Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Art History: Labyrinth

As a child of pop-culture, I thought that a labyrinth was like what we see in the movies; a tall, stone or hedge maze with turns and dead ends, pitfalls and obstacles. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that our town had at least three of them for patrons to enjoy. In fact, a labyrinth and a maze are different, though the terms are often used loosely. The thing that I had in mind was a puzzle, a maze, which is a left brain task to be solved with logic and problem solving skills. A labyrinth is symbol of the path of life. It has no blind alleys and has only one path, the way in is the way out. The labyrinth is about meditation and imagery, a right brain task that leads you to get out of it only what you put in.

The labyrinth has been a part of history since the time of the Egyptians where the labyrinth housed the bodies of kings and was intended to be completed in darkness. The most famous labyrinth was probably that of the Minotaur in Crete and was depicted as a maze. It is ironic that, although the palace there is full of complicated levels of stairs and chambers, and quite possibly the source of this story, no actual labyrinth was ever found under the city as the legend dictates.

Today the labyrinth is most often found in churches and is of the sort that has no way to get lost. These labyrinths arose in the middle ages when the crusades made pilgrimages difficult. Christians were expected to make a journey to the holy land in their lifetimes but war made these trips hazardous. The labyrinth was created in churches as a substitute. Christians would travel to these churches and perform the circuit in prayer as a symbol of the longer journey to Jerusalem. The labyrinth could also be used as a penance for sin or as a sort if guided meditation, much as the rosary is used today.

I took this whole idea of the meditative labyrinth with some trepidation. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to learn that I wouldn't be walking a maze and struggled with how I could do this task with an open mind. Personally, meditation for me is much more structured. I never approach a problem with the intent of sitting quietly and directing my thoughts to not wander from the task at hand. I generally approach problems with a much more concrete and left brained method. I am a list maker and when I have something that I need to discover a solution to, I write a list of the pros and cons of each option. To try to focus on a single issue to the exclusion of all else, without a pen in hand, generally doesn't work for me and I end up thinking only about what is making me mad about the situation.

I began to wonder if my idea of mediation wasn't skewed just as my perception of labyrinths was. I did some additional research on meditation techniques specific to the labyrinth. In Dan Johnston's 101 Ways to Use a Labyrinth, I found a whole list of different ways to approach the meditative path. As you may imagine, the list was quite lengthy, ranging from using the labyrinth as a team building exercise to helping someone through the grieving process. The option that most appealed to me, ironically, should have been the one that was apparent without ever reading Johnston's paper. This method was entitled, The Journey of Life. The entire idea of the labyrinth is that it is a representation of the path of life and Johnston suggests entering a meditation while focusing on this metaphor. He believes that the labyrinth should be entered, not while trying to discern "what does it mean?", but trying to understand what it means to you. Because the path of the labyrinth has no dead ends you can realize that you are exactly where you are supposed to be on the road of life and will never get lost.

I went to Shove Chapel and walked the labyrinth there on a warm but not hot day, well into the afternoon when I thought I would be likely to have it mostly to myself. I entered in with the idea of trying to relate the path with my life, where am I now, where am I going? Those thoughts immediately took me to the very place that I didn't want to go which was the anxiety of uncertainty, particularly the fear of change. I stopped and looked at where I was physically standing. I was perhaps one step from the first turn of the path. I tried to clear my mind and tell myself that change is the only way to move on in life just as the first turn in the labyrinth is necessary to completing the whole.

I walked on and soon realized that I was no longer thinking about the labyrinth or life at all but was watching my feet and increasing my pace as though rushing to complete the task. Again I stopped and contemplated, was this how I walked through life? With my head down and my blinders on, ignoring my surroundings? In truth, I think that I sometimes do. But is this really a bad thing? I think that at times it is better to focus on the completion of a task rather than the distractions of the moment.

I took a deep breath, refocused and kept my head up, trying to use all of my senses. After a short time I realized that I was uncomfortable. My clothing (work uniform) was too warm for the weather, the sound of the street and other people, distracting. I wished I had my sunglasses. I also realized that the bag I was carrying was heavy and unnecessary. I had left my car thinking I might go into the library and do some homework afterward and didn't want to have to walk back to my car to get my books, so I had everything with me. This realization made me laugh out loud! Here I was, on the symbolic path of life carrying the reality of life with me. The clothes on my back were the reality of my job, and the bag of books was the reality of school. The very fact that I had decided to consolidate the trip to include study time and completion on the way to work was the very essence of the hectic pace and rigorous schedule that I am forced to keep to find enough hours in the day.

Since I was alone in the labyrinth I decided to leave my bag there and removed the heavy work shirt, leaving myself in a more weather appropriate tank top. I walked on and felt much better. Unencumbered and cool I was able to appreciate my surroundings much more. While I admit that the rest of the walk had very little focused thought to it, I was enjoying the experience on a different level. I returned to reclaim my belongings and left the labyrinth to contemplate the experience. I came to realize that the point where I shucked my things to continue the walk was a representation of my idealistic perception that when I finish school and get a real job, things will be so much better. Logically, I know that there will undoubtedly be new burdens on the way but it is still a symbol of reaching a goal and leaving behind the trappings of the process needed to get there.

On the whole I found the experience amusing. I wouldn't say that I was skeptical of the experience but I certainly didn't expect to find such a concrete relationship between the symbol and the reality. Even after this experience I don't know that I wouldn't have preferred the maze. I have always pictured life as something that does have dead ends and choices to make. The very fact that I am still trying to get a degree after eleven years in and out of school proves that I have gone down more than one dead end and had to back-track to find the correct path. While the idea that the labyrinths path of life shows you that you are always where you are supposed to be, it is not mutually exclusive with the idea that you can sometimes get lost.

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