Children walking a labyrinth
Sometimes life can seem like a maze full of twists and turns and lots of dead ends. It’s not always clear how to approach the center. But for those willing to walk its cousin, the labyrinth, there can be true transformation. Some say the process ultimately leads to insights into the circuitous path of life itself.
A labyrinth is not a maze
The words labyrinth and maze are often used interchangeably, but in practice they are not the same. While both are composed of meandering paths leading towards a center, there is one key difference: where the maze has many paths, the labyrinth has only one.
Many of us have harrowing tales to tell of our first experience navigating a maze. That’s because a maze is purposely designed to confuse us. My first time involved a gigantic hedge maze located at Longleat in Wiltshire, England. With the central observation tower clearly in view, I managed nonetheless to get hopelessly lost and had to use the ‘cheater’ arrows to work my way out.
Mazes are multicursal, meaning they are made up of multiple paths and directions. Many also have more than one entrance and exit. The Longleat maze, with nearly 2 miles of paths to choose from, is the largest in Britain. Constructed of 16,000 clipped English yews, it can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes to complete.
Solving mazes like Longleat takes patience, focus and the ability to remember each twist, turn and blind alley encountered along the way. In my case, there’s always next year.
The labyrinth is more my speed. It is unicursal, meaning it consists of only a single path and direction. There is one entrance and exit which are usually the same. Designed for ease of navigation, labyrinths are often flat or built low to the ground with no high hedges or walls to obscure the view.
Stone labyrinth in a forest
For thousands of years, many cultures and religious traditions have used labyrinths as transformational tools for meditation, prayer and healing. Walking the labyrinth requires patience. Even though the path ultimately leads to the center, it winds around the circle in a spiral shape. Sometimes it appears to lead forward, only to double back on itself as it slowly draws near the center.
Old stone labyrinth
Because it requires focus, most people walk the labyrinth in silence. Some pray or meditate. Others simply observe each step and breath along the way. Many believe that walking the labyrinth is symbolic of life’s journey. Just as in life, the labyrinth has its twists and turns. Sometimes it leads forward and sometimes back. The important thing is to keep on walking.
How to make a garden labyrinth
A labyrinth can be a stunning addition to the garden. It can be composed of almost any material you can think of: stone, river rocks, brick, pavers, gravel or mulch. If you’re up for the maintenance, you can even use bedding plants to define the contours.
Labyrinth with bedding plants/Boulogne, France
The important thing is to level the land and have a good plan. Many companies sell ready-made garden templates made out of weed-blocking fabric so all you have to do is lay them out on the ground and line the contours with the materials you wish.
For a peek at some great designs and ideas for materials, click here for the Labyrinth Company.
Where to find labyrinths
Not up to building one? These days, labyrinths are becoming more and more popular in religious spaces, schools, hospitals and even prisons where they are being used for meditation, prayer and healing. Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France is home to two famous ones. There is one in the garden behind the church.
And there is one built right into the church floor.
In my area in Maryland, there are a couple located on the grounds of churches, which are open to all. One of my favorites, though, is in Delaware at Winterthur Museum and Gardens. It was quite literally ground-breaking when it was built. Now it is commonly overflowing with enthusiastic little walkers.
Photo courtesy Winterthur Museum
The three R’s to walking the labyrinth
Although there is no right way to walk the labyrinth, some general guidelines do exist. One simple way to walk is by concentrating on the ‘Three R’s”
Releasing: letting of all cares, concerns and expectations upon entering into the circle
Receiving: being open to accepting those inspirations that are offered along the way
Returning: exiting the circle with gratitude for the healing forces that exist in the world.