Updated: Apr 6
As I've written before, spiritual practice's significance is understanding the principles that underlie the practice and doing it. Actualization is setting practice to task on the real important stuff. Some of that stuff came up this week. It's not nice stuff, but I believe it may help understand what it means to actualize practice.
All of us will have a death in the family or have endured one or more. Indeed, we'll experience our own. I am 68 years old, on the cusp of "second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything," as William Shakespeare so bluntly puts it [As You Like It, Act V Sc. VII].
I've notched a fair number of exits. Relatives, acquaintances, and friends; it's never easy. It's always sudden and often seemingly senseless. A handful of years younger than I, my half-brother died of a sudden heart attack a few days ago. I never met this man, yet, I'm angry. It's bloody out of sequence!
Tedious it may be, but some knowledge of our fractured family tree is necessary to relate. I share these tales without embarrassment. Indeed, I've lived through and survived these experiences. I've emerged relatively sane and well adjusted. It amazes me. It took a long time and a lot of meditative practice. For readers with similar, or similarly difficult, stories, I hope to reassure and inspire.
I am the eldest of the seven children in the story. The fracturing begins with my parents and me. You'll need a scorecard to keep up.
My mother and father came from stable traditional households. Their moms and dads remained married for fifty years or more and became grandmas and grandpas.
Quite unlike me, my father charted his life's course from a very early age. As an adolescent, my father decided on law-enforcement as his career. He grew to be a military policeman and then a civilian police officer. After health and personal challenges sidelined him, he became a postal letter carrier and a state clerical employee late in life. He was mostly a government man at one level or another. Except for the last position, my father was a uniform man most of his working years.
Dad was a pretty conventional fellow. He dreamed and strove mightily to realize his vision of a happy traditional home and family. Dad was charming, a hard worker, and a great father one-on-one with his children. Sadly, he made awful choices in the women he chose to wed.
Dad married four times. The first three marriages produced one child each, for a total of three. I know the second child somewhat, and the third, not at all.
My father found the right partner with his fourth marriage and became a great stepfather to her five daughters, who adored him. A few short years before his death, he had finally realized his ideal.
After years of alienation--you'll soon understand why--my meditative practice demanded that I visit my father. In far northern California, a meditation retreat in a monastery, essential aspects of our estrangement gets processed. Compelled to redirect my journey home, beg off work, I visited my father unannounced. He received me as if we had never been apart, as gracious, joyful, and father-like as ever.
He introduced me to his latest family. What stood between my father and me instantly evaporated. Indeed, I came to realize that I had placed considerable blame on him for his mismarriages. Indeed, I had omitted the guilt and suffering he surely experienced for the same reasons.
Our significant breach of time, experience, and misunderstanding sutured. Time did not allow a complete healing. I was blessed to spend some time with my father before he suddenly succumbed to complications during a heart bypass operation and died a few weeks after this initial visit. He was at the peak of his life's joy and contentment, on the verge of retirement.
Let's proceed to the other side of the fracture. In World War II, my mother's parents migrated from rural western Iowa to a small northwest coastal city populated with pulp paper mills and two large military bases. I don't know for sure, but I imagine the film An Officer and a Gentleman --marry a local and remain in the town's stink and acrid air for life. Marry a military man and get out of there as quickly as possible to imagined exotic locations known only through films. Door number two seemed most sensible. My mother was nineteen, fresh out of high school when she wed my father, twenty-two, three or four years into his military career.
My mother had a short life. As far as I know--and I hardly knew her--she was mostly somebody's wife having somebody's babies. The cinema image persists, though. Mom was gorgeous, like the 40s-50s movie star. She dressed and acted the part.
Her early photographs remind me of a youthful Loretta Young. She often strikes a movie-like pose, a reclining Dorothy Lamour, a sultry Hedy LaMarr, or a three-quarter slinky hands-on-hips, shoulder forward come hither pose.
Family lore suggests her head was pretty much always in the clouds. In baser terms, mom was a young dingbat who sadly never grew much beyond. It's the only explanation I can conjure to explain why she was married three times before she was thirty years old.
Between marriages, she worked to support herself and her children until the next groom appeared. I don't know what she worked. My memories of living with her are no memories of her at all. Her three marriages produced three additional children after me. She died at thirty or so from a post-surgical infection after undergoing a hysterectomy.
Mom and dad divorced when I was still small. She raised me for 2 or 3 more years. She married her second husband, quickly birthed a boy--this child was the man who just died--and a girl soon behind. Her third husband fathered her last child, a girl.
