A-Maze-ing Grace

Rush and pressure are quickly becoming a way of life on this planet. People hurry out of work and run three errands before picking up their children at daycare. Many then cram in dinner, an overdue report, or even a meeting before collapsing to grab some sleep in order to mount the horse on the next day’s merry-go-round. If life is a journey, it is clear that too many of us are rushing along our paths, getting lost on detours, and finding ourselves completely confused about our purposes. Our interior life can barely survive, let alone thrive, in this distracting environment despite our hunger for inner peace.

Enter the labyrinth walk, an ancient mystical tool that can help us to slow down, gain insight into our behavior, define our life purpose and acquire spiritual maturity.

A labyrinth is a pattern of concentric circles with a path that meanders from its outer entrance into the center and back out again. Often, it is confused with a maze. Unlike the maze, which is filled with dead ends and trickery, the labyrinth is a unicursal (single) path leading to the center. Because there are no dead ends or tricks, one does not have to think in order to walk it. In fact, being able to put thinking aside is one of the major benefits of the labyrinth. “Walking this path and meandering through it is analogous to the walk we take in life,” says Neal Harris, a veteran of many labyrinth walks. “There are lots of twists and turns, but no dead ends.”

Harris, together with his wife Mary, built a labyrinth in their yard, and later moved all 25 tons of rocks to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Elgin, Ill. One of the largest in the world, this labyrinth is 92 feet in diameter. The walk to the center is one-third of a mile, providing time to slow down and release life’s tensions, pressures and fears.

First discovered on the Isle of Crete over 4,000 years ago, the classical labyrinth pattern was one of seven circuits (circles) that ultimately led to the center. In the early 9th century, the labyrinth was brought into the Western world and included eleven circuits with a petal shaped center, similar to the rose window in European Cathedrals. The Chartres Cathedral in France provides a lovely example of this pattern, which is inlaid in stone on the floor of the cathedral.

The prevailing theory is that early labyrinths symbolized religious pilgrimages. According to Dr. Lauren Artress, author of Walking a Sacred Path, Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool, and Canon for Special Ministries at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, labyrinths “provided a destination for the pilgrims when it was dangerous to attempt to travel to Jerusalem.” Today, perhaps they are a symbol of the pilgrimage into our own hearts, where we can hopefully discover our purpose, become more awake and find our true selves.

Because of its meandering path, when walking the labyrinth women often report that they quickly lose sight of just where they are on their journey. Their labyrinth walk begins to resemble their lives, in that while they may feel they are moving further from their goals, in fact their life decisions have all been necessary parts of their journey.

Diane March, who helped the Harris’ lay the Unitarian labyrinth, reports that “the labyrinth is a place for quiet introspection, self-exploration or celebration. Some visitors come to mourn a loss, grieve a failed relationship, give thanks for blessings, or be still and listen to the bird chirping in the nearby trees.”

The labyrinth is an especially valuable tool for people who are used to being in motion. Walking a labyrinth is unlike sitting meditation, which can serve to increase restlessness and distraction in people whose lives are fast paced. “The labyrinth allows for people to move, stopping anywhere on the path, but especially when they arrive at the center,” says author Artress. For many, the walk into the center serves to calm them, allowing them to sit or stand there quietly before beginning the trek back to the entrance.

There are no rules for walking a labyrinth. In fact, one can dance, crawl, skip, or walk along the path, pondering anything or nothing. Artress and many others describe three parts to the labyrinth walk, a framework that can be helpful to those who choose to use it:

1. The walk from the entrance of the labyrinth to the center represents a time of release, emptying or shedding of those things that are obstacles to growth and to our communication with our Higher Power. It is a time to quiet the mind.
2. Once in the center, one is inclined to stand or sit quietly contemplating and discovering insights into their lives and concerns. The center is a place of meditation.
3. As one begins to retrace the steps back out to the edge of the labyrinth, one can use this as a time to integrate, to become more authentic, to resolve, or to become empowered.

In the last few years, interest in labyrinth walks has surged, which Artress attributes to the labyrinth being an ancient archetype, a master pattern that resonates within all human beings. “The circle, which is the most common shape of the modern day labyrinths, is a symbol of wholeness or unity,” she explains. “When people walk into the labyrinth they begin to see their whole life.”

The revival of labyrinths is evidenced by the number built in recent years. Hospitals, including the California Pacific Medical Center, are now putting in permanent labyrinths as a tool for cancer patients and others to walk. A stone labyrinth planned for Littleton, Colo. will serve as a meditation garden dedicated to the students, faculty and families of Columbine High School, as well being dedicated to peace in the world community.

Helen Post Curry, president of The Labyrinth Society, has been taking a canvas labyrinth into the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Conn. once a month for over two years. She reports that the women inmates tell her that this walk and the time surrounding it is the only experience of silence they have during the entire month. Curry also uses the labyrinth for wedding ceremonies, where the betrothed walk into the center separately, pronounce their vows, and walk the path out as a couple, symbolizing their walk through life together.

Increasingly, labyrinths are being used with youth groups, assisting children and adolescents in gaining insight into their own feelings and identity, calming them down, and helping them to share their pain and joy with others. Some labyrinths have been constructed in public parks, on private properties and on college campuses. They are built of stone, mowed into grass, painted on canvas, and even laid out with construction flags or ropes. Perhaps someday we will see them in malls and airports providing people who are rushing and hurrying an opportunity to pause and reflect on their own journey through life, hopefully assisting them in finding the peace for which we all hunger.

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