Published in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin

December 17, 1999

made easy

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Photo caption: “A labyrinth pictured on”


The beautiful thing about meditation is the calm clarity of the quieted mind. The hard part is getting your mind quiet in the first place. A growing number of people are rediscovering a spiritual practice from medieval Europe that makes meditation easy: walking a floor labyrinth.

The method is simple: you walk along a winding path drawn on the ground until you reach the center of the pattern. Then, when you’re ready, you turn around and walk back out again. That’s all there is to it. Along the way, it’s said, you can easily slip into a meditative state. And since you’re moving, you bypass the most frustrating aspect of sitting in meditation: trying not to die of boredom while you’re doing absolutely nothing.

Lauren Artress, the Episcopalian minister credited with starting the modern labyrinth movement in the early ’90s, said in a 1997 interview that walking through a labyrinth “allows people to go deeply inward. People don’t know how bombarded we are until we get into a quiet space.” People walk labyrinths, she explained, for a host of mental, spiritual, and emotional reasons: to relax, to explore their inner world, to stimulate creativity, to work out the solutions to problems, even to heal inner wounds.

This Sunday from 1 to 5 pm, the Integral Psychology Center will host a free labyrinth walk at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue. Arden Mahlberg and Delia Unson, psychotherapists practicing at the center, want to provide an opportunity for “meditative reflection and contemplation” at millennium’s end. Unson describes her first labyrinth experience: “It felt to me like life. Sometimes you feel lost, then you turn a corner and things are clearer. It’s complex, but it’s simple if you let go, because there’s only one path. I could be fully present in the moment. Wow.”

A labyrinth is not a puzzle maze: there are no tricks, no dead ends, no forks in the road. You can see the whole pattern of a labyrinth from wherever you stand; puzzle mazes often have high, disorienting, walls. Labyrinths usually measure from 20 to 45 feet in diameter. They can be inlaid in stone, painted on canvas, mown into grass, made with heaps of pebbles or sticks, or even scratched into the sand of a beach. Artress’s San Francisco-based organization, Veriditas/The Labyrinth Project, catalogues over four hundred labyrinths worldwide on its Web site (, including ones at spiritual and personal development centers, churches, medical centers, public parks, private backyards, colleges, and even gift shops.

The labyrinth that will be used Sunday belongs to Stillpoint, a local ecumenical group providing spiritual guidance, retreats, and workshops. Volunteers drew and painted this 37-foot canvas labyrinth over the course of three weekends in January 1997, says Jodi Svanoe, Stillpoint’s labyrinth coordinator. “It’s three very large panels, velcroed together,” she says, “We keep it stored in three giant tent bags.”

Stillpoint started with a labyrinth “seed kit” purchased from Veriditas. The kit gives instructions for making an eleven-circuit design based on the labyrinth laid in the floor of the cathedral at Chartres, near Paris, around the year 1200.

According to Artress, because pilgrimages to the Holy Land had become so dangerous at that time in history, the Vatican appointed certain “pilgrimage cathedrals” where people could take a symbolic journey to “the New Jerusalem” at the center of the labyrinth. This practice drew on the older custom of calling a labyrinth “Troy Town” after the legendary city of the ancient world.

For more information about this Sunday’s labyrinth walk, call the Integral Psychology Center at 255-9330 or Stillpoint at 249-6427. Madison Christian Community on 7118 Old Sauk Road also has a labyrinth, which they make available to the public twice monthly; call 836-1455 for details. And in conjunction with the Worldwide Labyrinth Project, the church is also hosting labyrinth walks on New Year’s Eve (10 a.m.-1 p.m.) and New Year’s Day (1-3 p.m.).

To find out more about the history and lore of labyrinths, and to learn how to make your own--including how to draw little ones on notebook paper--visit the excellent online journal of labyrinths and mazes Caerdroia at That’s a lot of letters to type into your browser, but like reaching the center of a labyrinth, it’s worth it.

     --Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

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Meditation made easy

Rediscovering a spiritual practice from medieval Europe that makes meditation easy: walking a floor labyrinth.

Copyright 1999, 2000 by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach. All rights reserved.