In college, I took a class on meditation. I’m sure that there were a few kids who registered for the course because they wanted to earn a philosophy credit for literally just sitting there doing nothing, but I was elated to explore a new spiritual practice.
I quickly discovered that I made a terrible pseudo-Buddhist.
I had imagined myself serenely edging toward enlightenment; instead, I fidgeted uncomfortably and repeatedly failed to focus on my breath. No matter how many times I gently redirected my “monkey mind,” my thoughts drifted to the same absurd subject: my hair.
Should I grow it out? Dye it blonde? Or purple! What about getting bangs?
Truth is, I’d never really been concerned with my hair before taking that class, but the second my butt hit the zafu cushion, it was as if I was mentally narrating those hairstyle magazines that litter salon waiting areas.
During a weekend retreat, I pulled my teacher aside and confessed my weird obsession. His response? “Maybe you should shave your head.”
I didn’t follow his advice.
While I didn’t learn much about meditation that semester, I did learn something about hair: it has spiritual significance. I could have discovered this within my own tradition; the Bible is rife with references to hair. Hair is alternately a woman’s glory and a man’s strength. In a time of chaos and sorrow, the Israelites were challenged to cut off their hair as a sign of lamentation. And in the sensual Song of Songs, the woman’s beautiful locks delight her lover.
The allure of hair is taken so seriously that several religious traditions still call for women’s heads to be covered.
Meanwhile, after years of getting that Gwyneth Paltrow bob from Sliding Doors and enduring stage after awkward stage of growing it out, I’ve settled into a super short pixie cut. I like how easy it is. I like that it makes me stand out a bit, something my dishwater brown hair doesn’t do otherwise. I like that having a pixie cut makes me—well, the kind of woman who has a pixie cut (confident, plucky, and possibly French).
A friend sent me a message recently. She was in the midst of grappling with the logistics of transporting the human and canine members of her family from Malawi to Philadelphia. I opened up the note expecting a prayer request.
“This is very deep and spiritual and definitely what I should be obsessing about days before an international move,” she wrote. “…I am thinking of doing a pixie cut. I have curly hair, so it would be a different pixie than yours, but, may I ask, have you loved the pixie? (It looks wonderful on you.)”
I laughed. Of course she was thinking about her hair, and though she meant it facetiously, of course there was depth to her fixation. I encouraged her to go for it, and when I saw her a few weeks later, safe and sound in the United States, I gave her a big hug and told her how much I loved her new style. She admitted that she always has to change her hair when she’s changing her life.
Ever the spiritual seeker, in recent years I’ve been drawn to the Ignatian tradition, which teaches that God can be encountered in all things. You don’t have to compartmentalize the sacred and the secular, the significant and the superfluous. You certainly don’t have to shave your head to be more spiritual.
Even something as simple as your hair can mean something.
When Jesus is trying to make the disciples understand God’s love for them, he tells them “even the hairs of your head are all counted.” So run your fingers through your hair—long or short, dyed or natural, day-old dingy or squeaky clean—and consider yourself beloved.
What does your hair mean? Have you ever changed your hair because you were changing your life?