I started using an electric toothbrush about a year ago after scoffing at them for many years. Now I love it. What I didn’t expect was that it would both provide some good mindfulness training and also encourage mindlessness. Let me explain.
The toothbrush that I bought, like many, runs for exactly two minutes and makes a steady humming sound while it vibrates. I’ve found that the combination of the sound and fixed time period helps to keep me focused on the act of brushing my teeth and on the feelings in my mouth. The toothbrush also beeps every thirty seconds as a reminder to move on to the next quadrant in your mouth. I found that this helps snap me back to the present if my mind manages to wander away in the interim. It was only after experiencing this for a while that I realized how mindlessly I had been brushing my teeth before, often planning for the day ahead or thinking about anything other than my teeth.
Timers and bells are a mainstay of meditation, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they could have a mindfulness-enhancing effect in another context.
Yet the other day I found myself doing something completely mindless when the toothbrush turned off. While I was brushing my teeth I felt that a few teeth needed additional cleaning–quite mindful of me–but when the toothbrush turned off after two minutes I placed the toothbrush back into its holder rather than continue brushing. I did catch myself and found myself feeling almost compelled not to continue brushing. Something felt wrong about picking up the toothbrush again after the toothbrush had announced to me that the session was over. The mindful part of me said that the two-minute timer was arbitrary and that I should brush more if that’s what the situation called for, but the Pavlovian response had grown quite strong in my brain. I realize how absurd this example may sound but it only goes to show how strong the effects of technology (and any external stimuli) can be on our thoughts and actions.
What I learned was that the same sound and time period which had helped me to stay focused and present had another effect, which was to train me to respond to the two-minute period not as a gentle but flexible reminder to brush for at least that long, but instead as a fixed time period to be followed rigidly for its own sake, all without me being aware that any of this was happening.
And just for the record, I did pick up the toothbrush and brush some more. A small victory for mindfulness over habit!