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October 8th, 2011
10:00 PM ET

My Faith: How walking the labyrinth changed my life

Editor’s note: Sally Quinn is a columnist for The Washington Post and is Editor in Chief of On Faith, an online conversation on religion.

By Sally Quinn, Special to CNN

When I tell people I have a labyrinth and that I walk it regularly, most have no idea what I’m talking about.

They think a labyrinth is a maze, a place you walk into and then have trouble finding your way out.

In fact it is just the opposite. A labyrinth is a place you go to get found.

For many, walking the labyrinth is a religious experience. There are many famous labyrinths in churches, the most famous being the one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France, which dates to the 13th century.

Others see it as more spiritual. Some find it a meditation tool or walk it simply for the peace and serenity that come from being alone and contemplating a problem or issue.

For me it is all of those things. It is a sacred space.

I first encountered a labyrinth at a California spa about 15 years ago. I’d never heard of a labyrinth before and, though some at the spa said it had changed people’s lives, I was skeptical.

But I agreed to give it a try. There was a ceremony in the evening, with torches and drums, and about 30 of us there to do the walk.

I loved the ritual but didn’t really get much out of it. Too many people.

Still, there was something that appealed to me. So the next day, I went up to the grove of live oaks on the hill where the labyrinth was situated. There was nobody there.

I paused at the entrance and took in the surroundings. There was a slight breeze whispering though the leaves and the late afternoon sun had warmed the circle.

I began concentrating on my son Quinn, who had severe learning disabilities at the time and was in a special school. What would become of him? We had had a particularly difficult year and I was in despair.

I entered the labyrinth and began to make my way slowly toward the center. Once I got there I sat down and looked straight ahead. My eyes fell on a huge pine tree in front of me that I hadn’t noticed before.

It had beautiful spreading boughs, as though it was embracing the circle of the labyrinth. It was one of the prettiest trees I had ever seen and it was the only pine amid the live oaks.

I suddenly experienced a shocking stroke of clarity. That tree was Quinn.

He was different from all the other trees but he was more beautiful than they were. I began to cry. How could I not have realized this all along?

That moment transformed my whole view of my son and of me, along with my attitude toward his problems. Not only was he beautiful but he could use his differences to his advantage, helping others at the same time.

The following year I had a reservation to go back to the same spa. Quinn was scheduled to have cognitive testing the week before I left. At the last minute, they had to change the date for when I was to be away.

My husband convinced me to go anyway.

The hour of his testing I went up to the labyrinth, found my way to the circle and concentrated on Quinn for the whole time I knew he would be doing tests.

Later, when we went back to the hospital for the results, we were not optimistic. Quinn had performed poorly on most of the earlier tests. But the doctors said he had the highest score of anyone they had ever seen on one of the tests.

“What was that?” I asked. “The maze,” said the doctor.

Since then, Quinn has written a book, “A Different Life,” about growing up with learning disabilities (we now refer to them as learning differences) and has launched a website called friendsofquinn.com for young adults with learning differences and their friends and families.

He is happily married and has a full and successful life.

I’m not sure I can totally attest to the fact that this is because of walking the labyrinth that first day. But I can say this: Because I told him about my experience with the pine and the oaks, he decided to make a life using his problems to help others.

He has completely accepted who he is and his limitations and has a sense of humor about himself and his issues. His motto for the site is “own it.” And he has.

Does all this add up to a religious experience? Call it what you will. All I know is that my life has become much richer by walking the labyrinth.

Mine is modeled after the one at Chartres Cathedral. It is a 50-foot concrete circle on a slope overlooking a river in the country southern Maryland, surrounded by woods.

It has a path carved into it leading to the center, which is where I meditate.

I always begin my labyrinth walk by concentrating on something I need to find an answer to. I walk slowly at first, really trying to lose myself in my thoughts. The slowness is important because it gives me time to focus on whatever the issue is.

Once I get to the center of the circle, I start meditating. Sometimes I just stand and look out at the river. I might stay there for 10 or 15 minutes.

Other times I sit cross-legged for an hour or so. There are times, too, where I lie down in a spread eagle position or in a corpse pose, or chaturanga, and close my eyes.

I’ve stayed in those positions for hours at a time, completely losing myself to the experience

For me, achieving clarity is the most important benefit of walking the labyrinth. It has happened so many times that I now expect it.

I can walk in the woods or on the beach for hours, thinking about a problem and not be able to come up with a solution. Yet I can spend 15 or 20 minutes on the labyrinth and solve everything.

Supposedly the folded path pattern on the labyrinth mimics the pattern of our brains. Whatever it is, it works for me.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Quinn.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Spirituality

soundoff (977 Responses)
  1. sharon loveless

    Wow. Most of you have missed the whole point. How shortsighted. Maybe you should try looking inward and developing a little self awareness instead of looking for your answers at Starbucks and from your iPods.

    October 9, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • Rational Americans

      Not a coffee fan, Sharon. But I'd wager more "spiritual enlightenment" could be derived from staring at a coffee cup than this labyrinth crap.

