Walking the Labyrinth That Isn’t There

“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)

Grace Cathedral interior with labyrinth
Grace Cathedral (San Francisco) interior with labyrinth similar to the one in Chartres Cathedral
I found a mention online of William H. Matthews’ Mazes and Labyrinths. It was published in London in 1922 and is still available.

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.

A Haiku May Be a Koan But

The crow yells at me
while I napped by the creek
the muddy water cleared

water bloom

If some of the koans that I have posted here baffle you, perhaps you can step into them gently by thinking of haiku as a kind of koan. I believe that a haiku can be a koan, but not all koans are haiku.

They both often ask us to consider a situation that is not obvious. Though sometimes haiku present a situation that seems so obvious that you wonder if you are not missing “the point.”

There are even “American koans” – a term that probably emerged from the distinction of American Buddhism and American Zen – terms that some may view as derogatory.

balanced stones

The most famous haiku from Japan are probably those attributed to Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa.

One well known Basho haiku from 1686 translated to English says:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.

So simple. This moment of action and sound of the water that captures the poet’s mind.

But, why is it an “old” pond? He might have used the sound of the frog itself singing, but instead the water “reacts” to the frog as we react to the sound.

Unfortunately, most Westerners don’t study haiku very much. I am no expert, but whenever I read more about them, their meanings become clearer. I have written here about

Here is a Buson haiku that I read recently which hasn’t been translated into the familiar Western 5,7,5 syllable format we are used to seeing.

An elephant’s eyes smile-
Mountain cherry blossoms.

I read those lines and then I read further that elephants didn’t arrive even come into Japan until after the medieval era. But they were known as sacred and mythical animals from stories of them in India and China. There were places named for them (such as Elephant’s Head Mountain) and it turns out that Buson visited there and wrote the haiku inspired by the place and the elephant eye shape of that mountain shrine.

Basho was Zen-trained, and ordained as a priest, but did not seem to actually practice as a priest. But Issa lived for several years in monasteries. His taken name “Issa” means “one tea” as in a bubble in a cup of tea and suggests the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and change.

In checking online about him, I found that he seems to have also used the name Haikaiji Issa. Haikaiji means “haiku temple.” He was paralyzed by a stroke at age 58. After he recovered, he changed his name to Soseibo, meaning “revived priest.”

Here’s a poem by him that is often noted as a Zen haiku:

From the white dewdrops,
Learn the way
To the pure land.

His lesson, seen in the drops of dew, is that as they form during the night, gather in the morning and then fall into a pond or the soil and become part of it.

Simple oneness.

“Pure Land” is a reference to Pure Land Buddhism, described as a place of beauty that surpasses all other realms. More importantly for the Pure Land practitioner, once one has been “born” into this land, one will never again be reborn. In the Pure Land, one will be personally instructed by Amitābha Buddha and numerous bodhisattvas until one reaches full and complete enlightenment. Being born into the Pure Land is akin to escaping samsāra. Sansāra (or samsāra) literally means “continuous flow” and is the cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth or reincarnation that is part of Buddhism, Hinduism, Bön, Jainism, Sikhism, and other Indian religions.

temple tower

Are haiku koans? Some may be. They certainly ask us most of the time to think more deeply about something in a focused manner. Many haiku can teach something, though I don’t believe that is always their purpose. Still, the continued study of haiku can be a practice of refining your vision, both literally and figuratively.

Feeding Kittens to Boa Constrictors

Yes, my title is shocking. It’s an attention-getter, but I didn’t use it as clickbait and I didn’t make it up. It was the working title for a book by psychology professor Hal Herzog. His publisher wasn’t a fan of that title and it was published as Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals

Herzog’s work examines the contradictions in our relationships with animals. He wanted to answer questions such as “Does living with animals really make us healthier?” and “Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets?”

On that first question, research shows that pets make people happier and healthier. There is also research that shows that pets, by way of caring for them and losing them, make people unhappy and unhealthy.

There is also research that posits that it is happier and healthier people who are more likely to have pets.

Pets also limit us with their needs, cost us money and cause much grief when they die. Americans spend $80 billion a year on their pets.

Cats that are allowed outside contribute to the deaths of 1-5 billion birds per year (estimates vary widely). So then is it better to trap cats indoors for their entire lives? Is it right to trap any animal in a cage, tank or wandering a mostly empty house or apartment?

