Hsin Hsin Ming


Shaved Heads

A couple of months ago, I started shaving my head again. I’ve always worn my hair short, except when I was a little girl and had no choice, and briefly in high school, when I succumbed to peer pressure. But shaving it is something more recent. I did it the first time about twelve years ago. I don’t even remember what inspired me at the time – I just went to a hair salon, asked them to set the clippers at one, and said, “Take it all off.”

It is one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I now completely understand why monks and nuns do it. Hair is one of those links to the material world, to the realm of appearances. Even when you wear it short, you have to worry about it – will it get plastered to your head if it rains? Will it get tangled in a knot if you ride in a convertible? Will your baseball cap, once on, have to stay on, because now you have hat head? Do you absolutely have to take a shower in the morning, even if you just took one before going to bed, because otherwise your hair will be sticking straight up? And long hair – oh, my goodness. Blow driers and curling irons and permanents and appointments at the salon. No, thank you.

I shaved it for several years. During part of that time, I lived in a shared house with six other roommates, one of whom was a talented acrylic painter and also a hair stylist. He had a salon chair in his room, and friends came over for dye jobs and hair cuts. He began shaving my head for me every few weeks. By that time, I had completely lost attachment to hair as identity, which left me open to all kinds of crazy experiments. One time he gave me two little parallel mohawks down the center of my head. Another time he shaved spiralling lines, then dyed them bleached blonde, so when my hair grew out, I had this amazing pattern. Whenever he did a dye job, and had dye left over, he’d just call out, “Hey, Michelle. Want to try something?” I had cherry red hair, skateboarder bleached orange hair, ash blonde, black. Then four or five weeks later, we’d just shave it off and start again. Call it a unique way to practice nonpreference. When I moved out, I reverted to the simple shaved head. But all fear about “What will I look like?” was gone.

Being a woman with a shaved head does sometimes draw some interesting attention. This past weekend, wearing a ball cap and my usual Converse sneakers/cargo shorts/sweatshirt attire, an elderly woman stopped me at the door to a restroom with a loud admonishment: “You can’t go in there. This is the ladies’ room.” When I am very thin, as I have been in the past, people sometimes think I’m sick -cancer, or AIDS. Now that I am in the Zen community, I have had people ask if I am a priest. People do a double-take when they see me, trying to figure out gender, trying to discern reasons. That’s the downside, I guess. I’m not really thrilled about the extra scrutiny. But not even that can dampen the liberation I feel every time I cut it all off.

So much is about context. My partner Sabrina has been doing the honors for the past few months, coming out on the deck with clippers in hand every two weeks to shave my head. Last week, midway through, she paused. “This is so weird,” she said. “I’m reading that book about Auschwitz right now, and I just read the part about the prisoners having their heads shaved.”

Sabrina just recently discovered that a huge percentage of her extended family, relatives that her mother had never talked about, perished in Poland in the death camps. On our vacation to New Mexico in August, we drove to El Paso to see a Holocaust museum, which was chilling and powerful. Since we returned home, she has been immersing herself in Holocaust literature.

Amazing, isn’t it? That the same act, shaving hair, can be a statement of complete personal freedom and refusal to conform in one context, and a shaming, dehumanizing violation in another.

As the Hsin Hsin Ming says: Nothing is separate and nothing in the world is excluded.

It is both, it is neither. It is all, it is nothing. I simply shave my head.



In the Tuesday night sangha, we are studying the book Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen by Mu Soeng, which Tony believes to be on the “top five” list of books on Zen because it so perfectly captures the essence of the teachings. Trust in Mind is a line by line analysis of the classic Zen poem, Hsin Hsin Ming (pronounced “shin shin ming,” more or less – the link takes you to one translation of the poem), which translates to “trust in mind.” It is slow going, because although the writing is lucid and accessible, each page provides rich fodder for discussion.

Tonight’s line is this: When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity, your very effort fills you with activity. Mu Soeng says when we make a conscious effort to stop a behavior or thought that we feel is undesirable, we engage in a struggle, filling us with even greater chaos instead of resolution, trying to fix things according to our own flawed preferences instead of choosing serenity.

Darlene said she realized a number of years ago that relying on conventional morality to control her behavior was inherently unsatisfying. She took as a personal koan the question, “What do I trust?” On that journey, she unearthed the Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion, the things that lie beneath all that we dislike about ourselves and the world. The challenge, then, is this – can we come to terms with the fact we are, each of us, imperfect persons?

The group wrestled with this question, wondering if it meant we must stop trying to become more than who we currently are. If we are addicted to heroin, do we just give up, and not try to stop using? If we dislike our behavior towards others, do we simply say, “Oh, well. That’s me,” or do we strive to improve ourselves? But striving is focused on attainment, and we all know that gets us nowhere. So, what next? What does Su Moeng mean by nondoing?

I find comfort in this paragraph: Nondoing is not a state of being catatonic but rather a skillful choice, a condition of serenity in which one does one’s best according to one’s ability and the circumstances but also one has the spaciousness to allow things to unfold according to their causes and conditions. One has the wisdom to accept the results of such unfolding without any struggle.

Ah, that I can both wrap my mind around, and hold close to my heart. It sounds remarkably like the Twelve Step Program’s Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved