What We Believe...
Central to nearly all refined philosophies and reflective religions is the call to serve others. It means considering the skills and natural abilities you have been given and harnessing them to their highest and best use for the good of others. Serving others is not only a privilege or an option for those who can but an obligation that we all should feel. It is in serving others that we discover our humanity.
The service imperative impels us to work tirelessly to, in the words of Karen Armstrong, “alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being.” This is a call to compassion that should translate into concrete action.
The scope of service is critical to our vision. Many people serve their immediate family tirelessly; they sacrifice themselves for their children, occasionally their parents or friends. While such service is laudable compared to a life lived solely for oneself or one’s pets, our vision for service goes beyond one’s closest circles. One’s duty to the world does not end with the closest circles of family and friends but begins there. Serving merely those with whom one has familial or friendship ties does not satisfy the call to sacrificially love others that is critical to most world religions and philosophies. As a result, the paramount value is found in service to the local, national, and global community. In fact, one of the most enduring ways to care for those closest to someone is to work tirelessly toward creating a better world for them to inhabit. Thus, we aim to serve first those in our local community, then our nation, and finally the world as a whole. We envision a day when the whole planet begins to transform as more and more people expand their circles of responsibility.
The current social momentum in American society works against service to others on multiple fronts. At its most callous, the message is often simply that we bear no responsibility to others: everyone is responsible for his/her own success or failure. In fact, the world rewards those who seek after what they want regardless of its effects on others. Still other social messages tell us that we have a responsibility to others but only after taking care of our own needs; we cannot give to others until we have learned to discover and indeed love ourselves. True service to others comes as a result of a secure and overflowing self. Too often, however, the preparation to service in this vision trumps actual service. We hold that we should be uncomfortable in our service; authentic love and compassion for others means putting their needs above one’s own. Our needs can wait, no matter how pressing they may appear. Our community aims to remind each other relentlessly of this total obligation to serve. Service is the first of all of our goals and trumps the two below. If we must choose, we choose to serve first.
Every member of the Lavra takes a commitment to him/herself and each other to work positively for others. Normally, this commitment will be reflected in one’s occupation but it could also be an attitude that governs one’s life outside of work. We will encourage, support, and monitor this commitment. We will exemplify it in our interactions with each other and the friends of the Lavra who visit.
Life is a dynamic process, not a static state. We are given a set amount of time here to make of it what we can. We can squander it or continually improve ourselves. Living at the Lavra means being committed to continual growth in all human dimensions but especially intellectual, emotional, creative, and spiritual dimensions, so that we create a community of inquiry. The growth imperative does not require a self or the development of an ego—rather it can be seen as growth into a recognition of what is real or into selflessness. The point is that we uphold a community of inquiry and exploration that is supportive to this process.
Diversity of opinion and perspective is critical for growth. This diversity will be assured by encouraging people of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, intellectual/faith traditions, and other opportunities to provide fresh perspectives. We plan to support such a lifestyle by holding regular lectures/discussions on religious/social/philosophical topics, and dedicating an area of the property to meditation and worship.
The process of growth addresses the mind, the senses, and our spiritual core. As we grow as individuals and as a community, we will seek to avoid temptations that often arise with communities, especially hedonistic intellectualism and unreflective hedonism. Hedonistic intellectualism arises when people gain pleasure from the arguments themselves and thus really are not on a real search grounded in compassion and service for others. Such environments banter around ideas like a sport, congratulating each other on their erudition and acuity but without much amounting from it. Intellectualism is critical to growth but it must be placed in the service of humanity. Discussion has to be motivated by goals that matter for the world, not just oneself. We all must live uncomfortably for others and if we have been given the gift of some clarity and discernment, this should be employed for others. Likewise, while the search for sensual and spiritual pleasures are important aspects of growth, they must be reflectively pursued. Unreflective hedonism is the source of much destruction and harm. Hedonistic goals are not good in and of themselves but rather find their meaning within a broader intellectual worldview. An environment conducive to growth thus avoids hedonistic intellectualism and unreflective hedonism.
3. Conscientious, Reflective, Responsible, and Sustainable Living
This principle is a continual process, rather than a set of rules. It means reflecting about the choices we make and the impact they have on those around us and the planet. We don’t place ourselves at the center of decision making processes but the community and the world. We see this imperative as a sequential process. We begin by pledging to be conscientious, by which we mean being intimately aware of our own motivations and actions, particularly how they are shaped by our personal histories, social conditions, and immediate surroundings. When we are conscientious, we do not act by accident or strict impulse but with keen observation of oneself and the world. Then, we promise to be reflective. That is, we pledge to consider the impact of our decisions on ourselves, the community, and the world at large. Finally, we will choose the responsible path that focuses on the good of the community/world rather than our own convenience or personal gain. It is a process that emphasizes the means rather than the end.
