A Midwinter Pilgrimage

The woodshed in winter

Shortly before the turn of the millennium, Light Morning experienced an unprecedented population explosion. For twenty-five years we had been a relatively small intentional community. Then, seemingly overnight, our family of six adults and a teenager morphed into a bustling warren of sixteen adults and six children. The transition was chaotic and overwhelming, exhilarating and exhausting.

Almost as soon as it had formed, however, the bubble started to deflate. A few of the recent arrivals packed up and moved on. Others wondered what their next steps were going to be. Still others were trying to discern how their personal values aligned with those of Light Morning.

All of us were deep into the stretch zone. The newcomers were adapting to a place where every meal, most of the work, and much of the money was shared. The old-timers found themselves suddenly outnumbered by those who didn’t understand – and sometimes didn’t want to understand – how or why Light Morning had become what it was. The crucible of community gifted everyone with psychic bruises and blown fuses.

The intensity tested our resilience. It also forced us to wrestle with several essential questions: Why are people drawn to Light Morning? How much do they know, beforehand, about its founding vision and core values? How do visitors become committed members of the community? What systems and values are we willing to change? What remains non-negotiable?

The questions kept gnawing at us. So when four of us left for a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in January of 2000, we took the questions with us. Jonathan, Joyce, and I were fully committed to Light Morning. Kent was a former member of the community and a fellow Vipassana meditator. Little did we realize how insightful and harrowing this midwinter pilgrimage from southwest Virginia to western Massachusetts would turn out to be.

The Three-Legged Stool

The driving is treacherous. A strong blizzard is tracking up the east coast. Creeping along the single northbound lane of Interstate 81 that the snow-plows are able to keep open, it dawn on us that only fools would be driving in weather like this. The description seems to fit. For if we make it safely to our destination, we’ll be spending the next ten days in complete silence, sitting on meditation cushions for ten to twelve hours a day.

The hazardous road conditions don’t keep us from considering the questions about Light Morning that we have brought with us. They take me back to an earlier Vipassana course. One of the evening discourses had said that, “Vipassana is the art of dying smilingly.” It went on to suggest that learning to die smilingly depends on learning how to live smilingly.

Due to the extended silence and the heightened sensitivity of the course, I had become more viscerally aware of my mortality. What would help me relax (and maybe even smile) on my death bed? Continuing to practice Vipassana and being at peace with my family both seemed obvious. The desire to leave behind a healthy community, however, had caught me by surprise.

What is a healthy community? Out of the meditative stillness had come an immediate response to my unspoken question. A healthy community knows where it’s going. A healthy community provides for the physical, social, and spiritual needs of its passengers and crew. A healthy community has no indispensable members.

I share this recollection with Jonathan, Joyce, and Kent as we follow the blizzard into Pennsylvania. The three criteria of a healthy community, as we apply them to Light Morning, feel like the sturdy legs of a three-legged stool.

A three-legged stool

Discerning Core Values

Heavy snow continues to fall. Soon it’s freezing on the windshield. Every ten or fifteen miles we have to push through deep snow on the shoulder of the Interstate so that we can stop and scrape away the ice.

Rather than obsessing about the dangerous driving conditions, we talk about how a community that knows where it’s going has clearly defined goals and values. Shortly before the influx of new residents, we had clarified our priorities. We knew that we would have to become more flexible. We also knew that we were unlikely to compromise on some of our long-standing practices, including shared meals, organic gardening, environmental beauty, consensus decision-making, and welcoming visitors.

Then we had reaffirmed the three core values that define Light Morning.

The first is choosing to live close to the Earth. This implies striving for radiant health; cultivating self-reliance, frugality, and sustainability; and transitioning from a cash-intensive to a more labor-intensive economy. Doing so gives us a sporting chance to know our home planet not only as a teacher and healer, but also as the greater Body within which we live and move and have our being.

The community’s second core value is to gestate a new kind of family – a warmly supportive, vision-driven family; one well-suited to raising both children and awareness; a family capable of withstanding not only the challenges that all families face, but also those induced by transformational intent.

For Light Morning’s third foundational value is to embark upon a shared 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 core values form a second three-legged stool.

Common Vision, Covenanting, Coaching

Every few miles we see a car, truck, or tractor trailer that has skidded onto the shoulder of the road or down the embankment. These ice-encrusted vehicles have been abandoned to the drifting snow. Whoever happens to be driving our van is paying close attention to the job at hand.

Those of us who care about Light Morning also have a job at hand. For scripture reminds us that, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” The community’s founding vision, therefore, needs to be re-articulated. Visceral versions of that vision then need to be drawn out of those exploring the Light Morning vortex.

Yet visions also need transmission belts. Only then will their potential energy be converted into kinetic energy. Only then will the inertial resistance of the status quo be overcome. The components of such a transmission belt are covenanting and coaching.

First we become captivated by the beauty of a vision. Later we’re sobered as we encounter fierce resistance to meaningful change. Eventually, we realize that we cannot “go it alone.” So we make vows of strong determination – both to one another and to Something beyond our personal selves. This is called covenanting. Then we open ourselves to coaching by asking one another (and this mysterious Other) for support, encouragement, and accountability.

Common vision, covenanting, coaching. A third three-legged stool.