When she entered her second marriage, mom shipped me to my dad, who's remarriage had just produced a daughter. As a dad, step-mom, and half-sister, this family unit lasted three years or so.
I know my father's young second wife of English heritage was well mannered and cultured. She was inexperienced in raising children, much less an almost feral male child from her husband's previous marriage.
I shall accord her the courtesy of the title "strict disciplinarian." In the positive, I retain her manners, handwriting, qualities of her vocabulary, and speech. In the negative, viscerally, I bear her "strict discipline" unto this moment.
After their divorce, dad and I lived as two bachelors in a small house near my middle school. Dad worked one or two jobs in addition to his police work, likely for alimony and child support. Alone a lot, it didn't matter to me. I was autonomous. I had real and essential responsibilities. Laundry, housekeeping, getting myself to and from school, preparing our meals were my duties.
I relished it all. My father doted, with trust and love and appreciation. And somehow, he still found sufficient time for father-son stuff. He supported my sports, midget racing, making a skateboard, model airplanes. Eleven hard-earned dollars bought me my first guitar.
Together, we worked on one or another of his "project" cars. It was usually some cheap obscure hopeless English or American heap that would never look good, but it would run right. We would drive it on a day or weekend trip. Lord, it was a good time!
Then, dad felt the need to wed another wife. I cannot be diplomatic in my descriptions of this one as with the last. This one was a tall thin mannish-looking creature, a female Ichabod Crane. She lived with her unkempt obese mother in an uncharming little house in a neighboring town. Right from the beginning, we did not hit it off.
She usurped my duties with no consideration or diplomacy and severed the tight relationship between my father and me. She put herself squarely between us. She was a dark, nasty personality that got more so long as I remained in my father's house.
For better opportunities, dad relocated us to California. Shortly before or after the relocation, his last daughter was born. In California, I entered high school. Now I was too mature for physical abuse. Psychological malevolence was this wife's game when my father was not around. Spittle on fangs, verbal abuse, taunts, close unsolicited physical contact, those were her tactics.
She strove to elicit angry or violent reactions from me, any excuse to have me forcefully removed from the house. She stated so frequently. After a dinner table altercation that my father only vaguely understood, I walked out of the house for good. I was fourteen years old, a sophomore in high school. I stayed here and there in the neighborhood, relying on the kindness of strangers. I am proud to say I finished high school early, at sixteen, and left town, but that's all another story.
Two people, seven marriages, six natural children; from me, all were disconnects. I knew of all the children but only lived briefly en familia with one. I was an only child with five siblings.
The story proceeds. We find that all the children are damaged to some degree. Excluding me, my mother's other three children go to her parents, their grandparents, who likely rather not have had the responsibility. The others of my father's children remained with their respective mothers.
As the eldest in the fractured family tree, I can offer my shortlist of credits. I can check off manners, language, intelligence, self-sufficiency, and a little courage in the plus column. My work ethic derives from my father. I am comfortable in solitude, content without other people.
The debit column is much longer. In the film Tender Mercies , the protagonist Mac Sledge says matter of factly, "I don't trust happiness, never did, never will." For a long time with me, you could add to that, mistrust of simple modest contentment. I worked well with most people throughout my life, but I didn't trust them or fully understand most with whom I interacted.
Today I am slightly more trusting and somewhat better at participating in and sustaining relationships. It took three official and two unofficial wives to get to that low bar.
My mother was my mother for a very brief time. I can find no trace of her in me, except perhaps in my innate survival skills. I can't decide whether I emulated her example or adapted to her shortcomings.
Of my mother's four children, two of us remain. Her youngest passed from illness some years back. I only met this girl-child briefly, once. What sticks with me is, she might have been one of the quietest persons I've ever met--think, utterly alone in a crowd.
Now, my younger half-brother, a vigorous burly, good-natured working man with a lovely daughter, dies suddenly. I say it's unnatural. The younger should outlive the older. Alas, it's not always so.
There, you have the characters and the scene. What do you do with it? How does one actualize a spiritual practice in all of this? Let's consider.
"Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born."
It's a classic Zen riddle, usually associated with some goofy story about Zen monks doing goofy things: the query is eminently relevant and acute to the situation.
Are you your parents or step-parents? Yes, and no. In our family, our grandparents played significant roles. My grandparents--my father's parents--were a profoundly stable influence on me, but only intermittently briefly. I found out late in life that my father's mother had taken up legal proceedings against him. She wished to ensure that she would play some part in my early youth and development.
