When most American people hear the word “dreadlocks,” they think of Bob Marley. While it is true that Rastafarians are typically of the knotty persuasion (see also: Linval Thompson), the dreadlock is actually believed to have begun as a tradition in India.
Within the culture of India, there is acceptance of renunciation. That is to say, they allow people to drop off the grid. This is the culture that has given Yoga to the world. The stretching and bending exercises that we see in American Yoga studios are actually only one branch of Yoga. The purpose of the all the stretching exercises was to prepare the body for long stretches of meditation. The Yogi is on a spiritual quest. More often than not, life within the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day world tends to make spiritual quests difficult, so it is very common for serious Yogis to renounce the world. They have very few possessions, typically the simple clothing on their backs, and a water jug. The Yogi renounces society, and stops styling or cutting his hair and beard, so as to rid himself of vanity, or concern for his appearance. Some Yogis wear no clothing at all, and only rub ashes on themselves to stay warm.
The dreadlocks actually can serve to store heat, as they insulate the head, the main source of heat loss from the body. Some ancient traditions recognize an energy center at the top of the head, and to keep that crown energy covered with the hair would make the individual more spiritually advanced.
Wearing dreadlocks has long been a symbol of renunciation of vanity, but the hairstyle has come into fashion here and there in the west. There is something about them that can be very polarizing; people either love them or hate them, and they make many assumptions, for good or bad. I had dreadlocks for three years. As a white male in a small town, they were a bold fashion statement, as well as a symbol of a certain degree of renunciation. I didn’t realize the renunciation part at first, but it was a self fulfilling prophecy. It became so difficult to get a job with them on my head that I was only able to find work at places that were open-minded in general. Over time I came to view the hairstyle as an automatic filter that encouraged judgmental people to self-select to stay out of my life.
Interestingly, dreadlocks aren’t the only thing in common between Indian Yogis and Rastafarians. Cannabis use is also common among many of the Yogis. Plants in general have been used by ancient cultures of all kinds for food, medicine, shelter, and ritual.
This quest for spiritual enlightenment is not confined to India and Jamaica. There are people of every nation that have spiritual longings. The great questions of humanity are unavoidable to anyone who gives much thought to their life. Where did we come from? Where do we go when we die? What is the point of life? There are as many different answers to these questions as there are people on this planet.
Renouncing the worldly affairs of modern life has been a common practice, especially in Asia. The archetype of the old man on the mountain is a ubiquitous image for those who would seek enlightenment. In China, the Taoists would often go off to become mountain men. In Japan, the tradition continued with the Sennin. Often, due to the mystery of these recluses, legends tended to develop about what kinds of superhuman powers they could attain by renouncing society and adopting a spiritually pure lifestyle. Most of the claims are no doubt exaggerated, but I would think that they are often based on a kernel of truth, one which is no less exceptional than the exaggeration itself. After all, who really knows what is possible by renouncing the world until we have done it ourselves?
This is not a strictly Asian practice. European monks are often secluded in their monasteries, operating close to nature in their own little world. Even the Shamans of central and South America would live in a hut outside the periphery of the village. It seems the magic never happens amidst the noise of the village. Or it is so subtle that we awkward animals have a real knack for drowning it out.
As with most things, there can be a healthy balance. The spiritual seeker can be accepted by his society, expected to renounce, and walk the countryside. This is especially seen in the East, where renouncing the world means having to beg for food on occasion. The citizenry offer rice and other simple foods to the spiritual beggars, because there is a balance. Civilization and wilderness, man and nature. The villagers give the shaman his space. They know he must go to the edge to bring back the medicine for the group. Supporting a Yogi only makes the culture stronger; European governments that subsidize churches are out to achieve the same goal. The average person may not choose to live an ascetic life, but they can still appreciate the validity of a life so lived.
How do we support the spiritual seeker in America? The average person can find some measure of spiritual satisfaction in an organized religion in this country, but what about the man who wants to drop out of society, the would-be renouncer? We have a tradition of hermits, men who live in isolated cabins, but even this man must play the game of the world well enough to pay the property taxes on his land. Every inch of land is now someone’s property. We do not typically support that which we do not understand.
In America, instead of Yogis, we have vagrants. Instead of seekers, homeless people. We don’t have beggars; we have bums. Plants that have been used for enlightenment for ages are illegal here. We don’t have sages; we have criminals. We don’t have asceticism, only poverty. Places that were sacred when this land truly was “The Land of the Free” have become tourist destinations, postcards.
It is worth mentioning, at this point, that the drugs that ruin people’s lives, the drugs that show us the horrors of addiction, are typically the drugs that are very far removed from their natural states. Heroin, crack, and meth do not grow on trees. These drugs are illegal in this country, and they have a history of ruining the lives of their users through the ravages of addiction. Many illegal substances are very close to their natural form, though, including marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, and opium. These substances are minimally processed, and tend to not be habit forming. Many users describe heightened consciousness, and a feeling of unity with nature/god/humanity. By criminalizing these, our culture has criminalized an aspect of spiritual growth, effectively evicting the shaman, arresting the Yogi. There are two rogue substances, though, that are very close to their natural state, but nonetheless tend to ruin lives: alcohol and tobacco, ironically the only two things mentioned in this paragraph that are legal in America. Alcohol and tobacco also tend to have adverse effects on bystanders as well as the user. Secondhand smoke and drunk driving are problems that lawmakers across the country have been attempting to remedy for a long time.
