Many turns

This afternoon on my way home from an errand, I stopped at Boston College to walk the memorial labyrinth there. I’ve blogged about this labyrinth before: as someone who loves both walking and walking meditation, I’m fascinated by labyrinths, which are designed to contain an entire pilgrimage–there and back–in a single constrained space. Of the various labyrinths I’ve walked over the years, the one at BC is probably my favorite with its smooth stones and fringe of green grass. Why go on pilgrimage when the earth underfoot is so clearly holy?

Labyrinth green

When I taught at BC for a semester two years ago, I had high hopes of walking the labyrinth there frequently: how simple would be, I thought, to take a quick pilgrimage every day after class? In reality, though, I walked the labyrinth only once that semester, on September 11. The BC labyrinth is a memorial to alumni who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the anniversary of that tragedy pushed me out of my office and onto the labyrinth’s curvy course. Apart from that one day, however, I repeatedly told myself I didn’t have time to take a detour toward the labyrinth on the way from my office to my car. While teaching at BC three days a week for an entire semester, I repeatedly told myself I was too busy to take even a few extra minutes for a leisurely stroll.

You are here

Now that I’m not teaching at BC, I see each of the times I didn’t walk the labyrinth after class as being a missed opportunity. The fact that I felt I didn’t have time for a contemplative stroll meant I most definitely needed to take one: whenever you’re too busy to meditate, of course, is when you need meditation the most. As soon as I started walking the labyrinth today, I remembered a curious fact: when you’re walking a labyrinth, time seems to stand still. Whereas moments before you were checking your watch and ticking through your to-do list, the moment you start walking a labyrinth, time slows as you carefully attend the step underfoot, trusting the way There will eventually bring you back Here.

Afternoon light

Prayer in motion

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) and I walked the Memorial Labyrinth at Boston College. It was a beautiful (albeit breezy) day, with an older man sitting quietly on a bench reading a Kindle while clusters of students sprawled on the grass studying. It was a sun-soaked, idyllic day, and the labyrinth itself was a joy to walk: complex (as Chartres-style labyrinths always are) but smooth, with its tightly-winding stone path fringed with lush green grass.

Prayer in motion

It’s a labyrinth I’d like to walk again: on a warm day, I’d like to walk it barefoot, the smooth stones warm beneath my feet. Walking a labyrinth once is almost beside the point: labyrinths all but invite you to walk them again and again, the routine of retracing your steps each time adding to the meditative aspect. This is something I didn’t realize the first and second times I went labyrinth-walking; it’s a lesson I learned only after walking the same labyrinth repeatedly. They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but you can certainly circle the same winding circuit sequentially, time after time, the ritual of returning revealing how you have changed even while the path beneath you has not.

Prayer in motion

Walking a labyrinth is about losing count, letting go, and walking on. When I first entered the labyrinth at BC, I panicked, thinking I was somehow on the wrong path as it seemed to make a beeline toward the center point: too soon! Only after several steps did I realize the path went straight toward the goal but then deflected into a series of twists and turns, the winding-way I had anticipated. After several coils and re-coils, though, I found myself fretting in the opposite direction: shouldn’t I have made it to the middle already? I found myself needlessly worrying that I’d taken a wrong turn or missed the off-ramp toward my destination: is it possible to walk a labyrinth incorrectly, getting lost on a single circuitous path there and back?

Prayer in motion

It’s impossible to get lost in a labyrinth: the path wanders but never forks, so you’re guaranteed to get to the center if you just keep walking. But even knowing this, I found myself worrying along the way: was I walking too slow or too fast? Had I somehow missed a step or lost my direction? It’s impossible not to read life metaphors into all of this: how much of our life’s journey is spent fretting over our direction and destination? How much of our life do we spend worrying whether we’re doing it right, wrong, too slow, or too fast, as if someone is drumming the time we’re supposed to keep, but we can’t hear it?

Prayer in motion

Eventually, if a labyrinth’s winding way is long enough, your worries slide away and you reach a point where you’re just walking, paying heed to the path before you but otherwise not thinking about much of anything. If you walk long enough, you eventually lose count of where you’re going and how many twists and turns it takes to get you there. If you walk long enough, you realize the destination isn’t the circle at the labyrinth’s center but the segment of stone that lies directly beneath your feet. At that moment, you realize the true lesson of any labyrinth: that you’d already arrived before you ever set out.

