Unearthing Self in the Midst of Chaos: A Labyrinth Day Apart Retreat

What is a labyrinth anyway? Isn’t it just another name for a maze? No, actually they are quite different. Mazes are multicursal, meaning there are many paths and multiple entrances. In a maze, with its dead ends and wrong turns, one must constantly choose which path to take. One can get lost or disoriented in a maze. Mazes are a game and meant to challenge the user. They can be frustrating causing anxiety, while those fortunate or skilled enough to arrive at the center, experience feelings of triumph or accomplishment. “Mazes are mental, linear, left-brain experiences” (Curry). Some familiar mazes include the traditional, enclosed by hedges, and a recent invention by the Japanese known as a wall maze.

 Labyrinths, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. Labyrinths are ancient, archetypal symbols, having only one meandering path leading into and out from the center. Labyrinths consist of numerous circular to semi-circular lines, winding back and forth from the circumference into the middle or center. It appears almost a spiral in its flowing lines. The pattern is eye catching and the focus is drawn inward. Once one reaches the center of the labyrinth one merely turns around retracing the steps back to the exit. Designed in relation to sacred geometry, labyrinths, link the world of the seen and the unseen. This allows for an integration of body, mind, and spirit. Where mazes are a challenge, the labyrinth for many is a means of meditation.

The exact origin of the labyrinth is uncertain, lost in pre-history. The classic seven-circuit symbol has been traced back 3500 years while the basis of the labyrinth, the meander pattern, goes back 15,000 years minimum. Labyrinths have cropped up in many cultures, at various times in history, in places as varied as Greece, Crete, Egypt, Scandinavia, Iceland, British Isles, India, Sumatra, China, Peru, and Arizona. Different cultures exhibit the symbol in different manners; some carve the labyrinth on rock facings, some mark the ground with stones or by raising the turns, in Crete they marked it on their coins. The Hopi people of Arizona wove the design into their baskets, and others used colored stones or tiles to imbed the pattern into the floor of churches, cathedrals and villas.

The fact that the same design appeared in various places on opposite sides of the globe, before travel between these continents was probable, poses the possibility of the inhabitant’s having a connection to other consciousness realms. I think of this as a progression of human intuition and intelligence evolving across cultures, simultaneously. If people’s levels of consciousness were more open, perhaps the information could pass non-locally. Thus sharing ideas or inspirations could have been transmitted on diverse levels far different from what we are accustomed to in our modern culture.

The Romans quickly adapted the labyrinth symbol and spread the design all throughout the Roman Empire. There are many examples of the design being depicted in mosaic pavements in Eastern Europe, Britain, and North Africa. Some Roman labyrinths were drawn on the ground and ridden on horseback, as an assessment of skill. Some today continue to use that same horseback method and large form specifically for balance and developmental improvements. One of the instructors at a labyrinth workshop I participated in, related that his largest labyrinth was built for his special needs granddaughter to maneuver on horseback. It proved quite beneficial for her and following her premature death, at age twenty-three, he opened her labyrinth to all the special needs children in the surrounding area. These children also exhibited dramatic changes in behavior and development after a regular regime of labyrinth journeys.

In the Christian world, the labyrinth was introduced during the Middle Ages. Although the labyrinth symbol appeared in margins of manuscripts, texts and maps, the primary function was as a symbol of pilgrimages. “Early Christians took a vow to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk in the steps of the historic Jesus” (Curry). When actual pilgrimages became impossible due to the increased danger and cost, caused by the Crusades, cathedrals were selected as pilgrimage shrines. Many traveled the the labyrinth on their knees, which represented the equivalence of the spiritual journey to Jerusalem. To Christians, it symbolized their faith, following the “one true path to eternal salvation”(Curry).

Today there are numerous reasons why people walk labyrinths, Among the reasons are to clear and focus the mind, as a meditation or to feel connected spiritually. Some find that it assists them in their day-to-day lives, while others have experienced more dramatic results.

Worldwide interest in the tradition of labyrinth walking has been unearthed, in the past decade. People are recreating labyrinth designs from the simple three-circuit type to the more elaborate Chartre’s eleven-circuit pattern. Some are creating mobile ones on canvas mats in order to transport them to churches, holistic gathering sites, local centennial celebrations, prisons, colleges, and playgrounds. Others are duplicating the ideas from previous cultures by carving the design in wood, into rock, or weaving them into blankets, placemats or baskets.

There have been those who walk the labyrinth as a way of marking their anniversary, holidays, to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes or change in seasons. Others use it to prevent burnout, to add depth to their prayer practice, for the peace and quiet, to connect with loved ones on this plane or in other realms, or to concentrate on problems personally, locally or globally.

Today, with so much negative energy surrounding us, we need more energies that will serve to foster rejuvenation and healing within ourselves, across the world and of our planet and solar system. At a time in our history when our youth is in dire need of direction and ritual, I would like to see meaningful ceremonies, which would involve the labyrinth, re-instituted. These ceremonies would enhance the life cycle connection; welcoming new life, rites of passage for girl’s transitioning to womanhood, for boys passage to manhood, and for adults over fifty years of age, their rite of passage to Elderhood.

This Fall, come walk our labyrinth, discover that walking does expands time. This is your time . . . Time to focus on you. Experience the shifts that occur simply by walking. Notice when our body moves so does our breathing as the lungs expand, our posture becomes less stiff and rigid, our thoughts, our emotions, releasing our whole being’s coherent flow. Experience this opening and expanding of time while discovering our true selves and how the labyrinth can serve all our individual needs.

Come. . . . .feel the expansion of time at Rolling Ridge’s A Day Apart Labyrinth Retreat.

Dorothy Wright-Irwin


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Dorothy Wright-Irwin

Dorothy Wright-Irwin was introduced to labyrinths by one of her professors at North Shore Community College, while at a five day convention in Vermont. There were three temporary labyrinths set up on the grounds for the attendees to explore. Dorothy ...