Walking to the Middle

(image via Ashley Batz)

(image via Ashley Batz)

Every New Year’s Eve and day for the last seven years I have helped re-create an almost exact reproduction of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth on the floor of our New Hampshire town hall. The original in France, was built in a thirteenth century church and is made of different types of embedded and chiseled granite. Ours sits on a creaky wood floor in a 100 year old New England hall with a fifty foot white ceiling and is created from black floor tape (a temporary affair). Still, it is stunning—both in how it looks and the impact it has garnered over the years. Started initially as an idea to celebrate the Millennium, this 42-foot wide circle contains a path over 1/3 of a mile long has become a local tradition.

A labyrinth is different than a maze. The purpose of a maze is to confuse and obfuscate, with numerous dead ends, twists and turns. But a labyrinth has only one path in and out. Its purpose, through the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other, is to clarify and enlighten. It is a guided meditative walk, taking the visitor first to its center and then back out again. I suppose it is a universal metaphor for our life’s journey and can provide the walker with an opportunity for reflection and thought.

Anyone can walk for any reason. To walk a labyrinth does not demand a great amount of preparation or concentration to benefit from the experience. Just walking an intricate path can help focus the mind. To the visitor this means a quieting of our almost constant inner buzzing. This does not just happen. But walking a labyrinth can help to distinguish between what’s really important and what’s not. This is often easier to do when the whole body is moving.

The poet Rumi put it well when he wrote:

The mystery cannot by answered
by repeating the question,
nor can it be bought by going to amazing places.
Only until I have silenced the eyes
and stilled the heart.
Only then can I
begin to cross over from confusion.

Over the years I have seen amazing things within the taped floor of our hall. In a small town the confluence of people that attend can be quite “familiar”. One year, within the labyrinth at the same time, was my wife, my two step-kids, her ex-husband, his two other kids, his business partner, his business partner’s ex-wife and daughter and everyone’s therapist! And no one seemed to mind one bit. It was like watching one of those mechanical solar system devices, where each “planet” revolves at a different speed, yet all of them are still connected in some way. Each was attending for their own reasons, and each experience was different. But together, they represented the unseen linkage that is felt within a small community.

Sometimes the impact is stunning but difficult to fathom. For instance, almost every year a photographer comes to shoot the labyrinth. While we post signs requesting sensitivity to the “sacredness” of the event this does not dissuade her from shooting endless flash photos (until stopped) or wearing shoes to walk while everyone else has removed theirs as requested. You would look at this woman and assume she was insensitive, clueless or lost. Yet when she gets to the middle of the labyrinth, a place for many of contemplation and thought, she stands there for 30 minutes with tears streaming down her face, her eyes raised in splendor and profound emotion. Go figure. She blows my mind every time.

I think the great learning I take from the labyrinth is the annual reminder that each of us walks the same path in a different way. There’s the senior adult who dances the labyrinth or the young mother who walks with her one-year old baby, the infant continually waving. Or the bent and wrinkled woman with a walker, moving at an incredibly slow pace. There are those who race along, and those who move as slowly as a three-legged turtle. Some smile to each they pass, and some are inwardly focused, eyes down and reflective.

The labyrinth is the perfect metaphor for the notion that no matter how we get to the center, it will be the same for us all. The only choice we have in the journey is the thoughts we carry, the energy we bring, the focus of our attention and the balance we maintain between our outer speed and inner our reflection. After that, it’s all just some tape on a dusty floor.