Path to Peace
Walking a labyrinth is an ancient meditative practice with modern adherents.
by Linda Melone
With roots that stretch back to patterns found on a clay tablet from Pylos in Greece, labyrinths date back many centuries. Although typically circular, labyrinths may form a square or other geometric shape. Walking a labyrinth as a meditative practice brings about a feeling of peacefulness and focus, much like walking meditation, proponents say. The Chartres Cathedral near Paris houses one of the most famous labyrinths, where it was walked as a pilgrimage to become closer to God.
Labyrith walks appear to reduce stress. A study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry and Medicine (2012) involving healthcare providers showed a decreased level of stress and improvements in mental well-being from mindfulness training that included walking meditation for 2 1/2 hours a week for eight weeks. Another labyrinth-walking pilot study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing (2/12) found positive trends in blood pressure after one to six weeks.
Not to be confused with mazes, which branch off in different directions, labyrinths employ a single path leading to a center point, without loops or forks. There’s no right or wrong path. Labyrinths are categorized according to “circuits,” which refer to the number of times the paths wind around the center. The 11-circuit Chartres (after the famous Paris church) and Classic-7 are the most common types.
Walking one helps to refocus and relax. “We’re all running around at a thousand miles an hour,” says Lee McCormick, founder of The Ranch Recovery Center and co-founder of Integrative Life Center in Nashville, Tennessee (www.integrativelifecenters.com). “Walking the labyrinth helps bring your attention the next step, the next inhale and the next exhale. We literally have to retrain our ability to direct our own attention. The walking also makes it physical, so it engages you on all levels at the same time.” McCormick has built more than half a dozen labyrinths in various facilities and for a variety of organizations in different parts of the country.
Metaphor for Life
The calming effect of walking labyrinths makes them popular with places of worship, healing centers and schools such as Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. Goucher built the labyrinth on its campus as a memoriam for two girls who died during their freshman year. An anonymous alumnus donated the money, says Cynthia Terry, the college chaplain.
“As it got closer to the anniversary of what would have been their graduation, we thought of the labyrinth as a place of beauty in their memory,” Terry says. “The campus sits on 270 acres of land on the Baltimore Beltway in a stunningly beautiful setting.”
Students and teachers use the labyrinth to meditate, pray and reflect, walking the five to seven minutes along the crushed gravel path to the center. “There’s no right or wrong way to walk it and you don’t have to be of any particular religion,” says Terry, adding that she walked the labyrinth when planning her father’s eulogy.
“It’s a wonderful metaphor for college life, because you can’t really tell where your path is, but if you trust, you’ll get where you’re going,” she says. “You can also stand in one place and take one or two tiny steps and end up facing in an entirely different direction.”
A labyrinth can also offer a healing respite for patients and their families, as it does at The Gathering Place, a non-profit, community-based cancer support center in the greater Cleveland area (www.touchedbycancer.org). The Gathering Place houses three labyrinths, including an 11-circuit version in a parking lot where people can walk it whenever they like, says Kathy Maxwell, a licensed social worker on staff at the facility.
We use the labyrinth as a standalone activity or in conjunction with ongoing support groups, such as a group of older adults with cancer or the group for people with blood cancer,” says Maxwell. The center also uses the labyrinth to celebrate the summer and winter solstices, and sometimes combines the walk with yoga, poetry, drumming or other creative uses.
“There’s so many unknowns with the cancer journey,” says Maxwell. “So walking the labyrinth works as a great metaphor, since you’re not always sure where you are or what’s coming up for you.” The unpredictable pattern of the labyrinth engages your analytical brain, which makes it easy to let go of your over-active “monkey mind,” and turn your thoughts to your breath, says Maxwell, referring to the difficulty many people have with traditional meditation, where thoughts often get in the way of being in the moment.
Maxwell says the labyrinth can be used as a way to symbolically let go of that which holds you back. “Carry a piece of paper with whatever you want to release and drop it on the path as you walk,” she says.
The Fur Peace Ranch, a Southeast Ohio guitar camp run by Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and his wife Vanessa, has two labyrinths.
The bigger of the two is a seven-channel labyrinth set on the site of a old sweat lodge that Vanessa says has a special spiritual allure. The second was built just outside the gates for visitors who get shut out of sold out concerts at the guitar camp.
The Fur Peace Ranch is something of a retreat and respite for its visiting students, but it’s often hard work for the Kaukonens. So Vanessa says she regularly visits the bigger labyrinth to unwind. “As special as this place is,” Vanessa says, “it’s pretty stressful. My hands are in so many different things and I get addicted to a project, so it’s never ending.”
The large labyrinth, in addition to providing a place for the guitar camp’s students, teachers and operators to meditate and find solace, was used by inmates—including juveniles who committed adult crimes—from the local prison when they went on outings to clean nearby trails.
The Kaukonens demand from the inmates respect for their property, especially in the labyrinth. Neither cursing nor spitting is allowed. And Vanessa’s rule that silence is, well, golden, is meant to give the labyrinth walkers a chance to grow.
“If you tap into that part of yourself that needs to be quiet,” she says, “you’ll have your answer by the time you leave. It’s pretty powerful just from a spiritual point of view. These boys feel like they’re worthless and that nobody cares about them. They’re grateful that I’ve extended my hand of friendship and they’re peaceful and calm. They say ,’Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir.’ For that moment they have been lifted out of themselves and they are transported, I believe.”
The Kaukonens had their second labyrinth built to honor the memory of a friend, David Weiss, who was killed in 9/11.
Pamela Martino, a Clarksburg, West Virginia, labyrinth facilitator who built the Kaukonens’ labyrinths and holds workshops, says there is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth—and no prescribed amount of time to spend in one.
One suggestion Martino has, however, is to enter a labyrinth with some intention—whether it is to calm down or focus on a loved one.
“I’ve seen people walk it two or three times,” Martino says. “I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where there are many labyrinths, including public labyrinths. I saw an older woman keep going around and around and around. She would start and end and start and end. It had to be over an hour.”