Labyrinths are soul-soothing and insight-making. What is the future of the labyrinth movement and how can you do a labyrinth walk from home?
The first time I walked a labyrinth, I didn’t know what I was getting into. My head was full of Greek mythology, medieval history, and the confusions that come with being in your early 20s.
Back and forth, always turning before I could get my bearings, almost reaching the center and then veering away, never knowing exactly where I was in the process—I was disoriented, frustrated, intrigued. But I kept putting one foot in front of the other, even if it seemed it was never going to end, and suddenly, without realizing how close I had been, I had arrived in the center. On the way back out, I thought, This is just like my life. I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve walked many labyrinths. They’ve seen me through seasons of delight and seasons of upheaval, through two children and moves to three continents—they’re a reset button for my soul.
But I never thought much about them beyond that. But with everything that’s happening in the world, I wanted to know more. I reached out to Lauren Artress, the woman indirectly responsible for the existence of the first labyrinth I walked and for many of the labyrinths I have walked since. In 1991, times were tough in San Francisco, and Artress was a canon pastor at the city’s Grace Cathedral. “We were deluged with the AIDS epidemic,” says Artress. “We needed something we could do in silence, and together, in that very demanding time.”
In the early 1990s, labyrinths in North America were few and far between. Those in Eurasia went, for the most part, unused.
Artress attended a workshop where attendees walked a Chartres-style labyrinth printed on canvas. She came away intrigued enough to make a journey to France, to Chartres Cathedral itself, where the original 13th-century pattern had been built into the cathedral floor as a symbol of pilgrimage. When her group arrived, says Artress, the famous Chartres labyrinth “was under chairs and had been closed for about 250 years, at that point.” Having written earlier for per-mission, they moved the chairs, then walked the original Chartres pattern. A movement was born.
Artress decided that a labyrinth was needed at Grace Cathedral, and not just there. “The nature of the labyrinth is that it needs to be shared, and it needs to be everywhere,” she says. “We have ballparks and family parks available for people in our communities. The labyrinth needs to be among them.”
Artress now heads the nonprofit organization Veriditas, which was founded with a mission of “peppering the planet with labyrinths.” To date, Veriditas has trained over 7,000 walk facilitators, and its Labyrinth Locator database of publicly available sites contains hundreds of labyrinths in almost 100 countries and all 50 U.S. states. They’re in gardens and parking lots, meeting centers and playgrounds, at remote locations and in the hearts of cities.
Labyrinths appeared independently in places as diverse as India, indigenous North America, Tibet, and Crete. Labyrinth designs are as diverse as the creators and cultures from which they come, but they all feature a journey that is much larger within than without: bounded on the outside, seemingly infinite on the interior.
“Those who have done a lot of study in the history of labyrinths have found there are dormancy periods, periods of time where you don’t see labyrinths in the society at all,” says preeminent labyrinth designer Lisa Moriarty. “And then there are times where suddenly it becomes an important symbol for people.”
Labyrinth scholar Jeff Saward has connected labyrinth revivals not only to social upheavals, but to leaps forward in technology, which can help spread ideas and skills but also cause overwhelming change. The most recent labyrinth revival before the current one happened during the Industrial Revolution, when mass production caused the migration of labor into cities, emptying out the country-side and upending communities. Nearly all church labyrinths in England date from Victorian times.
“The labyrinth urges action,” says Artress. “It calms people in the throes of life. It helps them with transitions, and helps them see their lives in the context of a path, a pilgrimage.”
The Chartres-style labyrinth “has a beautiful way of calming the nervous system because it has an equal number of left-hand and right-hand turns,” says Kathryn Bikle, a licensed therapist and depth psychologist who uses
labyrinth work with her clients. “In terms of what’s happening psychologically as you walk the labyrinth, it throws you off with regard to where you are in physical space, yet you still know where you are in physical space, because you can see both the entrance and the center. Your nervous system is calm but aroused at the same time, and it unmoors you from your rational brain. By the time you get to the center, your rational brain is wonky, and your right brain says, ‘Oh, there’s room for me!’”
“It’s a form of walking meditation,” says John Rhodes, an educator and researcher who surveyed 1,250 labyrinth walkers over the course of 13 years and 128 events. “I think focusing on a relatively narrow path has a way of focusing the mind and allowing the intuitive part of the mind to come forth. I think by being able to walk this path, it gives the body something to do.”
