“With the weight I bear, I sometimes forget to breathe. I am thankful for the opportunity to just stop what I am doing for a moment and just be here by myself.”
—Labyrinth journal, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
A little before noon on the third Monday of every month, Cecelia Frye arrives at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and heads for the first-floor conference room. It’s the kind of room that could be found in any modern outpatient clinic, its entry tucked between the gift shop and an ATM machine. Inside, chairs have been stacked against the cream-colored walls, leaving the room’s center empty. Frye opens a plastic storage bin, lifts out a folded canvas and spreads it out across the floor.
The octagonal canvas, 24 feet in diameter, is painted with circuitous lines leading to a rosette in the center. Unfurled, it transforms the generic meeting room into, if not quite France’s Chartres Cathedral, then a meditative setting for a labyrinth walk.
A labyrinth, according to Rev. Stephen King, SCCA chaplain manager, is a walking meditation. Unlike a maze, which is designed as a puzzle with multiple paths and dead ends, a labyrinth is a single path. Though it twists and turns, it eventually leads the walker to the center, then back out by the same route. The object is not to confuse but to clarify, not to get lost but to be found or to find something, even if just a little peace during 20 minutes or so spent walking.
It’s a way to meditate – to still the mind and center the heart – in times when that’s hard to do.
“The basic idea is to slow down, to be open to what is,” said King. “For those of us with more active minds, [the labyrinth] helps us be in a more meditative state.”
“Absent-mindedly and distractedly, I entered the labyrinth and by the time I reached the center, some of the chatter was gone. I spent some time there being hopeful and open, then danced my way out, twirling at the turns.”
King fell under the spell of labyrinths a dozen years ago when he attended a training of labyrinth facilitators taught by Rev. Lauren Artress, Honorary Canon at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Artress is credited with reviving the ancient tradition for modern times after a 1991 visit to France, where she cleared the chairs from the stone floor of Chartres Cathedral and walked the labyrinth laid there around 1200.
King has since followed Artress’s footsteps to Chartres and to other labyrinths, including the ones that Artress had installed inside and outside Grace Cathedral. (Labyrinths come in different designs, but all have a single path in and out.) He convinced the SCCA to order a portable canvas labyrinth – modeled after Chartres, though smaller – and trains volunteers like Frye to host it on the first and third Mondays of the month.
Among their duties – welcoming, explaining, assisting if needed, sitting quietly and unobtrusively if not – hosts invite walkers to write about their experiences in a journal that dates to 2002, the first year the SCCA began holding labyrinth walks.
“I began unsure, shaky, a little dizzy, tentative. Shortly thereafter, I felt a tremendous sense of calm, joy, peace and happiness. I began to smile. I felt incredibly connected to my dad, who walked the labyrinth with me.”
Some people experience an immediate sense of peace or clarity on walking a labyrinth. Others don’t feel anything, at least at first. Artress’s web site advises first-time walkers to hold expectations in check, be open and “walk your own walk.” Other than staying on the path, there is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth, facilitators stress.
For thousands of years, people have walked – sometimes on their knees – into labyrinths, sat or stood for a time in the center, then walked (or twirled or danced) back out.
The labyrinth form has been found in rituals as diverse as the Jewish mystical tradition, the Hopi medicine wheel and the Tibetan sand mandala. It is found on ancient Greek coins and in Celtic symbols. Its use in Christianity is believed to have begun in the Middle Ages as a substitute for making the dangerous and costly pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
But the people who use the labyrinth at the SCCA are of all religions and no religion, said King and Frye. They are patients, families and staff from SCCA and its partners, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital Seattle. Some are first-time walkers, others veterans.
King felt a strong sense of peace the first time he walked a labyrinth. He also appreciates the life lessons it teaches.
Although the path is not tricky like a maze, it does take unexpected turns.
“It’s circuitous – much like our path in life,” said King. “We think we’re getting close to the center, but we’re not.”
He told of one man who walked to the center of the labyrinth, then strode directly off the canvas, cutting across the winding path rather than retracing his steps.
Then the man stopped himself.
“He said, ‘That’s just like my life – I don’t finish anything,’” King said. The man went back to the center, and this time followed the return path out.
“The turns are dramatic. Just when you think you have the momentum, there is a turn. Such is life.”
“It’s a quieting experience,” said Frye, who has been volunteering as a host since spring and walks the labyrinth regularly. “At the very least, I don’t have to make a decision about which way to go. I’m only required to put one step in front of the other, which is a good metaphor that I can bring to my life. It’s a good muscle for those times when life throws you curve balls.”
The people who use the SCCA labyrinth are, not surprisingly, often dealing with curve balls or, as Frye said, “living through extreme circumstances” having to do with their own or a loved one’s cancer.
“People are coping with losses, grieving those losses – not just of health but of normal routine, of innocence,” said King.
Frye described a woman in a wheelchair who came to the labyrinth with her two daughters. One daughter walked while the other sat with her mother. Frye gave the women a small replica labyrinth that can be traced by hand.
“She achieved some calm and peace,” Frye said. “Just the presence of the labyrinth can be calming.”
“Today we meet for data review and learn the next steps of P.'s (our) process for stem cell transplant. Walking helped me relax and be centered. We walked in love and trust.”
The number of people walking the labyrinth has dwindled over the years since it was first introduced. King believes that SCCA and Fred Hutch staff have forgotten it’s there.
Frye has faith that people’s curiosity about the dimly lit room with its soft music will grow. In the meantime, she believes that just its presence is healing. She especially loves how the painted canvas turns a place where meetings are held and power-points presented into a spiritual space.
“It’s been a real gift to me,” she said. “I benefit by just coming and being in this space.”
Frye’s first labyrinth was the cathedral at Chartres, which she walked with her mother and her mother’s partner. At the time, her mother’s partner was battling a second cancer, and the two older women saw the walk as a pilgrimage. Frye was “just along for the ride,” she said, but found the experience profound.
Her mother died last summer, years after that first walk but just months after Frye had begun volunteering to host the SCCA labyrinth. Her stepmother, 68, is now battling a third cancer. The labyrinth – the spiritual space – feels more profound than ever.
“You never know the path you take,” she said. “But if you continue with one foot in front of the other, it will make sense eventually.”
“Insight: I walk alone, as in life. That’s my challenge, our human condition. Alone, yet with beauty and spirit all around. I am guided and protected. I am loved. I AM. How to remember this, fill up with confidence? I am listening and walking the labyrinth of life.”
The SCCA labyrinth is open from 1:15 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the first Monday of each month and from noon to 3 p.m. on the third Monday, except for holidays. It can be found in the first floor conference room between the gift shop and the ATM machine.
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.