Crewing a Sailing Vessel

Replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon

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’re 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 therefore turns to Henry Hudson. We have already utilized the nautical metaphor: A sailing vessel must know 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 vessel is Light Morning? Not a cargo ship. Certainly not 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 the Starship Enterprise.

On board this vessel are passengers, crew members, and the ship’s officers. These correspond to Light Morning’s visitors; its interns and apprentices; and its tap-rooted crew. Any passengers wanting to become crew, as well as any crew members called to become “commissioned officers,” face the same question: To what degree am I willing to deepen my passion, my commitment, and my competence?

Pondering the importance of passion triggers another flash-back.

It’s a sunny afternoon 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, wanting to talk. He’s frustrated at having to coax some of the newcomers into helping build Light Morning’s new community shelter.

Setting aside my tools, I reach for what’s bothering Jonathan.

“What exactly do you want?” I ask.

He pauses; then jumps octaves.

“I want to live with people who are passionate about Light Morning!”

Creeping across snowy New York, we talk about how this kind of passion arises in people. We also agree that commitment counterbalances passion. Commitment keeps us walking a path with heart even as our passion waxes and wanes. Together, passion and commitment lead to competence. We only become proficient at something that we deeply care about and that we’re willing to practice.

So now there’s yet another three-legged stool for Light Morning’s present and future crew members to consider: Passion, commitment, competence.

A Dream Teacher’s Three Questions

It’s dusk when we reach Hartford, Connecticut. As we turn north onto Interstate 91, the snow is tapering off and the highway has been well plowed. In just over an hour we will arrive at the Vipassana Meditation Center. Our perilous journey is mostly behind us. We begin to relax.

Then the car we’re following sloughs a clump of snow off its roof. The large snowball sails through the air towards our van. We fully expect that the impact will dissolve it into a shimmering shower of snowflakes. We’ve seen this happen several times before.

This time, however, the snowball that hits the windshield is ice-encrusted. The van shudders as the fractured safety glass becomes an opaque spider’s web. By grace, one small oval of visibility remains, just above the steering wheel. This allows the driver to see enough of the road to continue driving.

Somehow we are able to appreciate the irony of the situation. In less than a second, we have gone from seeing what Light Morning needs to hardly being able to see at all. We have gone from desiring a healthy community to having all our winter driving fears be realized. The sudden transition is so striking that it shakes free the memory of a dream.

* * *

A woman has come to teach a small group of us at Light Morning.

“The path consists of three questions,” she tells us. “What do I want? What am I afraid of? What’s my next step? Most people fixate on the third question because they don’t take the time, and/or they don’t have the courage, to fully consider questions one and two.

“What we think we want,” she continues, “and what we think we’re afraid of, are like the outer layers of an onion. Beneath these surface interpretations lurk deeper yearnings and anxieties. And below those are more elemental longings and dread. Only when you explore your deep desires and fears will your path become clear.”

She then uses a metaphor to illustrate the relationship between the first two questions.

“It’s like driving,” she says. “You’re eager to reach your destination, so you press down on the accelerator. The harder you push on the pedal, however, the slower you go. For a while you’re mystified. Then you glance down at your feet. Yes, your right foot has pushed the accelerator all the way to the floorboard; but your left foot is pressing just as hard on the brake.

“You’re focusing on what you want,” she explains, “but you’re unwilling to look at what frightens you. What you want and what you’re afraid of, however, are two sides of one coin. When you refuse to look at both sides of this coin, you are pushing down on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. You’re stuck in a crippling ambivalence.

“Instead, turn the coin over in your hand a few times. Then you’ll see that getting in touch with your deepest desires will evoke your worst fears, just as finding out what terrifies you will show you what you really want. This is how you thoroughly explore questions one and two.”

“When you do so,” she concludes, “your answers to question three will become far more reliable.”

* * *

The dream teacher’s three questions – What do I want? What am I afraid of? What’s my next step? – become the final three-legged stool of our long journey.

Sign for VMC

We exit Interstate 91 at Greenfield, Massachusetts. Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the Vipassana Meditation Center. It’s well after dark. But we sit in the van for a while, feeling relieved, exhausted, and filled with gratitude. Then we unpack our gear, say hello to a few friends, and settle in for the night.

After a long day of insights and adventures, our midwinter pilgrimage has finally come to an end. In the morning, we’ll see about replacing the windshield. Tomorrow evening, after a light meal and a brief orientation, the meditation course – and our real pilgrimage – will begin.


Early on a Sunday morning, we emerge from the intensity of the ten-day course. All the snow has melted. The van’s new windshield sparkles in the sun. We drive home under blue skies.

2 thoughts on “A Midwinter Pilgrimage”

  1. Ah, the Dream Teacher’s 3 Questions… I remember this story, and am so glad I rediscovered this blog. What a wellspring of wisdom and rich tapestry of life. Robert and Joyce, I hope you’re well! I’ll always be grateful for and remember the meaningful time I spent at Light Morning. I’m sending you lots of love and all my heartiest regards!

    Your intern once-upon-a-time,

    P.S.- Feel free to email me! Would be lovely to say hello.

    1. I, too, keep coming back to the dream teacher’s three questions, Katarina: what do I want? what am I afraid of? what’s my next step? Even as the years pass and circumstances change, her questions and the way she ties them together remain relevant and helpful. I have fond memories of your internship and your various visits and have sent an email off to you.

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