Week 51: Walking A Labyrinth
Like a dog chasing its own tail, running in circles is often associated with pointlessness, or with a waste of time. But walking in circles is not the same. Wisdom comes from walking in circles.
In pursuit of such circles, Saje, whom I’ve just met, leads myself and a man named Aaron up a slope in the moonlight of the winter solstice. We are in Topanga Canyon, a slopey area of Los Angeles tucked behind Malibu. While Malibu is well-known, the canyon that cuts through the mountain right behind it is a well-kept secret. Well, kind of.
There are artisan stores and bohemian shops that dot the single major road wandering through the mountain. But there are treasures more precious still, tucked away at the ends of roads and on the tops of hills. Unlike the rest of LA, Topanga Canyon is spacious — one senses that she might have room to breath on the rocky hilltops and open fields that charm the winding canyon.
Although we will never know with certainty, perhaps the greatest treasure — and greatest mystery — of Topanga Canyon is a labyrinth. Situated at the top of a hill, the labyrinth is the emblem of a flat landing that overlooks the sweeping Pacific Ocean.
It is December 21st.
Saje, who might be in her fifties, sees today, the winter solstice, as the sun’s birthday. Although, if asked, I might answer that the anniversary of the sun is eleven days later, on the first day of the new year, her understanding makes sense. From the Earth’s perspective, the sun, until now, has every day been spending less and less time gracing our little globe. But from today onwards, the star, reborn to us, will share its rays more generously.
There’s also a full moon guiding our way up the hill. Although the two celestial events usually coincide every 20 years, Saje tells me the next time the height of the moon cycle will meet the sun’s nadir will be in 2094. I feel fortunate to have signed up for her monthly full moon labyrinth walk tonight, instead of any other month.
LA is full of woo-woo spiritual people, and there are solstice parties across the entire city tonight. While I’d love to honor the moon and everything, I’m not one to dive into chakra discussions or compare crystals with my friends Star and Meadow.
Saje’s name isn’t too far off that mark, but it wasn’t her name that I first encountered when I learned of this experience. A few days ago, I read a description of the event online. Saje, who wrote that description, started off by saying:
“I've lived in the Santa Monica Mountains for thirty years. Much of my inspiration comes from walking the trails and listening. Connecting with the Earth and the elements in a meaningful way is profound. Relating with nature can help you connect more deeply to your heart, your truth, and yourself…the beginning of all real connection.”
If you’re a regular reader, you know I have been crushing hard on the earth as of late. This year, I’ve had a strong intention to ground myself, settle within my body, and deepen my connection with the land. Relating to the earth has helped me develop my capacity to, even under stress, ground within myself. This deepening within my body has returned so much: most of all, the beginning of accepting this earthly existence I’m in.
In her description of the experience, Saje went on to say that she has some Native American in her blood and a whole lot of love for the land. A woman after my own heart. I signed up.
Although she’s been taking people to the labyrinth for years, this is only the second ‘official’ guided walk she has offered. The first was last month. Perhaps because it’s new, there’s not many of us here tonight — besides Aaron, it’s just myself.
She might wish for more people — and I hope they do come in future months — but for introverted me, this is quite nice.
I tell her that I was drawn to this walk because of what she wrote about the land. She offers more, saying that she tried to find a link between her connection to the earth and a certain culture or spiritual path. But she couldn’t, and now she thinks it’s just a part of who she is. To accentuate it, though, she has studied certain practices, like plant medicine and Native American shamanism.
We keep walking, and the conversation turns to labyrinths. This past March, during a lunch break from a course I was taking in Ojai, I had an incredible experience while walking a labyrinth in a local field. Although I’ve been through plenty of mazes, that was the first time I had ever walked a labyrinth. Since then, I’ve had a desire to soak in as much learning as I can about them.
Labyrinths are among the oldest and most sacred designs in the world. Unlike mazes, which are meant to confuse one with forks and dead ends, they have only one path forward. In fact, their objective is just the opposite of that of a maze — they are meant to guide one within, away from the confusion of the world.
Best practised as a walking meditation instead of a fun thing to do, they represent the art of centering. And how fortunate, because this time of the year — the darkest time — represents going within.
