Why? Why am I paying a barber to cut my hair with a clipper on #2 setting when there is hardly any hair left on top? Why am I bothering? What is the difference between #2 and #0 I thought? Not much I thought. Why not just start shaving it off and save myself the barbers fee? So I did, I shaved it all off that weekend, secure in the knowledge that I could always let it grow back if I didn’t like it. But little did I know that my biggest lesson in how attachment works was to be found in that seemingly simple rational decision.
I was just starting to read a lot of books on Buddhism at this time, about eleven years ago, and had started meditating regularly. However I was grappling with really understanding one of the core concepts of Buddhism, attachment, and how it worked. At first glance does it mean we shouldn’t possess anything, or that we shouldn’t hang on to anything? I have since come to realise that it covers a lot of bases in one single word but it was just one important aspect that the head shaving taught me by example.
I swam every morning in those days at a public pool and had made friends with a number of other people that also swam at that time. The closest of these friends was, well let’s call him Duggy, to protect the innocent. We discussed all sorts of things and had a lot of laughs as we showered, dressed and headed off to work for the day, and I really enjoyed his company. Duggy was about my age and also bald on top. But unlike my short #2 clip, Duggy cultivated a few wispy strands of hair that he combed over the top of the bald patch, colloquially called a “comb-over”.
On the Monday morning after the weekend shave I catch up with Duggy in the shower room just as Duggy is finishing his shave. As he catches sight of my newly-shaved head he turns a whiter shade of pale and loudly exclaims “What the hell have you done??!! How could you do that?” I innocently respond with “What’s the problem, I can let it grow back if I want to?” But Duggy by this stage is almost beside himself with shock and awe and his reaction stops me in my tracks. I am a little lost for what to say as he mutters “You’re crazy!!” and leaves the room and is gone before I get back to the change room.
The next day we are back to normal and I am being ribbed about my new found “clean” look with comments like “Trying to take some seconds off your time?”, “Hey Baldy” and we joke about it back and forth. However I am still coming to terms with his initial reaction and how out of character it seemed to be, and the vehemence and strength of the energy behind his statements was bewildering. Where did that come from?
Slowly the real lesson started to show through and clarified for me both his reaction and my understanding of what attachment might mean. Duggy’s comb-over and his reaction to my new baldness showed Duggy’s strong attachment to a view of himself in the world, a world where being bald is not acceptable, where baldness was a sign of ageing and something to be resisted. It was all about how Duggy saw himself and how he was clinging to that view despite the obvious reality of the life process, of the inevitability of our ageing and it’s consequences. Duggy was looking for permanence in an impermanent world. In this case attachment is holding onto a view which is basically irrational but held onto regardless.
From this one incident my view of a whole lot of things changed progressively over time. We all carry these personal attachments with us in many forms and the lesson is to try and identify them as we can and let them go. Let go the attachments, let go the suffering that they carry with them. The suffering comes when an attachment is so strongly held that we fear the loss of it and we are always defending it. We are afraid of what we might have to be if we didn’t have that particular attachment. We see ourselves through the eyes of that attachment.
Awareness helps identify these attachments and one clue I use is to look at the energy with which I react to things, and is that level of energy appropriate? Usually any strongly expressed views indicate some form of attachment to a view upon which a reassessment of the validity of that view is desperately avoided. Or perhaps it is just being right that is at the base of it, a form of attachment in itself, being right. A musician called Michael Franks expresses this beautifully in a track called “I’d rather be happy than be right” on his album “Time Together”. I recall that track title often as a sort of mantra when I catch myself fighting to just be right.
I still haven’t been back to a barber since then and keeping it this way keeps me in touch with the memory of Duggy’s reaction. Who would have thought there would be such a life-changing outcome from going from #2 to #0?
P.S. This is a verified quote from the Buddha, see this post from which the pic was borrowed.