Travels through years of our difficult relationship seemed to wind like a maze, filled with dead ends and double backs that compounded frustration. I often felt lost or as if I was running in circles – chasing my tail like our white long haired cat. And if I happened to catch that symbolic tail, success simply locked me into a position with little chance for change or new movement. Releasing my grip brought the only hope of breaking the pattern, and maybe stalling the beginning of the cycle again.
On a trip to visit a friend I was introduced to a new kind of circle, one purposely designed to slow running to a walk – a labyrinth. Within the outer boundary a path meandered in a specific pattern of tight turns that twisted back and forth until the walker arrived at the center. The path towards the middle represented the journey to one’s own center, and the same path back to the beginning represented the return to the world. There were no dead ends like those in a maze. The minimal attention required to follow the single undivided path could allow the mind to calm, and perhaps detect a path for the heart to follow instead.
I entered the Labyrinth for the first time. There was no need to unravel a thread to find my way back, as in the epic myth of the Minotaur. But the tightly twisted threads of my thoughts did seem to loosen as I walked. Midway through the convolutions a deep sigh escaped from my lungs and a sense of relaxation flowed from my head to my soul. Hmmm, what was that all about? Arriving at the center I saw a large rosette design containing six petals, each big enough for one person to stand on. Starting from the left and moving clockwise the petals represented the six realms of creation: mineral, plant, animal, human, angelic and the unknown. I stepped into each briefly, then turned and started the trip back out. As I returned along the path I noticed lightness in my steps and a quieter brain.
After my initial experience with the labyrinth I immediately began a search for more information. The book Walking a Sacred Path by Dr. Lauren Artress was soon in my hands and the ancient origins of labyrinths and their uses through the ages were revealed. Her description of her experiences propelled me forward in my own search.: “I moved from curiosity to skepticism to profound respect for the uncanny gifts of insight, wisdom, and peace the labyrinth offers. It connects us to the depths of our souls so we can remember who we are.”
I learned labyrinths were ancient designs found all over the world with no known origin, dating back to 4000 BC and found on cave walls, coins, and in written history. Their structures varied from simple mounds of dirt to complex exacting constructions. The design was based on the circle, the universal symbol for unity and wholeness. Dr. Artress went on to describe walking the Labyrinth: “…clears the mind and gives insight into the spiritual journey. It urges action. It calms people in the throes of life transitions…” Now I knew I needed to continue this exploration; to find a way to calm my life as I faced the transitions around me. She explained why the action of walking could be helpful in this process: “Movement takes away the excess charge of psychic energy that disturbs our efforts to quiet our thought processes.” I needed to pay attention to this tool I so desperately needed, that had entered into my life so unexpectedly.
And so it began, a journey that continued across several years, and continues to this day – a search that crossed several state lines and many states of mind. Whenever an occasion for travel arose I consulted the online World Wide Labyrinth Locator to scout out nearby structures. Once the seeking began I was amazed to find labyrinths everywhere, several within a few miles of my own home! What else had I missed in my travels through the world; my focus initially narrowed by isolation and then by my own need to fit in and feel ‘good enough’?
Labyrinth sizes ranged from barely five inches (a finger labyrinth) to over 50 feet in width. They were fashioned from all kinds of materials: painted canvas, rocks and boulders, grass, gravel, sawdust, straw, simple clay bricks, extravagant quarried paving stones, temporary outlines of masking tape on carpet, or even drawn in the sand. Some were smooth and level, some demanded cautious steps to avoid roots and stones, and others required intense concentration to distinguish the path from its surroundings. They were located everywhere from open fields and deep woods to paved parking lots and – like the most famous in Chartres Cathedral in France – on interior floors. They also ranged from meticulous and formal to rough and rustic. No two were ever quite alike, but almost all shared the specific design of either seven or eleven circuits that led to the center and back out. Some were public and others were private. Some were open to people around the clock while others required permission to use. Each offered its own unique experience and many yielded unexpected revelations.
My feet led me through labyrinth after labyrinth. The sigh released along the path, along with the relaxation as one foot was placed in front of the other, became familiar –yet somehow always surprised me! Sometimes I entered with a specific question that was begging for an answer. Other times there was no question, just an open heart looking for clues as to how to remain that way. Some days there were answers or hints of directions. Other days there were none in the form of concrete thoughts or images, but there might be a shift in mood or an ease of movement on the trip back out. Occasionally my feet danced upon the surface on return trip for no reason other than notes of joy playing in my head.
Dr. Artress described the pilgrim as one who: “seeks to follow the spirit’s compass which guides us to find an inner openness to the outer world of people, places and events that become the fabric of our lives.” She also described: “The shift from tourist, who comes with an interested eye, to pilgrim, who comes with a searching heart….” I knew I had became a pilgrim; using moments of opportunity as well as planned excursions to seek my heart’s experiences within the labyrinth’s path, sensing a growing connection to something greater than myself with each walk.