Prayer in motion

I don’t know why I’m so eager to go labyrinth walking. It’s not like walking a labyrinth is different from walking elsewhere, other than you’re walking in circles, then retracing your steps: you’re literally going nowhere. But the intentionality of labyrinths makes the process seem significant: this particular place–this particular walk–is different from all others. It’s the conundrum of sacred places: God presumably dwells everywhere, but some places seem super-charged with divine presence. Normally, walking is a matter of getting somewhere, but labyrinth-walking (like other forms of meditation) is about Being Here and going nowhere other than ’round.

Click here for more photos of the Boston College memorial labyrinth: enjoy!

Parking lot labyrinth

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) emailed me a photo of a green, grassy labyrinth she’d walked near Cincinnati, Ohio: her first. In my response, I mentioned that I’ve walked a labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene, NH several times these past few weeks, on evenings when I’m teaching at Keene State. What a strange contrast between these two labyrinths, with A’s lush, leafy one looking so much more alluring–so much more inviting, soft, and contemplative–than mine of bare blacktop.

Parking lot labyrinth

Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, Keene’s parking lot labyrinth is close at hand, so I use it, not every Tuesday and Thursday, but enough days to make it worthwhile: a sanctuary close by. If you had to choose whether to have your sacred spaces in the world or not of it, which would you choose? I love the thought of walking a leafy labyrinth in a faraway, tranquil spot—anywhere but here—but at the same time I know I’d rarely, if ever, bring myself to that place. Labyrinths are themselves supposed to represent the travails of pilgrimage, but it shouldn’t take a pilgrimage to get there. I’ve grown to like Keene’s bare blacktop labyrinth because it’s already begun to feel like it’s mine: almost empty right after 5 pm, with only a few lingering parked cars and strangers going to or from their business, mostly ignoring me, a middle-aged woman in a long skirt or dress walking in circles, quickly, in their parking lot.

Parking lot labyrinth

I walk Keene’s downtown labyrinth quickly, not slowly and meditatively. In other cases, with other labyrinths, I’ve walked meditatively, but the whole point of my evening walks in Keene is not to dally. I have a class to get back to campus for, and my head is typically full of thoughts: whatever paper-grading or class-prepping or email-answering I’d been doing moments before during my office hour. I arrive to the downtown labyrinth with a full, distracted head, full of clamoring thoughts, so the only way to remedy the situation is to walk it off.

Winding

And so I walk briskly, at the same pace that I walk anywhere on my evening walks: a fast, steady stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, you have to concentrate intently on the path beneath you: there’s no skipping that. The turns in any labyrinth are tight and narrow, so you have to place your feet carefully, stepping precisely into your own footsteps. But you can do this at any speed, and in this case I enjoy walking briskly, perhaps because then my feet are in tune with the cluttered, racing thoughts that jangle in my head like loose keys and coins, or perhaps because rapid walking is such a welcome relief from the slow-poking walks I’ve taken for the past few years, when I lived with an old dog.

2004-11-06a

Walking a labyrinth swiftly is a different kind of meditation than walking one slowly: they each have their respective benefits. When you walk a labyrinth slowly, you can pay attention to the angle and arch of each foot as it falls, and you can pay attention to your body and breath as they settle into each stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, however, you pay attention to the path ahead of you, focusing outside of yourself, your thoughts, and your own corporeality. You aren’t thinking about the fact that you have a body; you’re simply moving in that body. Your walking, in other words, takes on a life of its own, with no thinking necessary. You simply follow the next step, then the next, then the next. Instead of being an exercise in mindfulness, this is an exercise in mindlessness: with each step, your thoughts sooth and settle as you leave your mind alone. It’s like letting a restless creature off its leash to race and pace at its own speed, your mental greyhound chasing its own fake rabbit round and around, lapping.

2004-11-06b

I think in an ideal life, one’s spiritual practice would have a time and a place for both kinds of practice, fast and slow. Sitting is slow, as is (typically) walking meditation. But in my Zen school at least, both chanting and bowing are fast: a time to let your body simply be a body as it runs at its own brisk clip. It’s fine and good to stop and think—it’s fine and good to take time to be contemplative. But for many of us, stopping to think easily turns into obsession and repetition as we rehearse time and again the same old litanies of worry, speculation, and regret. At times like this, stopping to think might be counterproductive, so doing anything fast and physical is a good antidote. Instead of trying to stop a racing mind, let your body outpace it.

2005-09-13b

I’m not a runner, but I admire runners because I can imagine, vividly, the hypnotic power of step following each step. I’m not a runner, but as a walker I love to reach that point after you’ve been walking fast and long when your body seems to lengthen, your legs feel light, and you can almost feel the earth turning slowly and broadly beneath your feet, like an enormous curved treadmill, your steps exactly in time with its rotation.

