I recently went road tripping through South Africa. Thanks to the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator, I discovered that labyrinths existed in almost every town we would be passing through. My husband wasn’t nearly as thrilled about this discovery as I was.
The first labyrinth we stopped at was in Great Brak, a small town in the Southern Cape, close to where we had lived in the ‘90s. I hopped out the rental car and waded through the mud towards the field. I had assumed – because he’d rolled his eyes when I first started talking about labyrinths – that my husband would make himself comfortable in the pub, conveniently located right where we’d parked.
I stepped into the first of the concentric circles, trying to contain my excitement by focusing on my flip flops. One step at a time.
Just minutes into my walking meditation, I heard: “Are you still on your way in, or are you on your way out?”
“On my way in,” I said, wondering whether the pub was closed.
“How much longer?”
“Not much.” I was careful to use my inside voice. You know the one. Calm. Unruffled. Polite.
I made my way towards the tree in the centre of the labyrinth, trying to empty my head of unnecessary thoughts. All the noise.
“Oh, you can see the railway line from here!” my husband said.
I ignored him.
“Is this wood thing a sculpture?”
I bit my tongue. Did not answer. Just breathe.
“Why are you walking so slowly?”
I stopped. Turned to look at him as he hovered at the edge of the labyrinth. My labyrinth.
I am not proud of this, but my inside voice disappeared, and was swiftly replaced by the fishwife one.
“Stop talking!” (I might not have used those exact words.)
He looked confused. Clearly he had not read my last Beacon column, where I explained – in painstaking detail – the ins and outs of labyrinth protocol.
“Why?” he said, strolling into the labyrinth. Strolling! Into my labyrinth!
I tried the deep breathing thing again, trying to channel my inside voice once more.
“You walk in silence, so you can think about all your worries. Then, when you get to the centre, you drop your worries there, and walk back out, leaving them behind. Quietly. Very quietly.”
“Oh,” he said, and started walking. Into my labyrinth! He, on his way in. Me, on my way out. We would have to pass each other somewhere on the path. Because that’s how a labyrinth works. When that finally happened, he had the good sense not to say a word. I wondered briefly what worries, exactly, he had that needed to be left behind.
A few days, and some hundreds of kilometres later we arrived in Franschhoek, a picturesque village in the Western Cape. The Locator had assured me there was a labyrinth somewhere in the vicinity. It took a while to find it. The GPS eventually directed us through a farm gate to an apparently deserted building, flanked by two angry stone lions with sparkly mosaic manes.
There was no sign pointing to a labyrinth anywhere. I wandered past stone cairns and an enormous birdcage. Succulents and quiver trees. Not a person in sight. A life-size mosaic sculpture of Eve, a silver snake draped across her shoulders.
And then, without fanfare, the labyrinth appeared. Built entirely of rocks, it felt as if I’d stumbled into some kind of sacred prehistoric space. It was an outdoor replica of the labyrinth in the cathedral in Chartres, built in the early 1200s. Eleven concentric circles. The amount of time it must have taken to build this!
I started walking, stones crunching beneath my feet. It took me a while. But I finally reached the centre. And there it was – the same six-lobed rosette as Chartres, but built out of stones, by a man dying of cancer, I would later discover, when I met his widow (a story too long to tell here.)
And suddenly I had to sit. On the ground. In the middle of this gigantic stone circle. With rocks and grasses and trees whose names I didn’t know. Clouds hung over the mountains. Every now and then a bird squawked, but otherwise there was …silence. I couldn’t even remember what worries I’d planned to leave here. My head was too filled with wonder. I felt terribly tiny. And immensely huge. A part of the universe. Connected across time. Space. Life. Death. Cycles. Circles.
I’m not sure how long I stayed there. Just sitting. There was a lot to see. To feel. Each lobe of the rosette contained a rock, with symbols carved into it. Finally, I headed back out.
My husband had wisely avoided the labyrinth. Instead, he entertained himself by walking through the rest of the property. He discovered a pond, more mosaic statues, and an art gallery, which is where I met up with him again.
That night we found a quaint little restaurant in the village. As the dessert arrived my husband said, “You said I could leave my worries behind in the labyrinth.”
He was clearly still thinking about that first labyrinth in Great Brak. But I was only half listening. All that walking in circles had made me very hungry. I plunged my spoon into the cheesecake. Scooped up the strawberries. Chocolate sauce.
“But you lied,” he added.
Oh. My. Goodness. I had never tasted cheesecake like this. Heavenly.
“You’re still here,” he said.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. My mouth was too full.
By the time I could speak again, he’d managed a chuckle. We were celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary. That’s a long time to hang around with another person. And I have been know to be a little worrisome at times. So he had a point, I suppose.
I offered him a spoonful of cheesecake. Not too full. We did not talk about labyrinths again. Or worries.
But whether it’s about leaving behind concerns, or finding wonder, or even just escaping from the noise in our heads for a moment, there is something inexplicable that happens in a labyrinth. Magic, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Research has shown the myriad health benefits of labyrinth walking. Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that labyrinth walking facilitates the relaxation response, the opposite of "fight or flight." And Lorelei King, RN, former director of surgery at Mercy Hospital in Grayling, MI, notes that when she takes someone’s pulse after they have walked the labyrinth, “it's often slowed down dramatically.”
So now I’m in search of a place in West Vancouver to create a labyrinth. How fantastic would it be to have our own walking meditation right in our own backyard? A place to step away for a few moments. Slow down. De-stress. Breathe. Empty our heads. And just focus on one step at a time. Let me know if you have an idea for a location. The search has begun.
This article originally appeared in the May edition of the Beacon newspaper.