..The Intuitive Times
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Pathfinders Walking a Medieval Labyrinth in a Modern World

by Peter Corbett

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We live in an increasingly linear, driven world. The rush to the Millennium, the tick of the market clock, drivetime, primetime; all the forces of our modern life push us in a single direction. We struggle to take vacations, yet all too often come back exhausted rather than refreshed. Even the cycle of the seasons has become lost on us in our climate controlled world. We move far from our homes, send our parents away when they age, lose contact with old friends and loved ones. We cover huge distances in a matter of hours, jumping time zones without effort, yet few of us can tell what phase the moon is in, or what time the sun rises each morning.

This physical and emotional disconnect, some people feel, has its spiritual equivalent. It is based in the very core beliefs that define our modern civilization, dating back several centuries to the Age of Enlightenment, to the waxing power of science and rational thought and the waning influence of the Church. Cartesian thought, with its emphasis on the superiority of Mind over spiritual and physical matter, has helped breed a spiritual crisis, in our homes, in our schools, in our social and political institutions.

One of the symptoms of this crisis is a lack of centeredness, a lack of awareness of the spiritual nature of our true selves. Until our spiritual center is restored we will continue to drift as individuals and as a society. "We lost our sense of connection to ourselves and to the vast mystery of creation," writes the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, Canon of Grace Cathedral, in her book about the labyrinth, Walking a Sacred Path: "The web of creation has been thrown out of balance."

Many different forms of spiritual tools and meditations have sprung up in the past few years, and they all point to the search for meaning in our society, but the labyrinth seems to have struck a chord. It is a powerful tool, open to seekers of all beliefs. "The labyrinth is an archetype of wholeness that helps us rediscover the depths of our souls," Artress writes. "We are not human beings on a spiritual path, but spiritual beings on a human path."

In 1992, the Reverend Lauren Artress brought the labyrinth to Grace Cathedral in an effort to bring people back to their center and allow them to experience Spirit for themselves. It's been a tremendous success. Over a million people have walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral alone, with hundreds of other sites springing up across the country. Artress feels that walking the labyrinth can help us regain our spiritual base by emphasizing the intuitive, caring, and creative aspects of our selves and relaxing the logical, reasoning aspects which have been dominant in Western civilization over the last few centuries.

Labyrinths are different from mazes. Mazes challenge the logical parts of our minds; they offer a choice of paths, some with many entrances and exits. Trick corners and blind alleys are common features, with dead ends and cul-de-sacs presenting riddles to be solved along the way. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have one well-defined path that leads us into the center and back out again. There are no tricks to them, no dead ends or cul-de-sacs, no intersecting paths. There are no choices to be made, other than the primary one: the decision to enter the path. "In the labyrinth," Artress says, "the set path takes you to the center; that you know you will get to the center helps focus and quiet the mind."

Labyrinths predate Christianity by over a millennium. The most famous labyrinth from ancient times was the Cretan one, the supposed lair of the mythological Minotaur, which Theseus slew with the aid of Ariadne and her spool of thread. Turf labyrinths still exist in England, Germany and Scandinavia, and are thought to be linked with local feminine deities and fertility rituals. The adoption of labyrinths into the Christian Church is not very well documented, but they were used traditionally as a site of pilgrimage. Early Christians took a vow to visit the Holy City of Jerusalem at some point in their lives. During the Middle Ages, as the Crusades made travel to Palestine unsafe, other means were needed to honor that sacred commitment. Labyrinths were adopted by the Roman Church to offer the congregation a way of fulfilling their sacred vows. Christians made their pilgrimages to the cathedral cities of Chartres, Rheims or Amiens, completing their physical and spiritual journeys in the cathedral labyrinths.

Even though the labyrinth is a Western concept, it shares some similarities with Asian monastic and spiritual practices. The patterns of the labyrinth are similar in design and conception to the mandalas of South Asian Buddhism, which are physical representations of the spiritual realm designed to aid in meditation. Labyrinths blend their visual symbolism with the process of walking, which is similar to the Japanese Zen practice of kinhin, literally "walking meditation," where all of the attention is focused on the process of each step, one foot in front of the other, and the breath is controlled and regulated. Both of these techniques are used in Buddhist meditation, which combines the elements of calming and insight into the single goal of samadhi, or "awareness."

