A Pilgrimage: Making Sense of a Labyrinth Walk

A Pilgrimage: Making Sense of a Labyrinth Walk

Courtesy Eve Hogan

When a labyrinth is walked with even a small amount of direction, it becomes a powerful field for self-discovery, transformation, spiritual deepening, processing grief, relieving stress, and finding clarity.

Editor's note: This is the first of five articles on labyrinths. The author, Eve Hogan, has facilitated labyrinth walks for more than 20 years and is a keynote speaker at the 2019 Labyrinth Society Gathering. She is the author of Way of the Winding Path: A Map for the Labyrinth of Life.

A pilgrimage has three parts—the journey to the sacred destination, the time spent at that destination, and the return journey back home. A labyrinth contains those same three elements, with the center symbolic of the destination.

Just as on a physical pilgrimage, the journey into the labyrinth is a time for gaining clarity over one’s intentions, clearing obstacles on the path, and preparing for reaching the destination. On a pilgrimage, the obstacles encountered are often physical—heavy loads that must be carried, bad weather, and long distances. But within a labyrinth, the obstacles may be more subtle—your memories, thoughts, beliefs, judgments, attitudes, distractedness, or self-doubt, to name a few.

As you spend time with your thoughts on the way toward the center, you can assess whether they are truly serving you. On the walk, you have an opportunity to explore other options. If you practice bringing yourself back into balance, being mindful, and managing your thoughts, you create an openness that prepares you for reaching the center.

The destination of a pilgrimage—like the center of the labyrinth—is a place for learning, being in silence to receive guidance and insight, and soaking up the energy of the sacred place. Often this merely requires that we be in stillness long enough to be receptive to the sacredness of everyday life.

The return journey home—the walk back out—allows for the integration of what you have learned on your journey so that you can implement new choices and new perspectives in your life.

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If you don’t integrate and implement, then all you have had is an interesting journey, or a curious spin around and around the circle. But, if you want transformation, you will need to do things differently when you return home—when you exit the labyrinth.

If you choose to walk the labyrinth as a metaphorical pilgrimage, allow your intentions to be clarified. Is your intention healing? Peace? Conflict resolution? Learning? Letting go? Devotion? Prayer?

As you walk in, observe yourself noticing what emerges in your own thoughts and actions. Are they in alignment with your intentions? If not, make new choices and allow the labyrinth to be a laboratory for practicing different ways of being and different ways of seeing things. You can always have your old way of being back if you prefer it, but if you never try something new, change will never happen.

Rather than being impatient or patient, experiment with acceptance. Rather than self-doubt, try trust. Rather than judgment, try curiosity, amusement, acceptance, or allowance. Notice how you feel when you choose behaviors that align more closely with your spiritual intent. Experiment with walking different speeds.

In the center, be in stillness and be open to receive guidance or insight, or merely a sense of peace and connection. Stay in the center until you feel complete.

As you turn to walk back out, continue observing, practicing, and integrating the new possibilities of being that have been revealed. Then, as you step out of the labyrinth, realize that the journey still continues well beyond the labyrinth’s edge and into your every day.

Labyrinth Basics

Labyrinths are an ancient tradition, stretching back to before the rise of Christianity. One very important, influential labyrinth is on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. It was built in the 12th century.

Labyrinths differ from mazes in that they only have a single path that leads to the center, which is the destination. The same path brings you back out. There are no dead ends and no decisions to make in terms of which way to turn.

They are not designed to cause walkers to get lost. They are, instead, designed to guide walkers to find themselves, to find their own center. There is only one path, but there are numerous ways and reasons to walk that single path.

When a labyrinth is walked with even a small amount of direction, it becomes a powerful field for self-discovery, transformation, spiritual deepening, processing grief, relieving stress, and finding clarity,

The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator will guide you to the one nearest you, but these are life skills, not just labyrinth skills and can also be applied on your journey through life.

Here are the two main things to know about labyrinths:

You are walking the labyrinth to learn about you, not it. If you think you are learning about it, you might walk away with a belief like, "The labyrinth takes a long time to walk." When you reflect instead on what you learned about yourself, you might realize that you have a tendency to be impatient, as 15 minutes isn’t really that long. This self-discovery allows you the opportunity to question whether impatience is what you actually want to practice and master. If not, you then can explore how you would like to be—and instead, walk practicing that way of being. 

The language of the labyrinth is metaphorical, meaning that what you experience on the labyrinth is symbolically mirroring to you what you need to see in yourself outside of the labyrinth. Even a rock or a brick out of place in the pattern provides the opportunity to question what is out of place in your life, and even more interestingly, how you handle the things out of place. Do you want to fix them, blame someone else, obsess but take no action, ignore them completely, or merely step over them and carry on? Ultimately, how you do anything is often how you do everything. This awareness is the first step toward changing what you do and how you do it.

I facilitated a labyrinth walk for a friend of mine who was going through a difficult time as he was enduring a divorce. When he emerged from the labyrinth he said that he walked in thinking about his marriage and the “tying of the knot.” As he walked out of the labyrinth he realized he was “untying the knot.” He emerged feeling more free and less encumbered by his circumstance.

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