Antidepressant use in this country is rampant. I wonder if we as a whole feel a spiritual emptiness because we have criminalized and marginalized those who would take on the role of shaman on our behalf.
This past Saturday, I met Rebecca at a coffee shop near our apartment. I had just come from an early morning Ju Justu class. She had been doing craniosacral therapy all morning. Some of our best moments are spent over coffee on Saturday afternoons. Undoubtedly, we will each have some profound experiences and insights to relate to each other from our separate morning lives.
We were discussing our revelations of the day, when a man walked into the coffee shop who caught my attention. I didn’t immediately notice anything about him except for a certain aura he had. He seemed wise. I began registering the details of his appearance. He looked to be about fifty years old, thin, tall, with prominent cheekbones and a long silver beard. His hair was long, disheveled, and pulled back. He walked with confidence, patience. He exuded wizard-like qualities. As he walked past our table to the bathroom, I saw it.
My favorite reggae artist is Linval Thompson, by far. His songs have good grooves, simple lyrics, and a playful, childlike energy. More often than not, the lyrical content covers two main topics, Jah and Dreadlocks. One of my favorite songs of his, if for no other reason than the title, is called “Can’t stop natty dread again,” which I interpret to mean that he’s sick of his people being hassled. “Can’t stop natty dread” has become a playful mantra that helps me cope with the abundance of bureaucracy involved in starting a business, and life in Illinois in general. Rebecca has heard me mutter it a lot.
Silently, Rebecca mouthed “natty dread” to me. I was nonplussed, in awe. This man didn’t have dreadlocks. He had a dreadlock. And it hung down past his jacket. The hair towards the bottom was a darker grey, which folded and wove into a silver white as it ascended. He was a much younger man when that hair was new. Evidence of his time on Earth swung behind him with every step he took.
The coffee shop was packed full of college students. The patrons seemed to notice him, but quickly went back to their business. My first instinct was to pull a few dollars out of my wallet and hold it out for him as he passed. I wanted to put rice in the Yogi’s bowl. I wanted to make contact with this man, because on some level, I felt that whatever he was doing with his life was ultimately very important for all of us. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
Zen philosophy emphasizes spontaneous action. Don’t second guess yourself. Go with your gut. Don’t be mindless, but be without mind. Instead of offering money to him, I paralyzed myself with analysis. Would he find it offensive? Would he feel alienated, patronized? Have I made a series of assumptions about this man based on his hairdo? What if he isn’t a holy man, but just a feral drug abuser? This country has no tradition of renunciation, no way to know just by looking at someone. I very rarely give money to the average bum on the street, because I’m not interested in supporting their lifestyle. I wanted to give this man some money simply because he wasn’t asking for it. He had just come in to use the bathroom. But I didn’t.
I didn’t just want to give him money. I wanted to talk with him, ask him questions. We tend to get absorbed in our own lives. Even though we are often surrounded by many other people, on an ordinary day, they are strangers and we are essentially alone.
There have been times, though, that I have voluntarily broken the taboo of talking to strangers, taking gambles on individuals that might be crazy/homeless/addicts. Always, it was in the hope of learning about someone, sharing an experience with a person I would have never met otherwise, getting out of my comfort zone.
When I was in high school I met a man in downtown Syracuse one night in the middle of a snowstorm. I was on my way into a pizza place, and he was standing outside, chunks of fluffy snow bobbing and weaving down from the evening sky, and he asked me for some change so he could get a cup of coffee. I told him to come on in and I’d buy him a cup, but in exchange, he would have to tell me something about his life. As soon as I handed him the coffee he tried to take off. I wasn’t about to be hustled out of my human experience. I stopped him and told him he had to sit down. He opened up a bit then, and told me about his family situation, and how he had wound up begging for money on the street. I asked him, “Why stay in Syracuse?” I mean if you’re going to be broke, why not be broke somewhere warm, where you can sleep outside?
A few years later I moved to San Diego, and noticed the effects of that logic when applied to large groups. There were homeless people everywhere. Walking around San Diego is unpleasant because when you want to stop and have a seat, there’s never a place to sit. It’s not that all the benches are full. It’s that there are barely any benches in San Diego, which I believe is the city’s poor attempt to remedy the homeless situation.
I was volunteering at the acupuncture tent at an event for homeless veterans one year when I had an encounter with an interesting fellow. I got into a very lengthy, and very detailed conversation with a man who seemed to have a good spirit, albeit rather quirky. We talked a lot about society, and the stigma around mental health. Not too far along into the conversation, the man began to describe his infatuation with human feces, and I knew this interaction, although peculiar and curious, was spiraling out of control.
