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Enter the Labyrinth

A Labyrinth is not a maze. It works with the right-brain rather than the left. It has no dead-ends and is a way of moving bodily from the outside inwards, rather than being a puzzle to solve, failing which you are lost!

By Cathy Madison

Across a stretch of concrete, next to California Pacific Medical Centre's main entrance at Clay and Buchanan Streets in San Francisco, is painted, in beige and cinnamon, a design of concentric circles with a rosette centre. This labyrinth is 36 feet in diameter, but those who walk its winding path to the centre and back out cover nearly one-third of a mile. Whether they are medical care givers, patients, or visitors, they say it calms them and quiets their minds.

Funded mostly by an anonymous donor, this labyrinth is the first to be installed in a traditional health care facility, says its designer, Victoria Stone. A health educator and interior designer, she used the labyrinth pattern from San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, which was borrowed from Chartres cathedral, where Benedictine monks laid a stone labyrinth 800 years ago. "Some people call the labyrinth the mandala of the Western world," she says. "I call it a healing ritual."

The labyrinth is a metaphor for going from the outside into one's centre, where healing potential exists. Its history is ancient: the classical, or seven-circuit, labyrinth pattern is found on Cretan coins of 500 B.C.E., and the oldest was inscribed on a clay tablet about 1230 B.C.E.

"The earliest human cathedralsthe sacred caves of the Paleolithicwere natural labyrinths; certainly the rites conducted in them, a journey from light into darkness, from the surface of the earth into the centre of the earth's body, had both literal and symbolic effect,"writes Peg Streep in Altars Made Easy (Harper San Francisco, 1997). The metaphorical journey symbolised "death," or descent into life's dark mysteries, then "rebirth" into a second life of wisdom and understanding.

In Greek legend, the Minotaur was trapped in a labyrinth. But as we understand it today, the labyrinth is no trap. The word, which comes from the Minoan labrys (a double-headed axe), is often used synonymously with maze (from the Middle English mazen, implying confusion), but they are different. A maze has walls one cannot see over, and some of its paths are dead ends. Walking it is like solving a left-brain puzzle, and getting out requires a series of correct choices. A labyrinth has a single, or unicursal, path and short, vertical walls, or none at all. From the entrance, or "mouth," to the centre, or "goal," the walker sees the whole path from varying perspectives and may feel lost, but can never get lost.

Adds the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress, who introduced the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral: "Your only choice is whether you go in or not. A labyrinth implies magical ceremony . . . it is a right-brain intuition/spiritual awareness enhancer". Sig Lonegren, an expert on sacred spaces, writes in Labyrinth Letter (April 1995): "The unicursal path of the labyrinth is what differentiates it and sets it apart as a spiritual tool. The labyrinth does not engage our thinking minds. It invites our intuitive, pattern seeking mind to come forth."

Lonegren has his own ritual for using the classical seven-circuit labyrinth to solve problems. At the mouth he states the issue, then, as he walks, considers it from seven points of view, one for each path: what he thinks, how he feels, how it affects his wallet, health, and spiritual life; then he invokes his deity's help, and readies himself to envision a solution. Finally, at the centre, his mind is blank and open. When a solution appears and he starts thinking again, it is time to go; on his way out, he reverses the process looking at the solution from the points of view represented by each path.

The labyrinth at California Pacific has 11 circuits, with the 12th as the centre, a pattern often found in churches. Health workers now incorporate it into their care regimens, as a tool both practical reducing stress for cardiac patients, for example and spiritual, perhaps for cancer support groups. (The bedridden can use a small wooden labyrinth, tracing the carved path with a finger). Stone is also talking with other health facilities in the United States, Hong Kong, and England about building a labyrinth.

"It's simple, easy, and accessible," she says. It is also a powerful external tool for listening to one's inner guide, which, as both doctors and patients understand, is the best resource for staying healthy.
  First published in Utne Reader Jan-Feb '98. 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis,
MN 55403 USA. Republished with permission. Our thanks - Ed.

Cathy Madison is a senior editor with the Utne Reader.

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