Herzog’s work is in the field of anthrozoology. I don’t think I knew that word before I read the book. It is the study of interactions between humans and other animals. I knew anthropomorphic, which is the way we attach human characteristics to animals. This is not just the way a monkey or ape appears human, but how we attach human qualities to our pet dogs and cats.

The book is a nice combination of personal anecdotes and scientific research. Of course, this line of inquiry also has to consider moral and ethical positions we have, often paradoxical, about our relationship with animals.

For example, vegans buy animal flesh for their cats to eat.

Herzog had boa constrictors in his lab and they needed to be fed. Typically, they would buy live mice for them to eat. But he realized that there were kittens being euthanized at a local shelter that he could get for the boa constrictors. Feeding dead kittens to the snakes seemed more moral than killing mice. Right?

We generally don’t think of mice in the same way that we think of kittens. To further muddy the moral waters, Herzog’s daughter had a pet mouse. When it died, they made the shoebox coffin and the backyard burial with the typical ceremony. Later, he caught a mouse that had been trying to break into their kitchen in a trap. It was disposed of unceremoniously in the trash.  Why the differences?

That vegan with the cat will need to buy about 50 pounds of meat a year. Why not own a snake that requires about 5 pounds of meat per year? Cat versus snake. Not much of a contest.

He tells the story of someone who decides that keeping a bird caged is wrong. So, he frees the bird. And then he realizes that the bird will very likely die out in the wild.

It is no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund chose the Chinese Giant Panda as its symbol instead of the Chinese Giant Salamander.

Another story to consider is on a trip to Africa when he asks a native a few questions about dogs. “Would you allow a dog in your home?” The native is shocked. “Never!”  Would he allow it to eat food from the family table, or sleep in his bed? Would he give it hugs and let it kiss him? Looks of shock and disgust. Cultural differences.  Some we love. Some we hate. Some we eat.

For an easy entry into this difficult topic and more on Herzog’s research and book, listen to Our Animal Instincts, an episode of Hidden Brain from NPR.

You might also like to read Hal Herzog’s blog for Psychology Today.  He addresses other animal-human issues like Should Self-Driving Cars Spare People Over Pets? and Why Do Kids Become Less Attached To Pets As They Get Older?


A friend asked me where I find inspiration for all these blogs that I write on.  That question has many answers. For posts on my blog about threatened and endangered animals and other things, I’m reading environmental and nature books, magazines and websites. For this site, inspiration comes from all directions – poetry, novels, non-fiction, TV, radio podcasts, the news, movies, art, music, and other bloggers.

How can you not find inspiration in looking up at the blue sky or the night sky of stars and be inspired to consider the vastness of the universe or the small role we play in it and the big role we play on Earth?

But the answer my friend was expecting was more like “the shower.”  I know what he means. This post was inspired by his comment which I was thinking about while taking a shower.  I find that I get a lot of ideas and inspiration for my writing and also for things I need or want to do. What is it about taking a shower that inspires?

Once inspired to write, I either have to do more thinking and often I need to do research. As a student, I never liked research papers. As a teacher, I saw that my students usually had the wrong ideas about research. I always asked them to think about the kinds of research they did before making a major purchase (appliances, car, home) or even the research you might do before picking a movie to see.

Let’s take that simple movie decision as an example. You might read reviews, watch a trailer, or ask friends for their opinions.  If you ask others for their opinions on a current film – let’s say it’s Toy Story 4 – you will likely get positive and negative responses. I looked at the reviews for the film currently on RottenTomatoes.com. They are overwhelmingly positive. But what if a few of your friends gave it a negative review? Who holds more weight with you – friends or “professional” critics? What if one friend says it is lousy but hasn’t seen it? Another friend did see it and hated it. He also hated all the earlier Toy Story films. One critic loves the first three films and thinks that number 4 is even better because it has more for adults to love. All these reviews are research and you need to be pretty discriminating in sifting through those reviews. Are you inspired to see the film?

Back to that original friend’s question about inspiration. Besides that watery shower inspiration, I find inspiration when I walk, when I am out in nature, when I am alone, when I am driving, and more so in the night hours than in the morning ones. I’m not alone in finding those activities as inspirational. I found posts online (like this one) that mention some of the same activities.  People suggest daily inspirations. I get the feeling people are sometimes looking for inspiration to live, to continue, to battle adversity. I’m not looking for that in the shower or on my walk in the woods. I am more in search of the spark. That trigger that sends me to the computer or my camera or my journal or my paintbox and easel.

