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 circular paths leading towards a center, there is one key difference: where the maze has many paths, the labyrinth has only one.
Many of us emerged from our first maze experience with harrowing tales. 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 tower clearly in sight, I managed nonetheless to get hopelessly lost and had to resort to the escape route to back 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.
Clearly, solving mazes like Longleat takes patience, focus and the ability to remember each twist, turn and blind alley. In my case, this proved very frustrating.
The labyrinth, however, is more my speed. For starters, it is unicursal, meaning it consists of only a single path and direction. And there is just one entrance and exit and they are usually the same. Designed for ease of navigation, labyrinths are often flat or built low to the ground. Consequently, there is no need for 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 tools for meditation, prayer and healing. Walking the labyrinth requires a different kind of patience from the maze. Even though the path ultimately leads to the center, it winds slowly around the circle in a spiral shape. That is to say, sometimes it appears to move forward, only to double back in the opposite direction.
Old stone labyrinth
Because it requires concentration, most people walk the path 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. Not only does it have its twists and turns, but it can lead forward and sometimes back. The important thing is to keep on walking.
How to make a garden labyrinth
Due to its beautiful shape, a labyrinth can make a stunning addition to a garden. Moreover, it can be composed of almost any material you can think of including stone, river rocks, brick, pavers, gravel or mulch. And if you’re up for the maintenance, you can even use clipped shrubs like boxwood or colorful bedding plants to define its geometric contours.
Labyrinth with bedding plants/Boulogne, France
However, before you start you’ll need to first level the land and invest in a good plan. If you’re not up for hiring a designer, many companies sell garden templates made out of weed-blocking fabric that make the job easy. All you do is lay them 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 your own? 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. For example, Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France is home to two (both famous). There is one in the garden behind the church.
And there is also one built right into the church floor.
In my area in Maryland, there are a few located on the grounds of churches that are open to the public. 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 commonplace to see enthusiastic little walkers running along its contours.
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.