This continues the series of the Light Morning Renewal Pages, an attempt to clarify and communicate the vision and values which anchor us here. “A Transformational Journey” has four sections: The Soul Is Not Human; The Four Cairns; A Prayer Bead Necklace; and The Gift of Beauty.
The Soul Is Not Human
Risking intimacy, by choosing to live in a new kind of family, is a worthy challenge. Beyond this, however, lies the still riskier challenge that drew us to Light Morning in the first place and that keeps us here–the whispered call to cast off our moorings and embark upon a transformational journey.
Such a journey grows out of the audacious assumption that we humans are mutable creatures. We certainly belong to a mysterious species, the atrocities and generosities of which are nearly inconceivable. How might one even hazard a guess, then, as to what the ultimate human capacity for goodness or godliness may be? As Gilbert K. Chesterton once observed, “If seeds in the black earth can turn into beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey to the stars?”
Several key paradoxes have emerged during our voyage of discovery. The yearning to become more than we know ourselves to be, for example, while innate, is intangible. And while the conditioned personality may be lured to the cocoon by its longing for the wings and awareness of a butterfly, it will distort and co-opt these images to meet its own parochial needs. Finally, what we most want is also what we most fear.
The importance of this last paradox can hardly be exaggerated. For by refusing to face the shadowy fear that lurks just below our desire for transformation, we work and pray diligently but never really get anywhere. We jam the accelerator to the floorboards, never noticing that our other foot is planted firmly on the brake.
An evocative passage from Michael Ventura clarifies this numbing, bone-deep ambivalence.
The soul is not human. Does not want what a human wants. But needs the human journey for ends of its own. It honors the human journey, but not by protecting what is human.
That’s why the humans are so afraid of their souls. The record of their fear is called history. They are scared most of all because every human knows itself [to be] part of a race possessed, precisely, by their very souls.
If only a human can become unafraid of the soul’s necessity to journey, then anything is possible. The soul is honored, and shares its beauty.
The word soul may carry too much baggage for some of us. Or it may come across as quaint. Or archaic. If so, one may paraphrase Ventura’s words by shifting to the butterfly metaphor.
The butterfly is not the caterpillar. Does not want what the caterpillar wants. But needs the caterpillar’s journey for ends of its own. It honors the caterpillar’s journey, but not by protecting the caterpillar. That’s why caterpillars are afraid to become butterflies.
Caterpillars feed on leaves; butterflies seek nectar. We humans are likewise driven by competing needs. We turn to worldly surrogates for solace–food, money, work, relationships. Through the grist mill of experience, however, we learn that such outwardly derived solace is ultimately shallow and transitory.
Weaving a cocoon doesn’t imply that we surrender all surrogates. We surrender, instead, our compulsive dependence upon them. Once our simplified needs can be met more directly, we will be less likely to squeeze the people and things around us out of shape in order to satisfy our voracious and insatiable appetites.
Light Morning often serves as a cocoon for those who live or visit here. This role goes directly back to our founding vision. (See Associations of the Light Morning.) The community’s primary work and purpose, therefore, is three-fold:
To provide a supportive environment for those seeking a “path with heart.”
To gestate a world-view which will encourage these journeys and make them sustainable.
To model (in our personal journeys) passion, competence, and commitment.
What follows is a brief glimpse of the world-view that has been gestating here (The Four Cairns); the path or practice which grows out of this world-view (A Prayer Bead Necklace); and an intuitive exploration of the relationship between beauty and transformation (The Gift of Beauty).
How does one condense twenty-five years of a slowly gestating paradigm into one or two pages without having it become unintelligible shorthand? The mind hesitates. Then, seeking reassurance, it reaches for a memory. The memory it retrieves is several years old by now. Yet, like a well-banked fire, it’s very much alive.
A book by Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, lies open before me. I have just returned from my second Vipassana meditation course. The practice feels strong and promising. Reconciling Buddhist theory, however, with the world-view emerging here at Light Morning is proving to be a struggle.
In a chapter called “The Man Who Woke Up” is the story of how Gautama the Buddha arrived at his Four Noble Truths. One sentence in particular leaps out at me. “Most persons, if asked to list in propositional form their four deepest and most considered convictions about life, would probably find themselves very much at sea.”
