The labyrinth is an ancient pattern found in many cultures around the world. Labyrinth designs found on pottery, tablets and tiles date as far back as 4000 years. Many patterns are based on spirals from nature. In Native American culture it is called the Medicine Wheel and Man in the Maze. The Celts described it as the Never Ending Circle. It is also called the Kabala in mystical Judaism. One feature they all share is that they have one path which winds in a circuitous way to the center.
Labyrinths are not mazes, although in the English language the words labyrinth and maze are frequently confused. Mazes contain cul-de-sacs and dead ends. They have more than one entrance and more than one exit and are designed to make us lose our way; they’re a game.
Labyrinths have the exact opposite purpose: they are designed to help us find our way. Labyrinths are unicursal: you walk the same path going in and coming out. They have only one path – from the outer edge into the center and back out again. Through the act of trusting the path, of giving up conscious control of how things should go and being receptive to our inner state.
Because there is only one path, the word “circuit” is used to describe the number of times the path circles around the center. A seven-circuit labyrinth goes around seven times.
Embedded within each design is a pattern that somehow quiets our deep inner being so we can hear our own wisdom and the wisdom attempting to reach us. Whether walked or traced in sand, the labyrinth pattern is a powerful tool for reflection, meditation, realignment, and a deeper knowledge of the Self.
There are many ways to describe a labyrinth. It is a path of prayer, a walking meditation, a crucible of change, a watering hole for the spirit and a mirror of the soul.
The path of the labyrinth reflects our journey with our Lord, moving closer in relationship, then suddenly moving farther away, traveling in one direction and turning and moving in the other direction. When others are walking during the same period, we move close together, may walk together, pass one another and walk away from each other.
There is no right way or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. Use the labyrinth in any way that meets what you need.
A Way to Walk a Labyrinth
Taking a labyrinth walk is a modern revival of an ancient spiritual custom. The labyrinth, a winding one-way path which leads walkers into and back out of a central space, offers a kind of body meditation which parallels the inner journey of prayer and reflection.
Step 1: Prepare to walk. Take some time to transition from your everyday life to the labyrinth experience. Remove your watch. Slow your breathing. Still your mind. Open yourself to possibilities. Think about, or write in a journal, your intentions for the experience: questions, affirmations, feelings. Leave your personal belongings in a secure place. Where possible, take off your shoes, a traditional sign of respect for a sacred space. This is required for walking some painted labyrinths.
Step 2: Begin your journey. Pause at the entrance to the labyrinth to take a cleansing breath and focus your attention. You may ask a question, say a prayer or recite an affirmation. Some people choose to bow or make another ritual gesture to signal the beginning of their walk.
Step 3: Walk the inward path. Put one foot in front of the other, and walk at a measured pace that is comfortable for you. On the way in, focus on letting go of things you want to leave behind and releasing things that stand in the way of your spiritual journey. Pause when you need to. Don’t focus on the center as a goal; be present in each step of the inward path.
Step 4: Spend time in the center. Take as long as you wish. You may stand, sit, kneel or lie down. This part of the journey is about being present to your inmost self and to the power of the divine. You may pray, journal or simply be open to the stillness. Respect the boundaries of others with whom you share this sacred space.
Step 5: Take the return path. When you are ready to leave the center, begin walking back the way you came. On this part of the journey, focus on what you will bring out from the center and back into your life. As before, pause when you need to. Resist the temptation to sprint to the finish line: the return journey is as important as every other part of the labyrinth.
Step 6: Reflect on the journey. When you leave the labyrinth, you may pause to make another gesture or say a prayer. Before leaving the area, take some time to reflect on insights you’ve gained, or make notes in your journal to explore further later.
Remember, there is no “correct” way to walk a labyrinth – the journey is very personal.
Walking a labyrinth – like massage and other forms of bodywork – can surface unexpected emotions and memories. Tears are not uncommon, especially during the inward path when you are focusing on release. Let your thoughts and emotions flow as easily as you can, and don’t be embarrassed. Other walkers are used to it, and are dealing with their own feelings.