Labyrinths, Healing, and Garden Design
Grass? Gravel? Succulents and cactus? On a recent winter day, I found myself staring at my front yard contemplating what to do with the landscaping. I was sitting in the Winter sun staring at all the grass in front of me thinking how much I miss the life I had of exploring, traveling, and teaching when a thought literally popped into my head. The yearning to go on a journey and the desire to change up my front yard coalesced into a single vision. I’ve been wanting to reduce the amount of grass in the yard but I didn’t want to create a barren gravel pit with an occasional cactus here and there (yes, we live in the desert). I was feeling disjointed and antsy to explore. There was a need to step out of my everyday experience and go on a journey; to see things and do things differently. As I stared out, I suddenly heard the word, “labyrinth” pop into my mind.
I used to take people on meditation walks twice a year at the local labyrinth near where I lived prior to moving to the desert. I used to do a lot of things before the pandemic hit. One of the gifts of this pandemic is that it has forced me to be more self-aware. I asked myself if traveling was what I really needed? The answer that came back was that traveling would be wonderful but this disjointed experience inside me wasn’t about traveling outside but inside. It was about my need to connect differently within me. Yeah, it would be great to change my environment and travel to an exotic place, and I still hope to soon, but my anxiety told me that I needed to go on an inner journey for it to heal. My desire to healing this anxiousness in me evolved into a spiritual gardening project.
To walk a labyrinth is to take a journey of the mind, body, and spirit.
The purpose of walking a labyrinth, in my humble opinion, is to bring you closer to the God/Goddess of your understanding. Walking a labyrinth is to go on a journey within. We don’t know much about how labyrinths were actually used prior to Christianity but we presume they were used as part of a religious practice. Labyrinths show up in ancient art and mythical tales. The first labyrinth of recorded history was in Egypt and was said to be enormous. The ancient historian Herodotus wrote, “all the works and buildings of the Greeks put together would certainly be inferior to this labyrinth as regards to labor and expense.” In Greek mythology, the maze, a type of labyrinth with dead ends and confusing paths, was designed by Daedalus for King Minos of the Minoans in ancient Crete at Knossos to contain the Minotaur, a half man half bull monster, that was said to be killed by the Greek hero Theseus. Interestingly enough, the etymology of the word labyrinthos is related to the Minoan Labeys or “double axe” that represents the Cretian Minoan mother divinity also in Greek Mythology. But I digress. My history geek came out…
Labyrinths, specifically the unicursal type (one way in one way out), like the one I built in my yard, were taken over by early Christians, as many indigenous traditions of the time were, and were used for mini pilgrimage purposes. I love this idea! To follow a labyrinth is to physically connect with the earth, the material of the labyrinth, to mentally disconnect from a pain, worry, trauma, or simply something that has been on your mind, and to go within oneself. Through the centuries, labyrinths have come to symbolize inner journeys, challenging pathways, that the individual must overcome along their path to greater awareness and even enlightenment. To walk a labyrinth is to go on a journey of time and space, even a weeks long pilgrimage, in one single short period. Perhaps an afternoon? It is a journey in one place. Instead of going to Mecca or Israel or wherever your Holy Place may be, you can take a meditative pilgrimage into a sacred place, a sacred moment, built from nature inside yourself. Walking a labyrinth can be a spiritual journey that speaks deep from our DNA. It can be a reflective time to contemplate, meditate, and release the pains that life often brings us.
In walking a labyrinth, whether it is created of hedge rows, corn, stone walls, or pebbles on a beach, we wander through the curving paths not necessarily understanding the road ahead. We come to the labyrinth’s center, often a sacred space, to contemplate and commune with the Divine (possibly to even just sit with our pain), and we have the potential to walk out of the labyrinth being curious as to what it is like and/or who we are having left our old selves, worries, fears, shames, and pains, in the labyrinth. We step out of the labyrinth in a new freedom, with a lighter heart, a more open and calmer mind, and a life forever changed. So, I built my labyrinth and embarked on a series of inner journeys. The labor required of me to build the labyrinth helped my body feel strong again. The daily process of connecting with the Earth, removing the grass, digging out roots, sifting through gravel, etc. was like the preparation period before launching on a pilgrimage. I dug and shaped the ground in my yard a little every day and dreamed with excitement of what shape the path would take as it scrolled itself through my yard. Walking the labyrinth for the first time felt like an achievement, maybe like a sculptor feels when they can step back and engage with their creation. It was deeply satisfying and to be in the labyrinth as a participant and not a builder felt like an important moment of breath.
One day, as I walked the labyrinth feeling troubled with the state of the world and frustrated with an event that had happened in my life, I felt a heaviness on my shoulders. I was feeling the pain of loss. Life suddenly felt like a flashback scene from an 80s movie. The pandemic of the AIDS crisis and all the death that was around me in my youth at that time was being replayed in the present. Each step that drew me closer to the center of the labyrinth elicited a tear. My heart felt raw, heavy, vulnerable, and alone. As I approached the center of the labyrinth I tripped, caught my balance, but something in me didn’t want to be upright anymore. The weight of loss was too heavy on me. I stumbled onto the meadow area I had cultivated at the center of the labyrinth under a tree that grounded the sacred end of this journey. I had dealt with this loss before but apparently there was another layer of it to heal. A personal goal of mine is to always embrace pain, learn from it, and let it go. But I didn’t want to embrace this pain. I wanted to resist it; push it away. The pain had another plan and it overwhelmed me in a wave of grief. It was late in the day and I told myself I didn’t want to sit in the dark, outside and alone. And, the sprinklers were set to go on any moment. But all I could do was sit. Intuition took over. Calming my racing mind, I tuned into that pain I felt in my heart. Putting my hands on my chest, I said, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry you’re suffering again. I’m so sorry you feel alone!” Then, pressing my hands into the grass, I said, “I give all this pain to you.” A cool breeze kicked up as I heard a neighbor open and close their front door, and my tears dropped into the ground. My critical/judgmental Mind, chimed in to say, “Not again! You can’t do this. Stop being so weak.” Another voice gently replied, “You got this. Let it go. I can take it.” I don’t know if that voice was my heart or the labyrinth itself, or Mother Nature, or God but I did. I let the grief go. It flowed through me; out of my heart, out of my head, across my shoulders, and down through my arms and fingers into the ground. I leaned back into the amazing mulberry tree in this sweet little meadow, paused for a moment, and then stood up feeling prompted to begin the journey out of the labyrinth. With each step a buoyancy came into me. I thought to myself, “Who can I be no longer carrying all that grief inside of me?” As I walked out of the labyrinth, along its winding path, I got to feel what it is like to be free. I was free from the pandemic, both of them. Free from the heaviness of loss. Free! The stories of my past (far past and recent past) were still there but I released their control over me. History didn’t change. I changed.
Most of my experiences walking the labyrinth aren’t as healing or dramatic but they are all rejuvenating. The inner journey I took that the labyrinth in my front yard facilitated was exactly what I needed. The disjointed anxiety was gone. Even now, months later, sitting by that mulberry tree in the meadow with my hands pressed into the grass always brings a feeling of peace. My heart calms and my mind is freed from worry and fearful projections of the past taking over the future. The labyrinth truly speaks from an ancient place, a place I discovered within me, bringing healing in such a simple way…and it makes for a beautiful garden design!