There are three stages to walking the labyrinth: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. Purgation is the first part of the path where the details of everyday life are shed, and the mind is made open. "It's very much a tool for helping me find focus," says Brad Squires, an East Bay massage therapist who uses the labyrinths on a regular basis. "It seems to rattle all the disturbances and busyness out of your brain, rattle all the static away and lets you...slow down and tune in to a more humane kind of rhythm. It's best just to surrender and allow the labyrinth to give you whatever the labyrinth will give you. Just be accepting to whatever might come forth." This opening up is the key to clearing space within the mind, allowing yourself to experience whatever emotions or thoughts surface during each labyrinth experience.

Illumination is the time spent in the center of the labyrinth, quietly praying and receiving whatever wisdom is forthcoming. One walker draws the connection to the larger questions of "Where am I going, who am I in relation to the spiritual world, who am I in relation to a larger creative being?" Stories of angels or spirits are common as well. Renee Gibbons, a long time labyrinth walker, relates the story of her first experience on the labyrinth: "When I got to the center of the labyrinth, I got a really strong message that said 'send an angel to your sister Fiona.' My sister Fiona had not spoken to me for four or five years at that time." After sending a gift to her sister, she waited. Although a miraculous new relationship did not develop, she says, "I saw that a lot of my resentments dropped when I did that."

Union occurs as the path is reworked, preparing to reenter the world and actualize the new sense of self, or knowledge gained in the labyrinth. "There's been times after walking the labyrinth I've just wanted to lie down," says Squires. "It's exhausting, draining. But then I'll go walk [it] again. It really opens things, it can make everything seem right again." This is the most important stage of the walking process, the taking back into the world "The labyrinth," says Lauren, "is a place where you can pour your heart out, express your anger, experience joy, express gratitude, and perhaps above all, ask for what you need."

The most obvious thing about the labyrinth is that it directs you, guides you; it leads, you follow. When you are concentrating on the immediate strip of pathway under your feet you can lose the sense of where you are on the looping pathway. Being human, one part of our mind is constantly trying to place us, to think ahead of our steps, over and around where we really are, and the design of the labyrinth foils this beautifully by simply keeping the mind focussed on the path itself. Once inside the center you can really look around and see where you have been, take a look at the path and where it has led you, recognize where you were both physically and emotionally when you entered the labyrinth. Chances at reflection and perspective, are so rare in our society that they take on extraordinary value for many people. The chance to stand inside a sheltered space and see the path we are walking is a blessing not to be taken lightly.

True meditation occurs when the physical brain has been pacified, kept busy with a mantra or a mandala, so the spiritual mind is then free to wander on its own, and discover new truths. "The walking back and forth seems very pendulous," states Squires. "It's a very slow frequency, a very long wavelength from one turn to the next. You slowly walk along and slowly walk back, then slowly walk on again. It's hard to have your mind in a fretful kind of pace when you're doing such a slow, pendulous, rhythmic walking like that."

This is the most basic use of the labyrinth, as a way of silencing the noise and turmoil in one's own head. But this is not the only way that people use the labyrinth. Ellen McDermott is a member of the congregation at Grace Cathedral; her involvement with the labyrinth took on a much more personal nature when she had a stroke a little over four years ago. Because of the physical disability she had immediately following the incident, she was only able to use the labyrinth in a limited way, and that had a profound effect on her appreciation of the tool; it became a very real part of her physical recovery. "In the beginning the physical walking of the labyrinth became a measure for me of my recovery, my progress physically and that was very encouraging." The physical challenge of using the labyrinth, in the very act of walking the path, forced Ellen to focus on the process more than most people who are not confronted by the simple everyday act of walking. "It's interesting when we think about the labyrinth as kind of a metaphor for life; you just get on the path and stay on, try to follow the path, keep going one foot at a time."

