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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pepper the Planet With Labyrinths

Sentara Health Campus

Life is walking a labyrinth,
I cannot always know which way I will turn,
or even see far ahead, but there are no tricks.
It is not a maze, no chance of getting lost,
trust in the path that has been laid for me
or in the path that I have chosen.
Walk it in trust, stop when a break is necessary,
and know that the center is always there.

    - Elizabeth H. Wiggins

A Brief History

The symbolic labyrinth is a series of concentric lines, carefully connected. This symbol and its family of derivatives has been traced back over 3500 years. The labyrinth occurs in different cultures at different points in time and in places as diverse as Peru, Arizona, Iceland, Scandinavia, Crete, Egypt, India and Sumatra.

The initial lines of human contact with these ancient forms are difficult to trace, so true origins remain mysterious. But, throughout history, a labyrinth has been known as a "magical" geometric form that defines sacred space. As a potent symbol, labyrinths have been an integral part of many cultures, such as Celtic, Mayan, Greek, Cretan, and Native American. 

Mediums employed for a labyrinth's use have been many and varied. To cite but a few of the forms, historical evidence has shown the medium could be (a) a simple symbol recorded in a mythology; (b) an artwork carved on wood or a rockface; (c) a design woven on a blanket or a basket; (d) a path laid out on the ground with water-worn stones in the desert or on shorelines, (e) a design used in a colored mosaic; and (f) a design in stone or tiles installed on the floors of villas, churches and cathedrals, or even cut into the living turf.

The classical, or seventh circuit labyrinth, is an ancient design found in many cultures. It has seven circuits. These circuits are the seven paths that lead to the center or goal. Also known as the Cretan Labyrinth, it is associated with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

7 Circuit Labyrinth

The Cretan design may have spread quickly—and lasted for so many centuries—because the secret of how to draw it (using a seed pattern construction technique) was passed on from generation to generation and civilization to civilization. More intriguingly, the shape of the 7-circuit labyrinth also mirrors the motion of the planet Mercury in the sky over a long period of time. Did some ancient astronomer record this motion, and create the labyrinth symbol based upon it? We will probably never know. ("The History of Mazes and Labyrinths,", 2012)

The earliest known use of the 7-circuit labyrinth symbol occurs on a clay tablet from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos in Greece. A fire destroyed this palace around 1200 BC, baking the clay tablet and preserving it for archaeologists. The labyrinth was probably a scribe's doodle, because the other side of the tablet was part of the palace records, and lists a number of men who were each owed a goat. This design has also been found on Cretan coins.

In the following centuries the identical labyrinth turned up on an Etruscan wine jug in Italy, on rock outcrops carved in Spain, on a roof tile of the Parthenon and even as graffito in an Egyptian quarry. The labyrinth also begins to be associated with another Greek legend, that of the fall of the city of Troy, around this time.

The Latin word for labyrinth is labyrinthus. The Latin word is from pre-Greek origins and means "double-edged axe", which was a symbol of royal power. - For More History

This design was taken by the Romans and new forms were created for use on mosaic floors. Many Roman labyrinths are actually simple extensions of the Cretan labyrinth into four square quadrants. In fact, an image of Theseus slaying the Minotaur is often seen in the central compartment.

Most Roman labyrinths were too small to have been walked, and are typically found on the floor near the entrances to houses and villas; many have small city walls (perhaps indicating the walls of Troy) drawn around them. This suggests they served a protective function, and were perhaps believed to have warded off evil influences or intruders—a common function of the labyrinth in many other cultures as well.

There are over 60 known examples of Roman mosaic labyrinths, found throughout the Roman Empire at its height—from Italy to Egypt, Syria, and England. In addition to mosaics, one curious use of the labyrinth pattern is recorded by the Roman author Pliny. He wrote that large labyrinths were inscribed on the ground and were used as a test of skill by young Roman nobles riding on horseback. This ancient Roman game may have the beginnings of the turf maze.

Further developed during  medieval times, the labyrinth design then appeared on the floors of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, on village greens and hilltops, on remote coastlines and islands in Scandinavia, up to the Arctic circle and beyond.

