The Three-Legged Stool

Three-legged stool
Three-legged stool

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.

Epilogue

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.

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Three-legged stool
Three-legged stool

For a deeper exploration of Light Morning’s three core values,
see the earlier articles in this Renewal Pages series.