      Torches! Drums!

      Primitives.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:15 am |
    • Amy

      I know, right? People are jerks.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:49 am |
  2. whatagary

    i can tell that the majority of people who read this were probably atheists. And yes, this does not belong on the front page of the website. Joke

    October 9, 2011 at 3:05 am |
  3. Rod

    Stop it CNN. Stop this ridiculous Belief blog! This is NOT news, this does not belong on the front page of your website. This is awful! Someone needs to reexamine your organizations principles and what it is you consider the line between entertainment and news.

    October 9, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Mark

      Why are you so upset? Sounds like you and CNN both have fundamentally the same agenda.

      October 9, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  4. Simon

    What a waste of an article...can't imagine why CNN would host/print/foist such dribble...oh wait, they are doing for the dumb people...now i understand...

    October 9, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Jack

      Agreed, this article was complete drivel. Mind you, I think that there's merit to the cathartic process people seek with labyrinth, but this woman made an enlightening affair seem desperately shallow.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  5. Misternomer

    More new age mumbojumbo, thank you CNN!

    October 9, 2011 at 2:29 am |
    • John

      More like Medieval, but people can't be bothered to do research before spouting off I suppose....

      October 9, 2011 at 3:09 am |
  6. mello

    Why do people find arguments in everything. Is there ever a time when you can just stfu about a topic that's not even an issue? I may sound juvenile but at least I sound just as mature as anyone here starting random arguments and such...

    October 9, 2011 at 2:29 am |
    • Handerz

      Agreed. Completely. People get ridiculous on the internet...

      October 9, 2011 at 2:33 am |
  7. ALo

    Sorry, but all I could feel during this piece was contempt for the arrogance that is displayed by her Labrinth and the "half hour, two hours...sometimes four hours" she spends there. Please! Most of us are still working for a living and you and your elitist ilk can just keep quiet. You have lost touch with the people. Congratulations on your success!

    October 9, 2011 at 2:27 am |
    • John

      Lke the hours you probably spend staring at your computer screen?

      October 9, 2011 at 3:10 am |
    • Sydney P.

      Just read Sally Quinn's own writing. She has no sense of embarrassment, and has brought nothing but contempt upon herself. She is a failure in everything. She has never held a job, is a terrible parent, is despised by the family and community she cheated her way in to. Ben Bradlee obviously had some pathological needs that she fulfilled back in the swinging sixties. All this is public knowledge, stirred up by when she humilitated herself by trying to exonerate herself over the mess she created over her poor son's money-based marriage a couple of years ago.

      October 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  8. RichardSRussell

    People go to a quiet, soothing place and relax for awhile, after which they feel better. If it's the kind of place that has lots of positive associations — such as what the labyrinth has for Sally Quinn — so much the better. Nothing magic about it. Anybody can do it.

    October 9, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  9. Nancy

    I think it's rather ridiculous for people to comment derisively on an *opinion* piece that shows the author's response to a time of crisis and how she dealt with it. So walking a labyrinth helped her come to terms with her son's different abilities, and provided her with a more positive outlook on the prospects for his success in life? Why does the revelation that others have different ways of responding to stresses of that sort always seem to bring on the derision?

    As the mom of two 'differently-abled' kids myself, I am glad she found the peace and insight to deal with her son's obstacles in a positive fashion. However it came about, I don't think that's the part that matters... this is just one of many ways that people find to put their crowded lives on hold long enough to find insight and peace. Not something that really needs to have others poke fun at, IMO.

    Perhaps if more people thought outside the box with regard to stress relief and problem-solving, this world might not be quite as contentious... just a thought.

    October 9, 2011 at 2:15 am |
    • Richard

      Religious nut-jobs just as easily find reasons for slaughtering their kids as well. One day the organic brain disorder that is responsible for this will be treatable.

      October 9, 2011 at 2:19 am |
    • Nancy

      @Richard, one could only HOPE that a treatment for blind faith is found. Until then, we all have to suffer the consequences of dealing with the "religious nut-jobs." At least this woman is peacefully, and without an overabundance of proselytizing, finding her own way of coping. Frankly, I find her way infinitely preferable to those that require one to adhere to the supposed words of imaginary beings and thus receive "salvation," whatever the heck THAT is.

      October 9, 2011 at 2:28 am |
  10. Quinn Bradlee

    Mom, would you please stop with the labyrinth nonsense! You are embarassing me!

    October 9, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • Sally Quinn

      Now Quinn, go back and do your reiki and your rebirthing. I'll be in after I do 7 more hours laying in the labyrinth.

      October 9, 2011 at 4:06 am |
    • Atheist

      Now Sally, I'm sure you know you were lying rather than laying in the labyrinth! Or is there something you're not telling us?

      October 9, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • Sally Quinn

      Confusion comes easily to me.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  11. Really Now

    If your child has a major unusual illness, would you go to the doctor who seeks out research and expert opinion, or would you choose the doctor who slowly walks a labyrinth then lies on the ground motionless for hours awaiting the answer?

    October 9, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • Are we there yet?

