Can walking labyrinths ease my doomscroll-addled mind?
I never thought much about labyrinths until this year. If I did, it was only to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Minotaur, the man-bull of ancient Greece and occupant of the original Labyrinth — a guy myth-optimized to serve as a violent, misbegotten symbol of what happens when gods and kings act out, and who can’t relate to that? But his labyrinth? Rarely a thought. Then I read about San Francisco labyrinth-maker Lars Howlett, whose business is booming during quarantine.
Well, I figured, that explains all the beastly men I’ve seen in the news. Second thought: Who, in THIS moment, wants to build a MAZE?
But, I’ve since learned, a labyrinth isn’t a maze, though we use the words interchangeably (and the mythical Labyrinth clearly was a maze). No, technically, a maze branches into dead ends, wrong turns, mounting frustrations, and, if you’re a mouse, the possibility of cheese. A labyrinth, on the other hand, has come to mean a single, twisting path — the word for it is unicursal — that winds you to the center and brings you back out. No tricks, no getting lost. It’s intentional, contemplative, said to be emotionally soothing. A quieted mind is your only cheese. That’s what’s keeping the labyrinth guy busy.
“The labyrinth is a sure path for uncertain times,” Howlett told Bloomberg CityLab. “It brings order out of a sense of chaos.” That seems to have been their main purpose in the 4,000 years we know they’ve existed, across many cultures, frequently in spiritual settings.
The way a labyrinth briefly mimics a maze’s baffling complexity before resolving into a clear passage — that’s precisely the clarifying dynamic that my brain needs. So I set out to experience a few. (Labyrinthlocator.com helped; it lists some 6,000 worldwide.)
First up was a starter labyrinth nestled in a corner of Reunion Trails Park in Henderson. Circular, like most ’rinths, this one is a narrow cement trail curving through lush grass. It’s small, just four courses, and only required 293 steps to work my way to the pipe sculpture at its center, and back out again.
But even that was enough to hint at why there’s a bull market for these things. Walking at a deliberate speed, eyes focused on the path, wrapped in the cool morning and murmuring suburban soundscape, I felt my distractions scootch back a few cognitive inches. True, I may have willed myself to overfeel the effect — pandemic life has trained me to max out every wisp of tranquility — but it was a nice respite anyway. (And maybe good for me: Studies have touted the stress- and blood-pressure-lowering effects of labyrinth walking.) Midway around the path, mysterious splash marks: A minotaur marking his territory, probably. My youngest son, who was with me, walked out backward, which ought to be a metaphor for something.
The labyrinth at St. Rose Dominican Hospital’s San Martín campus is considerably larger: 11 courses, modeled on the most famous version, at France’s Chartres Cathedral, installed in the early 1200s. According to the hospital’s website, its labyrinth combines the focused time (walking the long path) and hushed setting (it’s in a quiet, partially shaded courtyard) that allows for meaningful contemplation.
But also, regrettably, to be contemplated: Many windows look out onto the courtyard, and, depending on how armored your psyche is, your deep inner spelunkings might be undone by the itchy sense of being observed. All those eyes judging your labyrinth style. Is this how the mouse feels? In any case, too much performance anxiety for me. “The labyrinth is not magic,” the hospital’s website says, “but it is full of mystery. It produces different results for everyone — or perhaps none at all.” Noted.
I saved the elaborate labyrinth at St. Andrew Catholic Community Church, in Boulder City, for the big test: the morning after the 2020 election, with the results still uncertain and our collective psychology frantically Rubik’s-cubing into new configurations of despair, hope, anxiety, anger. Laggy with my own pessimism, I shambled through the surrounding grove of narrow evergreens and onto the large, intricate design painted onto a circular concrete pad. I was alone. Let’s see what you’ve got, 11-course Chartres pattern.
Enacting a journey toward faith or enlightenment, the route to the center is too intricate to understand in a glance. It leads you toward the middle, then back to the circumference, then toward the middle again, continually folding in on itself like a freakishly symmetrical intestine. I wonder if this sensation of being swallowed is deliberate, but I’m no theologian. You’re tempted to shortcut toward the center, but, hey, this is a church.
Forcing myself into a measured pace, I reached the center in about seven minutes. Depending on your physical condition, the weather, and the state of the nation, you might work up a light sweat, or maybe that’s just me. I’ll say this for the experience: More than a novelty stroll but less than a conversion experience, that labyrinth walk turned out to be the most serene 17 minutes of that day. For a few minutes there it was just me, a winding path, jostling trees, five distinct varieties of birdcall. Not once did I think of our labyrinthine democracy.
Then I was done, and it was back out into the maze, hustling for cheese with the other mice.