By Desiree Punwani
One incident that stands out in the course of my spiritual ‘walk’ is the decision to shave off my hair.
When I first mooted the idea, my family was horrified. My husband, a business executive, wouldn’t even discuss it. My daughters, aged six and eight, were appalled at the idea of my turning up in school with a bald pate! My sister-in-law talked of chemo/psychotherapy, and my mother ran desperate circles around me.
I have often been asked why!!?? Why I did it. I had to do it, that is all I know. I had just emerged from the dark recesses of alcoholism and shaving my hair off seemed almost baptismal, signifying a new life, a rebirth. The actual act took place several months after I first voiced my wish to do so, and it took place with the blessings of all concerned, especially my husband and children. The process was cleansing and exhilarating. People often speak of it in admiring terms because they feel that for a woman to shed her hair is equivalent to her shedding her vanity. I didn’t experience it that way. What it did was, it freed me. It redefined my ideas about appearances and it taught me to take opinions, my own as well as those of others, less seriously. This was very useful, because most of the negative reactions were from people I knew. It was from strangers that I got the most positive responses. In fact, ]a couple of women summoned up the courage to do the same after meeting me.I have shaved my hair twice more subsequently. The second time, believe it or not, was to please my daughter who now loved my ‘bald’ look. The third time was seven years later, in response, once more, to a deep inner need, which now I no longer questioned. It is the inner change, I feel, that most strongly influences outside appearances. The change may be subtle like a shift in the choice of colours or type of fabric – I wear very little black now and prefer cotton to any other fabric – or it may be more dramatic like wearing garments and symbols that clearly indicate your beliefs, e.g. the maroon robes of the Osho ashramites.
I find in myself a curious dichotomy. There are times when I wear ‘different’ clothes, like monastic colours and religious symbols, not as a fashion statement but because they reflect an inner state. At other times, I will be fully conformist. I am most comfortable when my outer appearance conforms to my inner state. There are no fixed rules or guidelines for this. At times I will wear just white for days, and then suddenly dress in maroon and sport mismatched earrings. I will be austere one day, and decked out in chunky silver jewellery the next, and both feel good. The greater the freedom I experience within, the greater the freedom I seem to be experiencing in my appearance.
The thing that I have noticed is that if I am comfortable and confident with my appearance, I don’t even remember what I am wearing. Countless times I would wonder why people are looking at me, and remember only later that my bald head was the object of curiosity. Also, because it felt so ‘me’, I never resented stares or strongly negative responses. Perhaps that is the test. If people’s responses to your appearance bother you, you need to check your own comfort levels with your appearance. Inner comfort is commensurate with outer comfort. This works both ways. The more freedom you give yourself to ‘be’, the more freedom you automatically give others. What people wear is immaterial to me. If it is really expensive, it is lost on me; if it is outlandish, it mostly doesn’t bother me.
The shift that I find in myself has increased my respect for clothes. A worthwhile offshoot of my growth process is that every few years I refrain from buying any clothes for periods ranging six months to one year. This makes me more mindful of my wardrobe, helps me discard what I am never going to wear, and to use many of the clothes which would be otherwise have been lying unused in the dark recesses of my wardrobe.
The result is a de-cluttering of my cupboard, as well as of my mind.
A practising Buddhist and a student of advaita, Desiree Punwani is author of two books, Being Happy and The wolf I feed, the happiness I do. She also conducts workshops on positive living.
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