When the term “labyrinth” arises, people of a certain generation may immediately (and unwillingly) conjure up a mental image of David Bowie wearing skin-tight pants, seducing a teenage Jennifer Connelly in the 1986 fantasy film by Jim Henson, Labyrinth. But if you’re able to put those traumatic memories aside — Muppets were not meant to be that scary! — true labyrinths go back thousands of years, and have a far more spiritual significance.
What is a Labyrinth?
According to The Labyrinth Society, based in Hilton, New York, a labyrinth is “a meandering path, often unicursal, with a singular path leading to a center.” They are used symbolically, as a walking meditation, choreographed dance, or as the site of rituals and ceremonies. They have been tools for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation, and express widely different meanings and purposes for cultures around the world.
There are several different labyrinth categories, but most are familiar with the classical circuit form associated with Greece, which are often circular in nature. There are “seed forms” as well, that can take different shapes, like triangles or squares. The important distinction, however, is that a labyrinth should not be confused with a maze. The difference, for most enthusiasts, is the meditative intent in design and usage.
Mazes, like the ones that farmers build out of cornfields this time of year, are for entertainment purposes and there isn’t really a spiritual element. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is to be treated with reverence and respect. It has a path that leads to a center and, for many, offers an element of “sacred geometry”: a replication of the archetypal geometric patterns found in nature, used for the purposes of spiritual communion, healing or resonance.
Another key difference is that many labyrinths aren’t three-dimensional. One of the most famous can be found embedded in the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. It would be difficult indeed to “get lost” in the Chartres labyrinth, as you could merely step out of it. And yet, thousands of people visit the cathedral each year to meditate as they walk the intricate path.
Experience a Labyrinth
There are many different ways you can experience a labyrinth. The Labyrinth Society site includes resources to download printable versions and “let your fingers do the walking.” You could also create your own, by planting one in a garden or even mowing a path into your lawn.
If you’d rather walk an established labyrinth, there is a super-convenient worldwide Labyrinth Locator online, and it would appear that there are over 200 in the state of New York alone. The site details where they can be found, what they’re made out of, their design, contact information and hours they’re accessible.
Why You Should Try It
If pure curiosity isn’t enough to entice you, there are many reasons why you should try to walk a labyrinth. They can be helpful tools in practicing mindfulness and inner reflection, but they can also be a mindless activity you can participate in for stress relief. People often compare walking a labyrinth to a form of meditation, which is helpful for those who have a hard time sitting still. At the very least, they’re a wonderful way to spend a fall afternoon, soaking up the last warm rays of sunshine as you pace the footworn path.