While anyone can design a valid labyrinth, there are two blueprints that can be traced back for centuries. No one knows of their origin, and they both incorporate sacred geometry. The 11-circuit one can most famously be found in the Chartres Cathedral of medieval France, while the 7-circuit labyrinth can be traced back to ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.
Long before I developed an interest in them, my mom’s brother had a dream that he should build a labyrinth on his Utah land. So, in a happy bout of synchronicity, he has prepared the groundwork for two labyrinths —one an 11-circuit, the other a 7-circuit — that he will build in 2019. The infinity sign — one loop big, one small — where they will rest is already visible in the ground.
The three of us walk and walk. So far, it’s been about 15 minutes of uphill hiking on this dirt path. Saje turns the conversation to the specific labyrinth that we approach. She asks me to think of an intention, or a question to ask the labyrinth, as I am guided along its path. It always has answers, she assures.
I don’t have a particular question, though. I guess I just want general life clarity. Not much to ask for…right?
This labyrinth is so responsive, Saje says, that one day, it disappeared. She had taken her friend to the top of this mountain. This particular friend had traveled far to be able to pay it a visit.
When they reached the labyrinth’s landing, Saje was astonished to find it missing. It had never vanished in the three decades she had been living in Topanga Canyon. Her friend was very upset, and Saje was very confused.
When they reached the car again, they sat for a while, thinking about what had just happened. Saje’s friend revealed that she had had a very clear, specific question to ask the labyrinth. She wanted to know about an estranged relative. Should she reach out to this individual? She wanted to.
But every time she had asked the question, something always happened that indicated a clear no. Now, the labyrinth had just disappeared. There was no labyrinth to even ask.
And a few days later, when Saje returned again, the labyrinth was there.
By the time Saje finishes this story, we have reached the labyrinth’s realm. We have cleared the landing. We walk thirty meters in its direction, and I am relieved to find that it’s here, lit with moonlight. It has a simple design: a spiral inward, like the shell of a hermit crab.
I look towards the center. It’s right there, fifteen feet away. But because of this circular journey I must take to reach it, it feels so far away. Who knows, I might be a different person by the time I get there.
This is interesting. I run three miles around the Rose Bowl stadium several times a week, but I never feel like I’ll be a changed person upon finishing. I feel like I’ll be an exercised person. But even looking at this labyrinth invokes some kind of enchanting, mysterious power — one that symbolises a journey.
Before we commence our individual walks to the center, Saje has to do some things that, she says, will prepare a sacred space. Using a Native American prayer, she will call for the presence of the four winds, as well as for the blessings of Mother Earth and Father Sky.
What she does next amazes me. Facing east (I only know my directions while at the ocean), she calls out in a hauntingly beautiful melody. Then, she says a few words in English. The winds of the east, represented by a condor, can “teach us to fly wing to wing with the Great Spirit."
The south is next. After her song-like call — a different one this time — she asks the winds of this direction, a serpent, to teach us to shed the past. And, “just like you have your belly on the ground, let us feel our feet reconnect to the earth.”
To the west, the direction of the unknown, she voices a soft chant, asking the mother jaguar that embodies these winds to help us be fearless, courageous, and true. “Teach us how to trust our instincts, our inner knowing.”
And the last direction. The northern wind, wind of the ancestors, is represented by a hummingbird. “Hummingbird, you who memorizes thousands and thousands of flowers, but only go to the ones that truly nourish you, please illuminate where our nectar is, and give us the discipline to go there more often, less tempted by false images. Hummingbird, you who travel from Canada to Brazil every year, this tiny bird on this big epic journey, let us find strength for our own epic journey.”
After she has also called for Mother Earth and Father Sky, Saje turns to Aaron and I. She has two more instructions for us. First, we are to choose a stone on the ground outside of the labyrinth. When we reach the center of the labyrinth and receive whatever gift it offers us, we are to blow with our breath into the stone.
This does something like seal it in, making us and our gift a part of the stone. On the outward journey, we are to find a place along the labyrinth borders to lay our stone. Saje tells us that the place will be obvious to us. I am not sure about that, but in any case, there will be somewhere to put it.
