Restlessness led me to the labyrinth. My daily routine of sitting meditation felt stagnant, too static for my dancer’s body. During a workshop in Barbara Dilley’s Contemplative Dance Practice, I realized that the images dancers hold in their minds while they move are similar to the guided-meditation imagery used in many prayer systems, and began looking for techniques combining movement and meditation, or “body prayer.” An Internet search for walking-meditation techniques turned up the neo-Christian phenomenon of labyrinth walking.
A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze typically has dead ends and false trails, involving the brain in decision making. A maze is a puzzle to be solved. A labyrinth is unicursal. The way in is the way out. The exact proportions of labyrinths vary, but each is circular, with concentric rings leading into a rosette (associated in Christian iconography with the Virgin Mary). A walker enters the design and simply follows the circuitous path. In the United States, labyrinths have become popular largely through the ministry of Dr. Lauren Artress, whose Veriditas, the World-Wide Labyrinth Project, is based at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Artress’s book, Walking a Sacred Path (Riverhead Books, $11), recounts the labyrinth’s likely Christian origins during the Crusades, when it became unsafe for pilgrims to travel to the Holy Land. Artress’s apotheosis occurred when she visited Chartres, where a labyrinth had been laid in stone in the cathedral floor sometime around 1200 A.D.
Walking the labyrinth has three stages: Follow the path into the center, where you let go of the details of daily life and quiet the mind; pause in the center for meditation and prayer; and follow the path back out, integrating insights into the world.
The labyrinth presents an opportunity to regain lost wholeness. The experience becomes an archetype for life lived as a pilgrimage. New York-based dancer Liz Stanton, who spends summers building both mazes and labyrinths throughout the U.S., sees labyrinth walking as “a journey of the spirit and the physical body that encourages us to listen with new ears, see with new eyes, and breathe.” She stresses that “there isn’t a right way or wrong way to do it.”
Last month, at a one-day workshop, Veriditas unfolded three temporary canvas labyrinths at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. For my first walk, I chose a small one. I walked rapidly, as if anticipating that some mystery would be revealed when I reached the center. I felt eager to get somewhere. I heard a distant drum beat a regular, hypnotic pulse. People came near as their place on the path approached mine, which led to an observation that was perhaps the most useful of the day: Even when people turn away from you, you still share their space. This answered a question inside me and seemed a healing metaphor for loss.
Another novice described his experience: “I simply tried to concentrate on my feet. I sensed a pure ability to let go. The labyrinth experience gives one the ability to be in a space with a purpose; to walk with the design of reflection. The labyrinth actually becomes imprinted inside you, and you begin to follow it in steps, almost as one would use a rosary to pray with.”
Trinity Church on Wall Street has a permanent labyrinth in its garden. The day I first visited it, three strangers — two of them chattering and giggling — joined me during my perambulation. The sirens and bells of lunchtime Manhattan were our companions; passersby crowded the sidewalk just beyond the gate. Yet I found a reassuring rhythm in my steps that soothed my mind and body. Lightness filled me as I exited, caught in a silent dance with the sunlight and wind.
Trinity Church’s permanent outdoor labyrinth is open daily until 4 p.m. (Broadway and Wall Street, 212-602-0800).
Two labyrinths are spray-painted in neon green on the asphalt at Union Square (17th Street).
Judson Memorial Church intermittently unrolls a temporary canvas labyrinth. It will next be available April 8 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (55 Washington Square South, 212-477-0351).
Riverside Church has walking meditation on its labyrinth Wednesdays at 6 p.m. during Lent (91 Claremont Avenue, 212-870-6700).