Therefore, before Dad remarried and moved us to California, where his parents lived, we had an annual event. For three, perhaps, four summer vacations from school, my father did one of two things. If he could not get time off from work, he'd put me on a Trailways Bus to Grandma's (First Class, in those days, with a beautiful young aspiring flight attendant, and all the snacks I could eat!). If he had a few days, we drove in one heap or another, enjoying a glorious vacation together on the way.
The quiet, stable suburban lifestyle of my grandparents awaited. Along with it, a season's pass to the local community swimming pool. My aunt and uncle later acquired a home directly across the street. It was a few weeks of the love and wisdom of grandmother, along with the joy of watching the San Francisco Giants on the color TV console while listening to the play-by-play on the Telefunken radio next to my grandfather's chair. Then, back to dad, sometimes a reverse road trip, at the end of the summer. After we settled in California, I saw my grandmother less, even though we lived just a few miles away.
So, am I my mother, or father, or grandfather, or my beautiful, elegant aunt, or crazy uncle, or the tremendous wisdom-filled oracle that was my grandmother? All are now ashes turned to dust, as are my stepmothers.
Sit with that, when you sit. Consider your public face. Consider your original face. Is one different than the other? Are they the same face?
"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true."
So, what separates us from our original face? Buddhists might assert karma and spiritual dis-ease. I say survival. As children, even from good, stable homes, we survived psychologically and physically by acting as others wished us to think and behave. With proper thoughts and good behavior, we survived. If not, love, approval, and for some of us, physical safety and security vanished.
What gets rewarded gets repeated. To insulate ourselves more thickly, we reflect more beliefs, assumptions, ways of doing and being, at home, at work, and in relationships, that ensure survival.
As adults, our original face is no longer accessible. We wear the mask we've so painstakingly fashioned. Some of us have a secret closet full of them. We don this one or that one to survive in this situation or that. We flit from role to role. The ones nearest us never quite know which character they'll encounter or why the dialogue has taken an unexpected turn.
Abandoned, abused children do it to a greater extent to some degree or another. After a while, we come to believe this collection of masks is who we "are."
Part of spiritual healing is to understand this and allow those faces to harmonize as much as possible. Harmonizing our faces, we transcend our thoughts and beliefs about who we are. We experience ourselves before we were misshapen by malevolent caregivers or gently embraced and molded by wisdom-filled grandmothers.
We begin to see our addiction to beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, and perspectives of who we are. Much of this has been tattooed on us by others, well-intentioned or not. Much of this is self-constructed, a self-preserving intricate bulwark of defense against more pain.
Cultivate stillness, and your original face appears. My actual face persevered long before I could pronounce, spell, or define the verb. Courage and the ability to endure pain existed inside me long before I was anyone. Brimming with anger, I did not lash out at tormenters, strike as I knew I could. I bit my lip, held my ground, remained alert and wary, and took my exit as my survival required, all mature decisions, well before I was. These, I believe, are qualities of my original face before my mother and father were born. There are others.
Meditation brought me to understand, over time, your public and private facades can harmonize. We become more natural and internally quiet. I reference movies often because the drama of our lives, which we are so intimately involved with, becomes a movie we watch at a distance. We observe the theater. We laugh at the comedy, the pratfalls, the pies in our faces. Malevolent terror, the villain in the shadows, is all so much more straightforward and less affecting. It's theater, nothing more. Frame by frame, we observe, then let it pass to the next.
"Those who come are received. Those who go are not pursued."
Your original face is a neutral observer. Stable, unchangeable, and means you no ill. It does not deceive. Recognize it, and you touch your core, the essential innately spiritual you. Interactions with others improve and, over time, deepen. We open up. Again, we reconnect with some of our childhood innocence and curiosity. We accept and experience less guardedly. Our day to day facade can be controlled, directed to whatever is most benevolent, to ourselves and others.
I believe attentive; doting parents experience this through their children. Whether teaching, interacting with, or just observing their child, the intense focus is a potent type of meditation. If they look deeply, they can see their child's original face before it was born.
I've come to know that my departed half-brother adamantly expressed his preference not to have children. I plumbed that feeling in me immediately. I feel I know my brother's feelings on the matter intimately.
My dear half-brother fathered a daughter on which he doted. I suspect she was a potent type of meditation. Being with his daughter, I suspect he saw his original face before his mother and father were born without thinking, not even realizing it.
