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. Rick kamel

    One more white woman with time and money on her hands. Well at least she is feeding the economy.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Rick kamel

      " One more (white) woman..."

      W T F...?


      October 9, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  2. SCAtheist

    Another religious con job to make a buck.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • robert wade

      Your comment is very sad scatheist. Truth is, is what truth believes. Her peice was much more about spirituality than it was about religion. If you've never experienced that transforming moment of pure clarity, I am very sorry.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  3. Mike w

    What is being described is a going beyond the mind and senses ... not something individuals are accustomed to. So, what exactly is there to be found when you seek beyond what you “think” you understand and can try to control? What if we gave up our way and were open to something that lies deep within and outside?

    October 9, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • robert wade

      Some of us understand, Mike w. Well said!

      October 9, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  4. phoodphite

    I walked a Labyrinth, and I got dizzy.
    I kissed a Labrador, and I liked it.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  5. shawn

    1. If you have a backyard like that you most likely don't need help.
    2. Where I come from we walk down the sidwalk to relax think about things...this is just some hippy BS story.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • hippypoet

      how dare you, every good hippy has there very own labyrinth. we keep it in the box with everthing else.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Person

      Sorry your life is such a disappointment. Doesn't mean you get to be nasty to someone who was kind enough to share her story. Different things work for different people. Enjoy your sidewalk.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  6. icy

    walking in circles does not get you where you should be. ummm you just walk in circles, hmmm imagine that.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  7. joe T.

    What a bunch of nonsense. The gullability of people baffles me.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  8. Nathaniel Elam

    So this is news? Some bimbo's delusions about walking around in circles? What a load of nonsense!

    October 9, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Enlighten Up

      Clarification: You are hanging out in a Belief section on a news site. All the "news" you want is back on the homepage.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Mike

      Enlighten up, when the belief site becomes front page news as the face of a national news site,like CNN, it represents the most interesting and important new in the country. It should not be some rich old bimbo's moment in the spotlight as she shows the rest of the world what nutty things she does with her ample free time and money. So to echo Nathaniel: "This is news? Some bimbo's delusions about walking around in circles? What a load of nonsense!"

      October 9, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  9. can

    Jacob Bronowski said, "Science is power with explanation, magic is power without explanation."

    Magic has been around forever, fooling people into believing all sorts of things. Phrenology, Alchemy, Labyrinth walking, Astrology, modern religion are just a few of the magical movements that people have embraced and are embracing now.

    Human beings believe whatever they want to believe. It's the nature of the beast.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • TR in ATL

      Folks, you may call this 'religion'. But it's nonsense. Will walking in a labyrinth get you to heaven? There is only one way, THE WAY, to get to heaven. Many of you choose not to go, which saddens GOD. But those that want to go to heaven only need to accept Jesus Christ. He will draw you close to Him and transform your life.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Andrea

      If it works for her, and doesn't hurt anyone else, what's the problem? If it helps her get to a frame of mind where she can think clearly about an issue, what's the problem?

      October 9, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  10. DD

    This is an ancient pagan practice. Something else Christianity stole before stamping out freedom of choice.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  11. paradox

    Almost without exception..every comments section is filled with bitter, ugly and cruel vitriole. I find these comments to be a compelling and sad commentary on our nature...If I could magically change us, I would have us all simply accept that walking a labrynth, meditating, prayer, or maybe even having a glass of wine, may all be valuable if they lead us toward resolution. Where is our gentleness?

    October 9, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Enlighten Up

      completely agree.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Enlighten Up

      Misery loves company, especially during rough times. Right? So let's all join together and rain on a complete stranger's spiritual moment because our own lives suck.... pretty sad out here to say the least.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Aezell

      People take issue (and rightly so) with two things. Mediation is just a mental exercise, there is no need for supernatural nonsense, but the author of this column CLEARLY tries to insinuate that there was magical spiritual power at work, and THEN tries to sell you a book.

      Pathetic thinly veiled swat at making money on religious/mystical nonsense. That is the issue, not meditation.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Enlighten Up

      What if one person reads the book and finds enlightenment in their own way, but the book was the spark? Hasn't every author in history wanted someone to buy their book and promoted it? So, every spiritual book isn't allowed to be promoted?

      October 9, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • SCAtheist

      This article is here to make money selling a book, period.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • rindy carbis

      thank you for your comment...the ugly mean spirited comments are exactly why we are in such chaos and hurt in this world...It was a lovely story and nice to hear positive thoughts in an otherwise negative world...thank you Sally...thank you poster...peace love namaste rin

      October 9, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  12. Enlighten Up

    I went on a journey this morning to see where I could find the most negative, insincere, lost, hate filled people I could find. Amazingly, it was a group of people hiding behind their laptops on a Sunday morning out on a blog under the Belief section of a news site. Pretty ironic.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Rob

      Glad you could join us...

