he scene looks like some kind of living board game: In a softly lit cathedral nave, a dozen people are standing or walking along a narrow pathway, created by concentric purple lines painted on a white canvas floor cloth. In stocking feet, they move at varying paces, pausing occasionally, perhaps listening to the ethereal glissando of a single harp. A few appear deep in thought as they sit, cross-legged, in the large circle's rosette-shaped center.
In the middle of a garden next to a medical center, gray concrete pavers form a walkway that loops back and forth into a design resembling a circular brain. Periodically a patient, physician or family member takes the pendular path into the center and back, then rests on a nearby bench and jots down thoughts in a communal journal.
Tucked inside an old warehouse in a gentrified downtown neighborhood, an art studio holds a tiny room filled with unexpected sights. A pathway atop a mulch-covered floor consists of glass-topped rectangular boxes that, when stepped upon, light up to reveal startling images. The illuminated trail leads to a central mirrored platform and more surprises.
These three diverse settings share a common thread: Each features a variation of a labyrinth, an ancient spiritual symbol and meditative tool that's experiencing a renaissance as more people discover its benefits. Devotees tout numerous positive reasons to walk labyrinths, ranging from spiritual aspects such as the ability to let go of problems and feel a sense of unity with God, to positive physical changes such as relaxed breathing, lower blood pressure and better balance.
Labyrinths are among the "open spaces [and] sacred spaces" funded by the TKF Foundation, an Annapolis-based private grant-making foundation that sponsors nonprofit organizations' projects designed for "nurturing the human spirit and fostering a sense of community," says Tom Stoner, president and co-founder. Stoner's foundation has funded 10 labyrinths in the Baltimore/Annapolis/Washington area, in such varied settings as the Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baltimore's inner city, the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts in Annapolis and the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia in Arlington. "Everyone lives such a peripatetic life these days; we're so crushed for time," he says. Labyrinths encourage people "to slow down, get away from the cell phone."
"My friend calls a labyrinth a left-brain jamming device," says David Tolzmann, labyrinth builder and owner of the Labyrinth Company, which is based in Baltimore. Tolzmann explains that, during a labyrinth walk, the logical left brain, which usually controls our activities, becomes occupied with following the path, thus freeing the creative, intuitive right brain. He recommends that beginners clear their minds before entering, then concentrate on the path and see what happens.
When potential customers from Westchester County, N.Y., recently visited Tolzmann to look into purchasing a labyrinth, he recommended that they first walk one. He took them to a nearby location situated next to a busy construction area. After completing the walk, the group members weren't sure whether they'd experienced anything noteworthy.
"Did the dump trucks bother you?" he asked, and all shook their heads, amazed to realize that, during the walk, they hadn't noticed the annoying sounds of dump trucks continuously climbing up steep grading.
"If you can tune out dump trucks, that's pretty good," Tolzmann says.
Labyrinth walkers become relaxed partly because of the pendular motion of navigating a labyrinth's single pathway as it winds back and forth in a geometric pattern toward the design's center. A person also doesn't have to worry about losing his or her way: Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has only one entrance and includes no alternative routes or dead ends.
"We say, 'You lose yourself in the maze but find yourself in the labyrinth,' " says Robert Buckman, vice president of the Labyrinth Society, a global network of enthusiasts eager to educate newcomers about labyrinths and their benefits.
Buckman also is a member of Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, which in 1995 became one of the first area congregations to include a labyrinth in its ministry. Like many contemporary labyrinths, the church's painted canvas resembles a stone design dating to circa 1201 and found on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. The pattern features 11 circuits, or rings, that wind back and forth to form four quadrants leading to a flower-shaped center. The quadrant divisions suggest the shape of a cross. Such labyrinths became popular in medieval times, when they apparently were used for rituals such as liturgical dance, Lenten activities and as symbolic journeys to the Holy Land.
The Rev. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco became inspired after visiting the Chartres labyrinth. Her 1995 book, "Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool," launched the renaissance of labyrinths in the United States. Now, labyrinths of various designs and sizes can be found not only at churches but at locations such as hospitals, New Age retreat centers, parks and schools.
Part of the appeal of labyrinths is the enigma surrounding them. While labyrinths associated with Christianity may be most familiar, labyrinth patterns date back at least 4,000 years and show up in numerous cultures.
"It's just fascinating because it's very complex and very mysterious," says artist Sandra Wasko-Flood, one of the founders of the Labyrinth Society, regarding labyrinth history. Labyrinth scholars speculate that ancient cultures used the designs in conjunction with major life-cycle events such as birth, marriage and death. Prehistoric labyrinth rock carvings have been found in Spain and Italy, and labyrinth designs appear on early Greek coins and in the mystical Jewish cabala teachings dating to medieval times. The design also is associated with the ancient myth in which the Greek hero Theseus slew the Minotaur, a ferocious half-bull/half-man beast that lived in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. Labyrinths found on the coast of Sweden may have been used to bring good luck to fishermen, Wasko-Flood says. Labyrinths also exist in Native American culture, including a square Hopi design that depicts Mother Earth and her child.
Elements of labyrinth designs often contain spiritual or natural symbolism. The seven-circuit classic design, found in many ancient cultures, looks somewhat brainlike and, Wasko-Flood says, is similar to the orbiting path of Mercury. A computerized, interactive labyrinth she designed, "Dance of the Labyrinth," offers unique interpretations of natural elements -- earth, water, fire and air -- classically represented in the circuits of labyrinths. Wasko-Flood's design features glass-topped photo transparencies of images such as people and animals. Walking the labyrinth triggers accompanying light sequences, and music enhances the effects.
Labyrinth walking offers a unique encounter for each individual.
"There's a surgeon at [Johns] Hopkins that actually walks it before every surgery" to clear his mind of concerns about the impending operation, Tolzmann says.
"It's an amazing experience and it's different every time," says Diana Berry, labyrinth coordinator at Burke Presbyterian Church, which boasts both a portable canvas labyrinth and a permanent outdoor design created with stones and mulch. "First of all, it does call me to prayer, which I believe is essential in today's awful world."
"When I walk into a labyrinth, I try to identify what challenge I have that day," Stoner says. "It is amazing to me how many times I find the answer before I walk out. My mind sort of settles down, and I get very focused."
Annandale freelancer Mary Jane Solomon is investigating labyrinth walking as a cure for writer's block.