The Writing Life: Walking the Labyrinth

Writers are always looking for ways to boost their creative practice.  I know I am.  I collect writing exercises and creativity activities nearly as obsessively as I collect books.  Today I want to write about another excellent practice I've recently discovered: walking the labyrinth.

In a recent post, I mentioned my stint as the "book doctor" at Room to Write, a writing retreat held in Nashville. The retreat was held at the Scarritt-Bennett center.800px-Labyrinth_at_Chartres_Cathedral Rabbi Rami Shapiro, the organizer and guiding light of the retreat, talked to us about the history of the labyrinth one very cold morning, and afterward guided us on a labyrinth walk.  I'd like to share a bit of that experience with you here. 

Most people hear the word labyrinth and think maze.  But a maze is a very different beast from a labyrinth.  Navigating a maze, your left brain is activated.  At each puzzling juncture, you are forced to make a choice or a decision as to which path to take to reach the center.  It is a problem-solving activity.

Conversely, there's only one choice to be made with the labyrinth: whether to enter or not.  (Isn't this a great metaphor for writing already?)  Because once you do make the choice to enter the labyrinth, there is only one way to go and your only job is to follow it.  Once you are on the writing path, you’ll need to trust that you are
exactly where you need to be.  You need to allow yourself to succumb
to the process of writing.

Once you set foot on the labyrinth, the way in is the way out.  Walking
the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to your deepest self and
returning again to the world with a more profound understanding of
yourself—and the words to share it.  This is the very process that the
writer repeats day by day, one word at a time onto the page.  The
labyrinth encourages a deep trust in the process, that surrendering to
it is not only okay, but desirable—something we often forget in our
organized, logical world.

A labyrinth is also a symbolic form of pilgrimage, and as writers we make pilgrimages to our deepest selves every day.  The labyrinth is an ancient form, with the first labyrinths being mentioned in Pliny's Natural History as being located in Crete, Egypt, and Italy.  Later adopted by Christians, they fell out of favor for many centuries but have recently been resurrected as a tool for spiritual, contemplative, transformational and creative paths.  Not surprisingly, they are incredibly useful for solving writing problems.

On that cold morning last week, as we walked the labyrinth at Scarritt-Bennett, Rami encouraged us to repeat a problem with our writing (or life) on the way in, pause in the center, and then ponder a possible answer on the way out.  Or, he said, you can just repeat a word such as peace or love or home.  I was quite taken with labyrinth walking and how useful it was to shaking free ideas.

One of the most famous labyrinths is at Chartres Cathedral in France, and many labyrinths are modeled in this style, including the one at Scarritt-Bennett.   Because of a recent surge in popularity, you’ll find labyrinths in many public places, including parks and churches, most of which are open to the public.  A quick internet search will find you a labyrinth in your area.    If you absolutely can’t find a labyrinth to walk, you can find finger labyrinths for sale on the internet, or perhaps at your new age bookstore.

I highly recommend it as a creative tool, to say nothing of a profound spiritual experience.  I've already scoped out a few labyrinths here in Portland, and plan to visit them as soon as possible.   Do any of you have experience walking the labyrinth?  Feel free to share.

PS.  Don't forget to sign up for my free coaching sessions for writers!  You can find out more about this offer here.  Please sign up!  I really want to talk to you!

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3 Responses to The Writing Life: Walking the Labyrinth

  1. JS 12/28/2009 at 14:01 #

    Thanks for this post. I also found this reflection meaningful:

  2. Steve Keil 03/27/2010 at 21:42 #

    I enjoyed your piece on labyrinths. I recently was at a rehab facility called The Ranch, which is about an hour west of Nashville. On the property of the men’s house is a labyrinth. After I figured out how to walk it, I did so nearly every day. I don’t know why it took me so long to try it, but after 2 or 3 times I was hooked. Much of the time I was there the weather wasn’t exactly conducive to being outdoors, given that Middle TN just had the coldest winter in at least 30 years. Anyway, I found it to be calming and centering, which I could use a lot of these days since I left The Ranch.
    I have also walked the outdoor labyrinth at Scaritt-Bennett once. I have heard tell of one at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, but haven’t found it yet. I would like to find out more about them, particularly in the design and construction areas.

  3. Charlotte Dixon 03/27/2010 at 23:13 #

    Hi Steve, I felt the same way about walking the labyrinth. After the first time, I was hooked. It is so oddly peaceful and meditative. I’m heading back to Scarritt Bennett in a week and a half for the next Room to Write and I can’t wait to walk the labyrinth again. When I was there in December, it was bitterly cold, so I’m looking forward to warmer weather. Of course, since it is springtime I’ll have to deal with tornados. Yikes!

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