The labyrinth at Grace Cathedral has been one of the most important portals for both creative insight and healing in my life. It seems strange that a single path winding about 11 concentric circles could be so powerful. Now, having walked them off and on for 7 years, their mysterious intelligence has left an indelible mark on my life, and one that has enriched it immeasurably. Here’s what I’ve discovered:
Labyrinths are ancient archetypes. Their precise origins are unknown. But they can be found in various forms in cultures throughout the world. The 11-circuit labyrinth evolved in Europe during the Middle Ages as a substitute for the dangerous pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The labyrinth gets its name from its layout of 11 concentric circles around a center with six flower-like petals. Differing from a maze, labyrinths contain no dead ends, false starts, or misdirections. The only choice is whether or not to enter. A single prescribed path winds its way through the entirety of the concentric circles, making 28 180° turns on the way to the center, thus aligning one with the 28 days of the lunar cycle. Once in the center, one lingers for a spell, possibly gaining some insight, then follows the same path out to the initial starting place.
The labyrinth at Grace Cathedral has helped me make the most important decisions of my life, ones that irrefutably have converted me into the highly engaged, purposeful husband, father, and thought leader I am today. There was at time back in 2009 and 2010 that I was walking the path so often that I had the form itself etched into my mind. One time, during that period, I found myself north of Monterey at a beach side resort feeling hurt and confused. Under a full moon, I went out to the beach and built a labyrinth by shuffling my feet in the wet, low tide sand. I asked the question, “How best to take care of myself.” Once in the center, the labyrinth replied, “Love thyself.” Just as I exited, the rising tide started to wash the form away.
Here is section from The Shoreline of Wonder: On Being Creative where I walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral to help me with one of the most important decisions of my life, and, unexpectedly, had my most powerful creative insight of my life in the form of a genuine mystical experience. Enjoy!
When I arrived at the edge of the labyrinth, I formulated my question, which, looking back on it now seems a bit strange. Instead of asking, “Should we have the child?” I asked, “What to do about our relationship?”
With my first step, I felt the world shift. As I wound my way around the concentric circles, the first things to come to mind were those I had loved and lost. I thought of my grandmother, Elizabeth Binyon Smith—Mammaw as she was known to her grandkids—who I’d been very close to and lost in 2004. I thought of Matt Baxter and his death at the age of 26. I thought of my stillborn nephew, Ely Clarkson Shaw—a perfect child with the unmistakable face of my younger brother.
As I continued, winding my way along the outer peripheries of the labyrinth, my mind settled on a more universal mantra, the first of the four famed Buddhist reminders, precious human birth:
Contemplate the preciousness of being born free and well favored. This is difficult to gain and easy to lose. Now I must do something meaningful.
As I snaked along the sensuous curves of the labyrinth, the words fell away. I simply felt at peace.
The final stretch of the labyrinth has one walk along the outermost circle before walking the final straightaway to the center. It’s like a moment of respite in the deep space of the outermost ring, a pregnant pause before completing the final turn and entering the center. Several feet before I actually entered the center, I was struck, so it seemed, by rainbow lightning, and a single word was set in my consciousness:MARRIAGE.
For much of my adult life I had cultivated and coveted mystical experience, those moments where the world seems to turn itself inside out, revealing its true essence beyond the buzzing static of discursive thinking. And during my times as a rock climber, a surfer, and a meditator, I’d had many such experiences, the dawning of insight cracking my mind.
But not one of those experiences was anything like this.
As I stood in the center, with my eyes closed and my arms by my side, I felt a current of energy running through my body, as though I were a lightning rod connecting heaven and earth. Sweat poured from my skin and water shot from my eyes. The sweat was neither hot nor cold and the tears were neither sadness nor joy. It was pure experience, sensation and emotion, the creative life-force energy coursing through me. In my mind’s eye, that energy moved up and down the conduit of my body, swirling as two rainbow vortexes in the space behind my eyes.
As I stood there longer, I felt exhilaration and terror precipitating out of the pure, life-force energy, dancing with equal abandon with my limitless potential as a human being and my lifelong habits and defense structures. I sat cross-legged and surrendered to the feeling: the absolute, ineffable truth leading me in an irrefutable direction. I sat there in awe, savoring the universe’s willingness to deliver a message to me with such clarity.
After some time I stood up and decided to envision the child entering the world. I took a moment to stand in each of the six florets surrounding the center, letting the florets represent the sheaths of existence. Stepping from one to the next, I imagined the child as an absolute presence, then a spirit, then a soul, then a mind, then a personality, and, finally, as a physical being entering this world. Before walking out, I let out a lion’s roar, a primal scream of determination to welcome and protect this child. On the last stretch of the path, a stiff wind threatened to blow me over. But I righted my balance, exited, and looked up, the clear spring sky and the luminous flags snapping in the distance atop the Fairmont and Mark Adam hotels. I went to the gift shop below the cathedral, bought two labyrinth pendants, then drove back to the East Bay and home, where I walked Chispa Morena down to the Rose Garden and asked for her hand in marriage.
If you’ve had any experiences with labyrinths, or any ancient form that has granted you some sort of insight, let us know in the comment section below.