[When Light Morning was an active community, those wanting to visit or intern here sometimes asked about our core values. In response, we posted three articles to an earlier version of this website: Living Close to the Earth, A New Kind of Family, and A Transformational Journey.]
In the spring of 1974, two couples arrived at an old Appalachian farm in southwest Virginia and started homesteading. Ron and Marlene and Joyce and I were passionate and vision-driven. We had just come out of a catalytic encounter with inner guidance. But we also came from significantly different backgrounds.
Joyce and I grew up in a small intentional village on the east coast. As young adults, we adopted the early hippie lifestyle of long hair, psychedelics, rock and roll, and Vietnam War protests. Ron and Marlene were raised on Wisconsin dairy farms. They came of age as straight-laced Midwesterners, never doing any drugs, ignoring the war, and becoming members of the John Birch Society.
How did two couples who would hardly have been acquaintances, let alone friends, end up spending their entire adult lives together? We later joked that it had been an arranged marriage, and we were still looking for who had arranged it. But whoever that mysterious matchmaker may have been, we were tightly bonded with a curiously durable glue.
Soon the four of us, along with others who joined the fledgling community, were living together as a new kind of family. Traditional families get significant boosts from the peculiar chemistry of physical intimacy, from the hormonal bonding magic between parent and child, and from the support and sanctions of society. What emerged at Light Morning, however, had none of these.
It’s challenging for those in any relationship to be more consistently kind to one another. Living in a high-impact style of community — where meals, work, and personal quirkiness were shared daily — was especially hard. What made a new kind of family possible was that we grew into holding a few underlying assumptions; we cultivated a handful of family-building skills; and we slowly learned to covenant.
The Underlying Assumptions
The first assumption we we grew into is that interpersonal conflicts are unavoidable. This holds true for all relationships. Whether you’re my friend, lover, co-worker, child, or spouse, I am sometimes going to say and do things that you don’t like, just as you’re going to say and do things that I don’t like. If these inescapable conflicts aren’t responded to creatively, they turn corrosive and/or explosive.
A second core assumption is that surface problems have deep roots. Each of us was raised by less than perfect parents in a less than perfect world. The child’s remembered fears of powerlessness and abandonment, moreover, are alive within us. And they easily activated.
We peer out from behind the well-crafted masks of adulthood, yet, as a recent song title suggests, “the heart remains a child.” So you’re a pushy bread-labor focalizer, and I’m not putting enough food on the table. Such surface problems will remain insoluble until we see that they are being fueled by deeper anxieties.
The third understanding, intimately tied to the first two, is that everything unresolved is re-created. Recurring psychological dramas are therefore staged both in our nightly dreams and in the dream-like world of our waking circumstances. These plays are performed with varying degrees of conscious awareness. Some mysterious casting director, who seems to have an unerring eye, and knowingly casts us into roles in each other’s plays.
It sounds like karma, but it’s also grace, because each time we re-create an outmoded, energy-robbing pattern from the past, we have another opportunity to heal it. Such healing is more likely in places like Light Morning, which offers a sporting chance for lucidity and transmutation.
A fourth premise is that we have a visceral predisposition toward fight-or-flight. A psychological counterpart of a biological survival instinct, fight-or-flight is sometimes overt. We may unleash a torrent of anger, for example, or stalk out of the room, or leave a marriage or a community. At other times it’s more subtle and we catch ourselves fantasizing violence, compartmentalizing, or engaging in denial. Whether subtle or overt, however, a tendency to put dukes up or run away is the default setting when we’re confronted by situations that seem threatening
The final realization we came to accept is that any significant transformation of this hard-wired pattern requires willingness and skill. Developing relationship skills is essential. Without sufficient willingness, however, we won’t have the stamina to learn the skills, let alone practice them.
Where does this willingness come from—the willingness to face our interpersonal challenges with an adventurous spirit and an open heart? Only as we find a visceral answer to this crucial question will we devote ourselves to acquiring the following family-building skills.
