There are many studies, and many more opinions, on how a beard can affect a man. Some say that it can provide health benefits by preventing bacterial infection, keeping skin moist and wrinkle-free, and even reducing chances of skin cancer. Others may be of the opinion that it increases risk of infestation by lice and dandruff, thereby having a negative impact. Many believe that a beard helps to improve confidence, while another camp insists that it is the other way round. Not being an expert in these matters, I’ll leave it to those who claim to know. But there is another, rather unexpected, effect of growing a beard that I have seen in my own life. This post is about how growing a beard affected my core personality and almost turned me into something I despise and would never want to be. Later, the same experience opened the door to valuable spiritual insights
I am a person who has never really cared about how I look. From childhood, I have worn clothes that my mother bought for me, or were gifted to me by others. After getting married, I have been more than happy to wear anything that my wife chooses for me. While having a haircut, the only instruction I give is to make it short so that I don’t catch a cold. I usually don’t have enough hair to comb, and even when I have, I don’t comb it. I rarely iron my shirt or polish my shoes. This lack of attention to appearance may be partly because I don’t care how others judge me by my looks. Or perhaps I am under no illusion that it would make much of a difference anyway. Or was it just my laziness, I don’t know.
In any case, the point is that growing a beard changed this.
At the age when most of my friends began flaunting a mustache or a beard, I had very little facial hair. Much later, it started growing better, and given my laziness to shave regularly, it grew into a beard that I came to take pride in. I may not have given it so much attention had it grown easily, right from the beginning. But like a child that is born after years of waiting, my beard was precious for me and I pampered it. From a person who did not even look at the mirror, I started spending some time to trim my beard and shape it. I even started thinking about how I want to grow it, how it will eventually look.
I knew that I am not this body, not even the senses or the mind behind them. But I identified myself with the hair that grew outside this body, to the point that I got obsessed with it. If I let it go any longer, I would turn into a complete narcissist. Now, this is not to say that I am otherwise completely unattached to the body or things connected with it. It is just that in the case of a beard, it is, well, gross. Gross as opposite to subtle, and also in a different sense of the word.
The gross example made the situation easier to appreciate. The hair grows on its own. I am only a witness to it’s growth, so why be affected by it? This applies to almost everything else, though it is much harder to see in many cases. When I spend time on expressing my thoughts through writing and become happy or sad when others appreciate or criticize my writing, I am identifying myself with these thoughts or the article they are contained in. But these thoughts come and go without any effort on my side, or without even my permission. Any effort that I seem to put in would itself be another thought that comes on its own. It has no relation to me, whatsoever, and so I should not identify myself with them or be affected by them. While it gives a semblance of me being in charge, of developing, refining and presenting these thoughts, I am merely a witness to their flow, just as I am to the growing beard. But identification with thoughts is more subtle, hard to understand, and even harder to overcome.
This is noted by Sri Krishna in Bhagvad Gita (3:27)
प्रकृतेः क्रियमाणानि गुणैः कर्माणि सर्वशः।
अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताऽहमिति मन्यते।।
All actions are done by the qualities of nature. The one deluded by ego (identification of body/mind/intellect as one self) considers himself to be the doer.
Now, If I am obsessed with my beard what is the cure? Shaving it off will not help, because the beard will just grow back. I may be able to use some chemical that restricts growth of facial hair, but then I will either be depressed at the loss of my beard or be obsessed with something else. The problem here is not the beard, but my identification with it. To be not affected by it, it is this cord of identification that is to be severed. Whether the beard grows well or not at all, it will not affect me if it were not ‘my’ beard. The realization that the beard is a part of nature (not part of me), and that it will grow or turn grey as per its qualities, is the only thing that can permanently liberate me from being affected by it.
This realization or knowledge is the fire that readily burns cords of attachment. It is important to note here that knowledge at an intellectual level is not sufficient to produce this effect. Truth is experiential, and so is the knowledge of truth. I theoretically ‘know’ that this body is not me, nor are the people or things connected to it mine. But as long as it is just a thought and not my experience, it will not help me burn the cords of attachment. It is like how the word ‘fire’ written on a piece of paper is incapable of burning anything, while actual fire will burn down the paper that tries to hold it.
The next logical question will be how we can attain this said knowledge, or realization. This is a most difficult question, and one to which I do not have the complete answer. Nevertheless, it will be my endeavor to touch upon this subject in a future post.