Lessons from the Labyrinth
Not AT ALL what I expected, but exactly what I needed. Oh, the irony!
Unintentionally, but appropriately enough, published on Mother’s Day.
Last Saturday, excited to participate in World Labyrinth Day, I set off for the Unity Truth Center, a church I had found with the help of the “labyrinth locator” website. Its outdoor labyrinth was billed as a medieval 11-circuit, which seemed perfect — not that I’m some kind of labyrinth connoisseur, mind you — I just thought it would be sufficiently long enough to give my monkey mind something to chew on, and thus deliver a more meditative experience.
Labyrinths, by virtue of their structure, are inherently calming. You walk in, follow the path to the center, and then keep going, ultimately walking out the way you came in.
No decision-making. No Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. That’s what I love about labyrinths; they are the opposite of mazes. In a labyrinth, second-guessing is obsolete, and failure is not an option. For those reasons alone, I was eager to walk one.
Ever since 2020, I have felt like a human tossed salad, churning in a bowl of uncertainty. The idea of a contemplative yet kinetic experience that would quiet my mind and bring me to a state of stillness sounded almost too good to be true. Maybe it would even deliver answers, like magic letters from the universe, to my constantly-searching, questioning mailbox-self.
My daughter Maddie, recently on break from grad school, decided to join me. Although I suspected she had nothing better to do, it’s also possible that my “magic letters from the universe” spiel hooked her in; she’s a bit of a constant searcher as well.
Regardless, 30 minutes later, GoogleMaps delivered us into the driveway of… an assisted-living facility.
“Hmm… this can’t be it,” I said. Maddie nodded, her face telling me that if this indeed was it, she’d probably wait in the truck.
We craned our necks. Was there a labyrinth tucked in amongst the wheelchair access ramps? No. But across the street was a building that looked somewhat church-like, so we spun the truck around. The address on the signpost was correct, but there was no sign; empty chains dangled wistfully.
The truck rolled past more missing signage as we crept down the gravel driveway. “This is super-sketch,” said Maddie.
“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s just not operating anymore.”
She made an “I don’t think so” sound, and stared at the patchy, weedy grass. “It looks like one of those Dateline Specials that Grandma watches, where the bodies are discovered weeks later—”
“Alright, okay, very funny.” I laughed, and pressed on. “Let’s just drive around back, maybe the labyrinth is there.”
We pulled slowly around the building, tires crunching.
“Hey! Look!” I exclaimed.
Toward the back of the property, maybe 50 yards away, there was a clearing of some sort. I squinted. I could see some low stone walls curving out from what looked like a jungle about to swallow them whole. It seemed promising.
“Okay, that’s even MORE sketch. I can hear it now,” Maddie said, adopting the cadence of fatalist newscaster horror-speak: “A middle-aged Florida woman and her daughter went looking for a labyrinth. They found more than they bargained for.”
I unbuckled my seat belt. “Oh my god. NOT what I want to be thinking about.” I opened the door of the truck and the heat pushed in. “Let’s go.”
We traipsed over uneven ground in the bright sun, Maddie making cracks about shallow graves as we walked. Soon, we could see a round area covered with crushed shells, with some lines of small rocks curving through the circle. The labyrinth!
I checked my watch: a few minutes before 1pm. This is perfect, I thought. We’ll be creating contemplative harmony with the rest of the Eastern Standard Time zone participants. Let’s do this.
“Um… what exactly are we doing here?” asked Maddie, quite earnestly. “I mean, do we just… walk?”
I told her what little I know: “You can use it lots of ways. You can just walk the path, and enjoy letting go of decision-making. Or you can choose to open yourself to whatever insights or thoughts or even messages that arise. Or you can ask a question first, and allow an answer to come—”
“Ooh, I like that. How many questions can I ask?” She looked like the 8-year-old version of herself.
“I have no idea. Probably not a ton.”
“Okay. Hang on, I have to think about this.” While she gazed skyward, I closed my eyes and called in my own questions: about my life and my path. What do I need to know?
I opened my eyes to see Maddie waiting for me. I gestured to the entrance.
“You first,” she said.
So I set off.
We are meaning-making machines, we humans. It is what we excel at, what we’re programmed to do. I generally don’t like to draw comparisons between human beings and machines (see my essay on AI here) because I don’t really want to give transhumanism even one iota of breath.
Yet in this case, I think it’s helpful to use a computer analogy. Just as a computer is designed to process data, we are designed to make meaning. We interpret any stimuli we encounter, bestowing significance upon it. It’s how babies survive; it’s how we all learn and thrive.
I don’t know who designed us to be that way, or how, and I’m certain there are those who view it as a strictly biological, evolutionary advantage, but to me… it feels divine. Aha! And there you see Exhibit A: I am making meaning out of the very fact of making meaning. But I digress. Sort of.
I think that making meaning is more than just a way to learn and thrive; it’s a way to create reality. If you keep stubbing your toe and you chalk it up to bad luck, then the reality of the situation perpetuates. You’ve interpreted stubbing your toe in a certain way: you’ve created the belief that toe stubbage = bad luck, and vice-versa.
