it. As the nitrous enters my system, I feel my attention being gently seduced away from the sensation in my mouth. It’s not that I don’t feel what Mindy is doing with my plaque, it’s just that the pain is soft edged rather than sharp. Instead of squirming, I begin to relax, becoming alert to what I’m noticing.

The nitrous seems to be causing my brain to accomplish what I achieve through meditation.

When I meditate, I practice moving my attention away from my physical sensations, emotional feelings, and mental thoughts. I’m seeking to uncover “who” or “what” else is present. I practice observing my sensations, feelings, and thoughts instead of solely sensing, feeling, and thinking. What remains, eventually moving to the foreground of my experience, is the “me” observing all of my human experiences.

Who is this me doing the observing?

As the nitrous continues to soak my cells, I guide my awareness to settle on this observer.

She is me.

I am she.

I giggle with delight, internally so as not to disturb Mindy when she moves to the next tooth, pausing briefly to tap my chin as a signal for me to swallow. Experiencing the edges of the sensation cascading through my mouth, I’m awed by the human organism’s ability to consciously place attention wherever it chooses…and our mystifying capacity to be aware of being aware.

This the moment it hits me.

What I’m experiencing right now is what I’ve been trying to describe in my blog. It’s all so clear. This is the experience I’ve been investigating during my decades of meditation and spiritual practice.

I explore the terrain of my consciousness, determined to know for myself who I am.

In meditation, I practice resting into the me who is being aware so that when I am off the meditation cushion and in the throes of my complex life, my muscle of self-awareness is well developed through practice. I’m then able to sense, feel, and think with intensity and complexity while still being present as the one aware of it all.

Somehow this ability to observe, to stand back, gives me an edge, a wherewithal to respond rather than react. The capacity to have the one-who-is-self-aware inform my internal decision-making process and guide skillful action is a great boon. Rather than succumbing to the reflex of my body or the habitual patterns of my psyche, I’m free to be creative with my life’s expression.

I take a deep breath through my mouth as Mindy shifts her position to get to a rear molar.

The cool thing about nitrous is that, although I’m a bit loopy, I am thinking lucidly. I’m not hallucinating. I’m not dissociating. I’m fully present with what’s happening, tracking sensations, Mindy’s actions, my thoughts, and my awareness of everything.

I am not checking out, I realize.

I am checking in.

This is what I want to underscore in my blog about meditation!

This is what meditating for decades has taught me to do. If I solely sat in meditation and never applied the merits of my practice to my everyday life, then I would be no different from a heroin addict seeking solace from her suffering rather than meeting it and transforming it.

The point of meditation is not to avoid pain. It’s to make space for it.

The practice of meditation—sitting still in a quiet spot, with no distractions — is an effective method of strengthening this observing consciousness. Though I did not know it when I began my years of intensive practice, over time I came to realize that the great blessing of developing this ability was so that I could apply it to life. Not in order to escape from life.

It makes perfect sense that the human organism would want to shut out pain. It makes perfect sense that we would black out if the pain gets too intense. Extreme pain is intolerable.

But the vast spectrum of pain prior to a black-out-moment is the arena of every life. This is the terrain I was never taught how to be with. I was taught to seek pleasure and happily-ever-after, and when life fell short of delivering a field of roses, I was guided (mostly covertly) to seek out the nearest form of distraction or numbing. Food. Sex. TV. Alcohol. Tobacco. I was taught to get over it. Suck it up. Move on. I was trained to numb myself from the fullness of life.

When I first began meditating I was hoping it might be the perfect and ultimate cure, because positive thinking, psychotherapy and physical exercise weren’t really working. They brought relief only temporarily. My deepest heartache was never eased. Though meditation did not succeed in medicating my pain, it did become the core ingredient for helping me to safely feel it, to meet my heartache and not run from it. By increasing my capacity to bear my anger, fear, and grief, without getting overtaken by my feelings, I’m able to relax and experience life in all of its colors.

Meditation has taught me how to inhabit multiple perspectives simultaneously: to feel my pain (and joy) while witnessing it at the same time.

Like I’m doing right now on the nitrous.

I’m feeling quite pleased with the sharpness of my revelation, taking note to make sure I remember it all so I can write about it later and finish my blog. I want to let my readers know that nitrous can give them a peek into what a regular meditation practice can develop into a skill. This could be revolutionary. After all, nitrous is not addictive and it’s not too hard on the system.

Then the question arises.

Is it possible that not everybody has the same experience on nitrous that I’m having right now?

Is it possible that I’m having this experience precisely because of all of my years of meditative training? Is it possible that my experience right now has absolutely nothing to do with nitrous and everything to do with me?

Oh no!

There goes my perfect metaphor.

Is it possible that, for someone else nitrous would be disorienting, catapulting their consciousness away from their identification with their bodily sensations but with no place to land.

Oh my. That could be terrifying.

Is it possible that, for someone else, nitrous would be like any other numbing substance, distracting them from their pain without giving them a new perspective on it?

Oh darn. There goes my entire blog.

As Mindy finishes polishing, I prepare myself to be weaned off the nitrous. She releases pure oxygen into my system. My normal waking consciousness returns. My teeth are practically humming they feel so clean.

I drive home to resume my struggle with how to write a coherent blog about meditation.

Good news?

Struggle over.

You just read the finished blog.

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