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The builders of labyrinths are brilliant, I think, because they recognize this way that body and soul are connected: more accurately, they recognize the link between mind and sole. As a body thinks, so does it walk. If you want to get to the bottom of an infinite head-full of thoughts, try walking it out, one footstep for every thought.

On nights when parked cars make it impossible for me to walk the labyrinth in Keene, I sometimes walk part of the Industrial Heritage Trail, the rail-trail bike path that goes behind my former apartment. It’s a trail I walked many times with Reggie, at least when he was young and fit enough for long walks: it was the closest nearby place where I could let him off leash, and he’d run ahead in his own time while I lingered behind, snapping pictures of shadows and trees.

2005-09-13c

Everyone should have a place close at hand where they can let their mental dog off leash to sniff, explore, and race ahead. On the railtrail, Reggie was safe because a fringe of trees on either side hemmed him in: he could race ahead, but he couldn’t bolt far to either side. I didn’t need to worry about traffic or about Reggie wandering off where I couldn’t find him.

Coiled

This is, in a sense, how a labyrinth works. Because you don’t have to worry about getting lost, you can let your brain off-leash. You don’t have to pay attention to where you’re going, just to the fact that you are going. Paying attention to the next step is enough: no more planning or foresight is necessary than that.

Walking a labyrinth is a great exercise in trust. Do you have enough faith to take the next step, even if you aren’t sure exactly where it leads? Are you trusting enough to take the next step, even if it feels like you’re running in circles?

Labyrinth parking

These days, I don’t know what the future holds, but every day I know exactly what I need to do today. Walking a labyrinth underscores the idea that taking care of today—the next step—is enough to get you there and back safely, without undue worry or exertion. Don’t worry about the destination, which will come in due time: just keep going. It’s a lesson that we need every day, everywhere, regardless of whether we live with a labyrinth near.

Today’s post is illustrated with photos of the parking lot labyrinth off Church Street in downtown Keene, which I blogged in December, 2010; a visiting labyrinth at Keene State College, which I blogged in November, 2004; and the labyrinth behind the First Baptist Church in Keene, which I blogged in September, 2005.

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Take it from one amazed onlooker: it takes a lot of stones, each roughly hand-sized, to make a labyrinth where once stood a lawn of grass.

2005-09-13b

Last November I blogged about the portable cloth labyrinth that visited Keene State College. After the tranquil experience of treading that winding path, I read with interest this past weekend about the new stone labyrinth that had been installed (and then dedicated on September 11th) behind the First Baptist Church here in Keene. First Baptist already has a Peace Park on its quiet grounds, so laying stones for a winding walkway to heaven seems to make sense, the practice of stopping to walk a labyrinth being an intrinsically calming, peace-inducing activity.

Naturally, walking an outdoor labyrinth is quite different from pacing the polished floors of a college Student Center. The sun was setting last night when I took my quick trip to Jerusalem and back, and the crickets were calling, having already taken up residence in the sheltering stones that mark the labyrinth’s twisting walkway.

2005-09-13c

I’ve written before about the difference between labyrinths and mazes: whereas you can get lost in a maze, there’s only one (albeit wending) way to the center of a labyrinth. The message of a labyrinth is to persevere–take the next step–keep going even if the way seems long or confusing. You will get there, and back, safely, a labyrinth seems to reassure. Take care with this next step, and peace will follow all the rest.

It seemed very natural to walk a labyrinth marked with stones of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Just as it takes all types of people to make the Kingdom of God, it takes all types of stones to mark the way there and back. Here in the Granite State, we have plenty of rocks…and hikers here are used to following cairns–piles of stone–to find their way over mountaintops.

In the grass behind the First Baptist Church here in Keene, it’s as if one of those cairns has come undone, unraveling its myriad stones like a clew unwound. Following a line of stone, you find at the end that peace is indeed in every step, underfoot.

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2004-11-06a

Yesterday I took a break from writing my so-called novel to take a stroll to Jerusalem and back, and I think it was a worthwhile trip.

Last month I wrote about wandering a corn maze here in Keene. In that post, I noted the differences between labyrinths and mazes. As Rebecca Solnit notes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, labyrinths represent in spatial terms the inevitability of God’s grace: if you set out on the spiritual quest and keep walking that path, you are guaranteed to find God at the end. Whereas a maze forces you to make directional choices–right, left, or straight–the only choices in a labyrinth are stop, continue, or quit. Walking a labyrinth, you realize that the only task ever required of you is simply to take the next step. If you trust that path despite all its zigs and zags, you will ultimately find your true goal.

