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 paths leading towards a center, there is one key difference: Where the maze has many paths, the labyrinth has only one.
Below, the way through the maze includes a number of false paths and dead ends.
Whereas the path through the labyrinth may move backwards and forwards, but ultimately leads to the center.
Many of us have emerged from the maze with harrowing tales to tell. That’s because the maze was purposely designed to confuse us. My first encounter involved a gigantic hedge maze located at Longleat in Wiltshire, England. Although I never lost sight of the central tower, I nonetheless got hopelessly lost and had to use the escape route to find 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 two 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, on the other hand, is more my speed. For starters, it is unicursal, meaning it consists of just one, continuous path and overall direction. Moreover, since it is designed for ease of navigation, the labyrinth is often flat or built low to the ground. As a result, there are no tall hedges or walls to obscure the view.
Stone labyrinth in a forest
For thousands of years, spiritual and religious traditions have used labyrinths as tools for meditation, prayer and healing. That’s because walking the labyrinth requires focus. Even though the path ultimately leads to the center, it winds slowly around the circle in a spiral shape. Sometimes it appears to move forward, only to double back in the opposite direction.
Because it requires concentration, most people walk 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 twists and turns, but it can also lead forward and back. The important thing is to keep on walking.
HOW TO MAKE A GARDEN LABYRINTH
There’s no doubt about it. A labyrinth can make a stunning addition to any garden. Moreover, it can be built out of almost any material you can think of including stone, river rocks, brick, pavers, gravel or mulch. Even low, clipped shrubs like boxwood or colorful bedding plants can be used 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 don’t want to hire a designer, many companies sell garden templates made out of weed-blocking fabric that simplify the job. All you do is lay the template 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. One such example is Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France. It is home to not one, but two – one in the nave and one in the garden behind the church.
Here in Maryland, I’ve found 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. Literally ground-breaking when it was built, it is now full of enthusiastic little walkers navigating its its contours.
Photo courtesy Winterthur Museum
THE THREE R’S TO WALKING
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 go of all cares, concerns and expectations upon entering into the circle
Receiving: being open to accepting those inspirations offered along the way
Returning: exiting the circle with gratitude for the healing forces that exist in the world.
A great tool for dealing with Covid and other anxieties, or for simply increasing your happiness. Happy walking.