"Gyate, gyate, paragyate, parasam gyate, bodhi Svaha!"
"Going, going, going on beyond, always going on beyond, always awakening, hail!"
I offer two techniques; two approaches to the same practice: Finding your original face.
" Be the un-same same to friend as to a stranger, in honor and dishonor." 
"Here is the sphere of change, change, change. Through change, consume change." 
There are elements of you that remain continuous, unchanged. You may not have yet observed these in yourself. If not, meditative practice will reveal them. Again, if you have not explicitly observed these unchangeable elements in you, you may have felt an inkling of them.
When you think, say, or do contrary to these unchangeable elements, you feel discomfort, incorrectness, a dis-synchronization, as you perform the actions and afterward. Dis-synchronization is the disharmony of your original and outward faces.
Objective observation confirms that you are not the child you recognize in your childhood pictures. You are not the adolescent remembered by your parents and relatives. Science posits that our bodies cellularly regenerate every seven or so years. Indeed, your physical self has grown and transformed many times. Indeed, your brain has developed exponentially more so over time.
Organically, from the instant you begin to read this sentence to its completion, you're different. You have changed. You will continue to change unto death and after. You entered this life one way. You depart in quite another way—something added, something deleted, nothing missing. That is the image of the "river of life," always flowing, always changing, never static even for an instant.
"You cannot step twice in the same river."
Yet, the river is always the river. That is the river's unchangeable-ness. Its unchangeable-ness is to be continually changing.
Buddha diagnosed the cause of our spiritual dis-ease. We want what we don't have and don't want what we do have. In drought, we lament the lack of water in the river. We're parched. Our crops wilt for lack of water. We cry for more. In wet times, too much water breaches the riverbanks. It destroys our crops and floods our town; we cry for less. We blame both events on God. We yearn for everything to be the same "hunky-dory," when what we know of reality is, that it never is, or will be.
In meditative practice, we observe the constant change as the unchanging neutral spiritual observer within us. That observer is connected to the Unborn, the Undying, the Uncreated, the Undestroyed. It sees reality as reality "is." Patient, unhurried, undisturbed, our neutral witness gets it. This distanced perspective is a shock absorber for our soul.
As I gritted my teeth under "strict discipline" or held my tongue and fist in the face of evil, my unchangeable self said, wait it out. Don't struggle. Don't exhaust yourself. Endure. Keep your head up, breathe, float on the turbulence to where the waters smooth and quiet.
You are both changeable and unchangeable. Harmonizing these faces is a spiritual practice.
"Be the Un-same Same. . ."
You sometimes must be "Un-same" at your periphery. Work with it. At the center, you are always the "Same." Anchor to it.
The unchangeable elements within you are so stable, continuous, and eternally present, you cease to notice them. They don't attract your attention as readily as change. Change, good or bad, is an endless stream of shiny objects continually seeking our attention. Like a cat, we are irresistibly drawn to each erratic swift seductive movement.
"[S]piritual effort is to find the same amidst the un-same—to find the eternal in the changing, to find that which is always the same." 
The unchanged is what I've called my hard center. It was an iron ball within me; I recall it as far back as I can remember. Practically it works like this:
The Un-same receives King and commoner uniquely, each appropriate to their station. And, each guest feels equally and sufficiently received.
The Same receives King and commoner equally without distinction. Yet, each guest feels uniquely and sufficiently received.
At the guests' departure, there is no residue, no hangover, no loose ends. Outward behavior is Un-same. The attitude within is Same. Spiritual practice harmonizes the Un-same and Same.
"In honor and dishonor" simply means in good situations and bad. If they love you, be the Un-same Same. If they hate you, be the Un-same Same. Appropriately accept outwardly, unchanged inwardly.
These two meditations work in either direction or both.
Sit with the unchanging within you.
Find your hard center.
Sit with the changing in you and all around you.
Float lightly down the river, keep your head up, breathe; you'll be fine.
 Vigyan Bhairava Tantra, Vs.125 [Trans. Osho. The Book of Secrets (p. 705). Osho International. Kindle Edition.]
"From knowing that God completely fills everything, one is the same towards enemy and friend, in honor and dishonor. With this attitude, one obtains joy." [Trans. Ranjit Chaudhri]
 Osho. The Book of Secrets (p. 713). Osho International. Kindle Edition.
[A] Osho. The Book of Secrets (p. 707). Osho International. Kindle Edition.