The Labyrinth

Walk this way…

by Michael Braunstein

Trouble with your meditation lately? Can’t seem to settle the drunken monkey mind? Maybe you need to walk it off.

For thousands of years, walking meditation has been a way to calm the mind and reach a state of inner tranquility. Zen masters extol the virtue of physical discipline combining with intention leading to higher awareness. Martial arts train mind and body to work as one, with the result a state of inner peace. Ayurveda teaches that walking meditation is a perfect way for younger ones to learn to let their minds calm. And one of the oldest templates for letting our mind do the walking is the labyrinth.

We know that relieving stress is a requirement of both mind and body. Modern studies confirm the role that stress reduction plays in health. Yet many people find that meditation and other relaxation therapies aren’t easy for them to use. Maybe the idea of sitting still isn’t their cup of tea. Perhaps their legs need something more active than a lotus position. For those people, walking the labyrinth may be a perfect way to give the mind freedom to relax.

The labyrinth is both an archetype and an ancient tool that crosses cultures and centuries. It has been used for self-discovery, prayer and meditation for thousands of years. As a symbol, it appears in the form of the Native American prayer wheel, Tibetan sand paintings, mandalas and prayer wheels, the Hopi seven-layer labyrinth, the Kabbalah in Judaism and the pilgrim’s path depicted in the Gothic Christian cathedrals of Europe.

Maybe I’m a-mazed… maybe not. The labyrinth mimics the natural forces of the universe and the designs of some basic labyrinths echo those found in the spiral of the nautilus or the web of a spider. Labyrinths are found in cultures in China, the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australia.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking of a corn maze as a labyrinth. Mazes and labyrinths differ.

A labyrinth has no dead-ends, no chicanes. Rather, your completion and destination are guaranteed. There is only one way to proceed once the labyrinth is entered and the path always leads to the goal. Step by step, there is no thinking or planning necessary. If NIKE had invented the labyrinth, the slogan would still be “Just Do It!”

A labyrinth guides the walker to the very center and then the path leads back out again. During the walk, the mind need not think or decide or judge. The way is clear and set for you; predestined. With no decisions to make, the intellect can take the day off and thinking becomes unnecessary. The walker of the labyrinth just is.

Walk this way… As Christian culture adopted the labyrinth, (the earliest Christian labyrinth is found in an Algerian basilica) the use was formalized. The walk from the opening in the labyrinth to the center was a time of prayerfulness and meditation. The journey was a metaphor for the annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. The present-day format of the labyrinth is found in the Gothic Roman Catholic churches of medieval times.

By the Middle Ages, mystical cults were part of the Christian experience. The immediate followers and relatives of Jesus roamed Europe after his crucifixion and various sects descended from the lineage of Joseph, Mary Magdalene and others. One descendant sect, the Templars, had a hand in the design of many of the Gothic cathedrals built throughout France.

The classic labyrinth built into the Cathedral at Chartres became the prototype for all successive labyrinths. It was constructed around 1400 A.D. and has survived to this day. It is an 11-layer pattern, meaning that there are 11 concentric circles that lead to the center. It is flat and carved into the stone floor of the Cathedral. Labyrinths have no walls or hedges to confuse or confine like a maze. In the center is a six petal rosette, pre-dating the emergence of Rosicrucianism by two centuries. The Chartres labyrinth is 42 feet across and winds inward for a total of one-sixth mile. The return is the same.

Chartres is a vector of convergent cultures and mysticism, built on land sacred to Celts, pagans, Christians and Moors. Not one Church relic is buried there and legend persists that the Ark of the Covenant is entombed beneath the labyrinth. Built by the powerful sect of the Knights Templar, Gothic cathedrals were Influenced by the diverse cultures that the former Crusaders had experienced in their travels.

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco            photo: Michael Braunstein

One of the famous labyrinths in the United States is the one in the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Exactly duplicating the classic lines and dimensions of the Chartres one, it receives thousands of visitors each year that walk the path in peace. You can take a virtual tour at

In medieval times parishioners might crawl on hands and knees through a labyrinth, doing penance. In the 21st century, however, walking the walk is for meditating or praying; quieting the mind. Adapted to modern use, labyrinths are often painted or etched into a flat surface, lawn, garden or even a parking lot. The most common pattern is the Chartres.

Walking the labyrinth is a “right-brain” activity. It is intuitive and requires no analysis. We simply follow the path we are on, happy in each instant that we are there. Done with mindfulness and awareness of the moment, it quickly becomes a route to peace. Putting all thoughts of anything else out of mind, each step becomes a mantra and is our only focus.

Talk the talk? Then walk the walk. There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. It is experiential. Children often find it a game or fun. Adults experience it in individual ways. There are some hints to enrich the experience.

The first thing is to take your time. There is no rush. Pause at the entrance before you begin and be aware of intent. Be in the moment without distraction of time or place. Adopt an attitude. Choose how you want to feel in the moment.

Walk with awareness. Feel each foot on the ground and become aware of your body responding. Let subtle senses guide you and give attention to the simple task at hand. Pause when you want to. You are where you are supposed to be. People at the Grace Cathedral and at other indoor labyrinths walk shoeless.

When you reach the quiet center, become aware of your feelings and take a moment before beginning the return. Exiting, honor your experience with recognition.

Or grow your own…

There are at least two labyrinths available for meditation in Omaha. In 1999, a Chartres labyrinth was painted on the plaza of the First Central Congregational Church, United Church of Christ at 36th and Harney. It is lighted and available 24 hours. There are brief descriptions of the use and history of labyrinths on the nearby pillars and benches for quiet time.

Just take that first step.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a metaphysically based polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. Important to remember and pass on to others: for a weekly dose of Heartland Healing, visit

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