about a face

Even with over 20 years of meditation practice, I recently re-discovered just how attached I am to my face. Yes, the pun is that we are all attached to our face, it is part of our head, but what the pun insinuates but doesn’t explore is just how emotionally attached I (we as the case may be) am to my face until some recent surgery showed me the hidden extent of it.

As I attempt to faithfully see everything as practice, being self reflective, looking over and over at my mind and its habits, I kind of got around seeing this particular fondness as an attachment, I see an aging face for sure which requires some getting used to but its been a surprise to discover what I thought was a simple, unassuming and perfectly normal preference was truly underneath, a definite attachment in disguise. There’s always something new to discover about ourselves, and life certainly offers the opportunities.

This most recent crack in my human veneer came in the form of more surgery (I’ve lived through at least 21 so far), this time in my mouth. Its left me at least (hopefully) temporarily, looking like someone else. When someone suggested it was worse looking to me than anyone else, I laughed (carefully covering my mouth) when they suggested no one would notice or care, I couldn’t help but say that I didn’t think they might not feel that way if it were their face. It’s easy to say take it easy to someone else, easy to say don’t worry when it’s not you who is having the difficulties! And, yes for sure – I do care more than anyone else about how I look.

Almost everyone has a body part, or physical area of their body that they like the best – could be the hair, the hands, the legs – mine was always my smile. I have one of those big, wide, what the dentist calls bright smiles. The unsettling part of liking my teeth and smile is that I’ve long had a fear of falling and breaking my teeth. When I was young, a friend of mine fell while ice-skating and her tooth went through her lip and broke. The thought of that obviously turned my stomach, I skated a lot too, but it didn’t prevent me then from stopping. However, when I learned to ski I was petrified of falling down the slope at high velocity and landing on my face breaking my teeth. I skied a little, but didn’t pursue it with any vigor.

About 10 years ago I had a root canal – this was after having only had a single cavity my whole life. I had a fortuitous dream a few weeks before I felt anything erupting, that my tooth was a green mushy aloe plant, which after the pain of the infection, the image made perfect sense. It was shocking to have work done in my mouth, but at least my smile didn’t suffer.

Fast-forward 12 years. I was in France when the root of the tooth I had the root canal on snapped. I had taken a bite of celery and pop. Here I was in the middle of Southern France, not exactly cosmetic dentistry’s haven. The dentist pulled the tooth and put it temporarily back in with a short pin. I could barely breathe thinking it would come out. And, of course it did, after I moved to Paris. And, of course it had to be the one dinner and day of being a tourist with a friend visiting from New York.

I located a dentist that spoke decent English, and had a replacement tooth made. Suffice it to say that it was not comfortable or aesthetically pleasing, but I rationalized, I was in Paris, didn’t know more than two or three people, who would care. You know the reputation of the French and their teeth and, I was there to have the experience, and to write, so most of my time was spent writing alone, with a few hours each day going to museums or wandering solitarily around the city.

Even though no one else cared for a moment about my appearance, I continued to examine my feelings about it – what I was willing to expose, what I wanted to be private and secret, and I got to seeing just how attached I was/am to my face. I was living the example of avidya – thinking I was my face, I was a prime example of raga, having attachment to my looks, and also dvesa, an aversion to how I looked. I was the walking textbook for what some of the Yoga Sutras cautioned against.

A couple of months later, I moved to London. There I found a cosmetic dentist who had the nicest office I had ever seen, with beautiful young women in white serving tea off of Haviland porcelain teacups with silver spoons on the side. He put an implant in my mouth and I was ecstatic when, after the swelling went down I looked like myself again, finally. I enjoyed London tremendously, especially feeling myself again and being able to speak the language. When it was time to go home, and I returned to New York with renewed vigor and the excitement of being back.

Not more than a month later, the implant became infected and had to be dug out. I was devastated. I worked at being with what was – which was anger, sadness, and blame. Although I knew I had a choice as to how I was feeling, I was caught in a tangle and really having difficulty letting go. In Buddhism this is called Upadana which means clinging – I was indeed clinging to how I used to look.