Second, when we start and end our journey at the mouth of labyrinth, we are to put our head to the earth. Or touch it in a respectful way. This is a way of recognising the earth’s wisdom and offering gratitude for this journey.
Right before we embark, Saje says she feels compelled to tell me to make my intention about myself, and not center it upon anyone else. This year has taught me that well, so I nod. She then asks if either of us feel called to go first. Aaron doesn’t, and I don’t feel like not going first, so I go first.
I still don’t have a clear intention. I will just ask for the labyrinth for guidance. And for it to reveal anything it wants to reveal.
At the mouth of the labyrinth, facing the ocean, I begin, bowing to the earth in a child’s pose.
Aside from following its path, there is no ‘correct’ way to walk a labyrinth. I start very slowly, only to move slower still as I spiral more and more inward.
As I walk, instead of feeling peaceful and united, I worry that I won’t receive a gift from the labyrinth, or that I will think one up. I have a way of thinking things up. Will the labyrinth really give me a gift? Maybe, in wanting it to, my mind will conjure something up and I’ll convince myself that it is the labyrinth speaking to me.
As I inch forward, I start to feel like I’m walking home. My mind couldn’t summon that feeling up if it tried. I’m walking somewhere that I want to be. That’s kind of new. And in walking home, I want to trust where my feet are taking me. So about halfway through, I start closing my eyes.
When I gently bump into a rock along one side of the path — which is often — I try to resist the temptation to open my eyes. But every ten steps or so, I sneak a look in, not yet trusting myself and the earth enough to go the right way.
Because I’m opening my eyes quite a bit, I know when I’m in the innermost circuit — the one that opens to the center. My steps slow even more. Wow, this is it, I think. I feel that I am approaching a sacred being. An inner self. I feel very, very far away from the rest of the world.
I step into the center. The still point. This cocoon feels like the inner sanctum of a church, the altar of a temple. Just as, from the outside, I felt the center was far away from me, I now feel like the rest of the world is a distant place.
Saje has placed a pot of water in the center, along with a ladle that lays alongside it. The water represents all the sorrows from the past year that we have been bearing within. When we are ready, we are to take a full ladle of water and offer it to earth.
We are too small to handle these burdens we try to carry, but the earth can take it all. Mother Earth can receive and compost all our emotions, just as she can reuse vacant bodies.
I’m not ready for that just yet (the ladling, although I am not quite ready to vacate my body either) so I sit in stillness. Here, I feel so complete in myself. That elusive feeling! There is no material object, nothing I can seek that I don’t already have inside myself, to make me feel complete. Right now, it’s just me and the earth and the sky and the ocean. And a fire inside of me.
As I reflect within the center, I realise I’m in a version of a womb. I’m in a womb! I really feel that I’ve reached a very internal place of the earth — a very intimate place — and I’m gestating within it.
Maybe because I’ve been immersed in a course on healing birth traumas and dynamics, this understanding has found a way to me, but it’s so real that I don’t care if or why there’s a logical explanation for its arrival. I was afraid that I would think something up. Now this has come to me, but even if I invented it, it’s so powerful that I wouldn’t care.
Our births into the world are integral to how we function. People say that early childhood molds a person, but it is one’s gestation and birth that is most impressionistic. Because it is then that we are most impressionable, most open.
It’s so influential that, in life, we will get ourselves into positions that reveal our birth dynamic. For example, if I were a C-section baby (which I am), I might have a problem with endings — I might wait for someone else to always complete things for me. A doctor completed my birth, after all.
Or I might feel rushed at the end of things. Or I might feel like I am ‘too much’ — especially if I were delivered via C-section because my mother was told her hips were too small. (Which wasn’t why in my case, but it’s plenty common.)
So our births are important to how we function in this world, and I am receiving a new way to be born from Mother Earth.
This is my gift, my answer. It is not an answer to a specific question, not an illumination. It is a birth experience, one offered by the land.
I am surprised that I received it at all — I always think profound things happen to other people. When something ‘special’ is supposed to happen in a meditation or elsewhere, I often feel like I’m the odd one out, the only one having a quite ordinary experience. But here is a different experience.
