Thursday, November 29, 2012

HSPs and the Healing and Meditative Powers of the Labyrinth

A few weeks back, Sarah and I went to the annual Labyrinth Society Gathering in Hudson, Wisconsin. As I alluded to in an earlier post, the other attendees at these events always feel a lot like "my tribe"-- in a way that's very similar to how I feel like I am with "my tribe," when I go to an HSP Gathering. It makes me think that perhaps what we all seek is the chance to hang out with some people that allow us-- even if only temporarily-- to feel like we're not complete strangers on this planet.

Now that I have had some time to pause and reflect I wanted to take a little time to talk about Labyrinths, their healing and meditative powers and how useful and appropriate they can be as a tool for the Highly Sensitive Person.

A little background history:

The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France-- possibly 900 years old
Photo by Lars Howlett, biomorphic.org, used with permission
Labyrinths are ancient-- simple labyrinth designs can be traced back more than 4000 years. There may be some misconceptions that they are "occult symbols" or "pagan" or "religious," but nothing could be further from the truth: Labyrinths can be found pretty much anywhere. Perhaps the most famous labyrinth is at Chartres Cathedral in France; 100s more can be found on the grounds of a variety of churches around the world. Conversely, there are also labyrinths to be found "deep in the woods" where they may have been used in tribal ceremonies past and present. You can find labyrinths on hospital grounds, in public parks... and in people's back yards. And they are definitely not a "New Age" invention.

I have had labyrinths in my life for a long time. When I lived in Texas, we had a guest house with a flat concrete roof, and created a simple labyrinth there-- outlined in native limestone rocks. That was over 15 years ago. We're currently building a labyrinth in our back yard.

So what's the big deal? What's the attraction? What's the "magic?" And what is it that makes labyrinths such a "perfect fit" for HSPs?

Of course, I can only speak from personal experience, here... your own experience may differ.

Labyrinths and HSPs:

Labyrinths are far more than just "a pretty garden pattern," and should not be confused with "mazes," which are-- possibly-- better known, as designs or puzzles we've seen, at one time or another. The primary difference between a labyrinth and a maze is that a labyrinth has only one path to the center-- a maze is a "puzzle" with blind alleys and multiple "solutions."

Building the labyrinth in our back yard
This becomes very important when we consider the labyrinth as a meditative, prayer or self-discovery tool, especially for a highly sensitive person. With a labyrinth there is no "failing" -- the path is fixed, and you will always "succeed" in reaching the center-- with a maze, you can "fail" and get stuck down a blind alley. The labyrinth design allows you to do a walking meditation without having to "think" about where you are going... you simply follow the path and it will take you where you need to go.

And that's one of the great healing aspects of walking a Labyrinth: it is a meditation. If meditation isn't your thing, it can be a walking prayer. Either way, for HSPs it's a particularly suitable one-- most labyrinths are set in peaceful outdoor locations, or in indoor meditative spaces like churches or temples. Or, of course, you can create one in your own back yard.

The Labyrinth can be-- and often is-- a powerful teacher. I have heard it said that everything that happens in the labyrinth is a metaphor... and I believe this is a very appropriate and true statement.

Another way in which Labyrinths are "HSP friendly" is that walking them is generally a solitary pursuit. Yes, you can absolutely walk a labyrinth with other people... and there's a whole set of lessons associated with that... but most of the time you are walking alone; just you and your thoughts.

You move through a labyrinth at your own pace-- there's essentially no "right" or "wrong" way to go; slow, fast, skipping, dancing.

What Labyrinths Teach Us:

In the broadest sense, the circuits of a labyrinth are a metaphor for the journey of life. The path sometimes take us very close to our goals (the center of the labyrinth), only to lead us back out and back in, several times. Some look at the path through the labyrinth as similar to the path to enlightenment or self-realization-- we think we're getting close, but we're not; we get closer, we move away... and then suddenly we are there. If we walk a labyrinth with a friend-- starting at different times-- we will sometimes come very close to each other, sometimes be far apart, illustrating how we're all "on our path" but not necessarily in the same place.

Labyrinth at the Hudson Hospital, Hudson, WI
The Labyrinth teaches patience; it may seem like we don't have much land to cover to get to the center, yet the walk turns out to be quite long and has many twists and turns. The labyrinth teaches us that fulfillment comes with staying on the path-- sure, we can "cheat" (walk directly to the center without following the path), but getting there by such means feels hollow and meaningless. And once we reach the center, we can stay there for a while and rest-- but we cannot stay in the center of the labyrinth forever; just like life cannot be perfect all the time. We must continue walking new paths; towards new challenges.

On a more subtle level, the labyrinth teaches us how to "move towards" something, with purpose. Many people's life strategy is based on "moving AWAY from" things they don't want, rather than towards things they do want. In the labyrinth, movement is towards the center, and the fixed path allows no deviation.

Labyrinths also teach us to be mindful and to listen. Like many spiritual and healing tools, me must be "present" and open to whatever messages are coming our way... or ti simply will not "work." Or, at least, we will not derive significant benefit from the experience.

The Healing Power of the Labyrinth:

Some people say that walking the labyrinth is as direct an experience of God (or a higher power, or "the Source") as you can get. At the same time, walking the labyrinth-- to meditate on a problem, issue or desire, for example-- is an intensely personal experience. There is no "prescribed way," and no book of laws or Scripture to guide you. In many ways, the labyrinth is a place where you get to "be alone with yourself."

Raked leaf labyrinth at the 2012 TLS Gathering
UNlike many different New Age healing and enlightenment paths-- which tend to focus heavily on spirit and being in your head/mind-- the labyrinth (because of the physical movement) has a way of pulling people out of their heads and into their bodies. Even when we meditate, we have a tendency to "wander" to the past or to the future-- while walking a labyrinth, most people find is much easier to "be present" with the wind, the sound of your feet, in the moment.

What the labyrinth offers is a peaceful and effective way to "problem solve." When I walk a labyrinth, I almost always get answers-- not always the ones I was looking for, mind you, but the ones I needed. You may start walking with one particular "issue" in mind-- and come out with a solution to a completely different problem, and might wonder "why?" Often you'll discover that using the "off topic" answer you were giving "opens space" to address the issue you were originally concerned about.

And often the labyrinth will give you answers in ten minutes that you could not have gotten from three months of psychotherapy. All that's needed is an open mind and an open heart... and a willingness to truly listen.

Maybe this all sounds rather "structured," but I want to reiterate that there's really no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. Perhaps nothing at all will happen-- or perhaps whatever is going to happen will happen later. Perhaps all you'll "get" is 15 minutes of calm that will leave you better equipped to deal with the day ahead.

More About Labyrinths:

There is lots and lots of information about labyrinths online.

The Labyrinth Society (TLS) web site is a good place to start. TLS is a large international organization promoting education and friendship between labyrinth enthusaists worldwide. You might also check out the Veriditas web site. Veriditas is another worldwide organization for those interested in labyrinths. In addition, there are a number of regional and country-wide labyrinth societies around the world.

If you want to find a labyrinth near you, visit the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator-- a joint project of The Labyrinth Society and Veriditas-- which currently contains information about more than 4000 labyrinths in over 70 countries.

Biomorphic.org is Lars Howlett's very interesting and informative site (Facebook page) about many aspects of labyrinths, as well as an ongoing "news stream" about events relating to labyrinths.

Thanks for reading!

This post is a little bit of a departure from the writing I usually do here-- however, this last trip to the Labyrinth Society Gathering (I've been before) really reminded me that Labyrinths are a perfect "match" for HSPs.

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