Since ancient times, labyrinths have been used for prayer and meditation. They have been carved into stones and built into floors and the grounds of sacred spaces. They have been found all over the world, in diverse geographic areas, and by people with vastly different religious beliefs. Discoveries of ancient labyrinths have been found that are over 4,000 years old, and today, healing centers, spiritual centers, and even modern hospitals are using labyrinths to help people on a peaceful healing path.
What is a Labyrinth?
By definition, a labyrinth is a circuitous path that has a beginning, and through a complex design, leads one to a point in the center of the circle marking the end. As one meanders along the path, there are no decisions to be made in choice of direction; one just simply follows the circular design to get to the center. Once there, the walker remains for as long as they like in the center, and then retraces their steps back out to the beginning.
Labyrinth symbols have been found carved and painted on stones, woven into wall hangings, and built on the ground. Wall, carved, and painted labyrinths are meant to be traced with your eyes or with your fingertips, while ground ones are used for walking or meandering along at your own pace. Visually, labyrinths are beautiful in their circular symmetry. They range from very simple designs to extremely complex ones that have very long pathways. No matter the length of the path, you are always led to the center.
The two most popular designs of familiar labyrinths are the Classical and Medieval designs. The Classical design originates from a clay tablet found in Greece dated circa 1200 BCE. This same patterning has been found on Cretean coins from 400-500 BCE. The designs of these types of labyrinths are considered seed patterns. The Medieval pattern is constructed more on a quadrant pattern, reminiscent of sacred geometry. You can find these examples on the floors of ancient European churches and cathedrals.
Today, contemporary labyrinths are built based on ancient designs, yet they may have a more creative or personal touch to them. While modern labyrinths can be simple with just a meandering design, others can be complex three-dimensional patterns. Whatever the design, a labyrinth must always move in a circular motion and end in the center of the design.
What is the Difference Between a Labyrinth and a Maze?
While some may use the words labyrinth and maze interchangeably, they are distinctly different. A labyrinth is built in a circular path (unicursal) that is non-branching and leads to the center and back out the same way. A maze on the other hand, is complex, with many branches (multicursal) that go in several directions and may have several entrances, exits, and often dead ends. There are choices to be made while walking in a maze, such as which direction should be taken, or how to find the way out. Walking in a maze feels like trying to solve a stressful puzzle that boggles the mind.
In contrast, the labyrinth is designed to be contemplative in nature; no matter how long the paths are, they will always lead you into the heart of the circle and back out. Labyrinths are designed to be a peaceful and meditative experience.
What is the Purpose of a Labyrinth?
For thousands of years, labyrinths have been used as a meditative and prayer tool. Walking meditations are a wonderful way to stay focused on the present. Even with finger and eye labyrinths, tracing a circuitous route makes one focus on the present which can help to calm the mind. Labyrinths are believed to represent the wholeness of life, as we journey to our own heart and center, and to be able to find our way back out again. This is a beautiful representation of how we can approach our lives. Instead of feeling frustrated and caught in a maze with many directions and dead ends, the labyrinth reminds us that we just need to find our center and return to the world refreshed. The only choice one needs to make with a labyrinth is whether or not to enter into it.
Most labyrinths are built based on sacred geometry, which is wisdom and knowledge in an architectural form. When walking the labyrinth, you should experience rest, order, comfort, and harmony. Walking through the circle allows the chattering of the mind to become calm and quiet as you become focused on the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other to reach your goal of reaching the center. Because you cannot get lost, moving through the labyrinth brings calmness, not stress, and there is no need to constantly be looking towards the “future” of where the path will be taking you: just have faith that the path will lead you to your goal.
The path can be walked slowly, walked quickly, ran through, or even danced through, whichever way helps you find enlightenment and peace. There is no right way or wrong way to follow a labyrinth, only that you enter with an open heart and with the intention of calming the mind. Or not! Perhaps you want to just be amazed at the architecture and geometry of the design. If that is your intent, then go with an open heart and open mind.
What is the Science of Walking a Labyrinth?
There has been a resurgence of labyrinths being built for healing purposes. Many hospitals even have labyrinths on their grounds as well as finger labyrinths to help reduce stress and to promote healing in patients. Reduced stress can help patients feel calm while they are going through an illness.
When walking the circular path, your brain switches from one cerebral hemisphere to the other as you walk back and forth. The rocking back and forth motion may help to activate certain parts of the brain that may have been suppressed due to injury, physical or emotional. In addition, walking the labyrinth stimulates each side of the brain separately. One side stimulates the right brain, heightening creativity and artistry. When it switches to the left brain, the analytical side is stimulated. This may help heal someone whose speech and language center of the brain has been suppressed. By stimulating both sides of the brain, balance may be achieved in both sides of the cerebral cortex.
Whether or not there is any solid proof that labyrinths have health benefits, or can help to heighten spiritual awakening, people have been walking them for thousands and thousands of years. It is up to you to believe or not if they have special powers. Just enter into the calming influence of a labyrinth and decide for yourself.