In the middle ages, the religious labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and a single entrance (birth). In earlier times, many people devoted to practicing their religions, could not afford to travel to Mecca, Mount Sinai, or other sacred and holy sites and lands, so labyrinths and prayer acted as a surrogate form of pilgrimage.

In Western Christianity, the mystical path is traditionally known as The Threefold Path.  There are three stages in the process of deepening a sense of union with The Divine, and we walk the Labyrinth using these stages.
  1. Purgation: Walking in, a purging and releasing; and emptying and quieting of the mind.
  2. Illumination: In the center, a place of meditation and prayer.
  3. Union: Walking out, a sense of grounding and empowerment, a way to integrate and manifest our visions in the world.
Visitors Park and Recreational Trail Area, Fort Drug, NY

Modern Symbolism

The labyrinth is a symbol that relates to the wholeness of one. The circular shape and its pathways combine to form a metaphor for life’s journey -- a path of life on a single continuum. Today people walk the circuits of  labyrinths that have been constructed in many public areas. As they walk, they often seek solace and  continuity of the mind and soul along with some much-needed exercise.

Walking a labyrinth is a simple, direct experience with many potential benefits.Concentrating on the path is an "action-meditation" allowing people to focus on the moment. At the center one reaches a place for reflection. It is also a mandala - a schematized representation of the cosmos characterized by a concentric organization of visually appealing geometric shapes. As chattering thoughts cease during a walk, people may find a higher consciousness. The mandala serves as a tool for a spiritual journey as it symbolizes cosmic and psychic order.

The labyrinth represents a journey to a person's own center and back again out into the world. Having completed a purposeful and physical path, people may experience profound insights, truths or simple reflections about their lives.

As history relates, labyrinths have also long been used as meditation and prayer tools. In this sense, labyrinths can be thought of as a symbolic metaphor for a spiritual pilgrimage; people can walk the path, aspiring toward salvation or enlightenment.

Labyrinths are often confused with mazes. In the English-speaking world it is often considered that to qualify as a maze, a design must have choices in the pathway whereas labyrinths have one pathway that leads inexorably from the entrance to the goal, albeit often by the most complex and winding of routes. Thus, to qualify as a labyrinth, a design should have but one path.

Backyard Labyrinth

Research About the Benefits of Walking a Labyrinth

Today meditation is being used more and more in hospitals to reduce complications that occur when increased stress leads to a depressed immune system. Medical professionals around the world have begun to realize that mental factors such as stress make a significant contribution to a lack of physical health. As a result, efforts by mainstream scientific organizations to fund research in this area are increasing including the National Institute of Health's initiative to establish five new centers to research the mind-body aspects of disease in the U.S.

Labyrinth walking is among the simplest forms of focused walking meditation, and the demonstrated health benefits have led hundreds of hospitals, health care facilities, and spas to install labyrinths in recent years.The lesson of the labyrinth is simple: As long as a person persists, he or she will reach his/her destination.

* Meditation has entered the mainstream of conventional health care as a way to reduce stress and pain only within the last 35 years. The breakthrough came in 1976 when Ainslie Meares, an Australian psychiatrist, wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia that in some instances cancers actually regressed following intensive meditation. Meares went on to write several books about his findings, including, Relief without Drugs.(Meares, A. Relief Without Drugs: The Self-Management of Tension, Anxiety and Pain, Fontana, Sydney, 1970.)

* Research conducted at the Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute by Dr. Herbert Benson  found that focused walking meditations are highly efficient at reducing anxiety and eliciting what Dr. Benson called the "relaxation response." This effect has significant long-term health benefits, including lower blood pressure and breathing rates, reduced incidents of chronic pain, reduction of insomnia, and improved fertility. Regular meditative practice leads to greater powers of concentration and a sense of control and efficiency in one's life. (Benson, H. The Relaxation Response - Updated and Expanded, the 25th Anniversary Edition. 2000)

* One report described anecdotal evidence of some beneficial effects of the “Classic Seven Path Labyrinth” for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, sex hormone changes, effects on vision, dyslexia and mental and nervous system disorders. (London, W. P. 1994. The healing earth project: An update, November 1994. The American Dowser 3:1).

