I experienced my first labyrinth years ago, when completing my master’s degree in architecture in Europe. The labyrinth was tucked into a shade protected corner of a lovely yet overgrown formal garden at an Italian villa outside Rome. As I approached the hidden world before me, the sound of clacking wooden heels on stone and concrete walks gave way to the silent swooshing of grass. I wanted to take off my shoes. Before I could, a tiny gravel walk appeared before me, inviting me into the hidden world behind a hedge of arborvitae. A small meadow unfolded before me and within it were undulating circles of riverrocks, winding in and around each other, with gravel walks between. The paths were just wide enough to walk if you paid close attention to your footing.
For as long as man has tried to impose order on the land, man has endeavored to create places of beauty. One can only assume that man was inspired by nature’s tendency to organize—he witnessed flower petals in their rhythmic swirls, the way palm leaves order linear bursts of long green sub-leaves, and the waves created in sand dunes and snow as the air and wind blows across a flat terrace of land. Thus, once nomads turned to agriculture and land became a possession rather than a privilege, man borrowed these subtle markers of nature to delineate places which were “mine,” which was followed not long after by “beautiful” and “connected.
The earliest historical labyrinths showed up almost simultaneously in locations around the world about 3,000 years ago. There are labyrinth designs in the fibrearts of the American Southwest, Indo-European ceramics in Greece, Cretan coins; they are carved into petroglyphs, temple sculptures in South America, clay tablets from the Middle East; illuminated in Christian mystical manuscripts and set in mosaic, murals and paintings throughout Europe. Romans used labyrinths for training horse and rider to communicate silently and function in tight quarters as one being.
Labyrinths can be connected to music (rhythm), mathematics (geometry), geography (position within the world and solar orientation), and even spirit (sacred geometry and the chakras).
But most of all, labyrinths are a place of reflection, a place where one can go within.
A labyrinth is not a maze—there are no wrong turns in a labyrinth. You cannot get lost. Rather, one enters, and, as in life, has some sense of “going somewhere.” Only, in the labyrinth, the destination is usually obvious. There’s a center circle or square visible from the moment one enters the space. The path one walks winds nearer, and then further away, from that central destination point. Just like life. Pam Montgomery, owner of the labyrinth at the San Geronimo Lodge, calls the labyrinth a “journey”—and in the journey of life, there are no shortcuts. Cutting the walls which divide the paths to get to the center more quickly will only put you on a path that will likely lead you back out of the labyrinth, where you started. That’s the point, though. Walking a labyrinth is a moment in itself—a tiny commitment to starting and completing. In these days where many are experiencing frustration and worry, a labyrinth walk is a way to take a few moments where we can find silence and allow the mind to fall away, and see what resides in the places that we are usually too busy, or too worried, to listen to within ourselves.
On a physical level that also relates to a cosmic or spiritual level, labyrinths have at least seven—and sometimes as many as 11 or 14—places where the person walking it turns 180 degrees to access another path. Each turn is aligned to the spiritual principals of the chakras, and also to sacred geometry, and even, in some cases, to the 14 Stations of the Cross.
No matter what the basis, the esoteric meaning is still essentially the same. The first path one makes is primal. It sings to us, “I am alive.” This is the moment when we separate from our selves and our worries, and just come into being “Right Here, Now.”
The second path is about relationships. It is a way we can connect to our shared humanity. This path is where we often find the loneliness we temper by staying busy, and ask, “What am I doing here?”
The third path is about our inner strength. We come back into the presence of here and now, and recall that we are not, in fact, alone at all. This is the path of remembering “I am.”
The fourth path is about compassion and love. It aligns with the heart chakras. This is the place where we find ourselves thinking about our families and friends, wishing for what we miss, longing to love and show support, and wondering how to.
The fifth path is about our voice, our breath. We connect to the higher authority within and without as we take in each breath. Not only are we not alone, but we can connect at any time to those we love and that which we believe. We remember to call someone, suddenly. This place is about spiritual security. For some, this path becomes “I am connected (to Spirit, God, Universe, etc).”
The sixth path is the third eye. It is our inner guidance system. Now we are becoming open, as we’ve shed each layer of fear in the previous paths. We can trust. It’s okay. We are okay. We begin to open for what’s coming next.
The seventh path is opening to divine guidance. This is the place where we come to the center, literally and figuratively. We’ve peeled the onion of ourselves and what remains is the light of what some would call our Christ Consciousness. It is the part of us that is unencumbered by our past, or the stories we tell ourselves. Here we find the answer to the questions that linger, the ones we hopefully had the foresight to ask before we started. It need not be a long series of questions—in fact, one is best. When we have started by setting an intention, the answers seem to come. Inspiration comes. Creativity. We find ourselves infused with hope, faith, strength and determination—gifts of the universe, available anytime for anyone.
There is an entire travel industry developing around people looking for the connection that labyrinths offer.