Still under the influence of the fey mood induced by ten days of silent meditation, I close the book and rise to the bait. Several hours later four deep convictions take shape, like seed crystals in a super-saturated solution. Lacking the chutzpah to call them noble truths, I refer to them as cairns, recalling the piles of weathered stone used by climbers to mark the path up a mountain.
The Four Cairns, then, is one articulation of the paradigm that has been forming in the soul of Light Morning for going on three decades. It is, of course, only one person’s interpretation. Others would no doubt tell a somewhat different tale.
These cairns are also being shared (at least for now) without commentary. They are, perhaps, like heirloom seeds, cradled in the hands of a gardener. Or a special blend of teas, needing to be steeped. Or freeze-dried trail food, ready to be reconstituted and then served to friends around a camp fire, under the night sky.
The First Cairn:
We Are Dreamers Re-entering the Theater of Dreams
Viewing Daily Life as a Dream
The Second Cairn:
We Are Being Dreamed Playing Roles in One Another’s Dreams
Finding Ourselves Alive in a God’s Dream
The Third Cairn:
We May Awaken Within Our Dreams Inducing Lucid Dreaming
Awakening in a World of Sleep-Walkers
The Fourth Cairn:
The Ego is a Larval Creature Weaving the Glimpses of a New Creature
Choosing a Shared Path Through the Cocoon
Towards the beginning of The Religions of Man, the author states that his book is about religion that exists,
Not as a dull habit but as an acute fever. It is about religion alive. And whenever religion comes to life it displays a startling quality; it takes over. All else, while not silenced, becomes subdued and thrown without contest into a supporting role.
A new world-view, therefore, isn’t merely some theoretical construct. It’s a story–one that is feverish, visceral, and alive. Like a live wire. It’s a quickening agent which throws all else (reason, caution, community, relationships) into a “supporting role.” It kindles passion, and keeps us walking the talk.
In short, a new paradigm is a new religious impulse. Because the need for it is both personal and collective, it is gestating not only in our individual psyches, or in the soul of this community, but in the world soul. Like a fetus come to term, it seeks release from the womb of our subliminal awareness into the dream-like world of our daily lives. The call going forth, then, is for midwives.
The fourth cairn speaks of choosing a “shared path” through the cocoon. Once again, paradox becomes our traveling companion. For a truly sustainable path doesn’t begin until we reach the final cairn. And while it may seem that we are choosing a path, the path also chooses us. Finally, although a shared path is essential, each person’s path is solitary and unique.
We live in a consensual reality, an elaborate construct that is conjured up by the prism of our imprinted beliefs, perceptions, and expectations. In order to extricate ourselves from this well-fortified reality, we are obliged to fashion a special consensus. A shared path. Transformation is therefore a team sport. It is music that may only be played by a group.
Just as team sports have different positions, so are musical groups comprised of various instruments. This crucial dance between the individual and the group is elemental. It echoes the dilemma of modern physicists trying to understand how the basic nature of light can be both wave and particle.
In more practical terms, as we embark upon a shared transformational journey we must guard against the tendency to mistake another person’s instrument or position for our own. Or to displace our personal responsibilities onto the group. Or to force fit the position of goaltender, for example, onto a baseball team, or a French horn onto a string quartet.
The task, then, is for each of us to discover an intrinsic personal calling. A “path with heart.” And to then discern how our personal path meshes with those of others. As the mythical Yaqui shaman don Juan Matus advises,
Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.
Both paths [ultimately] lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
Light Morning’s path with heart has emerged out of the “hidden story” alluded to in the Four Cairns. It consists of three interrelated practices or disciplines–meditation, dream work, and prayer. Skill in the use of these tools may be developed both individually and as a group.
Back in the hippie era, pilgrims and wanderers would occasionally bring home prayer beads from their journeys to the East. Cylindrical in shape, these were hand painted with lovely, intricate designs. Each bead was a story in itself. We would thread them onto slender cords and wear them as necklaces.
