Walking the Labyrinth
by Susan Rowland, MFT
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
– Wallace Stevens
In our increasingly busy and complicated world finding time for quiet reflection is becoming necessary. Modern neuroscience has confirmed that meditative practices are healing for the traumatized or overworked brain. What are the activities we engage in for refreshment, renewal, connection with our imagination and creativity? What is it that deeply refreshes our mind, body and soul? What are the practices we regularly engage in that enable us to stay connected to our truth, conviction, and assurance whereby we deepen our spiritual life.
Contemplative spiritual practices such as journaling, dream work, solitude and silence or lectio divina are some of the familiar ways of finding space to nourish and quiet the soul. The labyrinth is an additional practice that many people are experiencing as a way of rest and inspiration for weary hearts and minds.
The labyrinth is often associated with medieval cathedrals; the most familiar Chartres Cathedral in France. This ancient walking meditation tool for prayerful reflection creates an opportunity to be a pilgrim – locally and without a lengthy investment of time.
Unlike a maze, whose goal is to confound, confuse or entertain, a labyrinth has a single path leading to the center and back out with no dead ends or decisions required. This allows the mind and body to slow to its own natural rhythm.
There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth other than being respectful of those who are on the path with you. The recommendation is to experience it as a metaphor, inviting one’s imaginative ability to companion walking. In the larger sense, the labyrinth can be seen as a symbol for the unique journey within which each of us is a participant. It offers reflection on the travel through space and time within the human life naturally filled with twists and turns. Or possibly more specific to the actual day one is walking.
For instance, on a recent walk, I became aware of a pain in my neck (literal). I paused in my walking to twist a bit in order to loosen the muscular grip. While present to the physical I began to consider whether there was something in my life that was a “pain in my neck” (metaphor). I became aware of the intense concentration of each step I was taking ostensibly to appreciate the beauty, effort and craftsmanship of the rock path. This reminded me of our home construction project (literal). What became evident in my pause was the “pain in the neck” of all the details and decisions required to complete remodeling. This pain offered me a choice to stop and consider the whole project as well as details, which included the knowledge it would be completed eventually. I trusted those working on my home and perhaps I could let go of some of the details that were creating a pain in my neck (literal and metaphor). In letting go of the outcome of the project and allowing myself a break from all the decisions required, my neck began to relax. This subtle movement back and forth between metaphor and literal experience allowed an opportunity for insight contributing to a more peaceful existence.
It is important to experience “your experience” as you walk, yet valuable to consider using a three-part process of Releasing, Receiving and Returning, to facilitate your time.
As you begin your walk Releasing may involve a slowing down of breathing, becoming conscious of your pace and attending to thoughts that may arise. This may include the surrender of expectations for the walk, or calming a critical voice inquiring how this time will be useful, or having concern whether the walk is being done correctly. With a deep breath or placing a hand on the heart, taking a moment of prayer, one can relax. At times one may have entered the labyrinth with a question, concern or dream needing attention. Gently releasing the pressure for solution is helpful at this point, while mindfully holding it in thought or prayer.
Receiving is often associated with arrival at the center. This is a time to pause, feeling free to stay as long as you like in whatever posture feels comfortable. Many times there is room to sit or kneel. The center is a place to pray or deeply listen, appreciating the moments of silence and surrender. If others arrive at the center while you are there you can step back, continue your walk or perhaps they will adjust their position.
Walking out of the center you will be Returning to the opening of the Labyrinth taking the same path. During this time it is helpful to consider how you will take in to the world what you have thought or heard within. Perhaps a new project will have appeared or a deep sense of peace, strengthening or relaxation. Many have said “nothing happened,” but are aware in the next few days that a dream or inspiration materialized.
Your pace and breathing may change during these three stages. Remain conscious of how the body, mind and spirit experienced the walking meditation. Often I find I have concentrated on my effort to breathe as I walk in and find myself “breathed into” as I leave, which happens to be the definition of inspiration. It may be helpful to take a moment before leaving to sit quietly or record your thoughts in a journal.
A common fear is that of getting lost. One of two things happen when one is lost on the path – either a return to the center or finding oneself at the beginning without having reached the center. Choices abound at this point. One can always redo the walk, but the holding of experience in metaphor may provide rich insight. What does being lost feel like? Is there anything that may be distracting you from your journey?
Another concern is meeting others on the path. Holding your eyes with a “soft gaze” is helpful. The “soft gaze” is one used while holding a newborn or looking into the eyes of a loved one. A “hard gaze” is valuable when looking for a street sign or locating a canned good on the crowded grocery shelf. The “soft gaze” facilitates the ease of movement around one another, whether stepping to the side or pausing so one can walk around you. Should you find yourself walking with someone who is slower or faster than your pace, passing or pausing allows space for each to remain in a natural rhythm.
Whether you are fortunate to have a lake or labyrinth nearby or even time for a thoughtful stroll in your neighborhood, may you find comfort in reconnecting with the truth.
To find a labyrinth near you, check the website Veriditas.org clicking on “Labyrinth Locator.” Should you be interested in a private or group walk with a facilitator please feel free to contact me for further information.
Susan Rowland is in private practice and a certified labyrinth facilitator through Veriditas.
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