Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Fringes and the Core

"Off the Grid"
- our front yard -

The other day a friend of ours came to visit us. When he pulled up to our house and looked out onto the desert across the street, he said, "Wow, you guys are really off the grid here, aren't you?"  The fact that our house is set right up against the desert and the mountains does indeed make it seem like we do indeed live at the fringes of society, and for me, that's a pretty good place to be.

Paradoxically, many times in life the core is not at the center - you have to "go out to the fringes to find the core." New thoughts, new inventions, great scientific and medical discoveries came about as a result of a pioneering spirit, a willingness to move from the center of established thinking and to venture out into explorations at the edge. 

As I see it, this is especially true when it comes to religion, faith and spirituality. Often times core spiritual wisdom and truth is found, not at the center, but at the fringes. In fact when I look at all the great heroes of many different religious traditions, I always find them out at the edges of the establishment.

The Buddha was a wealthy prince who rejected his royal life and moved out to the edges of the culture, and here he found enlightenment. The great, fiery prophets of ancient Israel stood at the fringes of the established court, advocating for the outcast and the needy, reminding the kings who sat at the center that love of God and love of neighbor were at the core of what it meant to be a faithful Jew.  

In like manner, Jesus also preached at the fringes of the established culture of the empire and at the edges of the institutional temple religion of his day. He spent most of his time on the road, not inside a synagogue or a palace. He walked among the poor and ate with sinners, announcing the core truth that there are no outcasts in the Kingdom of God.

Saint Francis of Assisi, so highly revered by many different religious traditions, was also a "fringe person." He also rejected his wealthy established life and moved to the edges of the church and the culture, and there he found his core as he followed the "way" of Jesus.  The ancient Desert Monastics did exactly the same thing. When the established church was becoming too powerful and "too established," they moved out to the fringes and lived in simple desert caves away form cities and churches. They moved to the fringes in order to live a life at the core of Jesus' teaching -  a life of radical compassion and mutual respect.

Paradoxically, the core is often found at the fringes and not in the center. 

As I reflect upon my own life, I realize that for much of it I sat directly at the center of the established institution of the church, and in many ways it was simpler, easier and more comfortable to be there with all the reliable doctrine, the established rules and roles that fit me like a well-worn coat. But I have also come to believe that sitting comfortably at the center can also be a pretty stagnant place to be (at least it was for me) - sitting inside the walls of the church made it pretty hard for me to see the world beyond. I  had to move out to the fringes to get that view.

Zen teachers tell their students that wisdom comes when you can finally arrive at the point where you have developed a "beginner's mind." The wise person is one who has learned how to move away from the "tried and true," out into the uncharted realms of new truth and new possibilities. One Zen teacher puts it this way:

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert's mind there are few.

We live out here in the desert now, almost "off the grid," right at the fringes. The desert is not a great place to be an expert but it is a wonderful place to develop a "beginner's mind."

Sometimes you have to go to the fringes on order to find the core. 

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