Tag Archives: Labyrinths

The Arms of a Labyrinth

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

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’.

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GROUP ON TAKING OUR SPACE AND WELL BEING: FINDING YOURSELF IN A LABYRINTH

Photo by Spencer Scott
Photo by Spencer Scott

The Canterbury Labyrinth sits on the sloping campus of the University of Kent overlooking Canterbury Cathedral. It is a work of art, designed by Jeff Saward and constructed, using 8,000 pieces of hand cut York Stone, by Hayward Landscapes Ltd. Labyrinths can be used as tools for teaching; relaxation and reflection; therapeutic support; healing and spiritual development. Mazes were created to entertain, tantalise; indeed part of the fun is getting lost, but in a labyrinth there is one path into the centre and the same path out, and it is a place of peace where you are much more likely to find yourself.

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I trained as a labyrinth facilitator at Chartres with, Veriditas, an organisation at the forefront of promoting the use of labyrinths worldwide. If you go on their website you should be able to locate a labyrinth near to you. I return often to the stone labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, a path worn down by millions of feet since it was built in the early 13th century. It normally has chairs on it for regular services but these are removed most Fridays; when you can see it in its full majesty

In the Canterbury area, there is a stone built labyrinth in a beautiful garden at the Pilgrim’s Hospice; an unusual grass labyrinth at The Pines in St. Margaret’s and a small labyrinth overlooking the sea on the grassy bank between Folkestone and Sandgate. In the Canterbury Labyrinth, I’ve seen students, staff and passers-by walk, run and even dance in the labyrinth, others doing yoga, meditation or simply enjoying a picnic in the peace of this place. Children love it and I watched one little boy walk backwards all the way into the centre and out.

Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral

I worked with some clients who found it valuable to spend time in the labyrinth between their sessions, using it to facilitate meditation and reflection on their process of change. Some found it useful to write about their experiences and share them in the counselling. It can be an excellent way of beginning a regular meditation practice. People struggling with high levels of stress, anxiety or panic can, with practice, find peace walking in a labyrinth. Others, on the Autistic/Asperger continuum seem to find such a walk particularly calming. Some clients describe feeling ‘held’ by the labyrinth while they are free to explore both the outside landscape and their own inner landscape. They’ve found the labyrinth both relaxing and stimulating; a place where they can ‘let go’ and safely meet ‘whatever is’ in those moments; a space where important questions may arise and be met with important answers.

The labyrinth is a valuable tool for courses on mindfulness, well-being, creativity, overcoming work blocks and stress reduction. It was the focus for a group of graduates, leaving university, to think about what they were taking with them from their university experience. They each chose a stone, from a pile of stones placed at the centre, to represent a quality they felt they needed to take with them out into the working world.

In every continent, except Antarctica, the symbol of a labyrinth has been found. On ancient Cretan coins; roman tiled floors; Etruscan wine jars; baskets woven by Hopi Indians; in Zulu children’s games. Labyrinths have been laid out in stones in Denmark; set in stone on the floor of European cathedrals; and are found on the plains of Peru. Britain has eight of Europe’s ancient turf labyrinths and three are cut into rocks in Cornwall. They have been used by people of different faiths and cultural traditions for more than 3,500 years and we are still learning much about their uses.

It can be helpful to see a labyrinth walk in three stages:

Releasing: letting go of the outside world as you walk into the centre.
Receiving: at the centre. This may be in the form of: an answer to a question; time to listen to ‘what is’ inside of you; or simply a few moments of peace.

Returning: as you walk out, bringing the experience with you whatever it is.

When you do your first walk, it can be difficult to lose that self-consciousness about doing something new. Sometimes strong feelings may surface, at other times it can simply slow us down and bring us a sense of peace. People have imagined themselves walking around the labyrinth with close family members that have died; a moving and humbling experience. Others have been able to let go of negative feelings, traumatic memories and even repetitive thought patterns. Things can happen in a labyrinth! At first, it may simply be making time and space for a relaxing walk.

What happens in a labyrinth may be seen as a metaphor that can help achieve self-awareness, e.g. getting lost; feeling blocked; walking along with a stone in your shoe and not removing it.  When walking the labyrinth, we can walk barefoot or not; walk quickly, slowly or stand still; dance; sit or kneel down. There is no right or wrong way to move through a labyrinth.