As her walking grew stronger, the path of the labyrinth began to take a larger role in her healing process, and her life as a whole: "I began to work with this whole physical event of having a stroke, and what that meant in life, and who I was and where I was going. . . kind of looking more toward the spiritual side of things, looking for direction, looking for help." These two facets of the labyrinth combined to assist in Ellen's total healing process. "I had these two tracks, the physical and spiritual, that went along together and made the labyrinth walking a very full and rich experience." Ellen has gone on to almost total recovery in the use of her left side, became a member of the congregation at Grace Cathedral, and is now a facilitator for the labyrinth workshops in an attempt to teach others of the extraordinary potential of the labyrinth as a healing tool.

Renee Gibbons has also used the labyrinth as part of her healing process after being diagnosed with breast cancer. As a support to more traditional modes of treatment, she found a strong source of strength in the walking of the labyrinth: "I was going to do the mechanical things, but I knew that I had to have other things to complement that to pull through. So I used that, I walked the labyrinth as part of my healing. That was medicine for me." Renee has also found solace on the labyrinth in times of death and loss. During her cancer treatment she was walking the labyrinth frequently, and one night "a friend of mine who was suffering with AIDS came into my mind, and I had a strong presentiment that I had to get him on the labyrinth that night, that he was going to die." She describes the struggles they had to get him there at midnight, and then continues: "We pushed him around the labyrinth in his wheelchair. It was an incredible experience. We sang as we were walking around and said our goodbyes to him. So it's been a real intimate part of illness and death."

The labyrinth has become an essential tool in many people's lives. As Ellen McDermott states, "There's been an element of joy and real light about my recovery connected to the labyrinth, and that spiritual and physical work I did. There was real sparkle to this adventure with the labyrinth." This has become such a common reaction to the use of the labyrinth that California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco has installed a labyrinth in its facility. Ellen and others stress the benefits that the labyrinth can have, not just for the patients themselves, but for the caregivers around them, their friends and family, who may be looking for help and support in their own roles as well. It is this kind of inclusive thinking that Lauren Artress and the others at Veriditas are hoping will become a more common aspect of society in the 21st century, through the use of spiritual tools like the labyrinth.

Veriditas is the non-profit organization that has grown up around the labyrinths at Grace Cathedral. They are dedicated to teaching people the history, use and potential of this profound spiritual tool. In the words of the Reverend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, "The Grace Cathedral Labyrinth Project is committed to addressing the spiritual hunger of our times." Lauren Artress still travels with the original canvas labyrinth she designed in 1991 to workshops and conferences around the globe to share the message of this ancient tool of healing and transformation. In 1995 she was invited to the site of the Oklahoma bombing to help bring a sense of connection and shared grief to the survivors and their families. Lauren and Ellen, along with

others, have taken the labyrinth to a women's prison in Northern California, and hope to create a jail ministry in the San Francisco County jail. They look forward to the day when there are labyrinths in parks, prisons, hospitals, cathedrals and churches; anywhere people find themselves in need of solace or comfort, calming or miraculous transformation. Their goal is to have a linked community of labyrinth groups worldwide by the turn of the century, to help us all enter the new millennium on a growing and healing note. As Brad Squires sums it up, "The Labyrinth Project trying to get labyrinths into places like prisons, or inner city schools, or inner city neighbourhoods, or hospices -- it makes me feel it's for the good of people. What can [Veriditas] gain from something like that except the feeling they're doing good for people?"

As Lauren sees it, "we need a maturity that values ethnic, cultural and gender differences, supports creativity and the work of Spirit among all forms of life. To evolve our vision, we need the experience of archetypes that help us group the experience of untiy and wholeness. The labyrinth is an archetype of wholeness that helps us rediscover the depths of our souls." What all of us can hope to gain from that is a world, both inner and outer, that is more full of light, joy, and the possibility of peace than the one we all share now

This article is reprinted from the "Grace Cathedral" website were a number of articles can be found on the topic. The site is www.gracecathedral.org.

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