What will change? Nothing. In fact, now any time you stub your toe, you’ll reinforce the “bad luck” belief. Anything lousy or untoward that happens will probably fall into the bad luck bucket, too, and a-spiraling down you go.
On the other hand, what kind of reality could you create if, when you keep stubbing your toe you ask yourself, what might I learn from this? What if you assume the universe is on your side, and even the shittiest of shitty things is there as a guidepost to evolution?
Adopting that attitude might allow you to interpret toe-stubbage as the physical manifestation of moving too fast through life, or of not paying attention to details. You might slow down. You might feel more present. You might stub your toe less. You might even feel grateful for the guidepost. And a-spiraling up you might go.
Speaking of spirals…
Within 10 feet of my first step into the labyrinth, I came upon a wiped-out line. There was no way to know which way was the “right” way to go. I ignored the internal this is NOT perfect whisper and replaced it with I’m open to whatever comes, and just chose one. I kept walking.
I fell into the present moment: the warmth of the sun on my skin, the curve of the path, the sound of my sandals crunching on shells. I hadn’t been walking for more than 45 seconds when another sound joined: the polite “a-hem” of Maddie, stuck at the same effed-up intersection I had just passed through.
Trying to maintain the sacred peace of the moment, I said only “I took the one to the left” in my best soothing yoga-teacher voice. She nodded, and we both kept walking.
In retrospect, we probably should have both stopped to figure out which one was the right one, because within another minute I dead-ended on the outermost track. Someone had removed all of the hand-painted stones — the ones someone else had placed thoughtfully along the route to demarcate it — and chucked them outside the labyrinth. There was literally no path to follow.
“Shit,” I said, in my own exasperated voice. Maddie was alongside me a moment later. “Now what?”
We looked at our options. We could pretend there was a path and follow that, or we could jump into a different ring altogether. We decided to pretend, and off we went again.
Of course, this non-path went nowhere, dead-ending once again, and again we had to decide what to do. This time we both jumped into different paths, and kept walking. The formerly reverent mood, broken by my expletive, now gave way entirely.
“Oh, GREAT,” said Maddie. I looked over to see her bent over, examining something in her route. “There’s a turd in my path.”
That did it. All pretense was gone. I laughed so hard I doubled over. I was just pulling myself together when she followed that up with, “I’m gonna try to NOT think about what the universe is attempting to tell me about my life.”
Alternately laughing and walking, we spent the rest of the time in the labyrinth hopping from path to path, so that we could somehow piece together the whole absurd, defective thing. Eventually, we made it out the way we came in.
We took a few photos, then walked back to the truck.
“That was NOT AT ALL what I expected,” I said.
“Nope. But it was filled with yoj,” Maddie responded, as she climbed into the passenger side. “And evol. And even edutitarg.”
I stared. “What are you saying??” I demanded.
She gestured to the darkened windows of the church. Ah, yes.
That it was.
Labyrinths have taught me much in the past. My poem last week, Labyrinthine Life, attempts to gather those wide, non-material teachings into form.
But walking the labyrinth with Maddie last week delivered an entirely different set of teachings. Here are some of the
meanings I made for myself magic letters I received from the universe that afternoon:
The world is a disheartening place, especially of late, but since we’re already here, we might as well make the effort to participate. It’s immaterial whether our actions make any visible difference; when we show up, we not only reinforce the message to ourselves that we matter, we remind others that they do, too.
If you’re a regular reader of The Art of Freedom you know that I am a huge proponent of community and its inherent power. Other than my friend and frequent commenter, Rocket, and, I don’t know how many other people actually participated in World Labyrinth Day.
But Maddie and I did it, and that’s something. Her willingness to come with me made all the difference. Sure, I could have bumbled along on that spastic labyrinth by myself, but how much more fun was it to do it with her?
Showing up has metaphysical ramifications, too. Every action we take, no matter how small, contributes a light of willingness to the infinite energy-consciousness that surrounds and suffuses everything, including us. Nothing is ignored, and nothing is wasted. Speaking of nothing…
Nothing is going the way you thought it would.
Not a blessed thing. The past three years have rocked my world. The plans I had for my career turned upside down. I live in a place I swore I never would live. People I thought I would be close to forever have stepped back.
But here’s the flipside: this publication has become a joy. I get to swim in the ocean, a place I adore. Phenomenal people with whom I would otherwise never have crossed paths have appeared in my life.
Nothing will ever be the same, but that was inevitable anyway, right? Change is the law of the universe. It’s just our fear that makes us cling to the familiar. And if releasing the familiar in my own life has brought such good stuff, isn’t it possible that the same holds true for the whole world? Which leads me to…
Surrender to what is.
I first heard about World Labyrinth Day from Rocket. It turns out her experience of the day had its own imperfections:
“I had to forego most of my program that I had created, and just go with the flow. That's a good thing, I know, but it was hard to maintain that mindfulness needed… I can see there's going to be a learning curve for me, even at this late stage of life. That's OK, I'll deal with it.”