2004-11-06b

The world’s most famous labyrinth is the four-quadrant path paved into the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral. That labyrinth was designed to give believers a way of walking a metaphorical pilgrim’s path to Jerusalem and back without leaving their own neighborhood. Pilgrimage has always been an expensive and dangerous endeavor: not every believer has the time, money, or freedom to cast aside mundane cares to walk across the world seeking enlightenment. Labyrinths remind believers that God can be found in a spot of time and even underfoot. If you prayerfully pace the steps to the center of a labryinth and back, you can replicate in spiritual form the physical journey made by Christ himself.

Medieval labyrinths such as the one in Chartres Cathedral are rooted in a particular cosmology. Even working with simple tools, Medieval geographers had a sophisticated understanding of the actual world. Traders knew, for instance, how to get to the Orient and back, and pilgrims knew the routes to Jerusalem and other sacred sites. Medieval orbis terrarum maps–circular depictions of the world–look crudely distorted and even inaccurate not because cartographers didn’t know better; instead, these maps were consciously designed with Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, placed squarely at the center of a round world. In his discussion of these so-called OT maps, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes how they are T-shaped, with half the world representing Africa and the charted unknown, one fourth representing exotic Asia, and the final quarter denoting the European “known world.” At the center of these maps–the intersection of the “T”–is Golgotha, the hill in Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. In a word, OT maps (such as the one seen in the background of this self-portrait) weren’t designed to help you navigate from Point A to Point B; instead, they served as spiritual place-markers, a reminder that “You Are Here” with your heart centered on God.

2004-11-06c

Yesterday as I walked into the Young Student Center here on the campus of Keene State College, it seemed odd to think that I was approaching a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, the spiritually significant point where Heaven touches Earth. Different world religions point to various geographical places that are charged with cosmological meaning. Muslims point to Mecca, Jews and Christians (and to a lesser degree Muslims) point to Jerusalem, and various indigenous peoples point to specific sites where Creation commenced. As Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane, one defining aspect of all religions is the way they divide the world into spiritual opposites, “the sacred” being situated at or near the symbolic center of the world (the Axis Mundi) and “the profane” being further removed from this cosmological center.

Yesterday as I paced in stockinged feet a canvas replica of the Chartres labyrinth, a day-long installation sponsored by the University System of New Hampshire’s “Embrace Life Fully” wellness program, I enacted a symbolic journey toward Jerusalem, the Spiritual Center where God deigned to die. Even though God is omnipresent, we as bodied creatures exist in time and place: we need reminders that God exists not just every- and anywhere, but specifically Here and Now. Pilgrim sites are significant because they point to the belief that God Happens with spatial and temporal specificity: on a Jerusalem hill, Christ was crucified; along a French stream, Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary; atop an Irish mountain, Patrick fasted for forty days; and on a Mexican hillside, a Lady from Heaven appeared to Juan Diego.

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Most of us won’t ever be visited by spiritual apparitions; most of us won’t ever witness miracles. But we all dwell in time and place, and we all want occasional reminders that God has not left the building. The toil and trouble of pilgrimage denotes the real effort of the spiritual life: if you want salvation or enlightenment, at some point you have to get off your ass and get going. Labyrinths, especially portable ones, remind us that the journey toward an ubiquitous God needn’t be a long and arduous one: God is the very ground we walk upon, and God can be known through contemplation as well as action.

Not having the time or resources to visit Jerusalem, Lourdes, Croagh Patrick, or Guadalupe, yesterday I walked into the Mabel Brown Room in the Young Student Center at Keene State College, where Dr. Nancy Puglisi and her parner had spread out a portable labyrinth. It took about five minutes to navigate the twists and turns to the center of the labyrinth, where a Tibetan bell marked the temporal (albeit temporary) meeting of heaven and earth. On most days, the Mabel Brown Room is the site of dance classes, organization meetings, and public lectures: the last time I’d set foot there, a packed crowd listened to KSC Writer-in-Residence and peace activist Janisse Ray speak out against the Bush administration. Yesterday, though, the Mabel Brown Room was a quiet, tranquil place, a place far removed from both war and politics. Oddly and even miraculously, a large white-and-purple canvas carefully spread transformed just another auditorium into a sacred place akin to that sacred space I stumbled upon on my way to my dissertation defense back in April.

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The moral of pilgrimage is that you sometimes have to travel to find God; the moral of a roll-up labyrinth is that sometimes God comes to you. Early Buddhists eschewed representational iconography, refusing to depict the Buddha’s face or body but instead revering images of his footprint. Don’t revere the Seeker, these images suggest; instead, focus on the Path he trod, and then go about making your own footprints. God indeed sets foot in the actual, tangible world; God himself steps perpetually in your very own footsteps.