Being Bald: Voluntary Discomfort In Action | Forces of Habit
I recently razor shaved my head bald.
Now as this was another means to an intentional living end, I think it is important to de-brief my line of thought on the matter, as well as what I hope to gain from the experience. Like many choices in our lives, I think that this decision to shave my head is a reflection of my choice to overcome some of the developmental mechanism built without my conscious consent during my early life programming. So first some history.
Originally, I shaving my head had been something I had a great distaste for.
I had never appreciated the haircut when I was a kid. I was averse to the cut due to it in part being the forced haircut of choice by my grandparents. In the larger scheme of things, I never felt like something as meaningless as a choice of kid haircut should be controlled by anyone but me. Now while that may be my child-like rebellion speaking, but it holds a lot of explanatory power as to why I may have chosen to grow my hair out to a ponytail length in high school, and additionally felt the aversion I did to the low cut.
All that being considered my hair made me feel attractive, accepted, and most crucially comfortable. Which is great and all, until it isn’t.
Momentary feelings like good cannot last forever and aren’t functionally designed to do so—if we are considering natural selection as a designer of some sort. What about all of the moments in between? It is the absence of a sensation that drives us towards relishing in the now blatant deprivation. What can we do about the inevitable absence? Must we be surprised? Can we defend ourselves?
A Wild Boar was sharpening his tusks busily against the stump of a tree, when a Fox happened by. Now the Fox was always looking for a chance to make fun of his neighbors. So he made a great show of looking anxiously about, as if in fear of some hidden enemy. But the Boar kept right on with his work.
"Why are you doing that?" asked the Fox at last with a grin. "There isn't any danger that I can see."
"True enough," replied the Boar, "but when danger does come there will not be time for such work as this. My weapons will have to be ready for use then, or I shall suffer for it."
We must prepare for our battles now, because during we will have little time to cultivate what is required to act.
Just as the Boar who chooses to prepare, it is in our best interest to pinpoint our attachments and practice depriving ourselves of these lively luxuries in the off chance that we are stripped of them.
Change is inevitable. So rather than passively allow change to place me in situations that blindside me, I can facilitate placing myself in uncomfortable positions to broaden my experience of resilience across a variety of circumstances.
As is clear from the fable above, getting uncomfortable now to be comfortable later isn’t a new idea. Found throughout many historical maxims, it is one of the founding philosophical principles within the Greek philosophy known as Stoicism particularly used to fortify oneself against adversity.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” – Seneca
As the stoic practitioners before me, I have found merit in the reappraisal of adverse circumstances as opportunities to cultivate comfort under irregular happenstance. Using my recent head-shaving venture as an example, we can identify the various merits behind the choice.
Personally, I found the idea of baldness uncomfortable. But in theory, what if I had to be bald in the future? Better deal with the sensations while I’m young and more plastic to change then be crippled by the stigmas of a bald head later.
Cato the younger, the famed stoic practitioner would harp at any opportunity to practice discomfort. From openly dressing in fools’ clothes to be laughed at, to living off the rations of a poor man Cato cut no corners to expose himself; his training and experience paid off. He ended up known for being able to hold equanimity across a variety of presumably difficult circumstances.
Deliberate exposure to potential unforeseen circumstances prepares the mind and body for a wider variety of experiences. In a way, Cato was undergoing a sort of drilling aimed at exposing himself the variety what is possible during the human experience. Because if and when these uncertain events would occur, none of which would be anything that he had not yet prepared for. What could throw Cato off course if all things man feared, whether it be starvation, poverty, or humiliation could not shake him?
Gratitude & Awareness
To be aware is the direct attention towards a sensory experience with varying levels of appraisal present in the momentary experience. Awareness is an ever-present phenomenon that varies not dualistically like a light switch, but more in a gradient like a color spectrum.
Shaving my head brought awareness to a new sensory experience focused on and around my head. The heat and cold, the smoothness, and recognition of new life as new hair continues to grow. All of which revitalize that banal experience of the prior haircut.
Like a fresh start, the haircut is a reminder that change is on the horizon, and I ought to cultivate the open-mindedness needed to facilitate such a change. Acceptance became a duty as I woke up every day with a blatant acknowledgment that This Will Change.
Not only that, but each day moving forward I could directly observe the subtle change. My hair was growing, and I could bear witness to that. It made me grateful for the faculties I had. As a living breathing creature of this world, I could grow! How could I not smile in awe at every centimeter of growth?
Shaving my head brought a totally new awareness for the growth always present, as well as gratitude for what I am able to accomplish in body and mind when made uncomfortable.
Practicing Voluntary Discomfort
Now clearly everyone does not have to go out and shave their head to harness the benefits of voluntary discomfort. As Cato before us, the practice of voluntary discomfort is individual specific.
Start by asking yourself: What do I fear? What makes me anxious? What do I appreciate the most?
Then using the answers to those questions, create exercises that make those, or similar fears and anxieties, come to life. The goal is to experience those events as though they have happened.
Here are a few other ways that anyone could begin:
IF You really enjoy your bed
THEN Sleep on the floor
IF You deeply enjoy a specific type of food
THEN Skip out on that food for a measurable amount of time
IF You feel hot water is a requirement for a shower
THEN Take a cold shower
IF You value how you express yourself through clothes
THEN Dress in something that makes you embarrassed
IF You wash clothes with a laundry machine
THEN Wash your clothes by hand
IF You are constantly checking your phone
THEN Ditch your phone for 24 hours
This is in no way an exhaustive list of what we can do to prepare for the inevitable change in each of our lives. Yet the idea behind each of these exercises is to take what you find to be the most comforting or devastating and deliberately deprive or experience similarly instances.
I see myself learning a lot from this haircut. Being bald will train me for the unforeseen, cultivate gratitude for change, and broaden my awareness of the subtle differences all around me.