“If we wish to outline an architecture which conforms to the structure of our soul […], it would have to be conceived in the image of the Labyrinth.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Dawn (1881)
I never encountered a real labyrinth until I was in college. I had read about famous ones and I found them alluring. I read about the Minotaur of Crete in one, and ones in the great cathedrals of Medieval France, and inside and outside stately homes and spiritual centers of Europe.
What could Herodotus have thought to stand before the Great Labyrinth of Egypt with its 3,000 rooms?
There are labyrinths that are made of rooms and columns, ones like caverns, mazes built to protect tombs and treasures. You can find labyrinthine patterns used to design gardens and used on coins and as decoration. They are given to children as puzzles or brainteasers.
My interest now is more with very simple labyrinths. Though some of these mazes have religious purposes, using one is probably more often spiritual or meditative.
I have written about walking a labyrinth before and mentioned them in other contexts.
Rather than trying to find the treasure or feeling trapped, in the ones that I have walked I didn’t where the path would take me, though I could see the center. I don’t try to guess or figure out the turns ahead. If I follow the path, there is one way in and one way out.
Once, I saw someone walking with me who was so frustrated at being “lost” and not finding the right path that she just walked right across the 2D maze to the outside. I felt bad for her.
I prefer to walk alone, but when you meet others along the path, you usually step aside to let them pass. Sometimes others are more in a hurry and will pass me. I don’t like to pass others.
When I reach the center, sometimes I stop. There is nothing special there. No message or revelation. You haven’t reached the end. You still need to find your way out, which is also the way in.
A new maze is interesting because you don’t know the path. I have never walked one so many times that I have it memorized. I wonder how that would change the experience?
If you were to ask me what I get from walking the labyrinth, I’m not I could give you a satisfactory explanation.
Psychologist and philosopher William James described four characteristics of mystical experience in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. I would describe walking the labyrinth in his terms as being transient – the experience is temporary and the individual soon returns to a “normal” frame of mind. The experience feels outside the normal perception of space and time. The experience is also ineffable in that it cannot be adequately put into words.
The ineffable makes the third characteristic impossible for me to describe, That is, it is noetic. You feel that you have learned something valuable from the experience – knowledge that is normally hidden from human understanding.
In the best experiences, this is passive. It happens to the individual, largely without conscious control. That makes walking the labyrinth or meditating or taking a drug the wrong approach. It is not something that can be turned on and off at will.
I wish to walk a labyrinth some day that is not there and that I did not enter and will not have to leave.