If you’ve ever stumbled through a corn maze, thwarted by dead ends until you dumb-luck your way out, please note: A labyrinth is not that.
Rather, walking a labyrinth is a personal journey, one path to the center and back out again, an ancient ritual whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
Mary Ellen Johnson of Seattle has studied and walked labyrinths for more than two decades. She explains that simple labyrinths appeared all over the globe about 4,000 years ago, found in prehistoric rock carvings and across cultures. “Then, in the Middle Ages, they evolved into more complex designs using what’s often called ‘sacred geometry,’ mathematics and principles of geometry to create a scared space,” she says. “They believed God was in that space.” The most famous example is the labyrinth in the stone floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.
“There’s something elemental about them,” adds Dan Niven, who lives in Lynnwood. Niven designs and builds labyrinths, and he has a special interest in making them accessible. “Often, they’re in the ground or on cobblestones. Those don’t work very well for canes or wheelchairs,” he notes. He’s created a labyrinth for a retirement center where the path was wide enough for a walker and made one that was wheelchair friendly. “You follow the lines, not the space between the lines,” he explains.
However people navigate the path, there are multiple reasons for making the effort. “The biggest reason is to quiet your mind. Anyone who tends to ruminate can benefit from this,” says Johnson. “When your mind is wrapped around its axle, that’s the time to walk. Once you enter, there are no choices to make.”
The exercise can also be used for problem solving. “I suggest to people that they stand at the entrance and pick a solution, Plan A. Stay with that decision as you walk and see how it feels. If it starts to feel wrong, go to Plan B,” she adds. “It can be a powerful tool for decision-making or dealing with grief, offering solace and acceptance.”
Johnson is the first to admit there are no epiphany guarantees. “I don’t want to romanticize it,” she says. “I mean, it’s not always this deep spiritual thing. I’ve done my grocery list in a labyrinth.”
And there’s no wrong way to do it. “I say, the only rule is there are no rules,” says Niven. “I did a labyrinth for some Girl Scouts, a bunch of 9-year-olds. And they made it their own. They took this ancient template and invented extra rules for a game of tag. I trust people to do with it what they will.”
A few suggestions for newcomers: “If you walk with others, give the person ahead of you lots of space,” says Johnson. “As you walk, pay attention to your breath and steps, your heartbeat. You might start out with a question or a prayer.”
For example, labyrinth walker Nancy Regier has a ritual. “As I enter, I visualize that I’m letting go of obstacles, limiting thoughts, regrets, and as I turn at the center to return, I give myself a pep talk.”
Perhaps a labyrinth’s greatest gift is offering an unplugged moment. “The important thing is that the labyrinth is really valuable for getting and staying grounded,” says Mary Ellen. “It’s an antidote to our overstimulated, chaotic world.”
If you go
Learn more about labyrinths and find them in the Puget Sound region (or anywhere) at labyrinthlocator.com, and see examples of Dan Niven’s work at moderndaedalus.com. Mary Ellen Johnson offers workshops several times a year; see information at the Genesis Global Spiritual Center in Burien (genesis-global.org).
Connie McDougall is a former news reporter and current freelance writer of nonfiction and personal essays. A lifelong student and proud English major, she has pursued lessons in flying, scuba diving, tai chi, Spanish, meditation, hiking and, most recently, Zumba.