The Labyrinth as the Hero’s Jouney

In mythology, the true hero is one who leaves the village, embarks on a quest in which he or she learns valuable life lessons and then (most important) returns to the village to share that knowledge.

Jouneying to the interior reaches of one’s Self is such a hero’s journey. It can be scary down in those dark, cobwebby places. It takes courage. The metaphor for that journey is the labyrinth’s unicursal path – one continuous convoluted path to the center and back out again. If you stay on the path of the labyrinth, or the journey within (or any endeavor), you’ll make it to the center and come back out, a Hero.

The first time I stepped onto a labyrinth it was the indoor carpeted Chartres pattern at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I started walking with my head rather than my feet. Surrounded by stained glass windows and encompassing stillness, I focused on how fast or slow to walk, what to do while walking, getting out of the way of people going the other way on the same path. Should I pray or chant a mantra or what? Somewhere along that curving path I settled into it, and into myself.

Then we moved outside to walk the terrazzo labyrinth. I lost the sense of whether I was making my way in or coming out. It didn’t matter. I just walked the path with certainty that it would take me where I needed to go.

Many circuits later I have gained a deep appreciation for the pilgrim’s journey of the labyrinth.

I approached one labyrinth during a time of internal struggle. At the entrance, I asked for guidance. Immediately I heard, “persevere.” That’s all. Just the word. I shook my head to clear it, and began the circuitous path. I paused in the center, waiting for the “real” message. Silence. I walked the path back out, and then sat to journal my impressions.

Again, “persevere” seeped into my consciousness. I realized that when walking the labyrinth, I sometimes walked beside someone and we appeared to be going in the same direction. Then a turn came, and we headed in different directions. Sometimes someone passed by me in what appeared to be the opposite direction, yet we met in the center having walked in the same direction at different speeds. The realization hit me that each of us is on our own journey. We may walk side by side with companions for a time, or in apparent opposite directions within the container of the labyrinth of life, yet each walks alone. We each walk our own journey and must persevere – be true to the journey’s completion.

Several years ago I took my then eight-year-old granddaughter to walk an outside labyrinth at a local church. I explained the path as a metaphor for life, and how it has twists and turns but if you stay on the path it will lead you to the center, and back out again. She put on her serious face and walked the burgundy-painted Chartres path to the center, where she waited for me. After we’d stood in the center for a few minutes, enjoying the late afternoon sun and breeze from the Bay, she asked if she could just cut straight across and go to the adjacent playground. “Of course,” I said.

She headed out across the painted paths toward the playground. Then stopped, turned, and came back. “You can’t take shortcuts in life,” she said, and walked the return path to the exit. The gentle breeze dried my tears of gratitude.

A suggestion for your practice:

Autumn is a good time to make the journey into the Self, keeping company with the earth’s cycles. Digest, integrate what has gone before. Release that which no longer serves, clear space for new growth. Walking the labyrinth can help with this process.

There are many labyrinths of different patterns around the country. Some are public and easily accessible. The Worldwide Labyrinth Locator at www.veriditas.org can help you locate a labyrinth close to you.

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"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Gandhi
"There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together." - attributed to Gandhi
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