Labyrinth – A Sacred Journey


When most people hear of a labyrinth they think of a maze but they are not the same thing.  A maze is a puzzle to be solved using logic to navigate the turns and blind alleys to find the right path.  A labyrinth has only one path.  It is unicursal.  The way in is also the way out.  There are various labyrinths that have evolved over time, with the most well known being the Cretan, Medieval, Classic and Chatres patterns.  

Lake Erie Arboretum, Pennsylvania. Photo: wikipedia

Labyrinths have been found in all cultures and continents since 2500BC.  Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Indians, Mayans, Europeans, Africans, Australians and Native Americans have all discovered the pattern of the labyrinth at some time and it has been adopted as a sacred symbol by many religions as a metaphor of a spiritual journey. 

Ancient Labyrinth at Galicia, Northern Spain. (Photo: wikipedia)

A labyrinth is an ancient and archetypal symbol related to wholeness.  It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path that we can walk.  It’s a physical metaphor for life’s journey, the journey each of us makes to our deepest self and back out again out into the world, usually with a renewed understanding.  When walking a maze, you make decisions at each turn.  A labyrinth offers only one choice.  Will I enter or not?

Hedge Labyrinth at Villa Pisani, Venice. Photo:wikipedia

 I’ve walked a labyrinth several times and each journey is different.   I’ve walked alone, slowly and quietly.  I’ve taken thoughts in with me and left them behind.  I’ve walked with others.  I’ve sat at the entry and decided not to walk.  I’ve walked in grieving and come out lighter.   I’ve walked in with expectation and come out empty handed.  I’ve stomped my way through anger sometimes.  I’ve let someone else set the pace.  I’ve sat down in the middle.  I’ve been bored.  

City of Troy, Yorkshire, UK. Photo: courtesy Simon Garbutt (wikipedia)

 I’ve paused before exiting deliberately trying to hold my new perspective as I return to my world.  I’ve shuffled past people along the way or had them overtake me.  I’ve kept a steady rhythm or varied my pace.  I experienced nothing but frustration.  I’ve felt lost even on a one way path.   I’ve experienced an intangible force that has united me with the greater scheme of things, anchored me to heaven and to earth.  Each time, it’s a new experience and teaches me something. 

Boston College Memorial Labyrinth. Boston, USA. Photo: wikipedia

 To me it’s a physical meditation, my eyes are open, I soon find a rhythm, I am moving yet feel more still as the journey goes on, it connects me to the sacred in a simple but mysterious way and reminds me the sacred cannot be confined to a particular place or building or culture or religion.  

Latin inscription on a pillar at the centre of a labyrinth. Cambridgeshire, UK. Photo: Michel Diujves, wikipedia

The decision to enter the labyrinth is a metaphor for our spiritual and sacred journey – and that decision is not always easy.  If you get the opportunity to walk a labyrinth, it will transform you in some way, if you let it.  You don’t need to know much more than this to begin, there is no right or wrong way to ‘do it’.  That is the wonder of the labyrinth, and again reflects our journey of life. 

Stone Labyrinth on the island on Bla Jungfrun, Sweden. Photo: wikipedia

I love the circular patterns of the labyrinth.  It’s a reminder that life twists and turns, life is not a straight path.  It doubles back on itself, takes us where we don’t expect to go, sends us back along the same way sometimes, offers a new perspective, and frustrates us with its long way around.  

Labyrinth at Aschaffenburg, Germany. Photo: wikipedia

But it also allows us to go at our own pace, to experience a new angle at every turn, to rest in the centre of ourselves and take an all around view.  It encourages us to move forward, keep going, turn, breathe, rest, retreat and return. Every journey is different.  It brings balance and calms the soul.  And that feels like life to me.  

Edinburgh, Scotland.

Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo: wikipedia)

If you’re interested in walking the path and seeing what you find, check out these  Australian labyrinths  or the   World-wide Labyrinth Locator  for somewhere near you.   

Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral (Photo: wikipedia)

 A fantastic online Labyrinth is available too.  It is quite simple to use and recreates the  Virtual Walk of the Chartres pattern found on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France (see photo above).   When we’re busy, tired and don’t have time to slow down, these online paths are a real challenge.  Maybe that’s just what we need…   Let me know what you find or lose on your journey.

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Sand Mandala – Tibetan Art


In 2001, two Buddhist monks constructed a sand mandala in the Ackland Art Museum in North Carolina USA.  It measured over five feet in diameter and is an exquisite piece of Tibetan Art.  Construction is a delicate and painstaking process.

Drawing the Mandala map

DRAWING THE MANDALA MAP. Click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum (www.ackland.org.art/exhibitions/buddhistart)

Throughout construction the monks pour millions of grains of fine sand, (usually coloured stones that have been ground) from traditional metal funnels called chakpur.

Ackland Art Gallery: Mandala in progress

MANDALA IN PROGRESS - click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

The intricate patterns and symbols within the piece are astounding.   I love the vibrant colours, symmetry and symbolism of the work and can appreciate looking at the smallest corner or the piece as a whole.

Ackland Art Gallery:  Mandala close up

CLOSE UP - click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

Ackland Art Gallery: Mandala closeup

CLOSER STILL. click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

Ackland Art Gallery: the mandala grows

MANDALA GROWING. click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

Once complete, the monks perform a closing ceremony that is very sacred and symbolic.  The final product is an absolute wonder.  Imagine a solid week of work creating this masterpiece.  Imagine how your neck and shoulders might ache from being hunched over the board for all that time, gently and carefully placing grains of sand in just the right places.
Ackland Art Gallery:  mission accomplished

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

The closing ceremony is a dismantling.  The monks who took hours to create the mandala also sweep up the mandala, capturing again the coloured sand.  (I want to cry – Noooooo!!!!)
Ackland Art Gallery: dismantling the mandala

BUT FOR A MOMENT. Click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

In Tibetan culture this symbolises the transient nature of life and the impermanence of everything that exists.   I suppose it means you really have to treasure something right in the moment, and remember it.
Ackland Art Gallery: sweeping the sand

THE RITUAL. Click photo to visit Ackland Art Museum

The sand or coloured stone is never used twice.  In some ceremonies it is given to the audience as a blessing, and reminder.  Sometimes the sand is swept up, wrapped in silk and taken to a body of running water where it is released back into nature.  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, I guess.  There is something lovely about that idea – it started as rock, came from the earth, was pummelled into sand, was handled carefully and deliberately, became beautiful, was celebrated then carefully returned to its source.
In Tibetan ritual arts, the collaboration and execution of the sand mandala is considered much more important than the final product.  It sounds like another way of saying the journey is more important than the destination.  One day, it might just sink in…