      If you read the article then you will see that she did take her son to the doc while he was growing up. It sounds like the labyrinth is something she does in her spare time, like a walk in the park.

      October 9, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Really Now

      Not so. If you read the article, you will see that she heavily credits his success to her walking the labyrinth:

      "He is happily married and has a full and successful life. I’m not sure I can totally attest to the fact that this is because of walking the labyrinth that first day, but . . . "

      October 9, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  12. Puffpuff

    I'm so glad she found her quiet place. I've tried to meditate some over the years, and I've found it incredibly difficult because my mind is so busy yet so tired at the same time, so it's hard to just strip all that away to focus on a single thing. There have been some labyrinths along the way, including an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco. I tried walking it, but it was a bad time of day and things just felt too busy for me. I might try again when I have the time to devote and some relative quiet. 🙂

    October 9, 2011 at 12:04 am |
  13. Reality

    Maybe there is something to the "dumb blonde" syndrome !!!

    October 8, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  14. Anon

    Religion is a labyrinth of the mind.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  15. *frank*

    This article gave me diabetes.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  16. dg

    Labyrinths are a form of meditation and do not need religion to work or be effective. Meditation is one of very very few spirituality techniques that can be scientifically tested and it has and been proven effective. Atheists can even meditate and not compromise their beliefs.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • I beg to differ

      Atheists tend to prefer actually thinking and taking effective action. As a group we generally do not tend to lay in a corpse pose for hours on end in the middle of a labyrinth waiting for insight to magically appear.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      When you think of it our brain are are a labyrinth,, and contain many layers, throw backs to our early evolutionary progressions. One of those areas is our subconscious, where problems can be worked on unheeded by daily issues.. it produces the eureka moments we have at times.

      October 9, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Bucky Ball

      There are many activities that release beta-endorphins : jogging, meditating, chanting, "praying", singing, listening to music, walking, etc. Whatever "floats your boat". Who cares how it's done ?

      October 9, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • dg

      Heh. I beg to differ, atheists like you give all atheists a bad name as you are acting as dogmatic and self righteous as the christians and other religious zealots you disdain.

      I am an agnostic as I am not so self righteous as to think I have cornered the market on the truth and believing there is absolutely no God and that spirituality has no usefullness for mankindbwhatsoever.

      October 9, 2011 at 3:53 am |
  17. Riff Raff Does The Time Warp Again

    People will believe anything, no matter how ridiculous. No wonder religion does not go away!

    October 8, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • dg

      See my comment above. It is ignorance like your that is the real problem whether you are pro-religion or anti-religion.

      I am pro-knowledge and anti-stupidity, which is what prompted me to reply to your post.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • Riff Raff Responds to a Total Moron

      Hey dumb-dumb, I was talking about her belief that mazes are magic. Show me where I said anything about meditation. Go on, point it out.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • FYI

      Riff Raff,

      Right here: "Once I get to the center of the circle, I start meditating. Sometimes I just stand and look out at the river. I might stay there for 10 or 15 minutes."

      October 8, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • Riff Raff Responds to yet ANOTHER Moron

      FYI, I said "Show me where I said anything about meditation." I did not say "show me where the ARTICLE said anything aboout meditation", I said "show me where I said anything about meditation."

      October 9, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  18. Observer

    Maybe her son is troubled because his name is Quinn Quinn. Did she really do that to him?

    October 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • FYI

      She is married to Ben Bradlee (The Washington Post guy), and their son is named, Quinn Bradlee.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • Janet Weiss

      I didn't notice that, but what would expect from a woman who thinks that walking around lines on the ground is a spiritual experience, and that seeing a pine tree is a symbolic revelation from God.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • Magic

      Janet Weiss: Nowhere in this piece does she say it was a revelation from "God".

      It's not my thing, but if it helps her to relax and focus - fine; and it is only "magical" in the loosest sense of the word. Haven't you ever felt real calm and peaceful in say, a nice bubble bath, or just before you fall asleep? Haven't you ever made a decision or solved a problem after some quiet contemplation?

      October 8, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
  19. Colin

    You just know her kids hate her.

    October 8, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Holy cow

      I guess you hate everyone. I hope you don't have kids.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • Corwin

      holy cow, nowhere in Colin's post is any expression of his own feelings. Your conclusion of hate of everyone is unjustified, It is also untrue, given that Colin recently left encouraging posts for others.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • Holy cow

      Corwin,

      My mistake, after rereading Colin's post I realize that what he said was a very positive and encouraging comment about the author Maybe Colin can get a job writing for Hallmark.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Smarzeli

      That's a terrible thing to say.

      October 9, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  20. hippypoet

    too bad there wasn't a minatour to eat you once you reached the center of it!

    October 8, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I like your answer best of all.

      October 9, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • hippypoet

      LOL, thank you.. i thought that was good. I was wondering who might get that joke.

      October 9, 2011 at 1:49 am |
    • hippypoet

      LOL, thank you.. i thought that was good. I was wondering who might get that joke..

      October 9, 2011 at 1:50 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.