Ancient Labyrinths: Tools of Healing
By Michele D. Baker
Photography Credits: Michele D. Baker, Rev. Warren Lynn, WellFedSpirit.org, Lars Howlett, DiscoverLabyrinths.com, West Cancer Center, Le Bonheur/BHD Architects, Susan Dimock Photography
Find your way to clarity, enlightenment, and healing by walking a labyrinth, an ancient tradition that’s winding its way into the modern world.
In our modern culture of overwork, burnout, and exhaustion, many of us are online and distracted 24/7 from those things that are truly important: our health, our relationships, and our spiritual and emotional well-being. Given these constant demands on our time and energy, how can we tap into our creativity and wisdom, our capacity for wonder, and our ability to heal? The Greek philosopher Diogenes offered a simple answer: solvitur ambulando (“it is solved by walking”).
The idea of walking to gain clarity and enlightenment has been part of the human psyche for thousands of years, and the labyrinth takes the practice a step further, offering a kind of “full-body meditation” which parallels the inner journey of prayer and reflection. Within a labyrinth there are places for prayer, meditation, and spiritual healing, and because they are unicursal — there is only a single pathway in and out — one can never get lost.
An Ancient Tradition
Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated all the way back to the Neolithic Age (12,000 B.C. to 3500 B.C.), characterized by fixed human settlements and agriculture in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India. In the Tantric texts of India, labyrinths are often depicted in the design of mandalas, while in Britain they are found in the ring-and-cup marks of stonework. The famous swirl designs are also found at sites such as Newgrange in Ireland.
Taking a labyrinth walk is a modern revival of an ancient spiritual custom — this ancient symbol of transformation and healing can be found in the modern age in churches and gardens, backyards and parks, hospitals and hospices, on beaches and in forests.
Look for pathways laid out in stones, pavers, bricks, sand, mowed into grass, and hedges trimmed to create the courses. Labyrinths can also be etched into concrete, taped onto carpeting, carved into trees, painted on columns, or projected onto the floor in a dark room. On the creative side, there are portable canvas or oilcloth versions available for rent, tabletop models made from bottlecaps, handheld and fingertip versions, and even a virtual labyrinth to suit the COVID age.
Modern Use in Hospitals and Treatment Centers
In recent years, the medical community has turned its attention to health design, environment, and patient-centered care, recognizing that the subjective qualities of inner healing such as attitude, state of mind, and beliefs have an enormous effect on the outcome of a patient’s treatment and recovery. Labyrinths represent a step forward — they are interactive, promoting well-being not just for patients, but also for staff, health providers, doctors, visitors, and even the local community.
Labyrinth walking — or using a tabletop or finger labyrinth — has been shown to assist in the overall treatment plans for cancer patients, people in psychiatric hospitals, in hospice settings to aid the grieving process, and as an effective method of stress reduction for nurses and other health care professionals.
At Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, labyrinth consultant Brenda Wiseman and senior arts designer Linda Hill are working on Le Bonheur Green. The lawn facing Adams Avenue will be transformed into an outdoor park featuring a series of serene garden rooms, a long expanse of grassy berms, and a labyrinth, all surrounding a heart shaped grassy open space. Le Bonheur Green opens this summer.
“The new labyrinth will be open to the community,” says Wiseman. “There is a universal appeal to the labyrinth. It is often used as a place for walking meditation, to reduce stress, or for reflection. Children love the interactive experience of the labyrinth, and [ours] will be slightly modified to be child friendly. We envision that the Le Bonheur labyrinth will be another expression of the heart of Le Bonheur.”
West Cancer Center & Research Institute’s campus on Wolf River Boulevard in Germantown, Tenn., also features a rooftop labyrinth intended for staff, cancer patients, and their families, giving them a place to retreat, regroup and renew. Family and friends can walk the labyrinth to calm and focus themselves before meeting with doctors or as an alternative to sitting in the emergency room for hours. Staff also benefit from the experience, as the open-air oasis provides a quiet haven to prepare mentally and emotionally for surgery or other procedures, or as a place to relieve stress.
Research has shown that walking a labyrinth often gives cancer patients a sense of confidence and control over their treatments. For over 30 years, Dr. Herbert Benson, Mind/Body Medicine professor at Harvard Medical School, has championed the physiological benefits of meditation which he calls the “relaxation response.” Benson recognizes that meditation slows breathing, heart, and metabolic rates, and lowers blood pressure. As a form of walking meditation, the labyrinth produces these same results.
“Labyrinths offer an accessible, cost-effective, proactive spiritual technology that does what science cannot do,” Benson explains. “Even in cases where outer healing fails, inner healing can still take place. Working in concert, medicine, design, environment, and labyrinths offer a whole that greatly exceeds the sum of its parts.”
Finding and Walking a Labyrinth
The database housed at LabyrinthLocator.com lists over 6,000 labyrinths (including a few mazes) in more than 80 countries around the world; 62 are in Tennessee, and 26 are located within a 90-minute drive of Memphis. Mississippi houses 20 labyrinths, including one on the campus of Ole Miss.
February is Cancer Survivor’s Awareness Month, the perfect time to walk a labyrinth in memory or in honor of a loved one. Visit the large Chartres-style labyrinth at Cancer Survivors Park on Perkins Extension (between Southern Avenue and Perkins Road) in Memphis, one of a family of 24 such parks funded by the Richard and Annette Bloch Family Foundation.