Monday, September 26, 2011


I have led spiritual retreats over the years as well as attending many church conventions, conferences and the like. At some of the places where these events took place there was a labyrinth which I enjoyed walking. These days, there are even portable and, heaven forbid, online labyrinths!

I have written elsewhere about mindful walking, and much of what I have written on mindful walking is relevantly applicable to walking the labyrinth.

The labyrinth, which is found in various forms in most religious and spiritual traditions and cultures (including Christian, Buddhist, Native American, Greek, Celtic and Mayan), and which has been around for over 4,000 years, provides innumerable opportunities to walk with an open heart and mind. In the process of walking mindfully and meditatively, whether in a labyrinth or elsewhere, you gain insight by simply walking ... and observing. Yes, walking can be a spiritual, indeed a sacred, experience, and the labyrinth is a powerful ‘tool’ for psycho-spiritual growth, self-alignment and transformation. The labyrinth brings us back to our 'centre', that is, to the 'core' of our being, which is the very ground of being itself ... the very self-livingness of life!

The labyrinth, with its mandala-like shape and pattern, is a most ancient archetypal symbol. Now, symbols are very important ‘things’. The Greek word sumbolon (‘throwing together’) ‘means really a correspondence between a noumenon and a phenomenon, between a reality in the higher archetypal world and its outer physical expression here’.

However, the labyrinth is more than just a symbol. As a walking meditation, the labyrinth is a ‘living symbol’ – what H P Blavatsky referred to as ‘concretized truth’ – in that it not only ‘symbolizes’, ‘represents’ or ‘stands for’ something else (the ‘inner reality’ and, in this case, ‘inner spaciousness’), it actually is instrumental in bringing about that reality and, in very truth, is that reality. Life is dynamic and not static. So is the labyrinth. Walking the labyrinth, in the form of 'Circling to the Centre', is engaging in a nonlinear, psycho-spiritual, transformative ritual.

The labyrinth is also a metaphor, and an objective metaphor at that. It is a metaphor for the so-called spiritual journey. Now, I have written elsewhere that, in a very profound sense, there is no journey. We are already ‘there’. The so-called ‘there’ is nothing more nor less than the eternal here-and-now ... and it is, or at least ought to be, more than enough for us! We simply need to be consciously awake, from one moment to the next. That is perhaps why the labyrinth has only one nonlinear path over which you meander back and forth, and that path is unicursal – that is, the way ‘in’ is also the way ‘out’ – as well as being operatively multicursal. (So it is with life. I will have more to say about that below.) Actually, the metaphor of the labyrinth is not so much the labyrinth but the walk itself.

I love the symbolism of the circle. In metaphysics and esoteric spirituality the circle represents the whole universe, eternity, infinity, life itself (as well as the continuum of life), reincarnation or rebirth, God, Spirit, perfection, oneness, the unity of all persons and things ... and so many other things as well. A circle has no beginning and no end, and so refers to what some refer to as the ‘cycle of existence’. Now, the great monotheistic religions assert that life is linear – that is, life had a definite beginning, and life will come to an end at some future point in time. Buddhists and certain others see life as being cyclical and nonlinear in nature. I lean more toward the latter view, but not in the rather mechanical way it is sometimes presented in Buddhism. One thing I do know is this – life is a spatiotemporal continuum of moment-to-moment experiences. Life is endless. In that regard, I love these oft-quoted lines from The Bhagavad-Gita:

Never the spirit was born, the spirit shall cease to be never. End and beginning are dreams. Birthless and deathless, timeless and ceaseless remaineth the spirit forever.

When we think of Aristotle we tend to think of logic, reason and frame-by-frame thinking, but it was Aristotle who said, ‘The soul thinks in images.’ I like that. The soul thinks in images. We need symbols, metaphors, ritual, myth and legend, for by means of those things we find connection.

Now, back to walking the labyrinth. There are three basic designs to the labyrinth – seven circuit (being perhaps the most common design today), eleven circuit, and twelve circuit. More importantly, there are three stages to walking the labyrinth: first, the path in to the centre; second, the centre itself; and third, the path out of the centre.