With old age and sickness (another Buddhist way of looking at the suffering that is naturally occurring in a life) close on my coat tails being as I’m in middle age, I realized that I better relax about this a little. I knew that if I didn’t I would be suffering non-stop from here on out. I really don’t want to suffer any more than is absolutely necessary! There’s what’s called optional suffering in Buddhism, and I saw how I was adding to that pile.

I had a temporary tooth made, it not only looked temporary, it sang of ‘being made’. I tried to hide it, my smile got smaller, even though I still used it, I rarely let the extent of my entire mouth widen in public, and only to a select few friends would I smiled normally, or only when it was dark.

I continued to travel and teach – teach about awareness, about suffering (Dhukkha in Pali), about meeting what is, and I honestly kept living my messages to the best I was able. I knew in my heart that with time, I would accept what was going on physically more and more, and I did. Slowly.

I moved to California and began to settle in. I was ready to address the possible recovery of my smile with yet another dental surgeon. I developed faith in her, and the time had come to try again, repair the damage and move on.

The surgery was 5 hours instead of the planned 2. I was ill, I was weakened, I was swollen, I was in pain. I hid in my home and read novels, many of them. I took pain meds, I slept and barely ate, and I didn’t leave my house. This went on for a month. The healing was slow, so slow that my mouth wasn’t ready to accept a (new) temporary tooth – the proteins put into my jaw to re-build bone, and the re-arranging of gum left my mouth and face incredibly swollen and painful – nothing was going inside of it. Now though, it was show time – I was to go on a retreat and I still had no (front) tooth. I weighed it out – refusing in my mind to let anyone I didn’t know see the gap in my mouth, but I didn’t want to miss the precious opportunity to be on silent retreat, it always renewed me and has been a refuge.

I went to the retreat. I rarely opened my mouth. There were a couple of times we were asked to speak, I either didn’t or put my hand over my mouth. During the meditation periods especially, I walked directly into my prideful fire, I was roasting in it, it was burning me and I only had tears to quench the heat. Tapas – heat, the heat of suffering in Buddhism, mixed in with Tanha (Pali), the thirst to make it stop – a combination ripe for watching the mind and sitting in the fire.

I faced my face and my pride over and over and over again. Sometimes with sorrow, other times with self -pity, and occasionally with anger. But I knew enough about practice to keep doing it no matter what. I didn’t run from my internal pain, even though I metaphorically ran from looking at anyone else to avoid being looked back at. I wanted to disappear physically, but to appear mentally and emotionally.

We all have our little pockets of shadow. Most everyone has a bit of something that hasn’t been aired out, and spiritual practice is about finding those crevasses and smoothing them out by filling them up with the light of awareness. No matter how slowly, or when in ones lifetime.

I share this, and other stories about myself at my own expense mainly because I see too much posturing going on with spiritual teachers. Not sharing the shadow isn’t giving anyone the hope that they too can change, or that it’s perfectly normal to have less than lovely aspects. Being all love and light perpetuates a myth that spiritual practice means that those who practice or teach are better than – more equip, more clean so to speak – with not so many problems which is simply not true. Hopefully, our teachers are those who have and will continue to work with everything they have – slightly, unsightly, seen and unseen, and share some of the war stories with humor and anecdotes.

Working with what is means just that, and life certainly does pitch some fastballs. Not all catches are graceful. But practice shows us that we have a choice about how we feel about things, and that we can pick up and try again.

My karma tends to involve suffering in the body. With now at least 21 surgeries to date, I now consider myself an expert in the body and how it feels to be out of control, experimented with, dissected, in pain, made mistakes on, and generally left at home to heal on my own. I used to think I had played the karma out, until recently…

I don’t wish these kinds of lessons on anyone, but for me there have been gems in each one of these small traumas and at this point I know no matter how difficult something might be, or how much I initially think I can’t take it, I do and can and will.

In the Yoga Sutras (11.33) It says “ Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts” translation- Edwin Bryant. And so I re-focus and re-adjust.

I’m about to go out now, face forward, smiling inwardly – I’ve decided that although I still very much care about how I look, it won’t totally prevent me from doing what I want and what is important. This has been about my face, but really what has surfaced in front of my face, about facing many unpleasant things, and it’s also shown me that there is a life that I still want to live in front of me. Optional suffering included.

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