I went to the barber today. It seems I always arrive there about 3 weeks late, my hair on a shaggier side than I would hope. Oh, well. Life has a life of its own.
The barber is a man who is very kind and says very little. He wears a mask while cutting hair, keeps his shop meticulously clean, puts everything away in it's proper place.
As I sit down he asks how I would like my hair cut. I respond like I always do, "Buzz cut, number 5," and he begins. The sound, the feel of the handheld machine is both mildly agitating, like a whispered warning, and also strangely comforting. It's a memory of the past, when my mom would cut my hair, so it is also brings recollections of my mom. She died over 20 years ago and I miss her. It's interesting, in this case lovely, how memories can answer an invitation from such everyday occurrences. Sometimes I think it is the everyday occurences that can trigger the memories most close to the heart.
Barbershops, at least this barbershop on this particular day, seem to carry a nostalgia. As the barber started to trim and snip (I'm tempted to write, "my barber" but he's really not mine :-), I remembered one of my first professional haircuts. I ventured into the barber shop across the street from where I was living. It was my first time in this shop, and the barber who I took to be the owner directed me to his colleague, a young man like myself. After he finished cutting my hair (I had much more hair then) he turned me to the mirror and asked hesitantly, uncertainly, "Does that look even to you?" Not quite knowing how to answer, I paid him and walked briskly out the door.
I trust in this current barber's skill. I've been to him many times and have confidence in where I'm going, where he is taking me, what the outcome will be. I suddenly realized how good it is that the person who is cutting my hair is meticulous and orderly. While sitting in his barber chair, turned continually to the mirror, I became a wistful captive audience to my own appearance. My face reflected back a companionable image. It was novel and therefore in some small way thrilling and confirming for me to be able to take in my image without feeling a bit self conscious, of not returning to some awareness of the dangers of pride (my Catholic upbringing raising one of its more insightful heads?). I was able to look simply and directly at myself. And watching my receding hairline being brought back into shape, I began thinking about how different I looked. Not just in terms of the ongoing buzz cut, but in terms of my receding hairline, the graying of my hair, the changes in my face and body and inner makeup over the passing years.
And I was able to step just a bit further into the understanding of the Buddhist concept of nonself.
As I looked at the mirror I had a feel, a glancing touch, of how I am neither the same nor different as the person who walked into the shop, neither the same nor different as the person who got his haircut as a young man, neither the same nor different as the young boy whose hair and life was shaped by his mom.
The concept of nonself has always been like a koan to me, an abstraction or concept that can never be fully grasped by the intellect, only increasingly approximated by some other, more primal, more organic means of knowing and understanding. Like recalling my experience of my first professional haircut, this viseral understanding can be compared to a memory, allusive but always there, waiting and calling for a return. It's somehow therefore a truer knowing, a more palpable understanding, yet in an in-between place where abstract concept becomes alive in the pores of the skin and the cells of the marrow. It might happen only for a minute or two, but is no less meaningful because of its brevity.
And, surely and oh so painstakingly slowly, a more complete and tangible vision emerged, a felt sense settled in an inner and verdant soil - one of a greater freedom, a more complete contentment. In an authentic way not without a smile of good humour, for the moment some pressure was released, some trenchant burden lifted, some satisfactoriness found.
How I wish we could all find this truer knowing of who and what we are, and who and what we are not, on an increasingly ongoing basis until some ancient seal is finally broken. Even though we may not know each other, through our efforts we support each other. This is the interconnected nature of nonself and of life. Let's support each other in ways patient and kind and perseverent.