I sat in the barber’s chair, and stared at my reflection in the mirror. Untied, the long locks I’d had for fifteen years fell loosely around my shoulders. I took a deep breath.
“Cut it,” I told the barber.” Cut it short.”
The barber nodded, and with plastic comb in hand, approached my thick head of hair. But the day’s sweat, and the dust, and no doubt a few knots, appeared to discourage him at once.
“Sir,” he said, “there is no basin to wash it here. Please wash in your home and come.”
For an instant I was taken aback, then felt rather sheepish.
“Of course,” I said, and left the shop, though my resolve to do away with the flowing mane was undiminished.
And yet, the next morning, I realized I would not be going back to this man, his comb and his scissors. I wasn’t about to take a drastic measure which, should I sorely regret it, would take me eighteen months to rectify.
Years ago, I grew my hair because I thought it would look cool. And perhaps it did, to some at least. At the time, I associated this appearance with certain images – the topknot of samurai, long-haired Taoist sages, Tibetans with black braids swinging in their backs. But over time it had become a part of me. Almost like a tattoo. And I realized I had become attached to my hair. That for all my self-awareness, I should remain hung up on such a trivial matter as my outer appearance, was something I could only inwardly smile at. The symbolism of the shaved heads of monks was not lost on me. With no hair, everyone becomes the same. You can’t feel different because of the face you offer to the world. My neighbour of just a few days, a feisty little chatterbox of a Mexican girl, told me, in a beautiful Spanish accent, “When you cut your hair, you cut your past”. Perhaps Buddhist monks would agree.
The next day, I spoke with my Indian friend Rahul about this shallowness of heart, this trivial, but nevertheless real, reluctance to part with my hair, to relinquish the visual persona I had carried around for so long. He smiled and told me an anecdote.
Rahul has been practicing yoga daily with the same teacher for almost a year. In the beginning, every day he would randomly choose a place in the shala to put his yoga mat, but quite soon he began putting it in the same place. Over time, as he became one of the longest-staying students, the spot became unofficially his own. But then, one day, a newcomer, unaware the spot was as it were taken, had the nerve to usurp Rahul’s practice space. For a moment Rahul was highly perturbed.
“I thought, ‘how can I practice properly now?'” he explained. “But then I realized it was a great opportunity. I had become attached to my place.”
So he put his mat elsewhere, and found his practice was not unduly affected.
“Afterwards I even went and thanked the guy,” he told me. “I told him I needed that, to give me a prod in the ribs.”
As for myself, I did go to a barber, but settled for a trim, and a shave. Though as I sat in the chair for the second time, I couldn’t help thinking of Peter Matthiessen and his 1973 walking pilgrimage deep into the Nepalese Himalayas. At the time, this was far more of an adventure than it would be nowadays, and he and his compagnon, field biologist George Schaller, walked for weeks in some of the most remote areas on earth. Some way into the trip, Matthiessen writes, in his marvellous book, The Snow Leopard, “at my behest, GS crops my hair to the skull. For years, I have worn a wristband of heavy braided cord, first because it was a gift, and latterly as an affectation; this is cut off too.”
I wonder, how many things, both material and immaterial, do we carry around, to some extent as an affectation?