The following “prayer bead necklace” has three strands, one for each facet of our shared path. Like the Four Cairns, it is simply one person’s interpretation of that path. Others who have given their hearts to Light Morning would surely offer complementary interpretations. Yet if all these versions were to pose for a family portrait, as it were, one would surely discern, in their faces and features, a striking resemblance.
Meditation clarifies the mind.
Meditation teaches us to live in the moment.
Meditation ripens and awakens us.
Meditation helps us harness our impulses.
Meditation facilitates prayer.
Meditation is a gateway to lucid dreaming.
Dreams are pictures of feelings.
Dreams are teaching stories that quicken, guide, and comfort us.
Dreams are love letters from a secret admirer.
The forgotten language of dreams is our mother tongue.
In dreams, our hidden prayers are made visible.
Behind the veil of dreams lies a vast realm–numinous and perilous.
One way to explore this realm is through shared lucid dreaming.
Daily life is the child of prayer.
Posture is prayer.
Appreciation is prayer.
Our expectations are powerful prayers.
Formulary prayer, used wisely, is effective.
Dream images can become templates for prayer.
Prayers for oneself and for others are indistinguishable.
Joyce and I are walking down a North Carolina beach at dawn. It’s mid-September. The twilit sky is pale blue-gray, with shadings of mauve and orange. We pause, moved by the muted colors and the soft background murmur of surf.
Then, without warning, we are overtaken by a flight of brown pelicans, eight or nine of them, gliding low overhead in perfect formation. Their watchful eyes are serene, their elegantly angular bodies motionless, as they drift slowly across our field of vision.
The beauty of the moment strikes both of us with an intensity edging on anguish. Joyce feels her fuses being blown, as though only a small dose of such high-voltage beauty may be safely taken in before the self-protective mechanisms go into shut-down mode.
Watching the pelicans recede down the beach, I recall C.S. Lewis’ tribute to Tolkien’s classic tale, The Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.” A familiar Navajo prayer comes to mind: “May you walk in beauty.” Having just been pierced by unbearable beauty, I ponder the implications of this prayer.
Finally, my thoughts return to the closing lines from Michael Ventura’s passage about the soul not being human: “If only a human can become unafraid of the soul’s necessity to journey, then anything is possible. The soul is honored, and shares its beauty.”
Why does the gift of beauty move us so deeply, I wonder? The red disk of the sun rises out of the ocean, bringing with it an evocative response to my unspoken question: Beauty makes the soul feel at home. This simple, intuitive statement is then amplified by three subsequent insights, which float into my awareness just as the flight of pelicans had done moments before.
Beauty is empowering. Whenever we become mired in a sense of inadequacy, beauty reminds us that creativity is our birthright. For beauty is the hallmark of creativity–be it a stirring piece of music, a well-turned phrase, or these ponderously graceful pelicans, their wingtips now barely clearing the breakers.
Beauty, in other words, is a sweet, powerful force. Artists train themselves to be conduits for this flow. And in a deeper sense, each of us is an artist, whether we’re preparing a wholesome meal and setting it on the table for friends, or we’re planting flowers and shrubs along the driveway, or simply because we’re privileged to witness the unspeakable beauty of this day.
Beauty is an antidote for loneliness. Loneliness is an occupational hazard for most highly individuated humans. Many of us have probably felt, at one time or another, a vague sense of exile. Gradually (or perhaps all at once) the world turns bleak, barren, and inhospitable. This feeling can become chronic.
Yet tokens of caring abound. The person who sits down to that meal, for example, or who walks past the flowers on the driveway, is receiving a subliminal reminder that someone cares. These gifts of beauty are deeply therapeutic, for the giver as well as the receiver. They diminish the distances between us.
If beauty, moreover, is the harmonious interplay between the whole and its parts, then a startling awareness sometimes arises, a realization that even we humans are ultimately embraced by something greater than our separate, isolated selves.
Personal inclination will automatically translate such realizations into an appropriate form. This form may be aesthetic or ecological. Or it may be religious. “For heaven’s sake,” Tony Hillerman once remarked, “if God didn’t love us, why would he give us all this beauty.”
