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Always my mother, always her son

Mom saw this photo and sent me a letter with a $20 bill and a note that read, “Steve, your hair is too long—you better cut it.” People say Japanese are vague and indirect, but mom tells like it is and doesn’t waste words. There is a refreshing clarity in what she says, as well as the tired familiarity of hearing the same old song. Mom is 95 and since I was a teenager we have wrangled over my hair. It’s something that reminds me that she is and always will be my mother and that I am and always will be her son.

In the context of the conference on Mindfulness and Buddhism my hair did seem too long. My head stood out amidst the sea of shaved heads of priests, monks, and nuns. I felt a little sloppy and was struck by the simplicity of their heads. I became self-conscious of the attention I give to how I look and my desire to project a certain public image. I wondered why I was so concerned about how others saw me and how much time I spend in cultivating a look of indifference.

Mom also wants me to project a certain image, one that’s a little different from mine. She’s worried that people will be prejudiced by my appearance. She’s right, but I think that I invite a response purposely. I like to hear people say that their assumptions about me based on my appearance were all wrong and that I am different from what they expected.

I often say and do things that might enable someone to open their eyes and see the world a little differently. My teaching of mindfulness begins by challenging students to see things with fresh eyes and beginner’s mind. At the conference I asked people to turn to the person next to them and say, “I see you,” and for the other person to respond, “I am here.” I find that when people make this momentary connection the barriers between them melt away. Barriers as simple as someone’s hair, skin color, or clothes, are suddenly overwhelmed by the power of connectedness and oneness.

I still have the $20 in my wallet and know that someday I’ll get a haircut, probably just before I visit mom. She’ll look at me and I’ll tell her I got a haircut. She’ll smile and say, “You look a lot better.” The whole thing seems silly and immature, but maybe we’re just having fun, enjoying the sense of continuity of life by playing with each other in the same way we have for many, many years. I know that it doesn’t prevent us from saying in silence, “I see you,” and “I am here.”

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