I'm quite surprised to report that I am still in this crazy place called Varanasi...Banares...the oldest, most holy city. I returned a couple days ago after a quick trip to Bodh Gaya for another 10 day Vipassana course. Bodh Gaya was a sea of saffron as thousands of monks gathered, chanting mantras and claiming space for the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit. I found it to be a bit like a Buddhist Disneyland, but there was still something undeniably special about the place. It's peaceful there, even if a bit overcrowded.
I suppose I was inspired, in part, by the beautifully shorn heads all around me...but I had been toying with the temptation to shave my own for a couple weeks and decided that Bodh Gaya was the perfect place to do so. I don't think I could've done so were it not for my buddy Jake's support. It really was quite terrifying, which only confirmed for me the significance of going through with it. I had to see who I would discover.
I penned a journal entry that night while sitting in that ancient spot, under that beautiful tree. I think it describes the experience better than I can after so much time has passed...
'...shadows pass over these pages...monotonous voices chant continuously...birds, in evening song, join the holy chorus...beads pass through fingers...over fingertips...prayers whispered into malas...palms pressed together...eyes closed...sitting...walking soft circles around the temple, past and under the bodhi tree...gold leaf & kisses commemorating this spot...under this sacred tree, where Gautama, the Buddha, reached enlightenment. The energy here is heavily spiritual...palpable...comforting. I seek my own enlightenment beneath these branches...an 'unburdening'...a liberation...a release...a letting go...a shedding of identity.
With shaky hands and rapidly beating heart I lifted myself into the barber's chair...a sudden upwelling of emotion put a lump in my throat and sent a single tear streaming down my left cheek as I clumsily braided a handful of hair. I closed my eyes as a dull pair of heavy scissors separated the braid from my head, sealing my fate and steeling my resolve. With a straight razor scraping over every inch of my scalp, I listened to the sound of transformation...my hair falling in colorful swirls...down my chest...over my shoulders...onto the dusty, cement floor...each strand carrying with it some piece of my imagined sense of self...my identity coiling itself within my severed locks.
I've felt light-headed, quite literally...and ever so slightly dizzy as the subtlest of breezes runs over my naked scalp...as new sensations ripple in waves from my forehead to the nape of my neck...hot, then cold, then hot again. Feeling both liberated and lost...unsure who I'll find under the easy disguise of hair...eradicating vanity...challenging myself to just 'be'...with bare feet and bald head. Can I learn to love myself without mirrors and makeup and hairbrush? Can I walk confidently without the surface identity I've always known?
Clean slate...clear canvas...I begin anew...'
As part of my self-made challenge, I also did my best to avoid looking in mirrors for the duration of my Vipassana. I felt that, if I truly wanted to turn my focus inward, I had to do away with external reflections. So I buried my little pocket mirror deep in my bag and removed the mirror from my bathroom at the center. I wish I could say that my efforts were untarnished, but it was actually quite difficult to uphold. I lasted a couple days...and, like an addict sneaking that one small drag off of a forbidden cigarette, I stumbled on day three....and day four! But I was gentle and forgiving with myself, simply 'starting again' and after those few hiccups, I made it the rest of the course without caving.
Every now and then I catch my shadow and my breath...not recognizing the shape of my own head. Gazing into a mirror and clearly seeing my unframed face upon emerging from Vipassana was shocking and awkward at first, but I think I've relaxed into it a bit. The new growth is soft and cute...showing me the pattern that has always been hidden underneath. It grows in a sweet spiral, meeting at my crown in the funniest convergence of directions that sticks through every scarf I wear...like golden grass on silken lawns. On the practical side, it's really so much easier to travel in this way without having to worry about my hair...without the added need for hair-related toiletries. :)
I feel lighter somehow...weightless and strong...powerfully fragile and cautiously beautiful...