Beauty heals shame. Shame is the primordial blight upon the human psyche. Its taproot is firmly anchored in the fertile soil of our Judaeo-Christian blood myth. It is the first emotion alluded to in the Book of Genesis and is the direct prelude to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden.
Shame seduces us into a subtle attitude of self-contempt. The attitude may slumber as a quiescent undercurrent, or be actively malignant. Yet each of us, in a profoundly mysterious way, is a carrier for this lethal virus of the human mind.
Shame and beauty, however, are fundamentally incompatible. Observing our reflection in one of the many “mirrors” that surround us, do we see a bad, inadequate, unworthy person? A member of a hopelessly flawed species? Or do we behold a beautiful creature?
Transformational journeys are undertaken in order to transform how we see ourselves, at the deepest levels of our being. As we begin to view ourselves in a new way, we will magically see others in a new way as well–other people, other species, the soul, the Earth.
Having paid for the gift of individuation with the high price of exile, we may now turn to transmuting the debilitating and often toxic residues of individuation into beauty.
* * *
In the years since these insights were first received, we have come across two passages which further illuminate the intimate relationship between beauty and transformation. The first is from Albert Einstein, who lived to see his spectacular flights of the scientific imagination translated into weapons of mass destruction.
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
The final passage is from a Navajo ceremony. It elaborates the earlier-mentioned prayer, “May you walk in beauty.” The ceremonial words help me recollect the insights that were triggered by an early morning flight of pelicans–that beauty is empowering; that it is an antidote for loneliness; that it heals shame; and that it makes the soul feel at home.
In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud and rain,
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before and behind me,
With beauty below and above,
With beauty all around me,
Several years ago Light Morning experienced an unprecedented population explosion. In response to a heartfelt but naive prayer for renewal that some of us had raised, the community tripled in size. Seemingly overnight we morphed from a quiet family of six adults and one child into a bustling warren of sixteen adults and six children. The transition was chaotic, disorienting, and exhilarating.
Almost as rapidly as it had formed, however, the bubble burst. Within a year and a half, all of the newcomers had moved on. And of the seven original residents, one died, one went into deep retreat, one took a full-time job, and another left for college.
Once some semblance of equanimity had been regained, the three remaining active crew members took stock. We began by reaffirming the need for patience, given that the full realization of Light Morning’s core vision will span at least several generations. Then we nurtured a willingness to give renewal another go.
Acknowledging that the tuition for round one had been pricey, we resolved to approach round two with a greater measure of caution and awareness. Finally, we decided that an online Journal would help convey Light Morning’s mission, especially (and perhaps subliminally) to potential members of the next renewal crew.
These and other realizations came into focus during a long midwinter pilgrimage. As we coaxed the insights into consciousness, they spontaneously coalesced around the recurring image of a three-legged stool.
The Three Criteria of a Healthy Community
The driving is treacherous. A major blizzard is tracking up the east coast toward New England. Creeping along the single northbound lane of Interstate 81 that the teams of snow-plows are able to keep open, it dawns on us that only fools would be driving in weather like this. And perhaps, given our destination, the description fits. For if we make it safely to the Vipassana Meditation Center in western Massachusetts, we’ll be spending the next ten days in complete silence, our tushes parked on meditation cushions for ten to twelve hours a day.
The hazardous road conditions aren’t the only source of stress. Three of us are the active crew members left standing after Light Morning’s recent population expansion and contraction. The fourth is a friend who had lived in the community for many years and has stayed close to it since leaving.
We’re all needing to talk. What have we learned over the past year? What went well? How might renewal be approached differently next time? Will there even be a next time? For each of us is coping with significant bruises and blown fuses. Will we have the gumption to go through even a muted version of this renewal process again?
Brooding on these questions, my mind drifts back to an earlier Vipassana course. One of the evening discourses had pointed out that, “Vipassana is the art of learning to die smilingly.” We cultivate the ability to die smilingly, moreover, by learning how to live smilingly, rather than by placing ourselves at the mercy of circumstances.
Pondering my mortality, I had become aware of the preference to leave behind a healthy community. “What might such a community look like?” I had wondered. “What is a healthy community?”
