I saw my first labyrinth on my way to kickball.
Someone had burned it onto the field behind the art gallery where we practiced, and left a bunch of fliers explaining what it was -- a winding path that twists and turns in on itself, meant to promote meditation and use of the creative, nonlinear side of the brain of those who walk it.
Appropriate enough, I thought while looking at it, since the pattern kind of resembled a brain.
I tried it.
And once I overcame the ridiculousness of walking in circles in the middle of an open field, I got into a soothing rhythm.
This particular labyrinth -- which I later discovered was a Chartres labyrinth, named after the original, in the Chartres cathedral in France, and one of the most popular designs -- winds tightly around and constantly doubles back on itself.
It seems designed specifically so the most straightforward and logical path is not the one that leads to the center.
This is obvious, perhaps, considering that it is, well, a labyrinth, but the whole concept takes on a new weight when you consider the intention and process behind labyrinths.
Out of the Maze
The dictionary defines a labyrinth as a type of maze.
But according to Robert Ferre, founder of St. Louis's
Labyrinth Enterprises, a company specializing in their design and construction, this is not the case -- at least not for the kinds of labyrinths currently popping up around the country in churches, hospitals and even people's backyards.
"A maze keeps you completely in your intellect; a labyrinth takes you out of it," Ferre explains.
A maze is essentially a mental exercise, whereas in a labyrinth, there are no decisions to be made.
It is simply about the psychological and emotional journey, or the process of meditation -- a central reason why the designs are gaining popularity in public spaces like schools and hospitals.
I have to admit, my first labyrinth walk didn't quite get me there.
There was something relaxing about following the path back and forth, but I certainly didn't find myself having any epiphanies, either.
But I also hadn't made the mental commitment. Like anyone who's ever fallen asleep in yoga class can tell you, true meditation takes work and focus.
A Mindful Walk
Labyrinth tender Michele Fry, who along with her husband put a labyrinth into their front yard a few years ago, offers advice on how to take full advantage of your experience.
"Take several deep breaths and set your intention for the walk," her Web site says. She also recommends lingering as long in the labyrinth as necessary, doubling back, retracing steps, even shouting or singing, if you're alone.
When you get to the center, stay as long as you want, "sitting, standing, kneeling, journaling, meditating, humming."
Like many things in life, you get out what you put in. Ferre of Labyrinth Enterprises has seen reactions ranging from mere amusement to a reduced amount of stress, to deep enlightenment.
"Some people have intuitive ideas,
or experience physical and psychological healing. They go beyond a barrier that is in some ways our intellectual mind," Ferre says.
There's a good reason these ancient designs, which are thousands of years old and span across many cultures, are experiencing a renaissance now in the U.S. "We live in world that place too much emphasis on the masculine and competitive -- a labyrinth is embracing and feminine," Ferre believes.
Many amateurs make the mistake of thinking any winding path can qualify as a labyrinth, Ferre continues.
While it's true they can be in any pattern, labyrinths do have to follow certain rules. Designing one takes knowledge of proportion and the principles of sacred geometry.
But once you get that down, there are few rules concerning the labyrinth. It's a remarkably versatile concept.
Labyrinths All Over
Ferre got his start constructing imitations of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral labyrinth on large pieces of canvas and selling them as temporary labyrinths to organizations that didn't have the space or money for permanent ones.
He then branched into permanent installations, and now he makes them out of everything from cement and stones to plastic forks. "I have a friend who draws them in the sand at low tide," he says.
It's even possible to print up a finger labyrinth and use it to steal a little meditation time at work; for those who don't even have the time to do that, the
Labyrinth Society boasts virtual labyrinths online, where you can choose to either control the icon yourself or just watch calmly as it journeys through.
The Labyrinth Society also hosts a labyrinth finder, which can generate a list of all the labyrinths in your area. The Grace Cathedral is probably the best known in the U.S., but Ferre also recommends the Cathedral Labyrinth in New Harmony, Ind., or, for those with a little more cash to spend, there's always the original at the Chartres Cathedral, outside Paris, France.
Or, you could just make your own. Fry and her husband painted their first labyrinth on their field with football paint, and since then it's turned into quite a project, one that they look at as "their ministry."
Since the initial painting seven years ago, they've created a stone path, added a fountain in the middle, benches around the sides and track lighting. She estimates they invest about $300-$400 into it each year. "We don't think it'll ever be finished," Fry says.
Fry's focus has changed since they built the labyrinth. The experience she and her husband once got from walking it they now get from tending to it, from trimming the grass to cleaning off the leaves.
And the more time you spend in labyrinths, she points out, the more you can find them anywhere.
"Now that I've had my labyrinth experience, I find that driving to Wal-Mart is a labyrinth," she explains.
Labyrinths help you locate that "in-the-zone feeling," Fry continues. "Everything is a joy, everything is an experiment, everything is an adventure. You really don't have to go white-water rafting ... to get that elation. Once you've had that experience, the labyrinth sensation comes over you."
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Bobbi Parry is a freelance writer originally from Salt Lake City. She now lives in Baton Rouge, La., where she is working toward an M.F.A. at Louisiana State University.