It used to be so easy to get a haircut. But that quick visit to the barbershop has been transformed over the years into an elaborate, expensive ritual. Now one area hairstylist has gone even further: hair therapy.

Thanks to Mel Polun, 42, of Bethesda, you can get the layered look and, at the same time, get in touch with your feelings. When I first heard about Polun's work, it sounded like something for me. Like many others, I've spent the last few years trying to be my own best friend.

Polun's intense approach to hairstyling is apparently unique among the over 12,000 hairstylists and barbers in the metropolitan area. In fact, Polun believes he's the only such hairstylist in the entire country (yes, including California). He's served around 600 Washington area residents in the last few years, and most of his customers are drawn from self-help groups.

An enthusiastic "graduate" of est (erhard seminars training), a California-based self-help group with about 200,000 members worldwide, Polun has been a hairstylist for nearly 25 years, working with such celebrities as Vidal Sassoon and owning salons in London and Washington. Now he's working as a car salesman while moonlighting as a "hair sculptor." (Polun himself doesn't call his work "hair therapy.")

"It doesn't really matter about hair," he says. "What matters is how people think about themselves. I want people to love themselves more."

During a hairstyling/est session, which usually costs $25 and lasts roughly 2 1/2 hours, you confront early traumatic memories about your hair. At one point, you are put in a trance-like state and asked intimate questions about your parents' attitudes toward your hair. In the end, you may emerge with a new sense of self and a new haircut. Or you may not.

As Polun sometimes says, "Either we will cut your hair or we won't cut your hair. It's up to you."

In his quest for promoting better living through hairstyling, he says, "I thought I'd do the same thing as (est founder) Werner Erhard, and then see what happens." The resulting hairstyles, he believes, reflect what people really want and enable them to feel better about themselves.

His customers are, by and large, pleased with his work. Says John Buck, 31, of Awareness Motivation Institute, "I discovered that because my dad always wanted me to wear super short hair to fit his masculine image of what a boy should look like, I grew up wearing my hair very long in reaction to that. Now I carry myself more confidently."

Adds Lorraine Perona, 34, office manager for Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-MICH.), "Mel gave me a sense that hair was a total part of me, a total expression of my personality. And it's so natural now; my hair does its own thing."

While praising Polun's hairstyling talents, Georgetown hairdresser and former associate Michael Piano, however, calls the est influence "witchcraft," adding that he thinks it violates the word of the Bible.

I didn't know what to expect when I went to visit Polun at his apartment one Sunday morning. He is a trim, lithe man who wears his own gray-flecked black hair quite short, and favors form-fitting clothes.

My hair guru sat on a white sofa, his eyes bright, gesturing intently as he spoke. "My purpose in being with you is for you to have an experience of your hair, and for you to have an experience of satisfaction in regard to your hair."

As Polun sees it, we've been so traumatized by our first haircut that we don't experience our hair anymore. Instead, we have anachronistic mental images that we carry around like excess baggage. And the reason we are so upset by our first haircut is because it reminds us of the separation from the womb. (For the same emotionally-charged reasons, he doesn't call himself a "haircutter.")

"Your first hair cut was RAPE." said Polun.

Later he said, "One agreement we're going to make is that I am the best hair sculptor in the entire universe available to you at this time."

Unfortunately, he didn't have time that day to cut my hair. He spent too much time talking.

I came back eagerly a few nights later, filled with expectation about my new hairstyle. But first, I would have to examine my attitudes and beliefs about my hair. This, naturally, was best done in a bedroom, where I lay down with my eyes closed, as he asked questions in a lulling, hypnotic voice. I wasn't supposed to answer him, just observe scenes from my past. As he spoke from a nearby couch, my mind drifted back to my early hair experiences.

"Look and see a time when you were very young," he intoned, "and look and see what your mother said about your hair. Whatever thoughts come up, look at those thoughts."

His calm, quiet voice glided through questions about the attitudes my father, friends and girls had about my hair and my appearance. Nearly a half-hour passed in this trance-like state, and by this time I wasn't feeling too good about my looks.

Then a ray of hope appeared. He urged me to construct, in my mind, a fantasy model of what I'd like to look like. I set right to work, adding a few biceps here and there, expanding my chest, and creating my casual but attractive hairstyle. After I felt what it was like to be inside the New Me for a while, he told me to open my eyes and he asked me a few questions about my experience.

"Do you know what you want your hair to look like?"

"Yes," I said, my voice hoarse with longing, "kind of like Richard Gere in 'Days of Heaven.' Or Al Pacino."

We went out to the living-room to realize my fantasy.

Before starting to cut, he sprayed my hair and asked, "How do you want to have you hair done?" He added, "Any result you produce is with your intention."

"I want a medium-length shag," I said, "a part in the middle, with my hair covering my ears and going down to my collar, but not nearly as long as now."

"I got it," he said, his eyes gazing off in the distance for a moment. In est jargon, "getting it" means a profound, intuitive understanding of an experience, or of what someone has said.

'I noticed he wasn't using any mirrors. "I don't work around mirrors," he explained, "because the person gets too hung up on his mind . . . all the mind will do is invalidate you."

The clipping continued, and I nervously inquired a few times about the length. He reassured me. He also said, while snipping away, "What difference does it make how long your hair is? Either you have the notion that you're a handsome, sensual male or you don't."

Finally, he said, "Come with me," and led me to a mirror in another room. I was ready to be transformed. "What do you think?" he asked as I turned to face the mirror.

A strange face stared back at me, ears showing, hair cropped rather short. It wasn't what I wanted. "It's shorter than I expected," I said politely. "But I like it," I lied. "I think it's pretty good."

I sat down on a sofa, staring at myself in a hand mirror. The image facing me looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite place it.

Then I realized . . . . . I looked like Werner Erhard.