Labyrinth: Walking the Path of the Heart
Could this centuries-old meditation help you or your clients explore the body-mind connection?
On the messy road of life, it is often challenging to determine what your next step will be, what direction you will take, which way you will turn. Perhaps that is one reason why walking a labyrinth as a meditation is so appealing: the journey is clearly marked, unobstructed and in full view. Although it twists and winds its way to the center (you do have to pay attention if you don’t want to wander off), there are no tricks, wrong choices or dead ends. To reach your destination, all you have to do is follow the path.
A labyrinth was used as a meditation tool at the 2007 Inner IDEA® Conference, and labyrinths can be found today in spas and retreat centers, churches, medical centers, schools, parks, hospitals, prisons, memorial gardens and people’s backyards. Typically, labyrinths used for meditation are based on patterns that date back thousands of years and have roots in many cultures and spiritual traditions, including those of the Celts, Mayans, Greeks and Native Americans. The labyrinth pattern is similar to the Medicine Wheel in Native American tradition and the Kabbalah in mystical Judaism.
The labyrinth commonly consists of a circular path that moves clockwise from the entrance to the center, traveling through all four quadrants. The same path is used to walk in and out of the labyrinth. The geometric structure for most labyrinths is designed to recreate archetypal patterns associated with numerous cultural and spiritual symbols: the four quadrants representing the four gospels or the four elements, seven circuits representing the seven chakras, eleven circuits plus the center representing the 12 months of the calendar, and so on. The most famous labyrinth pattern is the eleven-circuit medieval labyrinth found in Chartres Cathedral in France, inlaid into the stone floor in 1201. Labyrinths can be constructed elaborately and permanently or made quite simply, as with a portable canvas or with a dirt path marked by rocks or masking tape.
Regardless of the design or the materials used, the process of walking the labyrinth involves three phases: walking toward the center, the stage of releasing or letting go of thoughts or cares; reaching the center, the stage of receiving new insight or spiritual grace; and walking back out, the stage of union or of returning to the world with new awareness. The labyrinth can be walked individually or as a group (single-file), and is often done slowly, in silence or to soft music.
“You are taking a pilgrimage of sorts when you walk the labyrinth,” says Phyllis Pilgrim, director of body-mind-spirit and specialty week programs at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, and presenter of the walking labyrinth meditation at Inner IDEA. “When you go on a pilgrimage, you walk to a sacred place, such as Lourdes or Mecca, in search of spiritual grace or enlightenment. The labyrinth is a metaphor for taking that journey—traveling to a destination of spiritual teaching and then going back home.”
In fact, labyrinths have a history of being used for pilgrimages, particularly during times when it was difficult or treacherous to reach sacred destinations. In the past, seekers even traveled labyrinths on their knees, praying continuously.
“I think of the labyrinth meditation as a journey of the heart,” says Pilgrim. “You walk a seemingly convoluted path that ends up at the middle, or the center of your heart, and then you want to be open to what it has to say to you. Hopefully, when you’re through, you’re perhaps a little bit more open to change, and a more peaceful, loving being.”
Pilgrim has been guiding labyrinth meditations for spa guests at Rancho La Puerta for more than a decade. In honor of the millennium in 2000, the destination spa installed a permanent labyrinth, sheltered in an oak grove. Till then, guests had used a canvas labyrinth designed by the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, known to many as the foremost name in labyrinth meditation practice.
Artress is founder and creative director of Veriditas, the World-Wide Labyrinth Project, and author of several books on labyrinth meditation (see “Resources” on page 83). She created the well- known labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, modeled after the one at Chartres, and is responsible for much of the resurgence of labyrinth use around the world.
Says Artress, “The labyrinth is a spiritual tool that has many applications in various settings. It reduces stress, quiets the mind and opens the heart. It is a walking meditation, a path of prayer, and a blueprint where psyche meets spirit.” Artress teaches labyrinth workshops around the world, and her organization also offers training for labyrinth facilitators.
Pilgrim notes that the labyrinth experience is ideal for many types of people, regardless of their spiritual background or experience with body-mind practices. “It is very well received by most spa guests, though it is usually a completely new experience for them,” says Pilgrim. “They can do it as part of a guided group or on their own. It works really well because many guests don’t want to sit still for a meditation twice a day, but they like the idea of a walking meditation. This is a bit more of a ‘doing,’ rather than just an experience of being. For fitness professionals or their clients who are more comfortable being active than still, the labyrinth is a nice opportunity to meditate, or [to] make the transition to seated meditation.”
Labyrinths are currently being used worldwide in a variety of ways: to seek spiritual guidance, to quiet the mind, to cope with problems or loss, to reduce stress or develop more balance, to ease transition, to increase creativity or simply to be self-reflective.
