Yesterday we biked the northern end of Block Island and our destination was marked on the map as “labyrinth.” I was not familiar with the tradition of labyrinths and learned that not only was my sister well-informed, but she has walked them in various places in her travels. It was all new to me and I’m hooked.
A labyrinth is a non-branching path on a complex pattern that leads to the center then back out again. In modern times they’re generally meant for walking meditation and are still being created all over the world. A sign near the entrance to this one described the history and purpose:
Labyrinth-like patterns have been uncovered by archaeologists in a great variety of ancient and contemporary cultures. In Christian history and practice, the labyrinth is most famously associated with Chartres Cathedral in France where an eleven-circuit labyrinth was inlaid into the floor of the sanctuary in the thirteenth century. It was used by believers as a way of symbolically participating in the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In Christian practice, the labyrinth is not designed to produce a peak spiritual experience but to provide inner space for listening to God.
The labyrinth is an ancient tool for prayer and meditation, consisting of a winding path that begins at the periphery and leads to a central space and then out again by the same path. Although the words “labyrinth” and “maze” are sometimes used interchangeably, there are critical differences. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has no blind alleys or dead ends. A labyrinth will not frustrate because it is not a puzzle to be solved. You cannot get “lost” or make a mistake because there are no choices to be made once you have made the decision to start walking.
Another plaque suggested emptying the mind and focusing on a particular thought or question before beginning the walk. I did neither, but rather opened my eyes and ears to the space around me as my feet began the journey along the narrow winding path.
A curious thing started to happen. The world both expanded and contracted as I walked. I became aware of the layers of sounds, the cicadas and crickets in the nearby grasses, the birds twittering in the shrubs, the tractor clearing brush out of sight just over the hill, and my own footsteps on the dirt pathway.
I picked up a milkweed seed and felt its silky softness in my fingers as I followed the path, turning round and round, then switching back again on the continuous loop towards the center. Although each loop was only a foot or two from the last one, the view changed each time. I could see a chimney through the treetops that wasn’t there before and next time around it was gone. A little wooden bridge over a stream came and went. From the highest elevation I could see in the distance the north lighthouse on a long spit of land surrounded by paint-by-numbers patches of yellow sand, dark green beach shrubs and gray rocks.
Someone had placed a small Buddha statue beside the path and I stooped down to touch its head as I passed by. When I reached the center I dug a scrap of paper and a pen out of my backpack and wrote some words of peace and hope, then tucked the folded note and the milkweed seed under one of the many stones piled on a bench.
As I walked back through the labyrinth I tried to imprint my memory with the sights and sounds, the roses in full fruit, the arrivals and departures of other visitors, and most of all the wind, as I turned this way and that it was now at my back, now in my face, just like life.
Every day is a journey.