Into the meditative stillness had come an intuitive response to this unspoken question. “There are three criteria for a healthy community–a healthy community knows where it’s going; a healthy community helps provide for the physical, social, and spiritual needs of its passengers and crew; a healthy community has no indispensable members.”
As we follow the blizzard through Pennsylvania, frequently stopping to scrape ice from the windshield of our van, these criteria of a healthy community become a structuring device for looking at the renewal of Light Morning. They become the inter-locking legs of a sturdy, three-legged stool.
Light Morning’s Core Values
Considering the first criterion, that a healthy community knows where it’s going, we associate to Light Morning’s core values. Prior to the recent influx of new residents, the community had clarified its priorities. Realizing that flexibility would be called for as more people joined the community, we had needed to know in which arenas we were not likely to be flexible, what values we were not willing to relinquish.
Many had come to mind, including consensus decision-making, environmental beauty, shared meals, organic gardening, welcoming visitors, and creative problem-solving. At a still deeper level, we had re-affirmed three foundational values that truly define Light Morning. For take away any of these three and you won’t have a Light Morning. It is to these core values that the four of us now turn as we peer through the veil of falling snow, trying to discern where Light Morning needs to be going in order to be healthy.
The first core value is choosing to live close to the Earth. This involves transitioning from a cash-based to a labor-based economy, cultivating the qualities of frugality, sustainability, self-reliance, and cooperation, and striving for radiant health. Doing so enables us to experience our home planet not only as a teacher, healer, and friend, but also to know it as the greater Body within which we live and move and have our being.
The community’s second foundation stone is to gestate a new kind of family. A fully functional, warmly supportive, vision-driven family, well-suited to raising both children and awareness. A family capable of withstanding the wide array of challenges that all families face, as well as the fierce pressures of transformational intent.
For Light Morning’s third core value is to embark upon a transformational journey. The slowly ripening vision of a new creature, freed from parochial self-interest and outmoded restraints, underlies the gestation of a new kind of family.
These foundational values form the second three-legged stool that comes into view during our long journey north.
Common Vision, Covenanting, and Coaching
Hardly a mile goes by that we don’t see a car, truck, or tractor trailer that has skidded onto the shoulder of the road or down the embankment. Abandoned to the drifting snow, these ice-encrusted vehicles are recurring reminders that carelessness is costly.
At a literal level they goad the van’s driver to pay close attention to the job at hand. And in the context of our spirited conversation, they inspire us to keep a watchful eye on where Light Morning is going. For here, too, carelessness can be deadly.
“Where there is no vision,” the scriptures say, “the people perish.” So accessing and articulating a common vision, and then drawing a viscerally personal version of that vision out of all who are led to explore Light Morning–that’s our job at hand.
For the shared vision to be realized, however, a transmission belt is required. Only then will the vision’s potential energy be converted into kinetic energy. Only then will the heavy inertial resistance of the status quo be overcome. The components of this transmission belt are covenanting and coaching.
Having been captivated by the beauty of the vision, and sobered by the recalcitrance of the resistance, we are brought to understand that we cannot “go it alone.” We therefore make vows of strong determination to each other and to Something beyond ourselves. This is covenanting.
Then we ask each other and Something beyond ourselves for support, encouragement, and accountability. We open ourselves, in other words, to coaching.
Common vision, covenanting, and coaching–yet another three-legged stool.
Visitors, Residents, and Caretakers
We finally allow ourselves a bit of cautious optimism. It’s late afternoon. The snow is still falling. The driving is still hazardous. But we are crossing the Tappan Zee bridge. Below us lies the bleak and mostly frozen Hudson River. New England beckons.
Nearly four centuries ago, a dream-driven Englishman sailing for the Dutch had skippered a small yacht up this river, searching for the fabled northwest passage to the Orient. Our conversation turns naturally to Henry Hudson and his Half Moon, for we have already been utilizing the nautical metaphor. A sailing vessel, for example, knows where it’s going. The needs of its passengers and crew must be provided for. And none of the crew members should be indispensable.
But what kind of sailing vessel is Light Morning? Certainly not a cargo ship or a cruise liner. Nor is it primarily a passenger vessel. Light Morning’s voyage is rather one of exploration and discovery, like Henry Hudson’s Half Moon. Or Columbus’s Santa Maria, whose image graces the cover of Wax Statues. Or the Starship Enterprise.