I’m becoming, in this center. I don’t want to be in a rush. I already went through a rushed birth once.
Aaron has been standing in the innermost spiral that leads to the center circle for a few minutes. I’m not sure if he is letting me have my time in the center, waiting for me to leave, or in his own meditation. In the past, seeing him there, I might have left. But I know that it’s important for me to take my time and come out of my own accord.
It is only in making different choices that we can break cycles, after all.
So I take my time before moving into the birth canal of the labyrinth, which will deliver me to the rest of the world.
It makes sense, this gift. I’ve been so busy trying to carry Atlas on my shoulders, so busy trying to be an adult, so busy being big, that I’ve forgotten how to feel small and vulnerable. To feel the ground beneath me, the abundance supporting me, to feel that I am not alone, that I have a place to rest — this is a matchless gift.
Finally, I’m ready to pick up the ladle. Since I am the first in the center, the first scoop of water is mine. I plunge the empty ladle in, and let it emerge, heavy, from the water.
Before pouring it out, I let myself feel the weight in my right hand. It’s so heavy, I can hardly hold it in one hand. I might as well be trying to carry the ocean next to me.
I see this full cup of water, the visual representation of my burdens. I want to relish the falling of the water, the letting go. I don’t want this to be a weird experience on a hill, I want to internalize it and integrate it within my being so that, back in the maze of the world, I can remember what releasing feels like.
Tipping the spoon ever so slightly, I feel like a child crying in the arms of its mother. I don’t remember when I last felt little. Even though so many people support me in so, so many ways, I struggle with allowing myself to feel emotional support from others.
I hear the water falling into the center, nourishing the earth. I feel my hand lightening until only the weight of an empty ladle is within it. I place the ladle back down, face down, so that even the smallest of trickles can fall back to the ground. No more water in this ladle.
Aaron finally also enters the circle. He sits beside me. I still don’t feel rushed to move. Actually, it’s nice, sitting in a circle with someone this way. We are far, far away from conversation or even external acknowledgement. It’s wonderful to simply sit with someone, sharing mutual commitment to our own inner paths.
When I later look up labyrinths and what they can represent, I find: “Passing to the center of the labyrinth and returning to its circumference represents the involution and evolution of the universe, the coming into birth and the passing out of earthly life of an individual, and — most important — a journey into the center of our own being, the achievement there of a quest for wholeness, and the subsequent return to our divine source.”
My journey in the labyrinth was a conception, a gestation, and a birth — different than a birth, a life, and a death — but nonetheless, I find it validating to see that labyrinths have historically represented births.
After a few minutes, I am ready to leave the center. I blow into my stone the fire of what I have received. My gift — I can’t put words to it at the moment — is this fullness of being held, of being given choice.
I place my stone in the centermost circuit, part of the inner womb. Now it will live along this path, guiding others to their own centers.
The walk out is simple. It comes naturally. A ‘natural’ birth — also known as a vaginal birth — is not easy, but it is the mutual, dynamic process of mother and baby working to make it happen. Now, even though this is easy, I do feel the symbiotic relationship between myself and the earth. At the very last turn, I stop. I am about to leave the interior of labyrinth. Looking inward, I thank the center for being a sacred space I so needed.
When I exit, after I bow my head to the earth again, I do something unexpected. Instead of getting up, I start turning over onto my left side in the fetal position, and then I hesitate. I am not one to lie in dirt. Is this totally weird?
I do it anyways. We all have our human mothers, whether they are present in our lives or not. They cannot be substituted for, but they may not be able to always provide us with what we need. In those times — in all times — the earth will always be there.
I feel like this is what it means to be a child of the earth.
This experience, during the culmination of the moon’s rise and at the culmination of the sun’s fall, is the culmination of my year-long practice in grounding.
John Muir famously said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” NASA reappropriated that quote on their 2018 Christmas ornament. It reads, “The stars are calling and we must go.”
It is right that Muir spoke his quote first. For it is only by looking downward, feeling our roots to the earth, that we can say a prayer to the sky and soar towards our destinies.
Wisdom does come from walking in circles.