As already mentioned, there is only one meandering path leading to the centre and back out again ... and there are no dead ends! A maze is altogether different. It has dead ends and trick turns. Some cynics will say that life is like that! Well, the labyrinth is not like that. If you keep walking, you will reach the 'centre'. In my view, life is like that. Yes, as has often been said, no one is lost who knows the 'way' home. You see, there is no one 'right' way to walk the labyrinth. Being a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist, I love that! (I have no patience whatsoever for those who assert that there is only one way to Heaven, God or whatever.) Here, however, are some simple guidelines for walking the labyrinth.

In the Western Christian tradition there are three basic stages to the spiritual path or journey or the ‘mystical’ experience: purgation (or purification), illumination (or contemplation), and union. That is known as ‘The Threefold Path’. (Here is a precis of an address on 'Christian Mysticism' I delivered to a Masonic Rose Croix gathering in Sydney a few years ago.)

Outside, or beyond, the Western Christian tradition, we can speak of the ‘three R’s’ – releasing (that is, emptying the mind, and letting go of 'self'), receiving (that is, experiencing an ‘at-one-ment’ with All that is), and returning ... calmer, and with a deeper connection, as well as sense of connectedness, to oneself (that is, the person you are), to others, and to life itself.

The mystic Paul Brunton expressed it beautifully when he wrote, 'We must empty ourselves if we would be filled.' I have found in my own life that walking the labyrinth mindfully is a simple yet wonderfully powerful tool for self-emptying and spiritual infilling.

The Rev. Dr Lauren Artress, an Episcopalian (Anglican) priest, is the celebrated author of several books on the labyrinth including the invaluable Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. Dr Artress, a renowned ‘labyrinthologist’, writes that walking the labyrinth enables a person to 'gather an inner spaciousness inside' – a transrational and nonlinear experience that others refer to as entering sacred time and space. Dr Artress writes, 'We [have] lost our sense of connection to ourselves and to the vast mystery of creation. The web of creation has been thrown out of balance.' (The great mythographer Joseph Campbell used to say more-or-less the same thing.)

Here is a short video clip (all rights reserved) in which Dr Artress speaks about the sacred path known as the labyrinth:

In walking the labyrinth, anything can 'happen' ... in the form of, for example, thoughts, feelings, sensations, sounds, the physical experience of passing others, and so forth. Whatever arises, whatever happens, can serve as an insight. Returning from and out of the labyrinth is an opportunity to go forth ... ‘awake’. When Shakyamuni Buddha woke up, he said, ‘Now all beings have woken up.’ Perhaps the Buddha was saying that, in truth, there is no difference between the so-called enlightened state and our ordinary life. We live our life as if we were unenlightened. We simply need to observe ... and wake up.

Walking the labyrinth is a right-brain experience. The insight derived comes not from logical, rational frame-by-frame thinking or any kind of thinking for that matter – but from psycho-spiritual intuition, imagery and imagination. The experience gained ought not to be talked away or analysed in any way. It is sacred. Like the initiatory experiences of the ancient mystery schools, the experience of walking the labyrinth is ultimately unspeakable.

As I have written before, truth – that is, reality – cannot be grasped by rational analysis or linear thought. Truth, and the experience of truth, are entirely a matter of direct experience. Once you start analysing truth, you are in the realm of ideas, opinions and beliefs. You have ceased to be in direct contact with truth itself. Ideas, opinions and beliefs are barriers to truth. Krishnamurti may have said (indeed he did say), 'Truth is a pathless land.' Well, the labyrinth may have a path of sorts, but it is as close as you can get to a 'pathless land', for the real 'path' of spacious pathlessness is within you ... in inner space.

To find a labyrinth near you, visit Veriditas, the online home of the Labyrinth Project. As already mentioned, there are even online labyrinths. Here’s a link to a couple of them. The commentary associated with the labyrinth found on this particular link is explicitly Christian (thankfully,  'Progressive Christian') but, with some psycho-spiritual gymnastics on the part of the 'walker', the labyrinth experience in question can still be enjoyed by non-Christians.

So, circle to the centre. Walk the labyrinth ... purposefully and mindfully ... and often.

Postscript: Have you heard of the condition known as labyrinthitis? No, it is not an addictive disease characterised by excessive and obsessive walking of labyrinths. Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear. Fascinating. IEJ.


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