If you feel your life is going in circles, perhaps you might benefit from a different kind of circular motion — walking a labyrinth.
Chuck Hunner, founder of the Asheville Labyrinth Society, says walking a labyrinth can have profound effects, creating healing in anyone who’s open to it. “I believe one of the ways labyrinths heal is that they allow us to be calm and even peaceful in the face of virtually any trauma,” he explains.
The Rev. Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest who founded the California-based nonprofit Veriditas, defines a labyrinth as “a spiritual tool that has many applications in various settings. It reduces stress, quiets the mind and opens the heart. It is a walking meditation, a path of prayer and a blueprint where psyche meets Spirit.” The nonprofit says it aims to inspire “personal and planetary change and renewal through the labyrinth experience.”
According to Veriditas, labyrinths are not to be confused with mazes, which can have more than one entrance and offer multiple choices of paths. Labyrinths, on the other hand, consist of a single circuitous path from the outer edge into the center and back out again, with no dead ends or wrong turns.
Found in many different cultures and religions over the past 5,000 years, they typically contain five, seven or 11 circuits (concentric rings the path traverses). One of the best-known labyrinth patterns is an 11-circuit medieval design found in Chartres Cathedral in France.
Closer to home, Hunner creates both permanent concrete labyrinths and portable models in a variety of designs. His most recent project, completed in early July, is a seven-circuit “Chartres essence” design painted on canvas. The new piece, he notes, will enable him to lead more indoor walks in schools, medical institutions and churches. Beyond that, however, Hunner sees his creations as part of his legacy: “The labyrinths I’m making will be here long after me and create peace in the world.”
When Johanna Manasse was planning to move to the Asheville area, her main criterion for a house was that it have a yard flat enough to accommodate a labyrinth. Manasse found such a property in Weaverville and constructed a seven-circuit “Paths of Peace” labyrinth using river rocks and sand. With the help of a friend, she and her husband completed it in time for her birthday in June. “I was building this labyrinth so I would have access to it whenever I yearned for it, which is daily — getting quiet within myself, listening in a purposeful and intentional way.”
Manasse says she’s benefited from walking the sandy circuits in her bare feet. “There’s the earthing concept that we’re finally beginning to acknowledge, about how there’s an energy force between us and the earth. We’ve become so separated from the earth, so disconnected from it. … Touching Mother Earth creates that magnetic energy field which exchanges our negative energy in a way that revitalizes and re-energizes us.
“I’ve certainly noticed, since I’ve been barefoot walking the labyrinth, my energy has increased,” she notes. “I’m not as lethargic and tired at the end of the day. My attitude is better, too.”
But the benefits, says Manasse, don’t stop there. “It’s been a great problem-solving tool, because the turns in the labyrinth … allow you to get out of your analytical [side] and enter into your more intuitive side. The turns you make in the course of trying to solve a problem create a balance between your left brain and your right brain, which allows for a more expansive outlook. It allows me to … bring forth a solution that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t been in a receptive state of mind.”
Hunner concurs. “When I’m calm … my intuition is more available to me,” he says. “When I’m focusing on … a solution to a problem or trying to find an answer to a question, I want to be calm, for my experience is that I think more clearly.”
Labyrinths can also be helpful for those seeking to release painful feelings, says Manasse. After walking her labyrinth, she recalls, one woman said she’d been able to let go of a long-standing hurt and gain a renewed sense of spiritual connection.
Hunner says he’s often walked labyrinths asking for anger to be taken away. “It allows you to go back into your life with a different way of looking at it. Releasing the anger allows compassion to be present.”
Manasse, meanwhile, remembers a powerful experience she had at a time when she was struggling with how to help her son, who was heavily involved with drugs. “I was heartbroken and very troubled that I had done all I could, but I didn’t seem to have an impact on what he was doing and couldn’t prevent the course of action he was taking,” she recalls. “One day I was so burdened, I went into the labyrinth and cried and cried, asking for guidance. A very clear sentence popped into my head: ‘Don’t worry about [him]. He will be taken care of. It’s not for you to do so. Just remember that he is a child of God and you are a child of God and all will be well in the end.’”
Manasse says the peace and assurance she received enabled her to let go and “allow the greater universe to take it on and do what was needed.” Her son is no longer on drugs, she adds, and is making his way in the world. “To receive that kind of message when you’re in the depths of despair and feeling you have no control over anything,” she says, “is one of the things the labyrinth gives when you are most in need.”
Labyrinths, says Hunner, can play a part in physical as well as emotional healing. “This human body of mine is self-repairing,” he points out. “If I can stay calm and stay out of the way of the natural systems in my body, it will heal itself, or at least allow me to find doctors or techniques that will facilitate my healing.”
Black Mountain resident Marty Cain says a labyrinth “rebalances whatever is out,” adding that she’s witnessed many cases of physical improvement. “For some people, their hearing improves; for other people, their vision improves,” says Cain, who co-founded The Labyrinth Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit. One man with Parkinson’s disease, she recalls, could barely walk; he struggled into the labyrinth but walked out from the center in full stride. In another case, she recounts, a man who was scheduled for a heart bypass walked the labyrinth and stayed inside it for a while, holding onto a tree. “I asked him if he was OK, and he said yes,” she notes. “Two weeks later he called to say his doctor had told him he no longer needed a bypass.”
