My epiphany at the dentist and how I carried it back to reality
18.39, Thursday 5 Nov 2020 Link to this post
I’m just back from the dentist right now, so here’s a story about another time going to the dentist and an epiphany I had while I was in the chair.
I had a whole bunch of dental work a few years ago.
Three sessions in the chair, each 3 or 4 hours long. My dentist was from Iraq and he had a sideline representing the new government installed by the Allies so he would crop up in the media from time to time and occasionally disappear for a few months to Baghdad to lend a hand. He was also a neurolinguistic programming adept, so I enjoyed quizzing him about that, and his professional claim was that he employed hypnosis to take the sting out of dental work, using a process of visualisation to descend a series of steps into a beautiful garden of lakes and trees, etc, though actually I think he just had a heavy hand on the nitrous.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had nitrous oxide but it’s mildly euphoric and very relaxing. Sensation is reduced and your body feels heavy, floating somehow. Together with the headphones (the aforementioned hypnosis playing on a tape) and my eyes closed, I would pretty quickly descend back inside myself, and spend the hours in a semi-observant, semi-dreaming state.
So that was really the story of the first session, inhabiting this odd kind of dentist dream, idly exploring my altered mental state, dissociated, yet able to think and reason.
What I noticed was that my mind felt smaller somehow, like a cat’s brain (I remember thinking), but also closer to the fabric of reality itself. Without my preconceptions getting in the way, stripped back to my animal brain, I was able to perceive more clearly, and therefore had access to deeper truths about myself and the cosmos – both the same thing really.
And just before I resurfaced, I discovered a huge truth, a startling revelation.
Not that I could remember it.
All I could recall was its import.
So in the second of my three sessions, I went back to re-discover whatever it was.
The way I ended up thinking about the nitrous state wasn’t that it wasn’t that I was reduced, like this simplified mind idea I had, or transcendent even, a layer above or below my regular mind somehow.
Rather it was as if my mind had rotated about itself into a new configuration so that all the sensory apparatus was now pointing inwards at itself, the full power of sense-making lensed inward, and by looking into my own mind and contemplating its form, I could then make deductions from its shape about the nature of the cosmos outside.
What’s more, I was able to maintain ideas and follow trains of thought, in this configuration, that wouldn’t be possible or sustainable in the other, regular configuration, the configuration of mundane reality. Both states were valid, independently, but they couldn’t exist simultaneously.
But what was interesting was that there was an isomorphism between ideas in the two configurations. So while I was able to run impossible chains of thought in the nitrous configuration that I couldn’t run in the regular configuration, the destination concepts that I reached could be transferred between configurations.
That was why it was possible to reach some kind of epiphany. In mundane reality, such a concept would be inaccessible. By in the altered configuration, I could reach this new idea, and then, having reached it, bring it back.
My mental model for this was two worlds, two bubbles, linked with a tunnel.
One bubble, large, outward facing and well-lit: the regular configuration of mundane reality. The second bubble, dark, inward facing, contemplative, possibly small but possibly infinite: the altered nitrous configuration. I inhabit either one configuration or the other. Between them, a narrow tunnel, along which my consciousness moves as it transforms from one to the other.
Did I re-discover the revelation? Yes. I know that I did. I know that it was important. Did I remember what it was?
That second session, no, I did not.
When I came out of the dentist, all I could remember was the image of these two bubbles for the two psychic configurations, and the tunnel.
And mainly, this idea: you can bring one thing through the tunnel.
What I had figured out was that when my mind moved between the configurations, what I thought was urgent and desirable in one configuration wouldn’t necessarily translate to the other.
In particular, what felt like a rare revelation about the nature of self and the cosmos, etc, from the perspective of the regular configuration was, yes, important when viewed from the nitrous configuration, but actually it felt pretty natural and commonsensical there too, and so, in that altered state, I felt no necessity to work hard to remember it.
But what I also figured out what that, as I moved between these two worlds, if I concentrated on holding one thought in mind, I could deliberately carry it through the tunnel and it would be the seed for my thoughts on the other side.
So what I decided to do, ahead of the third session in the dentist chair, was to carry this vow with me:
When I encountered the revelation, I must carry it back, no matter what.
I would entered the altered state configuration, and hand this vow to altered state me.
It didn’t work entirely as planned.
The third session began. They gave me the gas, I went through the tunnel repeating to myself this vow to re-discover the big truth and bring it back, I entered the altered state, and so on, and as before I had this same revelation - this epiphany - but this time I also remembered my goal to bring it back with me to the surface.
But while the plan was to carry it through the tunnel, back to everyday reality, I realised that this idea, discovered in the alternate configuration, was too large to come back with me that way.
Instead the only way was to burst between the realms of consciousness by force and bring the new truth into the light via a new route.
Which is what I did, and it must have been disconcerting to see.
My mouth was being held open. There were a lot of broken teeth at that point, it was right in the middle, and they were cutting back my gums too, so there was a fair amount of blood I believe, and a couple of suction tubes in my mouth.
Coming up was like swimming hard towards the sun from deep under the ocean, and breaking the through the water’s surface took huge effort.
Forcing my eyes open was a slow battle.
Eventually I triumphed, and the dentist and two nurses in the room were there as I managed to open my eyes, halfway through that day’s procedure, and gestured that I needed to speak – I remember knowing that was my chance to vocalise and concretise my epiphany before it evaporated in the light. So they took the tubes out of my mouth and the clamps off my lips, and moved the equipment away, and pulled the cotton wool out, and all of that stuff, and gestured to let me know I could speak, and listened as I was able to get out the words that had taken me 10 hours over three weeks of deep internal exploration, and strategic planning let’s not forget, to bring back from the depths of altered psychic states to our everyday reality; and I said these words, and no words will ever be truer than the truth contained in these words at that moment, and I said this: Can I Have More Nitrous Please.
And they laughed and nodded and turned the nitrous oxide up, and put the tubes back in my mouth, and I closed my eyes, and they carried on with their work, and I lay there happy.
I guess the lesson is that what is vitally important in one state of mind is not necessarily vital or important in another.
Truth is contextual?
Something like that.
Nitrous is great? Or at least it was at that particular time for that particular me. That’s another lesson I suppose.
They offered me nitrous today and I declined. Instead I was amazed when they scanned my teeth with a handheld scanner that automatically stitched the images into a 3D model, and even more amazed that it took only 7 minutes to print the new crown. Colouring and firing the crown took 15 minutes. I was in and out in an hour and a half, including having the old crown knocked out, watching the dentist adjust the 3D geometry on the big screen next to the chair, and having a nice chat about photogrammetry and also the history of milling machines. So there we go.