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Walking the Labyrinth

By Anne Lundblad

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.” —T.S. Eliot

Stop and smell the roses. This directive seems to go against everything we believe. As athletes and lovers of adventure, much of what we focus on is adrenaline-based excitement. We seek extremes. Run the gnarliest trail, red point the most heinous route, find your line and burn the downhills. It’s all about speed and distance – cover as much ground as fast as you can, and have a blast along the way.

These days, however, more and more people are using the outdoors for another purpose, as a means of obtaining peace, relaxation, and spiritual insight. Individuals across the Southeast and the world are rediscovering the benefits of walking a labyrinth. The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator lists over two thousand labyrinths in the U.S., with close to three hundred here in the Southeast. People who walk them regularly report that the activity relieves stress and helps them to relax and think clearly.

Dismissed by some as New Age nonsense, labyrinths have actually been around for thousands of years. There are labyrinth petroglyphs in Spain that could be as old as 2,000 B.C. Labyrinths have been discovered within the ruins of cities of ancient Turkey dating back to 5,000 B.C. Labyrinths have always been associated with ancient pilgrimage routes and rituals of self-discovery. They are believed to have been an integral part of many cultures, including Celtic, Mayan, Greek, and Native American. They have been used by followers of most of the world’s religions and are now available not only at churches but at public parks, schools and hospitals.

Some believe that the original labyrinth comes from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In this classic tale of initiation and the hero’s journey, Theseus enters the labyrinth, slays the half-man, half-bull Minotaur and exits triumphant. Many medieval churches have a mosaic and picture of the Minotaur in the center of their labyrinths. Although modern times may not present us with beasts to slay, one could argue that we each have our internal battles to fight. In this contemporary view, one meets oneself in the center of the labyrinth.

A labyrinth is not the same as a maze. A maze is “multicursal”, challenging those who enter with multiple paths and dead ends. A labyrinth is “unicursal”, meaning that it has a single path that leads to the pattern’s center, in spite of many circuits and switchbacks. Walking a labyrinth is symbolic of the journey of life, which can also contain twists and turns. There are no dead ends, and no choices…other than the choice to keep walking forward. As reaching the center is assured, walking the labyrinth is more about the journey than the destination, about being rather than doing. Michelle Bigard, MSW, a certified labyrinth instructor and counselor at Central Michigan University, uses this as a metaphor for life. “There’s so much in life we’re not in control of – how do we manage the twists and turns?”

According to a website on North Carolina labyrinths, there are many reasons to walk a labyrinth, among them prayer, centering, problem solving, inspiration, and walking meditation. The site offers the following suggestions on how to walk a labyrinth:

Stage One:

Releasing As you enter the labyrinth, take time to clear your mind, taking slow breaths and moving at your own pace. This is the time to let go of the stressors of the outside world and focus internally. Bigard says that it is helpful to focus the labyrinth walk with an intention or a question.

Stage Two:

Receiving Reaching the center of the labyrinth is a time for meditation or prayer, listening and receiving answers, inspiration, or messages of comfort.

Stage Three:

Integrating The walk out of the labyrinth is the time to reconnect with the outside world and to reflect, relating the experience to one’s life.

Bigard emphasizes that there is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. “Pay attention to the process and its metaphor for life.” She points out that it is important to be open to the flow of one’s own experience.
Whether you’re on a quest for heroic self-discovery or simply a different way to quietly enjoy the outdoors, a labyrinth walk could be just what you’re looking for. Most labyrinths are free and open to the public, so check one out in your area.

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