As a counsellor on a University campus lucky enough to have a labyrinth, I was able to suggest to clients and counsellors in training that they might consider walking a labyrinth in between sessions. People who have done so, and reported back, have appreciated feeling ‘held’ by the labyrinth while they are free to explore both the outside landscape and their own inner landscape and have described the space of the labyrinth as both calming and stimulating; a place where they can ‘let go’ and safely meet ‘whatever is’ in those moments.
A book that I’ve found valuable is, The Continuum Concept, written by an American Anthropologist and later Psychotherapist, Jean Liedloff. She defines so well what can cause some of the deep tensions, negative feelings, misperceptions and a certain loss of faith in ourselves and the world around us which many of us carry from early infancy. She suggests that this is because we rarely get to complete the developmental continuum required and satisfied by a ‘babes in arms’ experience during the first six months of life. According to Jean Liedloff:
“For millions of years newborn babies have been held close to their mothers from the moment of birth. Some babies of the last few hundred generations have been deprived of this all important experience, but that has not lessened each new baby’s expectation that he will be in his rightful place…The earliest established components of an infant’s psycho-biological make-up are those most formative of his lifelong outlook. What he feels before he can think is a powerful determinant of what kind of things he thinks when thought becomes possible…If he feels safe, wanted and ‘at home’ in the midst of activity before he can think, his view of later experiences will be very distinct in character from those of a child who feels unwelcome, unstimulated by the experiences he has missed and accustomed to living in a state of want, though the later experiences of both may be identical.” (Liedloff, Jean, 1989. The Continuum Concept, Arkana, Penguin Books.)
Jean Liedloff discovered the lack of tension, innate happiness and well-being which appeared to result from this vital experience when she made many visits to, and lived for years with, the ‘Stone Age Indians’, the Yequana and the Tauripan, in South America. I believe that babies thrive and survive despite the changes that we inflict on them, but it may still help us to retrieve our true potential if we bear in mind what may be missing in our fast moving modern day human experience of infancy. Our society has changed fast but this basic human need, this,“ancient continuum of our species…is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we evolved.”
This suggests that there is an inner expectation that we have nine months inside our mother’s womb followed by six months continuous human physical contact with ‘a mother figure’, not as the centre of attention, but simply that constant presence going about their everyday life, from whom we gradually separate. Being carried on their mother’s body is an excellent position for a baby to observe and experience the world of their mother, her intimates, colleagues and friends: being joggled around if your mother walks fast (just like in the womb); a chance to play with a human body and gradually realise that this is different from your own; satisfying a developmental stage that is not even acknowledged in our modern life. The infant is not hidden away, but goes everywhere the mother goes, work and play, while feeling totally held, safe and secure. They are able to develop a faith in themselves, others and the world about them which is essential in order to fully separate in line with this ancient developmental continuum. This is a foundation for later self-reliance, the faith needed to risk realising our true potential and the resulting satisfaction with ourselves and our lives.
The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
Walking the labyrinth can bring us close to this ‘babes in arms’ experience in a different but entirely satisfying way. In a place where it is easy to feel safely held, people can find their own walking pace, even their own pattern of breathing. On a labyrinth, anything can happen as we slow down and become more connected to the present moment. We can explore and notice anything from small shiny stones lit by the sun to huge questions or answers screaming at us from inside. It is the safe boundary and unchanging character of the labyrinth that can enable us to experience or re-experience aspects of this developmental continuum. While walking the labyrinth we don’t have to be responsible for anything or anyone else. We can dance, run or walk slowly. We can listen to and follow our energy; something babies are expert at. Most of all, we have the space to notice ‘what is’ inside and outside of us in the present moment. It requires a certain risk and faith to walk into the unknown of the labyrinth.The level of containment and constancy available to us in the labyrinth, apart from the positive energy which just seems to live in the labyrinth, enables us to release some of the tension, negativity and misperceptions about ourselves and the world that can be limiting to our good health, well-being and awareness of reality. It is a place, similar to those early months of being held by ‘a mother figure’, where there is a real possibility to liberate our true self and realise our potential.
There are many people who are fortunate enough to have had this, ‘babes in arms’, experience in cultures that honour this important need. Such cultures appreciate the importance of that early holding to the formation of a deep faith and ease of being, part of that early process of creating children whose very foundation for living is complete. For those of us who were not so fortunate the labyrinth can be a valuable tool for helping to restore and recover this early need, to enable us to more fully meet the daily mystery of ‘what is’.