Some people clear their heads by running. Others practice yoga, hike to a mountaintop, or walk in silence. A labyrinth is another form of moving meditation, spiraling its participants toward its center and back out again. The non-branching path, while meandering, is singular. Where a maze confounds, a labyrinth clarifies.
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Labyrinths and mazes are often referred to interchangeably, but nowadays, “labyrinth” typically means a design with one path that moves from the outer edge to the center and back out again; and “maze” refers to a design with many confusing paths, dead ends, and often distinct entrances and exits. In Greek mythology, the labyrinth that Daedalus built to house the Minotaur was actually a maze — otherwise, Theseus wouldn’t have needed the thread from Ariadne to find his way back out of it. And Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth wasn’t about a labyrinth at all, but instead featured a maze for its heroine to navigate.
Labyrinth patterns appear in ancient petroglyphs, basket-weaving designs, and drawings, as well as in hedge patterns throughout England and Greece. In the Middle Ages, particularly after Muslim forces recaptured Jerusalem from Christian control, labyrinths may have offered a spiritual path for pilgrims no longer able to travel to the city itself. Ancient labyrinth designs also appear in Indian cave art and manuscripts; there are stone labyrinths near the White Sea in northwest Russia that may be as many as 3,000 years old; and I’itoi, the creator god of the O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert in North America, is often depicted as a figure standing at the entrance of a labyrinthine pattern.
Walking these circling pathways is said to bring great joy and inner peace, particularly to those in times of grief or confusion. And while complex inlaid-tile labyrinths are certainly beautiful, you can make your own backyard labyrinth out of just about anything: plants, a mowed pattern in grass, paint on a tarp. Even a miniature labyrinth on a piece of paper, traced with a finger, can offer the calming benefits of a larger labyrinth.
Healing Hearts Through Labyrinths
Trying times require thoughtful, creative ways to embrace and connect within and without — with ourselves and with our communities — to heal.
In 1986, the AIDS crisis in the United States had reached a fever pitch, and San Francisco, California, was one of the communities most affected. There was a great deal of misunderstanding about the disease, and terror and grief gripped the city.
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“Those years were very painful, and filled with loss,” says the Rev. Lauren Artress, who served from 1986 to 1992 as canon pastor at the Episcopal Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. “We really needed … a tool that could provide a prayerful path to solace — something people could do together and not have to talk.”
While on sabbatical in 1991, Artress walked a temporary labyrinth created by author and spiritualist Dr. Jean Houston, and found it a powerful tool for meditation. She was so inspired by her experience of walking the labyrinth that she brought one printed on canvas to Grace Cathedral—and saw firsthand how the experience gave a sense of calm and cohesion to those in a city being ripped apart.
The labyrinth is “a crucible of change, and a reflective mirror of the soul,” she says. “When you walk it, you really begin to drop into a part of yourself that longs for the holy or for solace. When we first started this work in ’91, I had no idea what we were offering to the world.”
Artress has since devoted her life to spreading that message, and has overseen the installation of thousands of labyrinths all over the world. In 1995, she founded Veriditas, a California nonprofit whose name means “the greening power of life,” and whose mission is “dedicated to inspiring personal and planetary change and renewal through the labyrinth experience.” The organization trains labyrinth facilitators worldwide, and hosts events and excursions that encourage people to reach a deeper understanding of the potential for healing and transformation through labyrinths.
To see a real labyrinth, refer to the world’s most famous: the 11-circuit pattern labyrinth from A.D. 1201, inlaid in the floor of the cathedral at Chartres, France. Or, try the most popular pattern, a seven-circuit classical labyrinth, which appears in a tablet from Pylos, Greece, dated 1200 B.C. Neolithic labyrinth patterns have been found in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Egypt. By the 17th century, labyrinth patterns appeared in books and pottery around the world, though mazes became more popular in gardens. Today, Sweden is home to the highest number of walkable labyrinths in the world, and a resurgence of interest in labyrinths has brought them to homes and businesses around the United States and made them mainstream over the past few decades.
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“It was a surprise to me in the beginning, that when we began to work with labyrinths, people wanted them everywhere,” Artress says. Veriditas and The Labyrinth Society have partnered to create the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator [www.LabyrinthLocator.com] that has archival data on more than 5,700 labyrinths (and several mazes) in more than 80 countries. Walkable labyrinths have been popping up with increasing regularity in outdoor gardens at public centers, and even in people’s backyards.
Go for a Walk
Elizabeth “BJ” Mosher, a trained Veriditas labyrinth facilitator who has worked with labyrinths her entire life, says you can seek several different things at once when you walk a labyrinth. “You can center yourself by letting your body know you’re about to walk this path,” she explains. Whether you’re seeking answers to specific questions, general stress relief or solace, or some mixture of these, walking a labyrinth can help clear your mind.
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Just as there’s no right material for a labyrinth, there’s no right way to walk one: “You can walk right across the center and back out if you want,” Mosher says. “Your left brain knows the directions — I’m going to walk in and out, and not get lost. So your left brain can relax a little more, while your right brain — your intuitive side — can answer the questions you’re seeking.”
While you walk, Mosher says, you’ll release information. When you get to the center of the labyrinth, you might have a clear sense of the answer to your question or worry, or you might simply find a momentary release of tension. Because your brain will be partially occupied with following the path — but not having to actively seek the correct path — most of your processing ability will be free to intuit solutions. Mosher also feels that being in the labyrinth is an experience separated from day-to-day life. You can use that experience to find the answers that are already in your brain, and emerge from the labyrinth ready to re-enter the world and put your findings to work.
Rev. Lauren Artress attributes some of the healing qualities of labyrinths to the shape of their paths. “Generally,” she says, “the path is no wider than a human being’s shoulders.” The narrow path allows walkers to fall into their natural pace, and simply follow along the spiral while their minds flow through the questions they’ve brought to the labyrinth.
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The complex, spiraling shape of the labyrinth as a whole is also instrumental in its effect. Cultures around the world attribute symbolic meanings to spirals, finding a suggestion of movement, growth, and change in their singular path around a central point. Classical labyrinths have seven circuits, a number that calls to mind the seven visible planets, chakras, colors, and even musical tones. By the medieval era, labyrinths were often constructed with 11 circuits around a 12th, central circle, with four quadrants formed by the 180-degree turns in the path.
The numerological significance of Gothic labyrinths extends to the number of turns on the path, the six-petaled flower often found at their centers, and the “lunations” — small semicircular decorations — inscribed around the outermost path of the labyrinth.
Modern labyrinths may incorporate significant numbers from many traditions, and some experiment with two paths to choose at the beginning of the labyrinth, which meet in the center. The topic is worth investigating if you’re interested in constructing your own labyrinth. Visit Build a Backyard Labyrinth for instructions to plan and install a labyrinth on your own property.