Monday, April 11, 2011

Walking the Labyrinth ...

It has been a while since my last post because I have been helping two dear friends navigate another health crisis in what has been a two year journey of health crises. This last experience has been especially stressful for all of us and we have each needed to draw deeply upon our well of resources to deal with the stress.

One of the resources that was of great help in reducing my own anxiety over the past two weeks was the labyrinth. I have walked the labyrinth in a number of different settings over the years but this is the first time that I have been intentional about using it as a regular calming practice. And I'm happy to say how well it worked!

Walking the labyrinth is a form of walking meditation with its roots in spiritual tradition more than 3000 years old. Evidence of its use has been found in pre-Christian Knossos and Egypt and later, in many of the cathedrals of Europe. The best known labyrinth is that on the floor of the nave of Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the early 13th century.

In the past decade, labyrinths have seen a revival as tools for wellness and their patterns have been placed in hospitals, schools, churches, retreat centers and community parks. The Central Park labyrinth in Burlington, Ontario is the first permanent wheelchair accessible labyrinth in Canada.

The Symbol

The symbol, itself, is a single pathway with switchback turns leading from the outer edge of the circle to the center, and back again. The circular pattern is thought to symbolize healing and wholeness, and the pathway, the inward journey.

How it Helps

Like other forms of walking meditation studied by Harvard Medical School's Mind-Body Institute, walking the labyrinth is thought to reduce anxiety through stimulating our body's relaxation response and, when used as a regular practice, to reduce insomnia, chronic pain, and high blood pressure and to improve concentration.

Walking the labyrinth is an intuitive, right-brain activity that calms and balances - as opposed to a maze, with its many entrances and dead ends, that tends to engage the left brain with problem-solving rather than calming.

The act of walking a complicated, attention demanding pathway focuses our minds. Other thoughts become less intrusive though, as with other forms of meditation, this does not happen automatically and we need to gently and non-judgementally let go of the thoughts that come and return our attention to the walking.

Three Approaches to the Walk

There is no "right" way to walk a labyrinth. The journey is deeply personal. Below are three possibilities:

1. Simply quietening and opening yourself to your own experience.

2. Considering a question. Concentrating on the question as you enter the labyrinth and letting everything else go as you walk. Opening your heart and mind to new information and insights regarding the question.

3. Focusing on letting go of things you want to leave behind or on obstacles that need removing from your spiritual path on the way in. Being present to your innermost self and the presence of your Higher Power in the center. Focusing on what you will bring back from the center and into your life on the way back.

How to Walk the Labyrinth

1. Prepare yourself to walk. Take a few moments to quiet yourself and make the transition from your busy day to the meditation time. Remove your watch. Think or journal about your intention. Place your belongings in a safe place so worry about them doesn't distract you. If possible and safe, remove your shoes for the walk. (This is a traditional sign of respect and is necessary when walking on some painted surfaces.)

2. Begin your journey, pausing at the entrance to take a cleansing breath and focus your attention. Some people like to say a prayer or state an intention or ask a question as they begin; others bow or make another personal gesture to mark the beginning of their walk.

3. Walk the path inward. Walk at your own, comfortable, measured pace. Put one foot in front of the other. Become conscious of your breath without controlling it. Pause when you need to. The center is not the goal. Being present to yourself in each moment is what matters. (If you meet someone coming in the opposite direction, step to one side to let them pass. Take your cue from the person passing and from your own feelings regarding whether or not to acknowledge them with a nod or smile, or withhold eye contact and simply to pass by.)

4. Take time at the center - as much as you need. Meditate, journal, be open to the stillness. Respect the boundaries of others who are using the space.

5. Take the return path. Pause when you need to, as before. Resist the temptation to hurry out - the journey out is as important as the journey in.

6. Reflect on the journey. Pause for an ending ritual - a bow, a prayer, a gesture - if you like. Before leaving, take some time to reflect upon or journal about your insights or experience.

** Be prepared for the possibility that, like other forms of meditation or body work, walking the labyrinth can bring to the surface unexpected feelings or memories. Let your emotions and thoughts flow freely and don't be embarrassed. Others are focussed on their own experience.

** If you feel overwhelmed by any of your responses, follow your walk with counselling by a qualified mental health counsellor.

Where Can I Find a Labyrinth?

You can search the internet for sites close to you. Some BC sites include:

- Fleetwood Park, 80th Avenue, Surrey

- St Paul's Anglican Church, Vancouver (West End)

- Pacific Rim National Park
- Sorrento Center, Sorrento

- St Hilda's Anglican Church, Sechelt

- Bethlehem Retreat Center, Nanaimo

- Sendall Gardens, 50th Avenue & 201A Street, Langley

- Sylvan United Church, Mill Bay

- Trinity United Church, Vernon

- Naramata Center, (North of Penticton)

- Lakeside Park, City of Nelson
- Vancouver School of Theology, UBC

And for those who cannot leave home, it is possible to buy a wooden "finger labyrinth" board or to print one from one of the internet labyrinth sites.

May those of you who give it a try, find walking the labyrinth a healing new mindfulness resource.

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