Travel and big experiences can certainly be inspiring, but you can’t do that every day.  On a daily basis, I look for those smaller sparks:  How the movement of the planet and stars can remind me that I too am flying through the universe; how my samples of blue watercolors will inspire me to write about a sad friend.

Effects That May Affect You

brainI don’t know why lately I have been coming across a lot of articles about some, mostly psychological, effect on us and our behavior. It must be the places I’m reading online.

Last week, I wrote about the “Barnum effect,” and another article about how being presented with facts doesn’t change our beliefs.

This week I read about the illusory truth effect which says that the amount of times you hear something (frequency) will influence your likelihood to believe it as true.

Experiments are done where subjects are told a series of true and false statements. They are reminded of some of those statements multiple times over a two-week period. At the end, it is found that the statements they were reminded of the most are the ones the subjects are most likely to remember, and they are more likely to mark the statements they were familiar with as true and the ones they were unfamiliar with as false. What does this say about the news we hear over and over? True or false, the frequency of that news not only makes you remember things, but it tends to make you believe those things. “If you say it (or hear it) enough times, you start to believe it.” This can explain why many self-help programs include a kind of mantra of positive messages.

I’m getting older and I’m very, very aware of when my memory seems to be failing me. (At least, my memory of what my memory once was!)  Why do I remember some things and other things are quickly forgotten?  It could be due to the primacy effect.

I read about that effect this past week too, although I used to teach this idea is my writing courses. If a reader is given an essay or article that is five pages long, what parts is she most likely to remember – the beginning, middle or end? That would be important to know as a writer. Where do you put the most important information – and where do you bury the weakest?

The primacy effect (remembering the beginning facts) and recency effect (remembering the last facts) just seems to be the way our brain works. The primacy effect holds that beginning information is more likely to be stored in the long-term memory.

An easy test is trying to memorize a long list, like a shopping list. Chances are excellent that you will remember the first few items (primacy). You will have a good chance of remembering some of the last items (recency). But the items in the middle of the list will likely be lost.

When it comes to studying for an exam, information first read and studied will be stored faster and better remembered.

Knowing about the primacy effect should help you remember things. That’s a good thing, right? Probably, but not necessarily.

It can be a bad thing when it comes to first impressions. If you meet someone, or got to a place or try something for the first time and the first impression is negative, that will stay with you.  I just had someone tell me this past week that the first time in their life they ever ate shrimp they got violently ill. “I’ve never eaten shrimp again,” he said.

What kind of first impressions have you made on others? The primacy effect works both ways and explains why first impressions have lasting impact. The effect is also tied into our emotions. The term “emotional distortion” is used to
describe how a first emotion (happiness or anger) can have primacy and distort those emotions that follow.

In the film business, they say “You’re only as good as your last movie.” That seems to be the recency effect.

Your Best Day, Worst Day and Finding That One Thing

I watched the movie City Slickers again recently. It’s a movie I watched multiple times with my sons when they were much younger. It’s a comedy with lots of jokes, gags and sight comedy. But it also has some really serious moments and, for a comedy, it has its share of lessons. Some of the dialogue has become part of the Ronkowitz family vernacular.

One scene (below) that really gets me is when the three city slickers talk about the best and worst days in their lives.

I can identify with Mitch’s (Billy Crystal) best and worst memories. I have had both experiences.  I’m glad that Phil’s (Daniel Stern) worst story is one I haven’t lived. But is the two stories by Ed (Bruno Kirby) that really get me. His are also things I didn’t have to live through. That one day is both his best and worst day of his life.

I have written here about the “secret of life” before. People do search for it. Most people never find it. Some people say it doesn’t exist. I have heard people say that the secret of life is realizing that there is no secret.  James Taylor sings about “The Secret of Life” and says it is simply “enjoying the passage of time.” To do that, I suppose you do have stop pursuing the secret in your life.

I believe in the secret as explained by Mitch and Curly (Jack Palance)  in the film. This clip of that scene below is again set up with some laughs, and then comes the moment. Curly does tell us the secret, so pay attention.

Have you found that one thing? Let the rest of know with a comment.

I still plan to do that City Slickers cattle drive with my sons one day.  But I don’t need to go find my smile.  I found it. And I already know that one thing.  I hope the same is true for you.