Labyrinths: Spiritual Technology for Inner Healing
by Robert Ferré
Director, Labyrinth Enterprises
A Vision of the Future
Within the next decade or two, labyrinths will become standard and valued features of healing environments. Indeed, the process is well under way, with labyrinths at more than 60 healthcare facilities across the country, led in 1997 by California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco (photo).
The day will be soon be upon us in which no progressive architect will design a healthcare facility without including a meditation labyrinth. The day is not far off when patients, staff members, and doctors will insist that their existing facility install a labyrinth.
"Labyrinth" and "maze" are often used interchangeably, referring to everything from tall hedges to video games, from designs in corn fields to a popular David Bowie movie. Meditation labyrinths are a different genre, however, in that they have a single path (hence, "unicursal") which leads unerringly, though circuitously, to the center, with no intersections or dead ends.
In this monograph, "labyrinth" exclusively pertains to unicursal meditation labyrinths. The diagram to the right illustrates the unicursal Chartres Cathedral labyrinth design.
Experientially, there is a vast difference between a maze and a labyrinth. A maze confuses, distresses, excites, and terrifies, whereas a labyrinth calms, heals, comforts, and balances.
Since science deals exclusively with the visible, observable, and quantifiable, scientific medicine, in turn, takes a reductionist approach, seeking to alleviate symptoms by prescribing drugs or surgery.
Labyrinths effectively address that area ignored by the scientific paradigm, namely, inner healing. Only in recent years has the medical community turned its attention to health design, environment, and patient-centered care, recognizing that the subjective and amorphous qualities of inner healing, such as attitude, state of mind, and beliefs, have an enormous effect on the effectiveness of a patient's treatment and recovery. More and more, patients themselves are demanding that inner healing be given equal emphasis to outer healing.
The new more holistic direction of healthcare has been largely passive, dealing with the color of walls, the view from the windows, and the design of home-like architecture. All are meant to calm and to comfort. Labyrinths, too, calm and comfort. Labyrinths represent the next step forward, in that they are active, not passive. They offer something the patient can do. In fact, labyrinths are pro-active, promoting well-being not just for patients, but for staff, health providers, doctors, visitors, and even the local community.
Use in Hospitals
A recent article about the labyrinth at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in Oregon quotes CEO Mark Scott as stating that the labyrinth complements the use of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer treatment. In verification, a cancer patient agreed that walking the labyrinth gave her a sense of confidence and control over her treatment. Attitude towards one's treatment process (inner healing) has been shown to be a significant factor in the efficacy of that treatment (outer healing).
Three Rivers Community Hospital, also in Oregon, invites the local community
to use their labyrinth. Programs have included a women's cancer support
group, hospice butterfly release,
The labyrinth at California Pacific Medical Center is just outside the waiting room. Inside, there is a sign and brochures describing how to walk the labyrinth. Surgeons sometimes walk the labyrinth before performing an operation, to calm themselves. Nurses send anxious patients and family members to walk the labyrinth, reporting that they return more relaxed and focused.
Labyrinths can be used by both individuals and groups, either without guidance or as part of a specific program, such as dealing with AIDS, supporting the cancer journey, relieving grief or loss, or examining one's priorities.
Photo, right: Portable canvas labyrinth in use at St. Luke's Hospital, St. Louis, MO.
Metaphor for Life
Metaphorically, labyrinths reflect the path of illness and recovery. Despite the many uncertainties and changes of directions, if we are diligent and stay the course, we will arrive at our goal. This is one of the most common insights reported by labyrinth walkers.
There are numerous books which use a literary metaphor to compare the healthcare system to a maze, in which the patient gets lost and becomes fearful and isolated. In a maze we do indeed lose ourselves, but in a labyrinth, we find ourselves. Walking a labyrinth is a type of pilgrimage, which takes us within, not just to the center of the design, but to our own center. That's where inner healing takes place. The labyrinth leads where science cannot enter.
Inner healing has many levels and aspects. It differs from person to person. With inner healing, there can be no standard dose, no specific regimen. Inner healing defies and baffles scientific method, but it is effectively embraced by the labyrinth. For this reason, labyrinths meet people wherever they are emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, leading them gently forward to the next step, and then the following step, and then the step beyond that.
