On Thich Nhat Hanh’s Bell Meditation
I started grinding my teeth in 2016 when chronic migraine became a significant part of my life. It turns out that one of the conditions associated with chronic migraine is Burning Mouth Syndrome. “ENOUGH!” my husband fussed earlier this year when I told him the name of the condition. He has suffered our entire marriage with my vomiting, headaches, tingles, swelling of the hands and feet, and body pain, and Burning Mouth Syndrome was more than he could take. When he apologized to me for his outburst, he added, “They should give it a different name” and I agreed.
The syndrome feels like having a very dry mouth all the time. For a long time, I thought I was just thirsty. I was a half marathon runner in a very hot city, so thirst felt expected. After a few years with the condition, discomfort gave way to a constant sense of just having eaten very hot food. Now, my tongue feels like sandpaper on the roof of my mouth and my whole mouth feels dry, but I have no evidence of the condition to show others. In fact, all signs suggest that my mouth is appropriately moist.
I developed a horrible habit in the early days of the condition. As thirst came on, I rested my tongue on the roof of my mouth, and as I grew thirsty, I pressed. Then, as my thirst increased, so did the pressing, until I finally noticed my jaw was clenched tight, and heard the tiny creaking of teeth grinding. Add to this that I have “poor body awareness,” and over and over I found myself sitting deep in work to wake up and realize that I would again have to peel my tongue from the roof of my mouth. Add the actual dryness of the mouth I experience from smoking pot all day (it’s “medical”), and after 7 years I am also fussing, “ENOUGH.”
Coming out of this period of chronic illness, moderate pain in my mouth from tongue thrusting and teeth grinding is about all I have left to overcome. A woman of action, I went to Google and I typed in “How to stop grinding my teeth”. When I clicked “Can teeth grinding be cured?” I read, “there is no cure to completely stop teeth grinding.” A bit down the page I saw and clicked on a link to The Cleveland Clinic. I trust The Cleveland Clinic and have used their CBT for Insomnia and Stress Management online courses to learn to manage the stress that triggers migraines.
The Cleveland Clinic lists five possible treatments for Bruxism: a night guard, talk therapy, exercise, meditation, and physical therapy. They advise, “Be aware of teeth clenching during the day. Try to stop yourself: Keep your lips together, teeth apart and tongue behind the front teeth.” They also say not to chew nonfood items and to avoid constant, daily gum chewing, but those are the only two practices that have relieved the burning feeling in my tongue.
I have tried and loved guided meditation, but silent meditation feels more appropriate for solving my teeth grinding problem. Implementing mindfulness practice is nothing more than putting a child who wets themselves on a bathroom schedule, and about 2 weeks ago, I put myself on a 20-minute work cycle. In all transparency, the schedule was to manage my pot use. When I let myself use freely, I spent more time that I wanted on it. So now, every 20 minutes, I pause my work, load my dry herb vape, heat it, and then go back to work while I inhale. It is an embarrassing facsimile of “taking a break” psychically, and it certainly was not bringing any more consciousness to my teeth grinding.
I needed something to force me to pause my mind completely, and I decided Thich Nhat Hanh’s Bell Meditation would be just perfect. Truthfully, when I read the meditation, I got a peculiar feeling inside, like a glow in my middle, that I think they call amiability, about trying it. I ordered myself a bell (next day delivery on amazon) and watched it travel from Texas to Oklahoma and then to Oklahoma City.
My bell read “Out for Delivery” when I sat down for work the next morning. I generally wonder in at about 9, spend from 9-12 tying up loose ends (answering emails, etc.), and then at exactly 12, I close my email, set my chat status to Do Not Disturb, and put on a podcast. As usual, the deeper I dug into my work, the more I clenched my jaw, and so having forgotten to set my timer, I took a break.