On a different occasion, a good friend and I were sitting at a table outside a bar in Portland, waiting for our burgers to be delivered, when an old man came walking up out of the night and asked if he could sit with us. We had an abundance of chairs, and I was feeling friendly, so he sat down. It didn’t take long to realize that he was incredibly feral, an alcoholic, and mildly aggressive. Allowing him to sit with us had been a mistake. It is a good thing to study martial arts if you are going to put yourself in situations with people like this. It never came to that, but I was ready. Our waiter actually removed him.
I suppose these sorts of disappointments and surprises come with the territory. In an attempt to interact with the unknown, we receive the unexpected. In a world where everyone else seems to be trying to keep their heads down and behave, these people stand out. I am fascinated to meet people who are living out common fears. Most people are scared to death of being broke, alone, and outcast. To interact with someone who is going through all of those things is amazing. By surviving in the midst of worst-case scenarios, these people force us to examine our own fears. Could any of us survive a day in their shoes? This is a question that cuts to the core, and is most likely why homeless people are so often ignored. There are lessons to be had by paying attention to the outcast, but it can get discouraging to invite wisdom and perspective only to be hustled and accosted.
As the man with the dreadlock walked out of the coffee shop, and turned, I wondered about my assumptions. Was he a Buddha or a bozo? Our table was against a window, and he was just on the other side of the glass. He walked to his truck, which was parked right in front of our window and got in. I found myself deliberating whether or not to go outside and introduce myself while his engine was idling.
I began weighing out all kinds of factors, which in hindsight are incredibly ridiculous and inconsequential. I noticed that his shoes seemed to be in good condition. He had a truck, with license plates. Maybe he was a functional person after all! I wondered if he lived in his truck, as though that would count against him. These observations flashed through my head, and a moment later I was feeling foolish for trying to assess someone’s character based on their possessions or situation. The best of us could easily wake up one day wishing we had a truck to sleep in.
It was just easier not to approach him at this point. That’s what I decided. The moment had passed, and the only thing to be gained now was to understand how I had managed to trip myself up.
The Ju Jutsu class earlier that morning was one of the most profound classes I had experienced lately, if for no other reason than the fact that I had injured myself that morning.
Any time I am injured, it triggers a self examination. I wonder where my mind was, how did I let an “accident” happen? Why did it happen? This injury was no one’s fault but my own. No one punched me, kicked me, or threw me. The essence of the exercise was simple: jump in the air and fall safely on the mat. But I had smashed my knee. I could not blame the floor.
Danzan Ryu, the system of Ju Jutsu that I practice, has a curriculum composed of different lists, or scrolls of techniques. The first list taught is the Sutemi list. Sutemi can be translated as “discard the body.” It is a list of rolls and falls, and how to reposition your body safely. On the surface, Sutemi has the appearance of a bunch of mildly gymnastic maneuvers. However, Ju Jutsu techniques always illustrate deeper principles. One of the things we learn from the Sutemi list is to let go of fear. In order to advance, we must let go of the fear of falling. In order to survive, we must not fear death. These are very easy things to say, but my understanding of these principles is constantly evolving as I advance my practice. Sutemi is the first list a beginner is exposed to, and it presents one of the most difficult concepts to master.
I hurt my knee that morning doing an advanced Sutemi exercise. The injury was not due to a lack of technical knowledge on my part. Ultimately, it was due to a fear of falling. The external body is directly synched to the internal mindset. Our posture reflects our emotions. A microsecond of self doubt during a fall can alter the body enough to cause injury.
A microsecond of self doubt will also cause you to miss the moment of opportunity when it presents itself. I second guessed myself in the coffee shop, and became afraid of an interaction. I was afraid that I was wrong, that the dreadlock man really was just a crazy bum, or that he would try to scam me. Paranoid fantasies of being robbed had flashed through my mind. I seemed to be cycling through a list of worse case scenarios. Immediately, I had managed to address every fear. If he tries to rob me, I thought, I would either give him the few bits of cash in my wallet or I wouldn’t. I’m not bothered by physical violence if it comes to that, nor am I bothered by running if I have to. It doesn’t matter.
I had also worried about offending him by making assumptions. I quickly reasoned that if I had tried to start a conversation with him and he had felt alienated, then that would really be his problem, not mine. I went on and on, down the list of concerns and what-ifs, canceling them out. At the end of the day there was no good reason not to talk to him except for the fact that I missed the opportunity by over thinking it.
They say thinking can get you killed. This is a motto for special operations agents, spies, and military guys whose lives are in danger on a regular basis. There is also another aspect to this saying. Thinking can get you killed in another way, not by shortening your life, but by causing you to miss opportunities to enrich it.
In Chinese Medicine, there is a term, “Shen.” In very simple terms Shen refers to the spirit, or our non physical presence. It could be said that our whole purpose of living is to develop our Shen, our spirit. We do this by realizing our potential. People with a good Shen often have bright eyes. You can see the sparkle. Often times, you can evaluate your own Shen by the way people spontaneously feel when around you. We all know people who have a tendency to leave us feeling drained after an interaction, and then there are those who leave us refreshed after a conversation, inspired.
I don’t know if this dreadlock man was a real sage or not, but all he did was walk into a coffee shop, and I spontaneously realized my own fears, and how much work I have to do on my Sutemi.