Most of us know that constant stress can increase the risk for long-term health issues like heart attack and diabetes, and affect your over-all well-being in many detrimental ways. We’ve also heard that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety; improve focus, learning, memory, and energy; and bring clarity, serenity, and emotional strength.
Knowing this, it’s still hard for some of us to sit down and calm the mind long enough to gain all these benefits. The good news: There is an ancient tool for similar reflection and growth, which few of us understand or take time to utilize, but is now enjoying resurgence. It’s called a labyrinth.
The labyrinth has quite a bit to offer us, especially for those who find it difficult to meditate. Years ago I had walked a labyrinth under a magnificent old tree during my cancer healing journey, but a recent presentation by Certified Labyrinth Facilitator David Bentley renewed my interest. I didn’t even know there was such a designation, but David’s gentle presentation and vast knowledge certainly proved his week-long training. David’s own interest came about because of significant spiritual guidance he received as he stood in the center of a labyrinth.
Just to be clear: A labyrinth is different from a maze because it is not confusing, there are no tricks or dead ends, and no obstacles; the path always leads to the center. So the walker doesn’t have to focus on where she is or where she is going – the outcome is assured. Instead, the mind can relax into the experience. David explains the left brain gets caught up with the walking, which allows the right brain to have a meditative experience.
There are many different types of labyrinths, but they all lead the walker on a spiral path to a center point. Spirals are very prominent in nature, and most walkers find it quite calming to walk on the path. In this sense, it becomes a tool to allow our intuitive, pattern-seeking, symbolic mind to come forth – a meditation of sorts. Often it is seen as a metaphor for the path life, with circuitous turns, which sometimes bringing us close to the center, but then take us further away on a winding journey that ultimately leads us to the center as long as we stay on the path.
Melissa Gayle West, author of ‘Exploring the Labyrinth: a Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth’ writes “if a creative or work project is challenging you, walking can get your creative juices flowing. When you are struggling with grief or anger or a physical challenge or illness, walking the labyrinth can point the way to healing and wholeness. If you’re wanting a way to meditate or pray that engages your body as well as your soul, the labyrinth can be such a way. When you just want reflective time away from a busy life, the labyrinth can offer you time out.” Note, Melissa’s book also includes instruction on how to build your own labyrinth if you’re so inclined.
The labyrinth’s ancient power comes from the fact that it is an archetypal map of the healing journey. Labyrinths have increased in popularity in recent years and are now being used to complement cancer treatments, post-traumatic stress disorder treatments for veterans, grief work, and in prisons, churches, schoolyards, and on college campuses.
David reminds us that it is perfectly fine to have rituals in the labyrinth but to remember that it is not magic; it is merely a tool. He offers these suggestions for labyrinth walkers:
- Before you enter the labyrinth, make sure you are grounded and present. Set your intention. Note, there is a difference between ‘intention’ and ‘expectation.’ ‘Intention’ means you would like to receive guidance on your next step, not looking for a specific answer. ‘Expectation’ is like “I want to know what my next job should be.” He says there can be all kinds of things that can meet your expectations when you’re not expecting but rather paying attention to everything along the path, looking with intention.
- When you start walking, notice what your body wants: how fast, how slow, stop and look?
- We don’t all walk at the same pace and there’s no reason to get frustrated with someone else’s pace holding you up. It’s okay to step off the path to allow others to pass or for you to move beyond someone.
- There’s nothing wrong with going straight out if at any time it’s too much. You don’t have to go all the way to the middle, or follow the path back out. There are no rules.
- Pay attention to your body. We have body knowledge, data, and wisdom. Data is like “Oh, I need to slow down.” Data turns into knowledge such as “If I get frustrated behind others all the time, maybe I need to slow down.” Knowledge then is applied to wisdom in other parts of your life; just do things in increments rather than the whole thing at once.
- Keep in mind that you won’t have the same experience on repeat walks, and you won’t ‘pick up where you left off.’
- If you are watching others walk the labyrinth, you are ‘witness.’ Sometimes what you see can be as meaningful as on your own walk.
There are two main organizations to acquaint people with the labyrinth. The Labyrinth Society, http://labyrinthsociety.org/, the more secular of the two, is an international group of labyrinth enthusiasts whose mission is to support all those who create, maintain, and use labyrinths, and to serve the global community by providing education, networking and opportunities to experience transformation. Veriditas, https://www.veriditas.org/ ,The World Wide Labyrinth Project, is more religious-oriented.
PAXworks, http://www.paxworks.com/ is a website designed to share the peacefulness found in walking the labyrinth, photographs, products and other information about labyrinths.
If you don’t know of a labyrinth in your area, go to the World Wide Labyrinth Locator, http://labyrinthlocator.com/ to find a comprehensive data base of labyrinths. Who knew???
Wishing you peaceful walking,