During my break, I tried to layout the steps for my bell practice: turn off the audio, relax my jaw, heat the vape, face the eagle nest video I play on my computer desktop, and focus on the eagles for a few moments. I got my vape heated and followed my plan exactly. As I watched the tweagle (juvenile eagle), I tried to follow the Cleveland Clinic’s guidance, “lips together, teeth apart and tongue behind the front teeth”. I did my best to get lost in looking at the tweagle, but mostly thought that I wished I had that damn bell already.
My bell arrived just before my next break, so I was ready to make a good faith effort. This try, I followed all the steps, but after I heated my vape and before I inhaled, I rang my bell nice and loud so it would ring for a long time. Prepared to inhale and disappear into my eagle video, I heard my wonderful husband from the living room, “What was that?” I ignored him. (I learned to do this from my mother who refused to respond if we talked to her during her meditation.)
Twenty minutes later, my timer sounded, and I began, but decided to leave my earphones in and turn off the music. I followed the same plan otherwise, but this time after I rang my bell, my wonderful husband came to find out what I was up to. I ignored him and looked at the tweagle until the chime stopped, and I told him, “It’s for my meditation.” He encouraged me and asked no questions because, I assume, he is used to my ventures into a variety of work break practices.
My teeth grinding and jaw clenching and tongue thrusting persisted, and I persisted in my meditations. During round three, my husband talked loudly to himself in his office (normal), and during round four a landscape architect came to trim around the birdfeeders below my window. At this, I approached deciding that meditation was making my life more difficult than better, but decided to follow the advice we offer newcomers in al anon: “try three meetings, but really try six,” and I decided that before I abandoned the bell practice, I wanted to give it six solid tries.
At last, my husband moved himself to the living condo and the landscape architects moved on and I was alone. My mouth really hurt. Despite already having finished 64 oz of water in the past three hours, my tongue felt completely parched. My front teeth were locked together so tight I had to free them slowly to avoid cramps. At last, I could begin my meditation.
I paused and tried to coach myself that the previous attempts had been dress rehearsals, but this time I got it right. I relaxed my jaw, heated my vape, rang my bell, and looked at the tweagle. As I looked, I listened to the chime and focused on relaxing my jaw. The chime faded away, but I continued to watch. I followed this eight times.
After each meditation, I felt like a mild tense sensation had evaporated from around my neck and shoulders. I do not believe I carry much tension there, but tightness in that area is a warning sign that I have a migraine coming. I like to think of myself as a rather Zen person, so I am receptive to practices that I believe will help me become more me by freeing me of tension. Over the course of the afternoon, I felt ambivalent about the meditation, I was annoyed that it was taking me work to coordinate and I was bothered by the ritual required to put it in place.
Over the course of the evening, my feeling about the meditation shifted as I began to become more aware of my jaw clenching. I have always been aware of my habit in the evening, but as I watched TV, the clenching came front of mind periodically, and I was able to practice the Cleveland Clinic’s advice to relax. Some may attribute this to the power of meditation, but I credit it to the use of applied behavior analysis techniques for building a habit. I expect I will keep the practice because I do appreciate the relief it is bringing from this remanent of a period of serious illness.
I was really very moved by the amount of coordination it took for me to make some space for myself that satisfied all my needs. I feel like Thich Nhat Hanh’s book neglected to address the profound work that goes into building a meditation practice. I am certain meditation becomes easier, but putting it into practice certainly reveals how truly enmeshed we are with the world around us.
Tina Turner died last night, and I am heartbroken. I was in first grade when I saw the video for “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” and she was unlike anyone I had ever seen. I practiced her stutter step endlessly and sang along, “Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken?” and I planned to mean it! But, as I said above, here I am, heartbroken. I was among millions who saw the movie of the same name and from it I learned that Tina Turner practiced Buddhist meditation. It was wacky for a black woman to be Buddhist back then, so naturally I was charmed. Today, her death reminded me of her practice, and I realized I had the opportunity to emulate her again. Her endorsement of meditation I will accept, so I intend to make a good faith effort at continuing to practice this bell meditation.