Could something as simple as walking a labyrinth help boost your mood and improve your health? Absolutely, according to Dr. Darshan Mehta, medical director at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Mehta believes that this ancient practice can be a balm for modern-day miseries.
Labyrinths have existed in all the world’s cultures — in Europe, Southeast Asia, with the indigenous cultures of North America, virtually everywhere, Mehta said in a recent Zoom seminar hosted by Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway (in honor of the labyrinth at Armenian Heritage Park). Labyrinths have been found on Spanish petroglyphs and on the floors of medieval cathedrals. “It’s an experience that can be shared across cultures and age groups, and it offers an opportunity for people who disagree politically to enjoy a common space,” Mehta said.
The labyrinth has been such a persistent tool for relaxation, Mehta continued, because walking is the most fundamentally important activity people can do. “Walking meditation, supported by the labyrinth, creates a space to be in the moment. It’s a practice of returning to a sense of balance and grounding and your own inner strength.”
A labyrinth is not a maze, or a problem to be solved, but a pattern of pathways that weave in a circle around a central point, said Brigham & Women’s leadership coach Maura Koutoujian in the same seminar. Labyrinths fuse the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering, purposeful path. “We lose our way in a maze. We find our way in a labyrinth,” Koutoujian explained. “It is ultimately a symbol of life’s journey.”
Of course, walking counts as exercise, but Koutoujian urged everyone to fully embrace the labyrinth ritual, not merely use it as a step-counting tool. “You can feel the energy of those who walked before you,” she noted. “You can walk on the labyrinth, or you can dance on the labyrinth. There are no rules.”
Want to give it a go, or celebrate World Labyrinth Day (coming May 1)? These outdoor labyrinths are accessible to the public but note that mask-wearing and social distancing are required. For more possibilities, visit www.labyrinthlocator.com and search by state.
Labyrinth and Abstract Sculpture, Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Opened in 2012, this park is a gift from Armenian-Americans to the City of Boston and the Commonwealth. The park’s two key features are a labyrinth, 60 feet in diameter, and an abstract sculpture. The circular winding path, delineated by grass and inlaid stone, celebrates life’s journey. At its center is a single jet of water, representing hope and rebirth and, etched in granite, the symbol of eternity. The abstract sculpture, a split geometric shape made of stainless steel and aluminum, commemorates the immigrant experience. Every spring, a crane separates the two halves and reconfigures them to create a new sculptural shape, a symbol for immigrants who left (or were forced to leave) their country of origin and made a new life here. This year’s reconfiguration will take place on Sunday, April 11. www.armenianheritagepark.org
9/11 Memorial Labyrinth at Boston College. On Sept. 11, 2003, a memorial labyrinth on the lawn of Burns Library was dedicated as a space for prayer, peace, and consolation, in memory of Boston College alumni killed in the 9/11 tragedy. The memorial labyrinth — modeled after the 13th-century stone labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France — is 50 feet in diameter, with a circle of concentric rings forming a single path to the center, symbolic of life’s journey. The names of the 22 deceased alumni are etched into its outer ring. www.bc.edu
Botanic Garden Labyrinth, Wellesley College. This sustainably sourced labyrinth, 32 feet in diameter, sits alongside Paramecium Pond, in the botanic garden between the Science Center and Munger Hall. The five-circuit medieval labyrinth is made of cut tree rounds, from trees recovered from Wellesley College, and was designed and built by students. The centerpiece is a cross-section of an original planting to the College, more than 150 years old, a living embodiment of the College’s commitment to contemplative practice. Note: The Wellesley campus is currently closed to the general public. Be sure to check the college’s website for a possible reopening in the months ahead. www.wellesley.edu
Church of St. Andrew Labyrinth, Marblehead. Tucked away off Lafayette Street on the lawn of the Episcopal church, this classical seven-ring, single-path labyrinth is made of stones collected from local beaches. This “spiritual vortex” is a real hidden gem, said parish administrator Pat Hahn. Many townspeople don’t even know it exists, she continued. The labyrinth stays open at all times, unless there’s snow on the ground. Thanks to a recent donation, this labyrinth will be refreshed in a few months, with new stones and more plantings. www.standrewsmhd.org/labyrinth.html
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com