Wide-eyed and loose-tongued, the other evening I was excitedly telling my partner, Ellen, of the myriad of ideas running through my mind. It was late, time for bed, but here I was hovering and conversing en route to the bathroom, anchored by my stream of consciousness. Ellen — who I was now depriving of sleep — listened attentively, her assuring smile a sign of her enduring patience. As one idea sprang to the next, and the next, and the next, I stopped myself. Equally amused and supportive of my late-night ramblings, Ellen astutely bookended our conversation: “But first, brush your teeth.”
But first, brush your teeth. A simple sentence that is deceptively nuanced, containing heaps of wisdom. Because sometimes we may get caught up in ideas of how we can conquer the world in our individual ways, and our minds may float away and join the stars. But it’s just as important to focus our undivided attention on what we have to do in that moment. The first step, the next step. This step. Brushing your teeth.
Brush Your Teeth: A Metaphor for Mindfulness
Maybe we aren’t caught up in conquering the world, but instead wrapped up and overwhelmed by all the things we have to do. Our minds race and heart rates elevate as we attempt to break down the beast, not knowing where to start, paralysed by upcoming. The beauty is there’s always some form of teeth brushing we have to do. There’s always that first step, a task in the moment, that we can devote our full attention to.
In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle laments:
“Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is Life itself, it is an insane way to live.”
The insanity is always focusing on conquering the world and not paying attention to teeth brushing. Because as Tolle rightly explains, the present moment is Life itself. Although fantasies about how our futures may unfold are intoxicating, and easy to indulge in, we have to find the balance between dreaming, conceptualising, and taking action. Before we can conquer, we have to start somewhere, and the only place to start is with what’s right in front of us. Brushing our teeth.
Each time we brush our teeth, we may face different challenges. Sometimes we won’t want to. Sometimes it’ll be challenging. But the way we brush our teeth can have a significant impact on how we experience our day-to-day, in how we enjoy the process and the unfolding of life. Will you brush your teeth while paying attention to fantasy? Will you brush in haste, eager to get the brushing out of the way to focus on something seemingly more important?
Maybe sometimes brushing our teeth is waiting in line, going to the shop, grafting in a job we don’t fully enjoy, tackling life’s challenges with no immediate, obvious payoff. If we can learn to fully engage with the process of brushing our teeth — with the action we are doing in this very moment — our entire lives will transform. Teeth brushing in itself will become a pleasure, perhaps more engaging than fantasy. We’ll slow down, pay attention. And, here’s the secret… once we enjoy the process, we may even begin to floss.
We can each conquer the world in our own unique way. But first, we have to brush our teeth.