A maze is different from a labyrinth—even though many people equate the two. In the former, the aim is to get lost and then eventually find your way to the center and back out. In the latter, you stand at the entrance, take a few deep breaths, and silently ask a question. Then you start walking.
A labyrinth is usually a spiral walking path that leads to a center and then returns to the starting point. It may be created from earth, stone, turf, or pavement and typically has many turns, but no dead ends. In the Western world, evidence points to their origins in ancient Greece, and during the Middle Ages, they were widely used by Christians for meditation and prayers.
Today, people use labyrinths for reflection, mindfulness, spiritual or religious enhancement or enlightenment, prayer, meditation, renewal, stress reduction—or just for fun.
How to use a labyrinth
Last summer, I spoke with Chris Harrell, an educator who was teaching a course about labyrinths. After learning more about them, and the existence of trained labyrinth facilitators (who help others learn about the experience), I jumped at the opportunity to walk through the “Relationship Labyrinth” near my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My facilitator, Barbara King, handed me a red key and spoke softly about the meditative calm of a well-made labyrinth, saying, “It might open doors for you.”
It certainly did. While I followed the path of another labyrinth in Santa Fe that summer, I understood the meaning of a dying friend’s last words to me. At the end of the walk, the guide, Julie Bastine, invited me to talk about my experience. I told her that having a facilitator was like doing a guided meditation as opposed to doing it on my own.
Now I use labyrinths for all types of decision-making. When I can’t figure out what to do about work or a relationship, I head for one of the more than two dozen labyrinths in Santa Fe. When I get lost in the busy freeway of my mind, I yank it back to the present and focus on the path. By the end of the walk, I have often found an answer to my question, despite initial distraction from random thoughts.
A labyrinth experience is different for everyone. A musician I know walks them for inspiration. An artist says he loves the sacred geometry of the patterns. A mother takes her kids for labyrinth walks and leaves gifts for them in the center on their birthdays.
One way to personalize your travels is to include one or more of the great labyrinth walks around the world. The experience is unique to each walker, and it may color and even change the nature of a trip.
Where to find labyrinths around the world
- Location: Chartres, France
- Visit: The Labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral
The world’s most famous labyrinth, located inside Chartres Cathedral in France, dates back to 1200 C.E. Its design of 11 concentric circles has been used in the construction of other labyrinths, and visitors often describe their visit to Chartres as a pilgrimage. Most of the week, the labyrinth is covered by chairs during church services, so check beforehand to see when it’s available for walkers.
- Location: San Francisco
- Visit: Grace Cathedral
At Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Episcopal priest and psychotherapist Lauren Artress introduced both an indoor and outdoor labyrinth; they are replicas of the Chartres labyrinth. She leads candlelight labyrinth evenings the second Friday of each month. While the indoor labyrinth is available during cathedral hours, you can walk the outdoor one anytime.
Artress, who wrote a book titled Walking the Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice, explains why people seek out the meditative tool: “They are seeking answers of the heart, not the head, and in the labyrinth one can listen deeply with self-compassion that the gentleness of the labyrinth walk fosters. The labyrinth nurtures seekers when they are in a life transition to take a step at a time with courage, curiosity, and the capacity to experiment.”
- Location: Gotland, Sweden
On Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, there are more than 40 labyrinths that date back more than 100 years. Travel to towns like Visby (a UNESCO World Heritage site that was a medieval trading town) and Fröjel, where you can find labyrinths that predate the medieval Chartres.
- Location: Kastellaun, Germany
- Visit: Lavendel Labyrinth
An aesthetically pleasing labyrinth—and one that’s well-loved on social media—is the Lavender Labyrinth in Kastellaun, Germany (west of Frankfurt). It’s most glorious during the short season when the lavender blooms from mid-June to July, covering the structure in vibrant purple. It consists of 1,200 lavender plants with an apple tree in the center.