Though it dates back to ancient times, the practice of walking labyrinths has become a mind-body technique especially suited to today. If you haven’t got a clue what a labyrinth is, not to worry — we’ll explain. Upon first glance, it looks almost like a maze in the shape of a circle. However, a labyrinth is not to be confused with a maze.
Mazes have multiple branches that may trick you into going one way or another. Paths have several entrances and exits, many of which lead to dead ends, and the routes are often hidden by hedges or other kinds of walls; the ultimate point of a maze is to lose your way. Labyrinths, by contrast, have a single entrance and one visible path that winds around a circle. As long as you continue to walk forward, you will reach the center. This symbol of a circular, yet certain, journey to one’s center brings a type of order to an otherwise tumultuous and chaotic time.
“When you trust that putting one step ahead of the other will get you where you want to go, there’s a calmness that happens,” says Sandra Grace Walden, a representative of the Labyrinth Society. To return, you follow the same path you took in. The entrance then becomes the exit, and you get back to the world more in tune with yourself, possessing more clarity and feeling more peaceful.
The paths are purposely narrow so that you can focus your attention. Each trip around the center usually involves making several 180-degree turns. “The circuitous path, which curves right and left, can feel like a rocking cradle and give comfort,” says Rev. Lauren Artress, DMIN, author of The Sacred Path Companion: A Guide to Walking the Labyrinth to Heal and Transform.
A Moving Meditation
Labyrinths may be especially helpful for people who have trouble sitting still for meditation. Most people walk the path slowly, but any comfortable pace is fine. Practitioners usually go a few times a week or month, often combining the practice with other forms of meditation. Each experience is different, even if you follow the same path day after day. Here is one way to spend the journey, based on four steps developed by Artress.
Step 1: Reflect
Just before you enter, check in with yourself. Some may wish to start out with an intention. “You can carry in anything you want to focus on or want relief from, such as whether to stick it out with an alcoholic husband or to figure out if it’s safe to visit relatives during a holiday,” Walden says. “You won’t necessarily have an aha moment. But unexpected thoughts may come into your consciousness.”
Step 2: Release
On the walk in, let go of distractions and the sense of being in a hurry. “You step into a labyrinth and you leave behind everything in your life that’s crazy,” says Walden. In a left brain–oriented world, a walker enters an environment that can tap into her more intuitive, right-brain mind. Barbara King, a nurse practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico, feels that walking this way has helped her become less analytical. “I’m able to move out of my head and into my heart and feet,” she explains. The containment of the pathways — edged by stones or low vegetation — contributes to the feeling of serenity.
Step 3: Receive
Rest while you are in the middle. “It’s protective and safe,” explains Marge McCarthy, author of Kids on the Path: School Labyrinth Guide. Standing or sitting, breathe consciously and become aware of any sensations you are experiencing. “Allow the images, feelings or words to move you closer to the clarity, discernment, healing and peace you seek. Stay as long as you wish,” says Jan Page, founder of Kaleidoscope Cancer Connection, which often makes use of a labyrinth to provide support to people living with cancer in East Contra County, California.
Step 4: Return
On the way back out, try to integrate your feelings and insights into the world you are re-entering. Sometimes these insights are minor pearls of wisdom. McCarthy, for instance, realized that she could duplicate the sensation of comfort she feels in the labyrinth’s center elsewhere in her life. Other times, the experience may become transformative. After cancer treatments, Page underwent a drastic transition in her life. She lost her energy and stamina, and was no longer able to teach due to hearing loss caused by chemotherapy. “It seemed like my life was without passion,” she recalls. But once she started consistently walking a labyrinth, “the twists and turns became symbolic of the changing course in my life. It allowed me to see myself from a larger perspective and to honor the essence of me in every part of my story, the painful and the joyful.” Page went on to found the all-volunteer-staffed Kaleidoscope Cancer Connection.
There is no right or wrong experience. Some people simply feel nothing. For others, the journey can be intense. “I’ve had powerful encounters in which I cried all the way through,” says McCarthy. “An expectation to have something other than what occurs leads to a sense of emptiness,” Artress warns. “Experience your experience.”
You can walk solo or collectively. The group walk has its advantages, particularly in times like these. An assembled walk can produce a special energy, for example. In a themed walk, like one devoted to COVID survivors, participants can share feelings such as grief without speaking. And they can do it safely. “There are ways to go with a group that prevent you from getting too close to each other,” assures Walden.
If you don’t live near an outdoor labyrinth, try using a finger labyrinth. They can be printed on paper (laminate the paper to make it more permanent), or be three-dimensional, made of wood, ceramic, or plastic with grooves for moving your fingers or a stylus. They are easier to use for many people, especially if you want to close your eyes while “walking.” Artress suggests using your non-dominant hand as a way to connect to your more intuitive side. Try to recreate the rhythm of footsteps in a large-scale labyrinth by breathing in and out in a patterned way while you move your finger.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness For Women.