"It is not by appearances that you are fettered but by craving." ~Tilopa, instructing his student, Naropa (both are historic figures in Buddhist texts)
There was a time when, because of my appearance, I was quite reluctant to go out in public; even confrontation with someone friendly was enough to make me want to cover my mouth and leave without saying a word. Not because of anything they'd said or done, mind you, but because my teeth are a mess. They always have been, but because I've been to SO many dentists to [attempt to] fix the problems that started when I was a wee young thing, I'm mortally terrified of dentists and I'm done going. Unless it's a dire emergency, like the time I had to dig out a permanent filling by myself with a needle after the dentist completed work on a tooth. It was either that or find a gun and a bullet. Luckily, I got the filling out, the pressure was released, and I never went back to that dentist (but I never got my $750 back, either). I do not have success with anyone in any dental office. I know they can smell my fear; it's hard to miss when it's a thick, heavy fog of pokey tools, atrocious odors, and sounds of mechanical devices so torturous that I can't even begin to describe them (and my stomach is churning, just typing this).
Because I've spent thousands of dollars on teeth I no longer have (pulled weeks after a root canal because it didn't take, etc.), I'm not comfortable with my appearance. And who would be? What are two top features others notice first about people? What do they find attractive? Their eyes and their smile. I'm often told I have nice eyes...is this because people are too embarrassed for me to comment to the negative on my mouth? "Dude...what happened to your teeth? Meth?" I don't think I look the meth addict, but I do know they often have very bad teeth, as well. Mayhaps it would be better if someone were to be that direct. At least then, I'd have the opportunity to explain that, through no action or fault of my own or any other, my teeth are mine to accept. Whether or not anyone else can isn't and shouldn't be of any concern to me.
So, what do my teeth (or the lack thereof; I can't wear dentures) have to do with Tilopa's lesson? In the past, because I didn't look "acceptable" by having a nice, shiny, straight, white smile like the majority, I was ashamed to meet anyone. I craved this appearance so badly, thinking it just wasn't fair for so many others to have it when I never would. I'm a 46-year-old woman, and I've never once in my life worn lipstick because I don't want to draw attention to my mouth, where my teeth live. In the past, I didn't go out of my way to meet and talk with new people. I wanted so badly to look differently, but because I didn't, I let it affect my life. I hermited myself away, with precious little contact with anyone but my immediate family and one friend. My craving for a better appearance kept me hidden, not my appearance itself.
One of the first lessons I learned in Buddhism (I'm teaching myself since I'm not close to a dharma hall; a text here, a video there, etc.) is acceptance. Acceptance is liberation. Acceptance of situations you can't change. Things you can't have. Stuff you don't want. Things you're afraid of. To be able to accept those facts (except, it seems, dentists) and be happy...or at least content and unruffled about it...well, that was life-altering in a quite surprising and fortuitous way. For example, I have pain in my bones from too many surgeries and in my organs from more surgeries and a disease that has not been kind to them. Accepting that once, over two years ago, didn't make it a magic cure-all, however. Acceptance must happen repeatedly, in every moment. I take a step, I notice the pain, I accept it as being something I can't change, release any attachment to it, and move on to the next step. I look in the mirror, don't like what I see, then acknowledge that this is my lot in life, with no bias or contempt (and surprisingly, sometimes with compassion and love) to affect my reflection. My appearance isn't pleasant, I know this, but I'm not my appearance any more than I am my unsteady gait. Because I no longer crave better leg bones or healthy teeth, my life has a lot more room for bliss. And joy. And talking with people. Making friends. And riding a bicycle. Even singing karaoke with a friend in front of a much larger crowd in which I'm usually much less comfortable, with people taking pictures, no less.
The craving for a pretty appearance used to keep me from making friends or talking to strangers. The fact that I can go out now with the same appearance as before and talk to people is a taste of freedom. It's like my report card, grading my progress on how far down my chosen path I've come. Sure, it would be nice, I imagine, to have a winning smile, but I believe my happy spirit is a more than adequate trade.
Another Buddhist lesson I learned early on is that our bodies are merely our vehicles. I drive a lemon. I'm okay with that...are you?
"There's a common misunderstanding that the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable." ~Pema Chodron