Whenever I get the notion that I need to let go of something, I want to walk a labyrinth to facilitate that action. Western culture, especially in the US is devoted to the getting and keeping of material things. We have been conditioned since early childhood to reap all we can and then ask for a bigger toybox. Getting, accumulating, stockpiling, building. These are the words of empire and power. We are rarely taught how to let go of our accumulations. Marie Kondo knows this, that’s how she built her own fortune. But now, Ms. Kondo has three kids and has had a change of heart. I believe her next book will be about letting go of her previously published standards, shoving all the crap in your house aside and just putting up with its presence until some future date when the kids leave home and you can jettison their stuff to the nearest Goodwill donation center.
Yet, object holding is not the only vice we need to release from our sphere. Our emotional health depends on being able to let go of petty grudges, fear of the unknown, anger and other emotional baggage that holds us back from being truly happy. That’s where a labyrinth comes in handy. It is the ultimate Kondo-style releasing of the stuff in your head. You can’t, after all, drive your fear of failure to the recycling center and hand it off to someone else who might have a better use for it. Burning rituals also work for this purpose, but I avoid those as I have a fear of having to clean up afterwards.
The labyrinth is not the same as a maze. There’s an open path to walk, with no dead ends leading to wails of despair when you can’t find your way out of the corn stalks and start crying “you said this would be fun.” The inviting aspect of the labyrinth is that you can concentrate on the inner workings of your psyche without having to put much thought as to where your feet are heading. When you get to the middle, you can stop and ponder the existential qualities of your humanness and then turn around and follow the path to the exit. Which is also the entrance.
The history of the labyrinth is simple. They have been around since BCE, both constructed into the landscape as well as represented in art and personal decoration. Ancient ones have been found all over the world, in various forms, consistently created without the benefit of social media or telecommunications, which makes them a true, universal idea– a structure consisting of spiral pathways, which we still enjoy today. There seems to have been an uptick in building them back in the Middle Ages, when Christian churches solidified the classic design and allowed the rabble to amble the pathways to keep them from rioting and overthrowing their authority. I am, obviously, no historian, and can only surmise as to who was permitted to walk the walk. Authentic researchers claim labyrinths were heavy on symbolism and deep in purpose (re-enactment of mythology, walking to the Holy Land, rites of spring, transcendental experience, spiritual awakening) and most likely not built for fun. Whatever their historical use, labyrinths are very popular (and fun!) in the here and now as they can be walked for whatever personal reason is drawing one to that pathway.
My first labyrinth walk was a guided group experience which I enjoyed immensely. I trailed along the circuitous path, thinking the assigned thoughts and reveling in this upgrade of walking meditation. My only annoyance came as I had to maneuver around other bodies on the trail, thinking whoever constructed this thing should have made the roadway wider, which was not conducive to staying mentally and spiritually on track. After swirling along the outer circuits, I finally entered the center core only to find a dogged group of lingerers. I assumed they were deep into their meditations and weren’t cognizant of the gaggle of newcomers hoping to get their own moment in the deep center. I admit part of my meditation consisted of creating plans for a timer mechanism which gave the participant a subtle nudge toward wrapping it up and continuing their journey so that those behind them can have their turn in this significant spot. After gently elbowing in between my fellow travelers, I was able to settle back down to the task at hand. Since it was my first time, I spent just a minute or so at the center circle and then quietly slid back out between the bodies to walk my way out via the same circuitous path. I felt like I had just discovered my favorite form of meditation and self-psychoanalysis. Throw some chanting in there, and I would most likely take up permanent residence.
I have participated in many labyrinth walks since then, both on my own and with small groups. I have even lead some of these activities, sometimes giving meditative guidance or just allowing participants to enjoy their own interpretation of what should go on during that spirally trip. A greater opportunity for joy came along when I participated in building a couple of these meditative walkways. The first was constructed by members of my church at our retreat center in the Texas Hill Country. My friend Rita and I, being the grande dames of meditative journeys, set out to locate an appropriate area in which to make our labyrinth, using only a sense of rightness to guide us to the perfect location. The retreat property consisted of 142 acres of gently rolling hills populated with white-tailed deer and the flora of semi-arid conditions, including cacti! We willingly tromped around those acres, happy to be away from the humidity of Houston and the bustle of city life. The spot we chose was a flat, open space surrounded by trees which would provide nice shade for those summer walks.
