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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Taking the Long Way through a Short Space

Amazing what a Google image search will turn up.
I've always wanted to meditate. Cranky as I so often am, I think I need to meditate. I have the time, I can be physically still, but I've never succeeded in quieting my mind. Most people, I understand, seem to push past this point eventually, but not me. I hardly get a minute into the practice before some inappropriate thought like "Damn, I wish I had some Cheetos" intrudes, followed by images of day-glo orange fingers and musings on the possibility of using chopsticks to avoid this embarrassment.

 I can pull myself back, but before you know it, I'm reliving an episode of The Simpsons or recalling some childhood grudge. I've tried using a mantra, but before you know it, I am that I am becomes I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam says Popeye the sailor man. I know this is supposed to happen at the beginning of one's efforts, but this has been going on for over forty years.

And so, until recently, the restless mind has prevailed. And then, I found my way to a new practice: walking the labyrinth. Anyone who paid attention in high school -- or who has read Mary Renault's excellent novels, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, -- will recall the story of King Minos and his wife, Queen Pasiphaë, who, rather inexplicably infatuated with a bull, gave birth to the Minotaur, half human, half raging beast. Well, these things happen in the best of families. King Minos called on Daedalus to build a labyrinth under the palace to contain his less-than-presentable step-son, and later, his daughter Ariadane, whose attraction to Theseus was more understandable than her mother's whims, revealed the secret of the labyrinth to him, allowing him to overcome the Minotaur. Happy ending -- to the extent that myths allow.
Labyrinth at Chartres

The labyrinth, as a tool of meditation, goes back to at least the early 11th Century, the approximate date of the famous labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, although there are much older examples whose purposes are more obscure. Archaeologists suggest they may possibly have served as traps for malevolent spirits or defined paths for ritual dances. The word comes from the Minoan, meaning "double-edged axe," which might refer to the axe as a sign of royalty (viz. King Minos), but also, I believe, to the route of the path which characteristically doubles back on itself, taking the walker in two directions.

Pansaimol, Goa, India

Meis, Galicia, Spain

Tintagel, Cornwall
Blå Jungfrun, Sweden

As these images illustrate, there are labyrinths of ancient and recent origin all over the world. There is also one in my neighborhood.

The Mission of the Atonement is about a mile and a half from my home and I've driven by it several times a week for fifteen years. I am curious about it, but have never attended. The sign reads: A Community of Roman Catholics and Lutherans, intriguing in itself. The word atonement gives me pause as well. Its connotation smacks of penance, an aspect of Catholicism that has distanced me from the faith I was raised in. Still, atonement is an important concept in A Course in Miracles, in which I have immersed myself for some time. So, as I say, I was curious -- but distant.

I don't even remember how I first became interested in labyrinths, possibly when I was in chemotherapy several years ago. I've used the World-wide Labyrinth Locator search engine from time to time in hopes of finding one near me. And then one day, out of the blue, Mission of the Atonement popped up on the search.  Synchronicity gathers the threads of awareness and intention unseen. While I had been searching for a labyrinth, they had been planning and building one.

So one rainy day this February, I turned off Scholl's Ferry Road and entered the Mission's parking lot for the first time. I found the labyrinth's winding path in a sunken courtyard and stepped onto it without expectation.

Staying on the narrow path and making the sharp turns took all my focus -- I am not a precision walker -- and there was no reason to wonder how much time had passed: the path kept time for me and would end when it ended.   I was done before I knew it. There were no breakthroughs or deep thoughts. Almost no thoughts at all. There didn't need to be. I felt peace, the inner stillness, I'd been seeking in meditation.

Peace. Is this why we find evidence of labyrinths throughout the world? Is this how our ancestors transcended the wearing cycle of fight or flight? Set aside the fear of plagues and pillaging? Is this how monks and nuns overcame their cloistered sorrows?  Even today, each step becomes a physical mantra, displacing the  If onlys...or What ifs?...that drive our days and shape our sleepless nights.

This small walk is a good practice for me: keeping my feet on the ground and my mind nowhere at all, no purpose, no destination except the center, and then back into the world again. .A long way through a short space.


  1. this reminds me of the challenge to write a story about "a piece of string"
    How can you write a spiritual essay starting with "Cheetos".
    Excellent - I loved the phrase "cloistered sorrows"

  2. A good thing I didn't feel compelled to bring Cheetos into the conclusion :) Thank you for your kind words. M

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  4. That sure beats sorting piles of beans. I doubt that Dad spent much time on this form of meditation before turning on the TV and watching Columbo.

  5. Heh. Or finding his way to the refrigerator.