For centuries, labyrinths have held great spiritual significance. Now everyone from medical professionals to religious leaders is touting the healing effects of these intricate walkways.
In 1991, Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, an honorary canon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, was feeling worn out from ministering to AIDS patients. While she was at a spiritual conference in New Jersey for people wanting to make a change in themselves or in the world, she walked a labyrinth outlined in masking tape on the floor. It was an exercise she and other participants were encouraged to try as a way to gain clarity and insight into their lives. At first, she thought it was silly. But after following the labyrinth’s winding pathway to its center and then out again, her heart felt lighter.
“It really calmed and quieted me down,” she says.
Moved by the experience, Artress headed to Chartres, France, about an hour from Paris, to walk the oldest existing labyrinth of medieval design, built around 1200 in the floor of Chartres Cathedral.
“I just wanted to know why this would work or if it was something crazy,” says Artress, who was once again overcome with incredible joy as she strolled through the corridors of the ancient geometric design. “It was like someone took handfuls of stardust and tossed it in the air,” she says. She made it her mission to help people at her church experience the same feeling.
When a terrazzo stone labyrinth was constructed outside of Grace Cathedral four years later, it became one of the first permanent labyrinths built in the Western Hemisphere in hundreds of years. Since then, the elaborate structures have been installed like “hotcakes,” says Artress, who founded a nonprofit organization called Veriditas, which teaches people how to use the labyrinth as a tool of healing and growth.
There are now around 3,000 labyrinths across the country on the grounds of hospitals, hospices, schools, churches, prisons and private homes. They have become a popular way for people of all faiths to achieve both spiritual and physical health.
Of course, labyrinths are nothing new. Such coiled patterns — which are dissimilar to mazes in that they feature no dead ends or walls — have been found on pottery and clay tablets dating back 4,000 years. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Spaniards, Native Americans, Vietnamese and South Americans have used labyrinths for thousands of years to draw closer to the divine. During the Crusades, Christians walked the labyrinth to simulate the journey to Jerusalem. In Native American culture, the labyrinth is called the Medicine Wheel, and the Celts described it as the Never Ending Circle. In mystical Judaism, or Kabbalah, the Tree of Life has been likened to a labyrinth.
“Labyrinths have always been with us,” says Jo Ann Stevenson, president of the Labyrinth Community Network in Toronto. “For a while, they fell out of favor; people forgot what they were for. They emerged again in the 1990s during a wave of spiritual hunger. People are finding that they meet a need.”
Stevenson has seen firsthand the effects labyrinths can have. Once a month, she leads a labyrinth walk for cancer patients at a nearby hospital. While a labyrinth doesn’t have the power to eradicate disease the way medicine can, it can still yield profoundly positive results.
“The labyrinth is a metaphor for life’s journey, with twists and turns that mimic confusion and uncertainty,” she says. “Patients are often able to put their cancer into perspective when walking the labyrinth; [the cancer] is just one turn in the path.”
Researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine have studied the physical effects of walking labyrinths and found that the practice can lower blood pressure and breathing rates as well as decrease chronic pain. It also helps with conflict resolution, grief and depression. According to Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute, labyrinths are “highly effective for reducing anxiety and producing the relaxation response.”