Everyone pitched in to plot out the design in the earth and gather rocks from the property to use for designating the pathway. The labor was tiring and dusty, but we all pulled together as a team to get that sacred structure built. When finished, there was a general feeling of a worthy job well done and who had enough energy left to make dinner.
The second labyrinth I helped to build was on the very same property, up on a flat, grassy area which had once been the unpaved runway for a teeny, tiny airfield. Rita was running a retreat for a group of women from the Women’s Home in Houston, for which she was the Spiritual Director. I was so delighted by her invitation to join them as yoga instructor for the weekend. The labyrinth up on the runway had already been partially constructed and was much larger than the first one we had built. Once again, rocks from the property were used to mark the path and were already at the site for us to heave into place. It was the kind of work that, despite the toil and trouble, we all enjoyed because of the camaraderie of performing it together in a beautiful location for a worthwhile reason. We certainly hopped at the chance to walk that labyrinth under Rita’s guidance. Years later, I still long to make another labyrinth from nature’s materials in a place that feels perfectly suited.
On my 65th birthday, I gathered some of my gal pals together to walk a labyrinth located southwest of town. It had been more than a year since my last walk, and I felt the need to connect with my friends through this beneficial endeavor. We drove through some bucolic horse-farm country to find it, located on private property. I had received permission from the owner to freely walk this labyrinth. It was the most interesting one I had ever used. Away from the world, and enchantingly decorated with charming articles and artifacts, I wanted to linger nearby after our walk just to commit it to memory on my special day. We had also encountered a wasps’ nest and a few of its occupants at one spot along the pathway, Silly, but I think that’s what we all most remember about that walk.
My favorite meditation on my labyrinth walk is adopting the attitude of letting go while moving through the first half. Releasing pain, worries, disappointments or whatever is dragging me down while my feet find their way through the circuits. At center, I simply clear my mind (or try to!) and allow everything to be quiet. Before I start to find my way out again, I switch my mindset to allow an openness which permits me to receive whatever internally comes my way. I take my time walking back to the beginning so as to give this process a chance to manifest. The only getting lost in the labyrinth that occurs is letting go of the exterior world and delving into that rich inner world we often neglect.
It’s not an easy task for me to disregard the constant circus in my head. Sitting down at my computer is essential for corralling the infernal, internal shenanigans and unburdening myself by slapping it all firmly onto the page. Writing helps to clear my mind…to a point. The emotional stuff, the nagging worries, the conundrums and other useless claptrap require the use of a meditative walk on the labyrinth to promote releasing. There are several labyrinths in and around the city of Asheville (that I know of) and most are available for public use. I thought of building one in my backyard, but I’m quite sure that leaving home to perform this task is an integral part of the experience. Going with a group of friends is even better as you can all go out for refreshments afterward. As spring approaches, I hope to visit one of the local labyrinths I have not yet walked. I yearn to get lost in it…for a little while anyway!
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I love your history of the labyrinths at our church’s favorite retreat center. If you haven’t been there recently, you may not know that a “Memorial Trail” now crosses from the big labyrinth to the opposite side of the hill, and people may place memorials of loved ones where the trail meets the labyrinth.
I love that idea. We tried to scatter our dog Kelly’s ashes up there, but we couldn’t get the darn urn to open. It’s a wonderful place to walk, or just sit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. I’d really like to work in a visit there in the next couple years.
This is the first time I have felt a call to find and walk a labyrinth. I so need calming. I’ve always put labyrinths at arms length, not sure why, except that the first time I heard about them was at the Methodist church I attended, and it had stops along the way with scripture…. I resisted. I will see if there is a labyrinth close by after I hit send. ❤️❤️❤️
Oh, I hope so! Our 2024 sky-watching date may have to include a walk!
Cheryl, you are a true labyrinth angel. Thank you.
We still need to walk the UNC labyrinth!
Beautifully written and inspiring peace. There is a labyrinth at my school that I now want to walk once again thanks to this blog. Thanks for being you!
Whenever I walk a labyrinth, I think of you and our adventures in building them!