Photo by Jim Higham
Photo by Jim Higham

Useful Books and Websites

Books:
Artress, Lauren. 2006. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the labyrinth as a spiritual practice. (2nd Ed.) New York: Riverhead.
Artress, Lauren. 2006. The Sacred Path Companion: A guide to walking the labyrinth to heal and transform. New York: Riverhead.
Curry, Helen. 2000. The Way of the Labyrinth: A powerful meditation for everyday life. London: Penguin Compass.
Saward, Jeff. 2003. Labyrinths and Mazes: The definitive guide to ancient and modern traditions.
London: Gaia.
Williams, D. 2011, Labyrinth: Landscape of the Soul, Wild Goose Publication.

Websites:
Examples in the U.K: http://www.sacred-land-photography.com
Labyrinth Activities in UK and Eire: http://www.labyrinthuk.org/page3.htm
The Labyrinth Society: http://www.labyrinthsociety.org
Veriditas Training and Labyrinth Information: http://www.veriditas.org
World-wide Labyrinth Locator: http://www.wwll.veriditas.labyrinthsociety.org/

Have you ever walked in a labyrinth?

ABOUT

ABOUT MAGGIE YAXLEY SMITH 

Having enjoyed a career in counselling for 35 years and a love of writing, I have now put these two activities together to write about counselling.  In my first book, Finding Love in the Looking Glass: A Book of Counselling Case Stories, published by Karnac in April, 2014, I create very real but fictitious characters that find themselves in great difficulty and decide to seek counselling. These case stories contain the dynamic dialogue of their counselling process as it unfolds. These clients show how we can successfully overcome outdated survival patterns and make effective new choices that work for us. My aim is to show just how effective counselling can be. The topics covered in this first book of case stories are: Anorexia; Depression; Relationship Breakdown especially as related to issues about boarding school education and cultural differences; Cocaine Addiction and Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse, (more information in the link to Karnac Books).

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I’m a Senior Accredited Counsellor with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. I spent most of my counselling career, until April 2011 working with staff and students at the University of Kent. I supervised and mentored counsellors on placements and had responsibility for the management of the Counselling Service there.  My other experiences include working with Relate, a women’s refuge, the prison service and with various employment counselling services in private practice.

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Several years ago, I trained as a Veriditas Labyrinth Facilitator with Lauren Artress at Chartres Cathedral and collaborated with the staff at the University of Kent who instigated the building of the Canterbury Labyrinth, pictured above. I have encouraged a number of counselling clients to use this and there is an article under Labyrinths that explains the benefits of walking a labyrinth. Most recently, I have joined a Well-being Writers Network in Canterbury and Save As, a Canterbury based writing group.

Photo by Jim Higham

Photo by Jim Higham

Since my education included rather more male role models than was helpful for me as a young woman, I pursued an M.A. in Women’s Studies as a mature student. This balanced out my education and enabled me to research and write about things that interested me: oppression, sexuality, mothering, the philosophy of learning and psychoanalysis from a female perspective. My dissertation was about Rudolf Steiner Education, which I believe is a truly humanistic education with a curriculum based on the developmental stages of childhood. It encourages children to become the best they can be as an individual balanced with a healthy respect for their peers (a future blog!). I am actively engaged in creative and counselling writing and want to honour and pass on what I’ve been taught by the many teachers I have both worked with and lived with.

As this is an author blog, I want to list some books that I would recommend.

TWENTY FAVOURITE BOOKS

Allende, I. (2000). Daughter of Fortune, Flamingo; Armstrong, F. & Pearson, J. (Eds.) (2000). Well-Tuned Women: Growing Strong Through Voicework, The Women’s Press; Cameron, A. (1984). Daughters of Copper Woman, the Women’s Press; Paulo Coelho. (1995). The Alchemist, Thorsons; His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Cutler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living, Riverhead Books; Diamond, H. & Diamond, M. (1987). Living Health, Grand Central Publishing; Hoff, B., (1993). The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet, Mandarin Paperback; Horley, S. (2002). Power and Control, Vermilion; Jansson, T., (translated by Thomas Teal),  (2003). The Summer Book, Sort Of Books; Lane, J. (2006). The Spirit of Silence, Making Space for Creativity, Green Books; Liedloff, J. (1975). The Continuum Concept, Arkana, Penguin Books, 1975; Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press; Neale Hurston, Z. (1978). Their Eyes Were Watching God, Illionois Press; Nhat Hanh, T. (1987). Being Peace, Parallax; Northrup, C.M., (2010). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Bantam; Steiner, R. (Translated by Michael Lipsom) (1995). Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, A Philosophy of Freedom, Anthroposophic Press; Tolkien, J.R.R., (1969). The Lord of the Rings, George Allen & Unwin;  Tolle, E. (2005). A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Gale, Cengage Learning; van Gulik, R., (1990). The Chinese Maze Murders, Sphere Books, 1990;  Walker, A., (1984). In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, The Women’s Press.