What Is a Labyrinth?
I flick on my computer, log on to the Internet, and type "labyrinth" into the waiting box of my favorite search engine. After several seconds the screen informs me that 9,636 matches have been found: personal home pages on labyrinths; websites filled with stories and poetry about personal labyrinth experiences; web pages detailing labyrinth history and esoterica; churches and retreat center sites sporting pictures and stories about their labyrinths; organizations such as Caerdroia and Veriditas (which reported 21,000 "hits" in a day following a New York Times story about the labyrinth renaissance) devoted exclusively to labyrinths; labyrinth online games; and even websites with "virtual" labyrinths for those without access to "real" labyrinths.
Labyrinths are also found on Earth as well as in cyberspace. They are being built on school playgrounds like Pinehurst in Seattle and the Cape Cod Lighthouse School in Orleans, Massachusetts, and on the campus of Ohio State University. The California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco offers its courtyard labyrinth to patients, family members, and hospital staff. Staff and patients who have used the labyrinth for stress reduction and contemplation have been so enthusiastic about their experiences that other hospitals around the country are building similar labyrinths. Prisons are building labyrinths on site or inviting facilitators to present programs with portable labyrinths to inmates.
Churches all over the country are creating labyrinths, from the huge Earth Wisdom Labyrinth on the grounds of a Unitarian church in Elgin, Illinois; to labyrinths at the United Methodist Community Church in Aspen, Colorado; and the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Mobile, Alabama; to the "mother church," Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where the revival of the ecclesiastical labyrinth movement began. Private labyrinths are appearing in backyards and on the lawns of conference centers, on beaches, in snowfields, and deep in national forests; a recent Boston Globe article reported thirty labyrinths open to the public in the eastern part of Massachusetts alone.
Whoever you are, walking the labyrinth has something to offer you. If a creative or work project is challenging you, walking can get your creative juices flowing. When you are struggling with grief, anger, a physical challenge or illness, walking the labyrinth can point the way to healing and wholeness. If you're looking for a way to meditate or pray that engages your body as well as your soul, the labyrinth is the answer. When you just want reflective time away from a busy life, the labyrinth can bring you peace. The labyrinth, as you will learn, holds up a mirror, reflecting back to us not only the light of our finest selves but also whatever keeps us from shining forth.
What Is a Labyrinth?
Though the two are often confused, a labyrinth is different from a maze. The labyrinth is one of the oldest contemplative and transformational tools known to humankind, used for centuries for prayer, ritual, initiation, and personal and spiritual growth. This ancient and powerful tool is universal, offering only one route to the center and back out again: no blind alleys, dead ends, or tricks, like a maze has. No matter where you are in the labyrinth, you can always see the center. Once you set your foot upon its path, the labyrinth gently and faultlessly leads you to the center of both the labyrinth and yourself, no matter how many twists and turns you negotiate in the process.
Since the destination is assured, there are no obstacles to overcome, no muddles to figure out, no dead ends to retrace. What remains for the labyrinth walker is simply the deeply meditative and symbolic discipline of setting one foot in front of the other, of honoring the journey itself and what it has to teach. The mind can be stilled and attention paid to the body, the wisdom of the heart, and the graces of being rather than doing.
Remember the mazes from your childhood? Tracing and retracing your pencil through a frustrating tangle of lines to get to the center? Mazes are puzzles: To figure one out, whether the maze is negotiated by foot or by pencil, the mind must be acutely focused in an active quest to find the right way out while avoiding getting hopelessly lost. Walking mazes, such as the formal boxwood hedge mazes in England, have walls or high hedges to obscure vision and confound the walker. They require acute attention to choices at intersecting paths and a high degree of critical awareness to remember detours and dead ends. Mazes do not grace those who enter; they taunt, tease, and challenge.
Two radically different scenes come to my mind when I think about the difference between a maze and a labyrinth: the Halloween maze at the Herb Farm near Seattle where I go to annually for an autumn outing with my family and a labyrinth walk I recently led for Winter Solstice.
Negotiating the Herb Farm's maze, set in a field and constructed with eight-foot-high walls of hay bales, is challenging, confusing, and fun. Kids and grown-ups alike run through its twists, turns and dead ends, doubling back and bumping into one another while searching for the way out. Silliness and confusion reign amid much gleeful shouting when searchers finally escape the maze's challenging paths.
At the Winter Solstice labyrinth walk, deep and contemplative silence is the norm. Walkers slowly place one foot in front of the other on their journey to center, turned inward in meditation, healing work, or simple awareness of breath and step.
The labyrinth's ancient power derives from the fact that it is an archetypal map of the healing journey. The walk itself is a potent physical metaphor for the journeys of healing, spiritual and emotional growth, and transformation. In walking the labyrinth, we start at the perimeter. The path of the labyrinth, like any journey, has its own twists and turns, sometimes drawing near to and then away from the center.
It is only by keeping to the path, step by step, twist by turn, that one arrives at the physical center of the labyrinth, which signifies arriving at the center of our own lives and souls. Reaching the center of the labyrinth represents reaching the center, not only of our own hearts and spirits but of the goal we seek: Spirit, release from emotional or physical pain, a solution to a challenging problem or creative task, the unobstructed Self.
With today's labyrinth renaissance, two forms of the labyrinth have assumed prominence. These, the Cretan form and the Chartres form, are the ones explored in this book. Both produce the same powerful results; preferences are based on personal aesthetics, individual connection to liturgical forms or allegiance to Earth-based spiritualities, or simply the ease of installing one form over another.
The Cretan labyrinth, named after the island of Crete, home of the mythical labyrinth in which dwelled the Minotaur, takes the walker through seven circuits before reaching the center. It is the oldest and most universal form of the labyrinth, dating back at least 3,500 years. (See Figure 1.1.) Almost all other forms of the labyrinth are a variation of this classic model, save for the Chartres labyrinth.
The Chartres labyrinth, named after the permanent stone labyrinth set into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France during the thirteenth century, has eleven concentric paths that wind through four quadrants of a circle. It is a distinctly Christian pattern, an equal-armed cross visible in its elegant layout. Set in the center is a rosette, a six-petaled design representing a rose, traditional symbol for the Virgin Mary. (See Figure 1.2.)
Why the astonishing and sudden popularity of the labyrinth? Walking the labyrinth fulfills six important contemporary needs: deepening spirituality; inwardness and connection to soul; access to intuition and creativity; simplicity; for integration of body and spirit; and intimacy and community. The labyrinth addresses all of these six human needs, transforming the lives of those who take the time to walk its circuits.
Melissa Gayle West is a psychotherapist and a leader in the flourishing labyrinth movement. She has led many labyrinth-based workshops as Program Director of Harmony Hill retreat center. She lives in Seattle, Washington.