On board this vessel are passengers, crew members, and the ship’s officers, corresponding to Light Morning’s visitors, residents (the interns and apprentices), and what the community has come to call caretakers. Feeling our way into these distinctions, we see that for passengers wanting to join the crew, as well as for crew members wanting to become “commissioned officers”, the same essential question applies: To what degree am I deepening my passion, my commitment, and my competence?
This triggers another flash-back. It’s a sunny afternoon at Light Morning, at the peak of the population influx. I’m lying on my back under an old Dodge Omni, replacing its water pump. Jonathan stops by to share some frustrations about having to coax some of the newcomers into helping us build Rivendell, our new community shelter.
Trying to clarify his concerns, I ask, “What exactly do you want?”
He pauses for a moment, and then jumps octaves. “I want to live with people who are passionate about Light Morning!”
Recalling this story as we creep across New York raises critical questions about how to discover ones passion, or “path with heart”. About how commitment keeps us walking that path while our passion ebbs and flows. And about how competence, and ultimately excellence, come only to the degree that one truly cares. These are the key issues for anyone living at Light Morning, be they visitor, intern, apprentice, or caretaker.
The Dream Teacher’s Three Questions
It’s dusk when we reach Hartford, Connecticut, and turn north on I-91 toward Massachusetts. The snow has tapered off. The highway is well plowed. Soon we’ll be settling into the meditation center for the night. With our harrowing drive mostly behind us, we begin to relax.
Up ahead of us a car sloughs off a large clump of snow, which quickly drifts into the path of our oncoming van. We fully expect the impact to dissolve the clump into a shower of shimmering snowflakes, as has happened so many times before. Instead, the van shudders and our windshield shatters into an intricately opaque spider’s web of fracture lines. By grace, a small oval of visibility remains on the driver’s side of the safety glass, allowing us to limp cautiously toward our destination.
The abrupt transition from the clarity of seeing what we want for Light Morning, to near total blindness and the sudden fruition of our fears, is so striking that it shakes free the memory of a strong dream from several years ago, called “The Dream Teacher’s Three Questions.”
A woman is teaching a small group of us at Light Morning.
“The entire path,” she says, “grows out of three questions–What do I want? What am I afraid of? What’s my next step?
“Many people,” she continues, “get stuck on the third question, because they haven’t taken the time, or realized the importance, or discovered the courage to fully explore questions one and two.
“What we think we want and what we think we’re afraid of are like the outward skins of an onion. Beneath these relatively superficial interpretations are more elemental desires and fears. And under those layers of the onion can be found still deeper yearnings and dread. Only as you explore your deepest desires and fears will your true path become clear–moment by moment, step by step.”
Then she points out the intimate relationship between the first two questions.
“It’s like driving,” she explains. “You very much want to reach your destination, so you’re pushing down hard on the accelerator. The harder you push, however, the slower you go. For a while you’re completely mystified. Then you finally look down and notice that your other foot is pushing just as hard on the brake.
“You’ve been focusing intently on what you want, in other words, yet strenuously ignoring what you’re afraid of. But what you want and what you’re afraid of are two sides of the same coin. When you fail to see that your desires and fears are the flip sides of a single coin, you become mired in a crippling ambivalence.
“Once acknowledged, however, this realization can be put to good use. For accessing your deepest desires will lead you to your worst fears, just as the cultivated willingness to face what you’re most profoundly afraid of will open the door to what you truly want. Only then will your path become clear.”
The dream teacher’s three questions offer a final permutation to the recurring image of a three-legged stool. We viscerally sense their relevance to our personal lives as well as to the renewal of Light Morning. The questions keep us company on the last few miles of our pilgrimage to the Vipassana Meditation Center and help prime the pump for a strong course.
Eleven days later we emerge from the intensity of our real pilgrimage. The snow has melted. The van has a sparkling new windshield. We drive home under blue skies.
* * *
For a deeper exploration of Light Morning’s three core values,
see the earlier articles in this Renewal Pages series.