Five Core Social Skills
Common Table. The communion of shared food stretches back through the family meals of childhood; to the infant at its mother’s breast; to the umbilical intimacy of the womb; and to mythological memories of manna and sacramental bread. Preparing food for one another stirs powerful associations.
Having a common table means that we eat our meals together. Showing up at mealtime, despite the occasional captivating project or grumpy mood, is a gesture of caring. Common table is a central gathering place for our Light Morning family. It’s also a loom upon which many of the remaining binding spells are woven.
Emotional Rapport. We don’t have to always like the people we’re living with, but we do have to learn to love them. Paraphrasing scripture, it’s not hard to love my friends, but it’s a sizable stretch to love my enemies, including those who happen to be playing adversarial roles in my therapeutic dramas.
But whether you’re my friend or my enemy, how do I develop emotional rapport with you? Deep listening, music, massage, working and playing together, sharing meditation, dreams, and/or prayer — there are many possibilities once willingness has ripened.
Conscious Projection. The third skill is close to the heart of why we came here. It has often been observed that we see the world not as it is, but as we are. We project all the unrecognized aspects of ourselves onto those around us, just as movie projectors throws captivating images onto theater screens.
To verify this premise, experientially, is to make a mutational leap of awareness. A second leap occurs when lucidity is introduced and we become aware of our projections while we’re making them. Sharing this awareness with others is a delicate art form.
Creative Problem-Solving. When unavoidable interpersonal conflicts arise, what do we do? If we are not yet able to use conscious projection to internalize our adversaries, and we don’t want to indulge in fight-or-flight, we can turn instead to creative problem-solving.
There are different problem-solving techniques, but the basic process is the same. First, the needs and feelings of each person involved in the dispute are validated. This helps to clarify the problem. Then everyone commits to finding and implementing a mutually acceptable solution. Sometimes the solutions that emerge out of creative problem-solving process are elegantly synergistic.
Peer Coaching. The final skill addresses how a community chooses to govern itself. There’s a dictatorial mode in which a leader says “Do as I say,” or a community says “Obey these rules.” At the other end of the spectrum is “Anything goes,” where everyone does their own thing and there are no agreed upon goals, standards, or accountability.
Peer coaching offers a third option. While stressing the importance of shared goals, common standards, and clear accountability, it also honors the need for personal autonomy and self-motivation. Developmental coaching lays the foundation for peer coaching. Later, as the process becomes internalized, we learn to coach ourselves.
Developing the above social skills helped forge a group of unrelated acquaintances into a new kind of family. The forge certainly gets hot at times. We finally yield to the refiner’s fire once we understand that synergy is essential and that our most cherished dreams can only be realized with the help of others. We therefore make promises — to ourselves, to one another, and to an indwelling Presence — to take the small, incremental steps that make synergy possible. These promises serve as covenants.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines covenant as an agreement that is “formal, solemn, and binding.” A second definition offers further clues; “a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action.”
Having used covenanting to be better listeners, to become open to having a relationship, to deepen a meditation practice, and to eat with more awareness, we have found that covenants do indeed seem to work better when the agreements are formal rather than informal; solemn rather than trivial; and binding rather than casual.
Each covenant is limited to a single achievable goal. The document is written out and is then signed by two parties: the one who’s making the promise, and the one who’s offering support, encouragement, and accountability. The promise is likewise made to a Presence which goes by many names and whose support is solicited.
Living lightly on the Earth… Living communally… Living with transformational intent… While each of these paths can be strenuous, Light Morning’s calling was to follow all three. This has often forced me to wrestle with the inertial momentum of my conditioned personality and with the consensual constraints of the dominant culture.
Covenanting has made me a better wrestler. It has made me more amenable to what the Christian tradition calls the Father, and has helped me live closer to Mother Earth. As my relationship with these archetypal parents deepens, I now and then see those I live with as brothers and sisters. During such lucid intervals, I experience more fully the promise of a new kind of family.