Zen in a toothache

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Kenchō-ji Gardens | Jessica Dang | Minimal Student

What good can come from a mere toothache?

As I have recently experienced, there are a few life lessons to be learned from a small (yet extremely painful) toothache.


A few summers back, when I stayed in Plum Village, the monastary of the famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh, there was one day when he made us imagine that we had woken up in the middle of the night with a very painful toothache.

Since the dentist wouldn’t be open until the morning, most people would be counting down the hours until it could be treated, all the while hoping that the pain would go down, or go away.


We live most of our lives without physical pain like this. Even right now, unless you have a broken arm or leg, or any other major chronic aches or pains, you spend most of your life in relatively good physical health.


At the time, I listened carefully to the lesson, but never did I dream that this scenario would actually happen to me.


About two weeks ago, I woke up one night from a sharp pain in my head. It wasn’t a migrane, as I had thought, but instead the premolar on the left side of my top jaw was throbbing pretty hard. I tried to sleep it off, but the pain didn’t go away. I tried to ignore it, but the pain was so sharp, and constant, that it couldn’t stop thinking about it.


During the last few weeks, I walked, worked, and slept with a winced expression on my face as I tried to put up with this horrible and constant physical pain. I booked an appointment to see a dentist, but the nearest available appointment isn’t for a few weeks yet. In the meantime, I just have to take some painkillers and deal with it.


The good news is that there is a bright side to all of this. Well, at least I searched long and hard for one because I absolutely forbid myself to go through something like this without gaining anything good from it. One day, I remembered Thay’s lesson on learning from my pain.


An important lesson about pain

The experience of having a pain that is strong enough to take over your life, and distract you from doing anything else is not something that can be easily understood until you go through it yourself.


I learned this lesson the hard way, but since doing so, I could imagine that the hard way is one of the only ways to learn it.


I genuninely hope that most people do not experience a pain like that, but the bright side for those who do is that, in the end, you will know how to be so damn grateful for not having any pain.


Kenchō-ji Gardens | Jessica Dang | Minimal Student


Thich Nhat Hanh taught me that sometimes we need some pain in our lives to give us a basis to compare against, so that we may be grateful for what we have right now.


People who never go through any pain don’t know any different, and so may not appreciate what they have as much as somebody who lost their health. If you are lucky enough to gain it back, then you feel like you’re given a second chance to appreciate what you have.


When we are mindful of the good things we have in life, we are aware of how lucky we are, and we feel good about ourselves. In this case, happiness is born from pain. So pain isn’t always a bad thing.


Now, I’m not saying that a toothache really compares to some of the really bad things that can happen to your health. But now that I’ve experienced something as painful as this, I’m reminded that even if there are some difficult things going on in life, at least when I am not in pain, I can be grateful for that.