On a rainy day in the mountains, the clouds were so close that I could touch them. White mist trailed splendidly across bright trees. The BigLake was churning, sending waves crashing against the seawall. The wind tugged at my winter coat as I walked with my friends to the outside labyrinth near the edge of the lake.
A labyrinth is a meditation that you do with your body. Walking a labyrinth is one of the oldest contemplative practices known to humans. When you look at a labyrinth, inlaid with stone on the floor of a cathedral or built outside, with gravel paths perhaps, it looks like a maze. But actually, a labyrinth is the opposite of a maze. A maze, which offers all kinds of confusing choices, will get someone like me completely lost. A labyrinth offers only one path, a path that circles about and leads eventually to the center. A labyrinth helps someone like me find my way.
The day was cold and grey, with the trees offering bursts of cold wet colour, bright red and yellow and orange. The wind and misty rain matched my mood as I entered the labyrinth, walking purposefully and steadily, my arms at my sides with the palms facing out. The first part of the labyrinth, walking in, circling towards the center, is about release. Always, I have things I want to release. I have this idea that someday I will let go of all my issues, all my faults, all my insecurities.
Some scholars say that the earliest labyrinths date back to Egypt 4500 BC. Some say that the Cretan labyrinth, dating back at least 3500 years and named after the island of Crete, is the oldest. The Hopi carved the image of the labyrinth onto walls a thousand years ago in the desert. Labyrinths have been found in India and Syria, Greece and Spain, North Africa and Yugoslavia. Fishermen in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia walked labyrinths before going to sea. The church labyrinths of medieval Europe were an odd mixture of Christian and pagan symbolism, a melding of old and new spiritual practices.
The labyrinth I walked Saturday was a Chartres labyrinth, named after the permanent stone labyrinth set into the thirteenth century floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. The paths, mulch with brick edges, wound through eleven concentric circles divided into four quadrants. The center had the six-petal shape of a rosette, the traditional symbol for Mary.
In the labyrinth, I had only one path to follow. No choices to make. I just kept moving forward. No obstacles. No puzzles. No need for rational thought. The movement is much like the raft trip I took down the Colorado River: always you must continue downstream. I couldn't get lost because the path was clear.
Because I was first to enter the labyrinth, I was first to reach the center. As I sat quietly, I could see my friends circling around me, each on their own path, their own silent journey. Sitting in this sacred space, I took a breath and faced myself -- a human with all kinds of flaws and faults, complicated emotions, deep passions. Despite that sensation of release, I still carried all these things with me. The labyrinth does not change who I am, after all, but provides me a safe place where I can accept who I am, loving myself -- imperfections and all.
At one time in history, Christian churches covered up labyrinths or destroyed them. Feminist scholars have speculated that this repression had to do with the connection of the labyrinth with female spirituality, with the earthy metaphor of birth. Walking the labyrinth is nonlinear, cyclical, intuitive, feminine.
Walking out of the labyrinth, I circled around and around, making my way back into the world. All those painful things I hoped to release - fears, insecurities, scars - were still with me. All my vulnerable spots. But I felt stronger, happier, at peace. The clouds moved low from the mountains to hug me. The misty rain touched my face and hands.
Back in the lodge, cozily drying out near a crackling fire of birch logs, we talked about our experiences in the labyrinth. I told my friends that I was frustrated at first to reach the center and find that I still carried all my issues with me. I wanted to release the dark and painful parts of myself and be done with them. How startling to reach the center and find those vulnerable spots still with me, to realize that I needed to embrace and not reject those parts of myself.
"Why would we want to turn away from those painful parts of ourselves?" asked ReikiWoman. "They are what connects us to humanity. Those parts are what make us need other people."
"Besides," said Dark-haired Woman, "If you were perfect, you couldn't come on this weekend with us. You wouldn't fit in."