Historically, healthcare settings and treatment modalities have been designed and controlled by men. As a result, they were largely impersonal, left-brained, and masculine, reflecting social, economic, and scientific influences. The movement toward more personal, patient-centered care has been directed mostly by women. Labyrinth walking fits into this softer paradigm. Being intensely personal, right-brained, feminine, and spiritual, labyrinths make a unique contribution to holistic healthcare, broadening its reach.
One group in need of self care are the employees and staff at health clinics and hospitals, who are frequently under a lot of stress. Staff retention is a major emphasis, as good people are hard to replace in today's marketplace. Labyrinths can offer a tool to help staff members cope with their important responsibilities.
For 30 years, Herbert Benson at Harvard University has championed the physiological benefits of meditation, which he calls the "relaxation response." He clearly shows that meditation slows breathing, heart, and metabolic rates, and lowers elevated blood pressure more effectively than drugs. As a form of walking meditation, the labyrinth produces the same verifiable results.
Ultimately, however, one cannot use the measurements of outer healing to adequately measure or verify inner healing. I am certain that careful, double blind experiments will show that labyrinth walking results in shorter recovery times, better attitude and compliance to treatment requirements, and fewer complications. Nevertheless, the use of labyrinths should not depend on scientific verification..
The fact that science and labyrinths speak different languages is a great benefit, not a detriment. Working together they address the complete person, physically and spiritually. Labyrinths offer an accessible, cost-effective, pro-active spiritual technology that does what science cannot do. They overcome the inadequacies of the reductionist paradigm. Even in cases where outer healing fails, inner healing can still take place. Hence, hospices are beginning to discover the benefits of using labyrinths. Working in concert, medicine, design, environment, and labyrinths offer a whole that greatly exceeds the sum of its parts.
Photo, right: A labyrinth we installed for West Clinic, Memphis, TN.
One View of Healing
In physical healing, we can see the bone mend, or the drugs interact with the body, but observation is not explanation. Often we give our observed phenomenon a name. When we see cells reproducing out of proportion, we label that behavior "cancer." To then say that the phenomenon happens because the patient has cancer, is to give cause to what is really an observation of the effect. The cause is metaphysical, beyond the physical, beyond explanation and understanding. The best that medicine, science, and even design and environment can do is to organize the external elements that have shown to be effective and then hope that healing follows. Statistics demonstrate that often healing does result, but sometimes, in identical situations, it doesn't.
Healing is not mechanical, it is spiritual. Just as scientific medicine organizes the physical elements, so does the labyrinth organize the experiential and spiritual elements that facilitate inner healing. From walking the labyrinth can come joy, hope, calm, balance. To the extent that the external malady reflects an internal, spiritual malaise, the labyrinth also offers outer healing. Labyrinths represent a methodology available to healthcare facilities to address critical non-physical circumstances. How? Being ancient and archetypal, labyrinths touch us at a very deep level. They take us far beyond the rational mind and the intellect, which are so highly valued by science, to our inner essence. Ultimately, all healing is spiritual, and the labyrinth is a spiritual technology.
Labyrinth Enterprises, LLC, (www.labyrinth-enterprises.com, 800-873-9873) is the world's leading full-service labyrinth resource. Services range from lectures, training, consulting and design to on-site labyrinth installation. Having made more than 750 labyrinths, our prices range from a few thousand dollars to well into six figures. For institutions such as churches, schools, and hospitals, we have developed a proprietary method with polymer concrete (no stain or paint, it's all concrete), resulting in a concrete labyrinth that is extremely durable and low-maintenance. We also offer portable fabric labyrinths for indoor use, with prices beginning at $2,200.
Our mission is to get labyrinths into the world. We support our mission through the services described above. The subject of labyrinths in healthcare settings is far broader than I have been able to cover in this brief monograph. It will be the subject of my next book on labyrinths. Meanwhile, my hope is that you, the reader, will get a glimpse of the potential value of labyrinths and inform yourself further about this fascinating and important spiritual technology. The future has arrived. (See list of hospital labyrinths.)