Pilgrim advises labyrinth walkers to clear their minds for the experience, have no expectations and just be open to their thoughts and feelings as they walk. “You make of it what you want,” she says. “People often describe the experience as very pleasant, calming and centering. There are many different approaches you can take. For example, you can think of something specific, like peace, at every step. Or you can write down or think of a question or problem and see what answers come as you walk. There does seem to be something powerful about walking back and forth in the concentric circles of the labyrinth, and there are a variety of theories about how it works. Some experts believe it activates both left and right sides of the brain.” (In fact, as Pilgrim points out, the labyrinth looks a little like a brain.)
The benefits of labyrinth walking have been explored in psychotherapy. In “Off the Couch: An Introduction to Labyrinths & Their Therapeutic Properties,” licensed clinical professional counselor and certified Veriditas facilitator Neal Harris, LCPC, DAPA, writes: “There is anecdotal research by a psychiatrist, Dr. Wayne London, which indicates that a labyrinth positively effects the brain wave activity and neurological responses of some of its users.” Adds Harris, “This research shows a short-term increase in mental clarity in some people with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and dyslexia, as well as greater mobility in some who are suffering with Parkinson’s disease. These effects, however, have not as yet been studied long-term” (Harris 1999).
Like Pilgrim, Harris notes that people who find it difficult to sit still and meditate or pray will find a perfect outlet in the moving contemplation that is the labyrinth experience. “It is both kinesthetic and introspective, a complete mind-body integrative activity,” he says.
Ultimately, the experience of walking a labyrinth is entirely individual, unpredictable and even a little mysterious. “What the labyrinth means for you or your clients is open,” says Pilgrim. “It’s nothing didactic. Each time you walk it, you discover something new. You experience the twists and turns of life in a new way, and you change consciousness. When you walk with a group, for example, you’ll find yourself face to face with someone for a moment, then you both turn in another direction, and you may meet again later on the path. That experience reminds me of my own life as I meet guests who come and go in my classes, just as people come and go in my life.”
Pilgrim adds that intention is an important part of the process. “You can walk a labyrinth carelessly, just as you can do anything in life carelessly. But if you walk with openness and mindfulness, you’ll learn and make discoveries from the experience. Your heart will teach you.”
www.geomancy.org/sacred-space/labyrinths/about-labyrinths/construction/index.html: instructions for building a labyrinth; information on sacred geometry, chakras and music as they relate to labyrinths
www.gracecathedral.org/labyrinth: Grace Cathedral labyrinths, online “finger meditation” labyrinth
www.labyrinthcompany.com: labyrinth purchase and rental
www.labyrinthsociety.org: labyrinth information, worldwide labyrinth locator
www.lessons4living.com/labyrinth.html: ways to use a labyrinth and other information
www.relax4life.com/articles.html: information on psychology and the labyrinth
www.veriditas.net: workshops with Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, labyrinth facilitation training, worldwide labyrinth locator, products
Artress, L. 1995. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. New York: Riverhead.
Artress, L. 2000. The Sand Labyrinth: Meditation at Your Fingertips. Boston: Journey Editions.
Artress, L. 2006. The Sacred Path Companion: A Guide to Walking the Labyrinth to Heal and Transform. New York: Riverhead.
Curry, H. 2000. The Way of the Labyrinth: A Powerful Meditation for Everyday Life. New York: Penguin.
West, M.G. 2000. Exploring the Labyrinth: A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth. New York: Broadway Books.
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Sidebar: Tips for Using a Labyrinth
There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. The process is open to your creativity, and you or your clients may find that you respond to different methods at different times in your life. Here are a variety of ways to explore the possibilities of labyrinth meditation:
- Take some time to reflect before entering the labyrinth. You can concentrate on a specific topic or question or on a particular person, event or situation in your life. You can also develop a specific intention to use in your meditation, or just take time to relax and clear your mind as much as possible.
- Maintain awareness of your breath as you walk. Pay attention to your thoughts as they come, and then gently let them go.
- Consider walking barefoot, if safe and appropriate.
- Think of the journey of your own life as you walk, asking yourself what your labyrinth experience represents in your life.
- Pay attention to the experience of your senses as you walk. What are the sights, sounds and smells? What are the physical sensations of touch?
- Create individual or group rituals. For example, have one person wait at the center and let others greet that person and share a moment with him or her, one at a time, as they walk the path. Rituals can celebrate events, say good-bye to something or someone or commemorate experiences or emotions.
- Share your labyrinth experiences with others after you walk, through talking, writing or drawing.
- If you don’t have a labyrinth in your area, consider making your own. Instructions are available on a variety of labyrinth websites. See “Resources” on page 83.
- Whatever you experience, relax and enjoy it. Focus on the journey, not the destination.
Sidebar: Experience it Yourself
Want to find out what the experience of a labyrinth is like? Try the online “finger meditation” labyrinth exercise at www.gracecathedral.org. Of course, it’s not the same as actually walking a labyrinth. To find out if there is a labyrinth located in your area, see the labyrinth locater service at www.labyrinthsociety.org.
© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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