While at first glance it looks like a maze, the labyrinth is actually a way to find oneself. This cross-cultural tool for wellness and spiritual practice that dates as far back as 5,000 years is growing in popularity.
In the Capital Region, labyrinths are popping up at municipal centers, parks, college campuses, hospitals, churches and even private residences. People are discovering how they can help to relieve stress and promote overall well-being.
What differentiates a labyrinth from a maze? A labyrinth has one path leading to the center, and the same path leads back out. Mazes provide participants with choices and delight in confusing them.
Labyrinths can be built on the ground or painted on canvas for portability. In 2000, the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany commissioned St. Louis artist Robert Ferré to design one. A church member painted the 24-foot diameter design, called “Santa Rosa,” onto a large canvas cloth.
The church puts the labyrinth out at various times and encourages people to walk it and meditate. “It’s a chance for people to literally journey inward,” said Al Fedak, minister of music and arts. “Like life itself, it has many twists and turns. Many people find a lot of solace and peace in doing this.”
Gina Mintzer of Amsterdam walked a labyrinth at a friend’s house in 2011, and the experience prompted her to organize the building of one on the south lawn of Amsterdam’s City Hall. Volunteers brought in a truck full of rocks from the Mohawk River, and encouraged people to paint them for the project.
In late July, with the help of Jeremy Spraggs of Gloversville, they laid out the design using a stick and a string and then sprayed the path with vinegar to kill the grass and put the rocks down. They complemented the labyrinth by planting the “Peace Garden” with perennials, and dedicated the project in September.
Volunteers who built Hudson Crossing Park in Schuylerville on neglected, state-owned land, constructed a labyrinth as the focal point for its play area. Volunteer project manager Cindy Wian of Schuylerville consulted with Marjolaine Arsenault of The Garden Spirit in Chestertown, who specializes in labyrinth design and building.
Volunteers got together and laid pavers and planted creeping thyme in between. “It’s certainly a draw, and the best part is it’s a draw for all ages,” Wian said. “A play garden doesn’t have to be just a space for kids.”
Margi Neary, who used to operate a café in Sharon Springs, had a labyrinth built on her property as a gift from a customer. It is situated below an Asian-inspired Amish teahouse, and has served as a focal point for events that Neary has held. Now that the café is closed, the labyrinth is available for walking by appointment.
People use the labyrinth for different purposes, including spiritual practice, simple reflection, stress reduction and ritual. “There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth,” said Pam Walsh of Scotia, a member of the First Reformed Church in Scotia. She is certified as a facilitator by Veriditas, a California-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect people with the labyrinth.
Walsh borrowed Westminster Presbyterian’s labyrinth to facilitate walks for the congregation at First Reformed, and she also helped to design and build one at Camp Fowler in Speculator.
She leads guided labyrinth walks for different groups, and the type of walk varies depending on the group. For example, for some, she comes up with a question for each person to ponder as they walk. On a “dream quest” labyrinth walk, people will ponder the meaning of dreams they’ve had.
Walsh talks about the three “R’s” of walking a labyrinth, but these are not hard and fast rules by any means. People are invited to release something on the walk to the center, be in silence to receive in the center, and to reflect on what they’ve received on the way back out.
Used at colleges
Some local colleges have used labyrinths as a tool for stress relief for students, especially during exam times. Chaplain Cylon George at Hudson Valley Community College used to set up a 30-by-30-foot canvas one at the Siek Campus Center at mid-terms and finals, but now he does it once a month.
At first, it is a curiosity for students, and George has to explain it. “When they do try it, they’re usually surprised by how a simple thing can calm them and help them to be more balanced,” he said.
HVCC student Robert Kruzinski happened on the labyrinth one day and decided to give it a try. “It was an exciting experience to take part in, and did well to remind me that even taking 10 minutes out of my day to organize, change or even release my thoughts is very important to maintain sanity,” he said.
George first saw the labyrinth when his colleague, the Rev. Beth Illingworth, spiritual adviser at Russell Sage College through the Troy Area United Ministries, set one up for students.
The labyrinth can be a metaphor for life, she said, because you can’t see where the path ends, only where you are in it, and you have to trust that you’ll make it to the center.
“Students get so concerned about their future and what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives,” she said. “There’s a way that working out those feelings is a very powerful thing.”
Walking a labyrinth can be a comforting experience. Neary had a friend who would walk the labyrinth when she was upset. Wian knew a woman who found the one in Hudson Crossing Park a soothing place to go after her husband died. Mintzer said a local recovery group came and used the labyrinth in Amsterdam as part of its program.
“I’m finding that the power of this is so varied,” Walsh said. “People can use the labyrinth as a wellness tool in any way that seems to fit that situation or experience.”