Labyrinths have long been seen as metaphors themselves, mirrors for spiritual and physical processes. David Greenwood, a professor of education at Lakehead University in Ontario, makes a labyrinth on his frozen pond every winter, even though he knows that come spring it will melt away. He is now spearheading the construction of a permanent labyrinth on the Lakehead campus. Greenwood says a friend “talks about the labyrinth processing people like the digestive tract processes food. That’s what happens in the labyrinth. You don’t even really have to surrender, you just have to let yourself be processed.” Greenwood’s graduate student and partner in the Lakehead labyrinth project, Gavin Shields, compares it to a centrifuge: “All this stuff is getting thrown in and spun out, and there’s more clarity from that process.” More importantly, it makes him wonder: “What can be shed?”
Kay Sandor, a retired nurse and educator, used to lead labyrinth walks for nursing students to give them time to process all they had just experienced. “At the 7 a.m. change of shift, nurses would come out and walk during their breaks before work or after work,” she says.
Join the Processional
Processional labyrinths, which have a different path out than in, are a natural choice for social distancing.
The Baltic wheel, a design that appears across Northern Europe in former fishing and hunting settlements, is one such pattern. It’s particularly good for people who want their walkout to be much shorter than their walk-in.
Most labyrinths are circular, but the triple spiral labyrinth is based on the triskelion, a tripartite Celtic symbol of cycles and change that represent life/death/ rebirth, past/present/future, earth/ water/sky, or any number of other multivalent triads. The triple spiral is most popular in Ireland, but expect to see them come to North America as another type of processional labyrinth.
Labyrinth designer Lisa Moriarty has seen a steep rise in requests from hospitals and health care centers. Many of them are or were in COVID hotspots, “places where people are minute-by-minute on high alert, constantly worrying, constantly being challenged by things that feel out of control,” she says. “Being able to take a 15-minute break, to step into a quiet space where nothing else is happening, they’re free from all interruptions, and they can bring their worries, their questions, and their breathing. That can be so healing.”
Lately, labyrinth walkers are surrendering to the fact that many indoor labyrinths are closed. Fortunately, there are alternative ways to experience a labyrinth.
Consult the Labyrinth Locator for a solo walk. Googling “Labyrinth Locator” will take you to Veriditas’s database of labyrinths around the world. If your local labyrinth is shut, it’s not unlikely that there’s another one nearby—even if you’re in Taiwan, Fiji, or Nova Scotia. The modern labyrinth movement started in the English-speaking world, though, and the highest concentration of labyrinths occurs there.
Trace a finger labyrinth. Finger labyrinths are small, portable labyrinths that are traced with a finger or stylus.
You can make one, purchase one, or even download and print one out. Try tracing the finger labyrinth with your non-dominant hand, or even tracing two simultaneously, one with each hand. Those wanting a group experience can have one via Zoom. Veriditas has hosted online finger labyrinth sessions with up to 400 participants from across the globe.
Get the app. Want one in your pocket or purse? The fun app Labyrinth Journeys offers a simple digital finger labyrinth whose path lights up as you trace it. This one works best on larger phones or tablets.
Make your own. I don’t mean build a labyrinth in your garden, though you can do that, too. Art facilitator Sadelle Wiltshire leads both “self-serve” and synchronous online workshops for finger labyrinth creation that have used techniques as various as drawing, painting, collage, and even Zentangle.
Use your city or town as a labyrinth. Winter says “if you put your phone away and take the time to pay attention, you can make anywhere you are into a labyrinth experience.” To relinquish some control, introduce an element of chance to your walk, says Winter: “Start in a direction, and every time you get to an intersection, flip a coin, so you aren’t in control. Or roll
a die. Follow transportation lines or train tracks. Anything that can randomize your choices is a great way to do it.” She also suggests taking themed routes: “‘I’m going to walk across every bridge in my city.’”
Become a Randonaut. The Randonaut movement is made up of folks who pick a random set of coordinates, go there, and report what they find: a drum in the woods, an abandoned farmhouse, a shoe, a cemetery. Randonaut experiences come with a built-in sense of predestination and a strange feeling of intimacy with the landscape. And of course there’s now an app for that, Randonautica, released in April 2020 and now downloaded more than 10 million times.