I Have To Have A toothache In Order To Be Enlightened
It seems our brains are wired to notice interruptions or changes in our daily grind, and notably anything that jars or threatens. Scientists call this mechanism “negativity bias.” Essential for survival in hostile environments, it continues to color our everyday experience even after having outlived its usefulness. We pay attention to the bad stuff, take the good stuff for granted, and overlook the neutral. In broad terms, “bad stuff” is whatever jeopardizes individual or tribal survival or physical or emotional wellbeing. We usually realize how wonderful it was to have a reliable, air-conditioned, odor-free car if a problem surfaces. To have functioning limbs, organs, and wits when they begin to fail us. To enjoy clean water and air when they become polluted and rank. To have icebergs and snow mountains when they are melting. To be able to rely on the stability of the earth when it starts moving. To breathe when even that has become a struggle.
In his essay “The Peace of the Divine Reality” (in the anthology For the Love of God: Handbook for the Divine Spirit), Thich Nhat Hanh states, “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. That is peace. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be very happy. Therefore to look deeply at the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”
While my toothaches and other maladies have not exactly ushered me to enlightenment, identifying the fruitless influence of negativity bias gives me the opportunity to counter it. The skunk incident was a wake-up call. I’ve been creating gratitude lists in my mind as I fall asleep at night and—miracle—wake up in the morning. I’ve been composing them as I walk the hospital, grateful for my health, the opportunity to help, the staff, patients, and patients’ families. Grateful for the present moment and this precious human life. For access to teachings. Teachers. Family. Communities. For the wondrous net of beings and resources that go into making it possible for me to exist.