Like her, I had some idyllic idea of what the labyrinth experience was supposed to be. But soon it became clear I wasn’t there for a breezy, meditative experience. I was there for something else, and the sooner I surrendered to the reality of the malfunctioning system — saying to myself, as Rocket did, “That’s okay. I’ll deal with it” — the sooner its purpose could reveal itself.
I’ll admit, what’s happening now in the world sometimes makes me yearn for an earlier time, when I didn’t think about the censorship-industrial complex or systemic corruption or health freedom… or or or.
But when I visit that wistful place, that place of longing for something other than what is, I’m miserable. All I feel is loss. Here, if I’m fully present — even as I stare this dysfunctional system in the face, seeing it for the shit show that it is — I notice that birds are still chirping, the sun is still glinting gold on the water, and homemade bread still smells like heaven. There is still joy.
Or, as Maddie might say, yoj.
I had an English teacher in high school named Betty who un-ironically taught me that the tone of just about every piece of literature was irony. At the time I thought she was mistaken, or prone to hyperbole, but living in this meat suit for over fifty years has proved her absolutely correct. Irony IS the default setting of human existence, and the only rational response to it is laughter, and lots of it.
‘Nuff said. Thanks, Betty.
Churchill apparently didn’t say “When you’re going through hell, keep going,” but someone said it, and it has stuck with me because I like its witty wisdom.
I’m definitely not equating the faulty labyrinth with hell, but there was a moment somewhere along the circuit where a flicker of I could just bail arose in me, like the times in college when I could just drop this course flitted through my head as I struggled through a particularly challenging class.
(Stanford had a generous policy back in the day that allowed a student to drop a course up until the day of the final. It was billed as humane, but ultimately I think it was a cushy cop-out designed to deliver higher GPAs.)
Obviously I didn’t bail on the labyrinth, but it did cross my mind. It did not, however, cross Maddie’s. Giving up never does. Years ago, she set her sights on playing professional volleyball, and she has let nothing deter her — not an illness in high school that set her so far back it seemed impossible to regain that lost ground, not a lack of resources, not the odds stacked against her.
One look at her, taking it all in stride and finding humor in it all, was enough to banish all thoughts of bailing. There’s abundant discouragement to be had these days, but she inspires me to keep going.
Make your own path.
You’ve now witnessed me, making meaning out of a pathless path. That’s what we’re all called to do right now. There’s no more autopilot. The time for smooth sailing is over. The path is a total mess, folks, and it’s up to us to create a new one out of thin air. How?
Rocket’s comment to me the day after World Labyrinth Day points to the answer:
“How did your labyrinth walk go? Were you able to locate a nice one? Did you have companionship?… I hope it was meaningful for you. Thanks for going along with this idea. I knew I could count on you. xoxox”
Reading it now brings tears to my eyes, because she is one of those phenomenal people that have parachuted into my life since I started The Art of Freedom.
The labyrinth I experienced last week taught me that building the beautiful new path won’t be easy, but ironically, it can be simple. With companionship we can count on, and
a few magic letters from the universe a life made of meaning, all we have to do is show up, surrender to what is, laugh, and keep going.
Who’s with me?
Mary! This piece is as laugh out loud funny as it is profound. Perfectly imperfect is what we signed up for when we decided to beam ourselves into a meat suit. The meaning you made from this experience, along with the memories you and Maddie made together are what make this life so precious. Just the wonder of experiencing your daughter as a curious 8 year-old and an accomplished woman simultaneously is worth the sometimes arduous journey.
Our Princeton NJ labyrinth walk was serene, the lessons subtle and still reverberating...I will smile all day remembering your vivid description of your labyrinth journey and the moving poem that inspired it!🤩
Dear Mary, this article is absolutely, incredibly, wonderful! Between laughing my ass off, and shedding some tears, you made sense out of that whole labyrinth experience for me. When I read your poem the morning of the labyrinth walk, I texted Katie (aka “the Rev”) to tell her that I had a really good feeling about this whole thing. All the stars were lining up perfectly. Then they all crashed to earth in a few moments’ time. On the drive home I could feel the tears starting. It was such a letdown. When thinking about it later, because I was trying, like you, to make sense of it, I asked myself, how could I have misread the signs so badly?? But thanks to you, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone”. And even though it’s cloudy and cool here today, “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sun-shiny day.” LOL.
In fact, my oldest son just popped in to wish me happy Mother’s Day, and he said, “Hey Mom, how was your labyrinth thing?” I said, “Oh, thanks for asking, it was great!” Just like you had an opportunity to share a special hilarious experience with Maddie at your labyrinth, I had a few moments to share with Chris what I had just learned about mine.
Speaking of Maddie, she is lovely. You look like sisters. I did, however, have to look up the meaning of “super-sketch”. (haha, my age showing). And I loved her “yoj , evol, edutitarg”.
Oh, and subsequently, I’ve heard from other distant friends that they weren’t able to participate, for various reasons, but now I don’t even care. Too bad, they missed a great time!
Thanks for all the nice sentiments. You are one phenomenal person yourself! and one hell of a writer! XOX