These three principles shape the other areas of our existence for which we hope to be an example:
There is not a single set of beliefs that are shared within the Lavra. A variety of differing spiritual beliefs are possible and are indeed encouraged; we are not trying to create a commune guided by a single spiritual vision as articulated by an absolute leader. Rather, we hold that sincere, intelligent people can have differing spiritual and religious views—and this is not a sign of deficiency but rather integral to the development of humanity. We are aiming to create a multi-faith environment where as long as we share the three principles above—service, growth, and reflective living—then our differences are blessings.
The individual’s spiritual development is intimately tied to the community’s development. Part of our goal as a community is to provide a supportive environment for spiritual growth. In fact, due to the strong spiritual links between individuals, a single individual who advances on his/her own may be “weighed” down by the spirits of others if they are not advancing in tow; all ships rise and fall together on the spiritual tide. Humans are thus profoundly interconnected and interdependent in both material and spiritual ways. We pledge to each other to support and challenge one another in productive and loving ways so that we grow as individuals and as a group.
A properly functioning community acts as a necessary check to the individual. Our community helps us see our faults and hidden idols; they provide opportunities to practice patience and compassion; they provide an audience with whom to develop new ideas and question old ones; they offer support in times of need and opportunities to provide that support. The community is the backdrop for spiritual growth.
Humans were meant to live embedded within the natural world, not separate or above it. We are physiologically connected to the natural rhythms and cycles that form the heartbeat of the universe. Humans can dominate the world but we should not. Acting environmentally is profoundly natural, but we have been conditioned to think otherwise. We need to retrain our mind to see ourselves as a partner with the earth, not its lord.
Our relationship to the land is not just a duty but a spiritual mandate. Humans become the places they are: if you surround yourself with plastic, you will lose your natural self; an untidy outside creates an untidy inside. By contrast, a harmonious place in nature reorders our interior world. We want to heal the land we have been given and in the process heal ourselves. Then, we want to stay connected to that land and allow its spirits to circulate freely among us.
The realization of the need for sustainability is prevalent in our society. Many of us think that if we regularly recycle, don’t buy a hummer, and eat organically, it is enough. We hold that minor adjustments to the dominant mode of living is not enough. We need to reorient our minds and act in accordance with this new mindset. We cannot search for the minimum and ask whether it is enough, but rather begin with a thorough reflection of the ideal and then strive towards it. This process begins where we live.
Many of us are attracted to the ideal of living in a self-sufficient holistic farm. However, in our contemporary environment and our stress on outside service, it does not make this a practical possibility. Nevertheless, we will aim to identify and produce the products that are both desired by the community and feasible for us to produce. By creating as much food as we consume, we will not only eat more healthfully but will also create a close connection to the land on which we dwell.
The commitment to live in and with nature does not only shape our eating decisions but infiltrates every part of our life. It means wearing clothes made from natural materials whenever possible; it means changing where we shop such as trading food or buying from local, non-chain shops; it means using alternative energies whenever possible. These are pledges we make to earth, to each other, and to future generations.
Humans nearly constantly interact, but not usually well. Our communication is marred by misunderstandings; the powerful develop systems that enshrine their own advantage; different rules apply for different genders, races, or sexual orientations; gatherings become moments of exclusion rather than inclusion; gossip and passive aggressive attacks substitute for clear paths of communication. People are opaque to themselves and then become opaque to others. The Lavra aims to be different; we aim to reverse these norms and strive to create a harmonious micro-society guided by higher degrees of equality and clearer pathways of communication. We hope to be spontaneously inclusive; sharing our lives with others without prejudice or malice. We are not a finished community but rather constantly evolving one. This is the secret of our life together: we are working to create a different kind of human community.
When one lives so close to others, conflict inevitably arises, so a mutually-agreed upon strategy for dealing with conflict is critical. We hope to internalize the processes that lead to peaceful co-existence. These processes will be grounded in respect and fairness. We may not always agree but we will agree to work through the issues together in a way that keeps the community together. The value of our community is not how we get along on the perfect evening in the perfect environment but rather how we get along when we don’t feel like getting along. We are a community continually creating harmony out of division and difference.
Creativity is both a personal and community endeavor. For individuals to grow through cultivation of their creativity, the environment must be supportive of creative exploration, encouraging creatively daring behavior. However, while creative output can be self-expressive, we do not create for the self or ego but rather create to communicate and transform the world in which we live. Just as some times and people are inclined toward intellectual arguments to reimagine the world, the arts can also be a means to do the same. Our creative endeavors can then be externally-focused rather than internally so. Our creative energies must be placed into service for others rather than merely being avenues of self-expression.
We pledge to be each other’s muses and critics. We hope to legitimate creativity as a means of transformation and check each other when it tends to solipsism or self-absorption. We will work with each other to ensure that creativity is placed squarely within our pledge to serve.