Accounts of such dramatic healing doesn’t happen for everyone, she concedes, adding, “When you get to the center [of the labyrinth], you’re heard by heaven and earth, so ask for what you need, for what you want. And if it’s in your highest good, it will probably show up, because heaven and earth will heal you. The energetic connection [between them] is a portal, a vortex — basically a double helix, like the caduceus, the healing symbol, where the spiral goes up and the spiral comes down, and they intertwine.”
Researching the labyrinth effect
To date, most of the health and wellness benefits that proponents ascribe to labyrinth walks are anecdotal, since there have been few formal studies. Georgia-based researcher John W. Rhodes, the former chair of The Labyrinth Society’s research committee, has conducted most of the work that has been done.
Rhodes says he was influenced by Artress’ book Walking a Sacred Path, which considers labyrinth walks a kind of walking meditation. “So if it is,” wondered Rhodes, “does it elicit the same kinds of effects as other forms of meditation?”
To find out, he developed the Labyrinth Walk Questionnaire, which can be found on The Labyrinth Society’s website. Ten questions ask participants to rate their experiences before and after a walk on a six-point scale. This approach, Rhodes explains, is called “action research,” as it occurs under live conditions rather than in a controlled environment. And the research design, he continues, is “nonintrusive” so as not to interfere with the subject being studied: To avoid creating expectations, it doesn’t ask questions about the walk beforehand.
Between 2006 and 2011, Rhodes reports, he compiled data from 34 labyrinth events involving 534 respondents on three continents. Here’s what they said:
More relaxed: 81 percent
More peaceful: 80 percent
More reflective: 78 percent
More centered: 76 percent
Less stressed: 70 percent
Less anxious: 67 percent
Less agitated: 64 percent
“Most of the reported health benefits of walking the labyrinth,” Rhodes concludes, “come from the meditative effect.”
Still, he cautions, any alleged effects on the brain are purely speculative at this point, because there have been no controlled studies measuring brain waves. A portable EEG device called a “mind mirror” can take such measurements, he adds, but the cost of undertaking such studies is prohibitive.
Rhodes, however, expanded on his own findings in a 2008 article in the online journal Labyrinth Pathways, titled “Commonly Reported Effects of Labyrinth Walking.”
“It appears that walking … the labyrinth might enable a set of physical responses (increased calm, quiet and relaxation; decreased agitation, anxiety and stress) that allows for emergence of a set of ‘state of mind’ responses (increased levels of centeredness, clarity, openness, peace and reflection). In turn, these ‘state of mind’ responses might increase one’s receptivity to flashes of intuition, hunches, nudges from one’s ‘inner voice’ and other types of insight regarding one’s problems, issues or concerns.”
Despite the anecdotal nature of many claims and the paucity of controlled scientific studies, labyrinths are growing in popularity as healing tools in a wide range of institutions, including hospitals, schools, churches, wellness centers, spas and even prisons.
Labyrinth historian, author and builder Jeff Saward, an administrator and researcher for the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator, said in an email that interest in labyrinths can be traced to the 1960s and ’70s but really took off 20 years ago. “Since that time, more labyrinths have probably been built around the world (especially in the U.S. and Canada) than at any time in their previous history,” he noted. “When the Labyrinth Locator website launched in 2004, we had just under 1,000 public labyrinths listed. Now we have over 5,600 listed in around 85 countries.”
Why are so many labyrinths popping up in the absence of solid scientific evidence concerning their effectiveness as healing tools?
“The proof is in the pudding,” says Hunner. “Why would people invest [up to] $100,000 in an installation of a labyrinth if there wasn’t value in it? People are finding great value in labyrinths, and they are putting their money where their mouths are.”
Across the country, notes Hunner, hospitals are common sites for labyrinth installations. That includes two local facilities — Solace Center hospice and Mission Hospital, which has “a delightful little carpet labyrinth” in its chapel.
Butch Stillwell, Solace Center’s chaplain, says its wheelchair-accessible labyrinth, which consists of brick paths with a marble fountain in the middle, “is a very healing place.” A lot of patients and family members, as well as staff, use it and report that it’s helpful, he says. “It gives them a time of letting go of any burdens as they walk around, spend time in the center for listening and praying, and then walk back out. … It quiets the mind and gentles the heart.”
But the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator lists nine other labyrinths in Asheville, including one at UNC Asheville below Ramsey Library and another in the River Arts District next to the Cotton Mill Studios. Several are located on the grounds of churches, and there are still more in neighboring communities.
Manasse hasn’t listed her labyrinth on the site but says she’s open to email requests to walk it. “The labyrinth can be transformational,” she says. “I want to share it with others because it’s been such a positive experience for me.”
To learn more
Asheville Labyrinth Society
The Labyrinth Society
World-Wide Labyrinth Locator