Labyrinths: Walking the Long and Winding Road

by Iyna Bort Caruso

In a Long Island park overlooking the sea, families spread out blankets on top of an exotic stone pattern, unaware their makeshift picnic grounds are actually a 21st interpretation of an ancient labyrinth.

Turns out labyrinths are everywhere. At universities, open fields, botanical gardens, inns and even on private estates. Most people see the spiral motifs as attractive floor decorations not knowing their history dates back some 4,000 years. Labyrinth designs have been found on Greek coins, Celtic stones and Native American basket weavings. Now the ancient practice of labyrinth walking is being revived as more and more people discover its meditative powers.

A widespread misconception is that labyrinths are mazes. A maze is meant to confuse, a puzzle to be solved. Dead ends are intended to trip you up. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is a vehicle to enlighten. One path takes you to the center, the place for rest, prayer or mediation. The same path leads you out again. There are no intersections to ponder along the circuit. “It’s like six months of therapy”, says one labyrinth walker.

Each labyrinth has its own special allure, but they’re all intended to quiet the mind and foster self-reflection. Here are three of the Northeast region’s most magical labyrinths. All are free and open to the public.

The Labyrinth for Contemplation, Battery Park, New York, NY

The labyrinth in Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan, was commissioned for the first anniversary of September 11th.

When the labyrinth was first proposed, members of the Battery Conservancy, the non-profit agency charged with revitalizing and rebuilding the park, walked its 23 acres to find just the right spot. They found a stunning one. Labyrinths are often about a sense of place. The Battery labyrinth is situated among a grove of Blue Atlas Cedar trees. Southern views look out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but its northern views are the most powerful: the empty space where the World Trade Center once stood and the West Street corridor, which still evokes images in the minds of New Yorkers of trucks hauling dust and debris from the area after the attacks.

The labyrinth was designed by an organization called Camino de Paz Labyrinths. The group stipulated that all construction materials had to be used or recycled and that every member of the conservancy, which numbered eight at that time, had to participate in the labyrinth’s construction, according to Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy. The three-foot wide paths were made with existing grasses, clover, plantain and mugwort and defined with recycled Belgian block.

Despite its location in a public park visited by more than four million locals and tourists a year, the labyrinth manages to evoke a sense of exclusiveness. “When you’re walking, you feel like you’re in your own space,” says Price. She calls it a calming half-hour experience. “Different thoughts, different images come into your brain. You never know what’s going to passing through your mind during this time.”

Washington National Cathedral, Washington D.C.

Two large canvas labyrinths dominate the transepts, or arms, of the Washington National Cathedral on the last Tuesday of each month. All faiths are welcome.

Live harp music alternating with Native American flute provides a soothing soundtrack. “It’s a way for people to go deeper,” says Terri Lynn Simpson, assistant director for the center of prayer and pilgrimage. “The music is haunting, but it’s almost white noise. It’s with people on their walk, but it’s not anything they have to think about. It’s a comforting presence that’s not intrusive.” For those who prefer to walk in silence, a smaller canvas labyrinth is set up in the crypt level of the cathedral.

The monthly walks attract a core of regulars that includes church and mediation groups, families and co-workers. In the summer, tourists add to the roles. It’s a special time to be here. The sun setting through the church’s stained glass windows sheds an ethereal light.

Simpson says first-timers tend to walk the labyrinth twice. “The first time, they’re worried if they’re doing it right.” The second time, she says, they relax and are able to make it more of a spiritual journey.

Although the walks aren’t facilitated, prayer and mediation sheets are always available and labyrinth guides are on hand to regulate traffic. Some 200 to 250 people show up each month, making the labyrinth walk a communal experience, rather than a solitary one. “With so many people together, it provides a sense of community,” explains Simpson. “People are walking, but they’re encountering other people on the path. They make space for each other. They get into a rhythm. It’s almost a ballet the graceful way they share the path. It’s amazing.”

The Labyrinth at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore, Maryland

The single spiral circuit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center is simpler than many labyrinths and for good reason: it is handicapped accessible and wheelchair-friendly. The path, made of sturdy pavers, is extra wide with fewer twists. Still the labyrinth has been embraced not just by patients and their families but hospital employees and members of the greater Baltimore community.

The labyrinth, which opened in 2000, offers a healing respite on the hospital’s 130-acre campus. Dark green, wooden arbors mark its entrance which is prominently by the main entrance. Ground lighting around the labyrinth’s perimeter encourages its use in the evening. Visitors are invited to walk the labyrinth and then share their thoughts on the experience in a water-proof journal tethered to a nearby bench. “Some are quite moving,” says Anita Langford, vice president of care management services. Langford heads a committee that meets bi-annually to plan labyrinth events. Among the activities are Chaplin-led facilitated walks held April through October and a Remembrance Walk in November to honor those who’ve died.

Langford’s own experience on the path is one of calming and quieting. “I find when I walk in, I’m often walking pretty fast. Then I notice everything just slows down a bit as I get to the center. When I walk out of the labyrinth, it’s a very different, much more relaxed feeling than when I walked in.”