* Danielson conducted a study to explore the psychologically transforming effects of walking a labyrinth. This study explored labyrinth history, resurgence, current uses, and discussed the psychological benefits associated with its use. The research  found walking a labyrinth increased awareness, encouraged more focus, and offered a deep connection with personal spirituality. (Danielson, K. J. 2004. The transformative power of the labyrinth. Unpublished masters thesis. Sonoma State University, California.)

* A letter to the editor of the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing described how, in 2000, a special team of northeast Ohio physicians, nurses, administrators, art therapists, and chaplains formulated an innovative and comprehensive model for cancer care. The patients had access within one building to high-quality cancer care that incorporated radiation therapy, medical oncology, and the Center for Body, Mind, and Spirit, an integrative health program that included healing gardens and a labyrinth. (Abdallah-Baran, R. 2002. Ohio labyrinth encourages powerful spiritual practice. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 6:6, 319-320)

* Abdallah-Baran also found how, at the Ireland Cancer Center in Elyria, Ohio, complementary and integrative therapies, including walking the labyrinth, in conjunction with conventional cancer treatment (e.g. surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, biotherapy), generated and promoted a patient culture rooted in holistic healing. The article included three examples of how two patients with cancer and a caregiver had incorporated holistic health care into their lives. (Abdallah-Baran, R. 2003. Nurturing spirit through complementary cancer care. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 7:4, 468-470)

*Schultz and Rhodes introduced research concerning the labyrinth as a way to deal with life stressors. The results showed a positive relationship of responses with definitions of healing in the holistic nursing literature. For a majority of walkers (66% - 82%) labyrinth walking increased levels of relaxation, clarity, peace, centeredness, openness, quiet, and reflectiveness, and reduced levels of anxiety, stress, and agitation. The experience of labyrinth walking supported recovery, renewal, integration of the whole person, and facilitating a sense of harmony. (Schultz, E. D. & Rhodes, J. W. 2011, June. The labyrinth as a path of healing. Poster presentation at the American Holistic Nurses Association Annual Conference, Louisville, KY.)

* Another study provided a randomized trial that showed the amount of stress some new nurse graduates are feeling, and how another group of new nurse graduates, by walking the labyrinth, was able to keep their stress in check. The research suggested developing creative ideas concerning stress management should become a larger part of nursing research. (Weigel, C, Fanning, L, Parker, G, & Round, T. 2007. The labyrinth as a stress reduction tool for nurse interns during the journey of their first year in practice. Healing Ministry 14:3, 19)

Barnstable High School


A garden is a soulful retreat and often a sacred space, whether it is a garden at a private residence or at a communal facility. Gardens provide much-needed respite. They serve as places for interaction with one another or as places for reflection and soul-searching. Gardens can help people explore the essence of life, foster personal growth and deepen spiritual awareness. They are places that engage the senses through the goodness of nature.

In the past, there was little commonality between garden labyrinths and meditation labyrinths. The earliest use of labyrinths was probably for rituals and ceremonies. Only the select were allowed to participate in these events. But, during the Middle Ages, walkable floor labyrinths appeared in the Gothic cathedrals of northern France starting in the late 12th century.

Meditative garden labyrinths of the 21st century offer simple paths for wholeness. Attractive structures that stimulate the mind are known to have great appeal, and now, the medical profession is discovering the great benefits to health labyrinths provide. Health facilities are employing their unique, interactive features in a healing/meditative garden setting. Benefits to patients, visitors, and staff  are cost efficient and mind altering.

Labyrinth and Healthcare
  1. A quiet place where the simple act of walking offers a proactive way to ‘do’ something towards getting better.
  2. An inviting way of getting exercise outdoors in nature.
  3. A clearly non-medical environment where patients can share time with family and friends.
  4. A place where patients can let go of the issues related to illness and injury.
  5. A sacred spot where patients can express intentions and hopes for the future.
  6. A perfect spot for a “get well” ceremony.

Delmar Baptist Church, Town and Country, Mo.

First Presbyterian Church, Livermore, Ca.

John Hopkins Medical Center

Peace Lutheran, Grass Valley, Ca.

Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church

West Clinic, Memphis, Tn.

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