After Rebecca Fitton’s husband, Richard, died in 2004, she discovered labyrinths through a book by Artress called Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice. She decided to build one in her front yard using grass and flowers to help her cope with the loss.
“Walking the labyrinth was a way for me to heal the emotional pain,” she says. “I felt an incredible connection to the earth and my core.”
Fitton is now president of the nonprofit Labyrinth Resource Group, which has built more than 25 labyrinths around Santa Fe, N.M., including 10 in elementary schools.
Kaiser Permanente, a nationwide hospital chain, installed its first labyrinth in 2007 at the Antioch Medical Center campus in Northern California. Administrators have found that it helps not only patients but also doctors, some of whom walk the labyrinth to clear their head prior to performing surgery. Kaiser built its second labyrinth later that year at the Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Ore.
“We felt that it was a wonderful tool to help our patients and staff relax and center themselves,” says Rev. Jürgen Schwing, who oversees the spiritual-care program at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, Calif. “It’s a way [for patients] to ease possible jitters or fears if they’re in for treatment or tests.”
Schwing says that hospitals used to focus solely on the body and the physical self, but emphasis is now also placed on the role the mind and spirit play in a person’s recovery. “The labyrinth is a way to facilitate awareness that we are mind, body and spirit,” he says. “It’s clearly not meant in a religious way but in a broader spiritual context that helps facilitate our search for meaning and purpose.”
Before the Antioch Medical Center installed an outdoor labyrinth, they provided finger labyrinths in the hospital’s meditation room. Using their fingers, patients could trace the labyrinth pattern on a wooden board. Surveys conducted by the hospital showed that even this practice reduced users’ stress levels.
About 225 hospitals and wellness centers in the U.S. now have labyrinths. Veterans Affairs hospitals are also considering installing them for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to St. Louis–based labyrinth builder Robert Ferré, who recently returned from Las Vegas, where he installed a labyrinth outside a hospital emergency room. He’s also built them for hospices and retirement homes, as strolling the curves of a labyrinth is low-impact enough for elderly patients to easily handle.
“It’s something people can do [even] if they’re in a walker or a wheelchair and they’re not that strong,” he says.
While no one knows for sure the source of the labyrinth’s power, Artress believes the narrow, serpentine path is comforting and focuses the mind.
“You’re turning left and right, left and right. It’s like being in a cradle. You just rock into a quiet space,” she says. “It’s a way to quiet the mind and hear the inner voices that often get drowned out in the noise and bustle of our lives. Then you can have a dialogue with yourself and a heart-to-heart with your body.”
To find a labyrinth near you, go to www.labyrinthsociety.org or www.labyrinthlocator.com.