The Story of the Labyrinth


I remember reading the story of Theseus in the sixth grade and being fascinated by his victory over the Minotaur. If you don’t recall, Theseus braved the twists and turns of the labyrinth, slayed the Minotaur imprisoned within, and escaped to save the lives of the fourteen young Athenians meant for sacrifice. Cheerful fodder for the sixth grade imagination, no?

In the time of Theseus, the labyrinth was initially used to describe a maze with many paths meant to obfuscate and confuse. It has since come to describe a structure with a singular path, no dead ends or branches, and an unambiguous route in and out. They date back to the fifth century B.C.E. and are found throughout Greek, Roman, Celtic, Native American, Egyptian, Indian, and Slavic traditions. These structures fascinate me as a means to incorporate ritual into my everyday life. And don’t be scared off by the word “ritual.” I know for some ritual can be associated with strict religious formalities and unyielding tradition. However, they can also exist as  very personal sets of activities, gestures, or words employed to usher us into different mental or emotional spaces. We can use our own rituals to mark big milestones (marriages, births, deaths), or the transition from a harried workday to the intimacy of home life. As with labyrinths, rituals have been vital to humans across cultures and across millennia. Why?

Rituals are helpful when we feel “stuck.” We can get caught up in thinking through an issue or conflict. I myself want to puzzle it out and wrest victory through my application of logic. However, as Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our old problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Engaging my body and the non-verbal functions of my brain also help to spark progress. Like walking a labyrinth, a ritual can occupy the logical part of our brains long enough for some new ideas to float up from our wiser subconscious. With each step we take to the center of the path, we actively release that which prevents us from seeing the solution. With each step we take on our way out, we invite in clarity, curiosity, and flexibility .

Secondly, rituals bring comfort and a sense of calm when we feel beleaguered by the day-to-day. I can often run on automatic pilot, shuffling or running from one task to the next. I may notice physical signs of distress – clenched jaw, headaches, sore back -- but may be less inclined to sense when my spirit is burdened, that my soul is missing my soul mates, or that I haven’t had a true moment of silence in over a week. I can employ a ritual like walking the labyrinth to usher in moments of silence, comfort, and clarity in the midst of my busyness. Walking to the center I let go of that which is cluttering my mind. Walking back out, I pick up what is ultimately important to me; those people and values I intentionally choose to cherish.

Don’t have a labyrinth close by? Sure you do – there happens to be one behind the Loran Smith Cancer Center at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital. However, if you can’t find the time to sneak off to that one, you can also journal the labyrinth path by writing out what you are prepared to let go of as you trace to the center, and picking up what you want / need as you trace the path back out. You can also make or purchase a finger labyrinth (search for all kinds) , allowing a physical ritual to join your meditation practice wherever you are.