The Zen of Toothpaste

On a recent Friday morning, I was brushing my teeth while getting ready for work. Due to gum issues, I use an electric toothbrush. When I finished, I pulled the Sonicare out of my mouth without turning it off. The device then proceeded to splatter bits of saliva and toothpaste all over the bathroom at a gazillion times a second. This has happened to me before. The first time I used it and I thrust the brush back into my mouth so fast I almost chipped a tooth. This time, however, I calmly searched for the off button and pushed it thus ending the impromptu shower of mouth goop. I cleaned up the mirror while I pondered why I made such a mess. The light was just dim enough and my eye sight is just bad enough that I decided I didn’t need to change my dark blue shirt and tie.

That also turned out to be a poor decision. All day people stared at me funny or said that I had something on my shirt. I nodded and thanked them. My wife would have been mortified to be in public with stained clothes. There was a time that I would have been as well. But now, I am almost at the end of my teaching career. I have nothing to prove to anyone and no promotions to worry about. I dress better than most of my colleagues generally so I really have nothing to worry about. And yet I still wondered why I had been so absent minded. That was the key of course. I wasn’t focused on the consequences of what I was doing. I was only being in the moment.

Mindfulness, or being present and in the moment, is usually a good thing. It is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. It is also crucial to maintaining a marriage. My younger self was very bad at it but over time I have improved. Obviously, there was a downside to paying so much attention to brushing my teeth that I forgot to turn off the toothbrush. And there is the problem with mindfulness. Sometimes you forget to consider the immediate future. Exhibit A is a friend’s little sister, who, on her way home from 4th grade, put her lunch pail into a mailbox. Of course mom and dad wanted to know why and she couldn’t answer. But I think I know. The lunchbox was heavy and the mailbox was a safe place to put it. No thought really went into the action. People often do things in the moment only to regret them later.

Once, while camping in Sedona, Arizona, my roommate and I found ourselves staring at a runoff-swollen Oak Creek. The bridge was a ½ mile away and we were hot and tired form hiking all afternoon. A cold swim seemed just the thing so we stripped down, threw our bundled clothes forty feet to the other side, and jumped in. The water was freezing and took our breath away. It also moved us quickly downstream. By the time we got to the other side we were a hundred yards away from our clothes and in early stages of hypothermia. As we walked barefooted over the rocks upstream to our clothes, we considered how close to a disaster our spontaneous decision had come.

There is a distinction between mindfulness and absent-mindedness. One takes in all of the moment while one excludes all but a single focus. But outcomes of current actions are often ignored in both cases and that is a concern as my toothpaste-splattered shirt testifies to. Living in the moment is important to happiness according to research, but so is putting on your seat belt. A practitioner might argue with me that Buddhism does, in fact, look to the future by paying attention the karmic results of today’s behavior. And while that may be true, there are Zen koans that bolster my view. One such story tells of a Zen master who falls off of a cliff (walking and texting probably) and grabs onto a tree root. There is a hungry tiger waiting for him to fall and a mouse nibbling away at the tree root. The master sees a strawberry, eats it and savors its sweetness. Doesn’t sound to me like someone looking too far into the future.

Taoism also teaches the importance of “doing without doing.” Athletes in all sports talk about playing their sport without thinking or as many refer to it, “being in the zone.” Perhaps therein lays the key to my dilemma. In sports, there is a clearly defined arena and set of rules and goals. The house our kids grew up in sat on ¾ of an acre in Woodland Park. When we first moved in, I cultivated a nice section of grass for the kids to play on (no easy feat at that altitude.) But my oldest son, who was three at the time, was reluctant to play on it, particularly by himself. But after I enclosed the area with a cedar fence, he couldn’t wait to explore it. He and his brother spent many happy hours, imaginations running wild, in that clearly defined space. As adults, one still struggles with not having clearly defined boundaries in life situations.

Mindfulness and mindlessness are two similar words separated by a simple suffix. Perhaps if I focus on the similarity as well as the difference, I will be finally able to keep a proper focus. Lao Tzu says that “full” and “less” are essentially the same and are separated only by perspective. My shirts will be happy if I can finally grasp that simple idea.