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Liberating labyrinth

This is rather lovely: in the midst of fear and pain, people finding comfort and consolation in a simple but convoluted path.

I’m no fan of religion (but a great fan of the few hospices I have spent time in) and although this labyrinth was instigated by a reverend and inspired by a cathedral, it seems that this pattern of bricks has a power, and fills a need, that transcends our modern and formal interpretations of the divine.

You can donate to the Pilgrim’s Hospice here.

Reverend Lizzie Hopthrow

One day, in the late 1990s, I saw a labyrinth on the floor of a transept in Canterbury Cathedral and was bowled over by its spiritual resonance. I started reading about labyrinths and I ended up going to see the one in Chartres Cathedral. I’m the chaplain at the Pilgrims Hospice in Canterbury, and the power of that sacred space made me think that maybe this was something we could do to help hospice patients.

We began by having patients make small labyrinths out of clay. I watched a man walk up to one, reach out his hand, and say, “Wow”. I thought, what’s going on there? It’s just a bit of pottery and a shape. But somehow it calmed patients down, and eventually they said, “We want a labyrinth we can walk.”

First we made a fabric labyrinth out of silk. I was amazed by the emotions that hit people when they walked it. One man wept for 30 minutes. He said that his wife had been ill for 18 months and this was the first time he’d been able to express any feelings about it. Some patients would watch others walking and burst into tears. It was shocking.

After seeing how the fabric labyrinth helped patients, I wanted to build a permanent one. We got funding from the Department of Health to build a therapeutic labyrinth garden, which opened in July 2008. It’s the first hospice labyrinth in the UK. And people can wander in and walk it; it’s there for the community. The labyrinth is an ancient pattern – a spiral with one path that leads to the centre and then out again. Most people think of the Minotaur story when they hear about the labyrinth, but that isn’t particularly helpful. The difference between a maze and labyrinth is very important – in a labyrinth you can’t get lost.

There is evidence of labyrinths in many faiths and cultures. They appear in Islam and ancient Christianity; it’s like a spiritual imprint in the human fabric that pops up all over the world. I can’t say where it originated – I don’t know if there’s anybody who can. That’s the mystery of it. But I have done a lot of research to figure out how the labyrinth works. What happens as we go into a spiral walk of this kind is that we slip from the left side of our brain, which is always analysing and worrying, into the right-hand side – the intuitive, imaginative, creative part of ourselves. You can take something that you need to let go of into the labyrinth, and at the centre you can experience peace. For many, it’s a meditation. It makes them calmer.

Sometimes people go into the labyrinth with a question and they’ll come out with an answer. Other times they might have had an outpouring of grief, but it’s like lancing a boil. Once you let the poison out, you feel better. You can’t prove it scientifically – the evidence I have is from my own observations. On one occasion, there was a gentleman on the ward who was dying. He wanted to walk the labyrinth, but he was too ill. So I walked for him. His family was with him, and they all wept together. For me, that’s evidence. I can’t explain it, but I see it happen so often that I’m convinced that it’s real.

Working in a hospice, I think we have more emotional experiences than in other contexts. But there is always loss and grief in life. If you lose your handbag, think of how much of yourself is in it – that’s a loss. The labyrinth, in any situation, is a powerful tool for healing those emotions inside us that are hurting us.

Now I give workshops on the labyrinth at conferences and schools. To begin, I usually ask participants if they’ve walked a maze. Many have. They say the experience was stressful – they couldn’t find their way out. Then I show them a picture of a labyrinth. There’s only one path, and you won’t get lost. I think of it as a metaphor for people’s lives. The maze imprisons you, because you can’t get out. The labyrinth liberates you.

FT Magazine 8th May 2010 Sonia Van Gilder Cooke

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