      October 9, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  13. Freethinksman

    This story proves that the mind is incredibly creative and pwerful. There is a lot going on that most people don't even try to tap into on a regular basis. Peace, strength and joy are all there for the taking if we only take the time to look deep inside. Seeking those things from an external source requires faith in imaginary gods and goddesses; faith that often goes hand-in-hand with ethically questionable (or outright unethical) demands on ourselves or other people. Seek balance inside, and it will manifest itself outwardly.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Peace2All


      Nice post.


      October 9, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  14. SCAtheist

    So has anyone bought the book yet?

    October 9, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  15. Rob

    Meanwhile, millions of people are walking the labyrinth of starvation. Spiritual narcissists, such as this phoney flake are worshipers of the ME so special religion. So vain.... so useless.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • bitnar

      You are basically poo-pooing someone's thought process.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • bitnar

      So angry. So bitter. Equally useless. How do you know this woman doesn't take action after she has spent time thinking about a solution?

      October 9, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • EHSdude

      Hey Rob, you hit the nail on the head!

      October 9, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So's posting on an anonymous board and finding fault with everyone you dislike. Do you have a point other than the one on your head?

      Why don't you set an example and sell your computer, then use the proceeds to feed the poor?

      October 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  16. Eric G

    Meditation can provide clarity. It allows one to organize thoughts and apply reason and logic to their current situation without emotional intrusion. Some find it necessary to insert their belief system and world view into this process, but it is not necessary, and in most cases, counter productive.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Peace2All

      Hey Eric... It's been awhile. I hope that all is well.


      October 9, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  17. Mike

    Just to clarify for all of those other nut jobs that think anything negative being said here is by atheists: I am not an atheist. I believe firmly, as a reasonable theist just as Sally and all of her supporters, that every tree I see is a special child of God. And then I cry, because that pine tree amid the oaks is in reality my special friend named Bob. He's got a name people! Sob. Sob. Sob. *Yoga Pose for the Cameras*

    October 9, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • DocD

      What a bunch of new age silliness.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  18. bitnar

    I usually hate reading the Belief Blog. But a lot of the comments here missed the point. I am not religious or particularly spiritual. I believe in emotions and intellect. But the part of the article that struck home with me was 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." Have you ever tried to spot something in a picture (a puzzle), and once someone pointed it out to you it was obvious? Clarity and communication are the keys. She finally understood something, and she communicated this to her son, and it helped him. I applaud that.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  19. kathy

    For some reason I cannot reply to Rose's post, but I would like to respectfully disagree with her that this is "Just another indulgence of extremely rich people." It is not.

    Last year I helped an Eagle Scout build a labyrinth in Charlotte's inner city at an African American Church. This church is located in one of the poorest and roughest areas of town. . yet because of the partnership with my church, the members of their congregations had walked a labyrinth and understood what an incredible spiritual tool it could be. . . . The labyrinth cost less than $2000 to build, lots of love and sweat equity went into it. .and it has blessed the members of that congregation, and others living in the neighborhood.

    Most labyrinths are not personal labyrinths. They are built at retreat centers, churches, parks (there is a wonderful labyrinth in the waterfront park in Georgetown, just outside of DC) and even in business parks.

    The labyrinth is not just for the wealthy. It is for everyone. The only requirement for walking the labyrinth is that you come with "An open mind."

    I would like to invite those who are critical to try walking one. ..

    October 9, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Joseph Mzutrnski

      the Godless are always defensive because they know, in the end, they will at long last turn to God and not their ridiculous "science" that now claims there is an infinite number of universes rather than finally admit we live in a created Universe, with a Creator, and His laws....

      October 9, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Joseph Mzutrnski

      Wow... way to go, Joe. You just made yourself sound like an ignorant a-s-s with that comment.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Aezell

      @Joey "rather than finally admit we live in a created Universe" Why would anyone sane admit to that when there is ZERO evidence? Meanwhile, science uses the same laws you say are "ridiculous" to be able to make the computer processor you used to be able to log on this chat site. Oh but we should believe a 2000 year old book of fairy tales by barbaric middle eastern goat herders over all of the functioning technology in front of our face right?

      You are an intellectual joke.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • EHSdude

      Hi Kathy. Actually that is *exactly* what this is. The indulgence of a wealthy nincompoop. People who are so prideful and so vane so as to refuse to recognize that they are imperfect beings in an imperfect world will do and say anything to assuage their empty lifestyle. Whether it's a labyrinth or some new age yogi, or scientology, the result is still the same. Foolish misdirection.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Freethinksman

      @joseph: You're confusing something you have chosen to believe without evidence for something that actually exists. Certainty without evidence is called credulousness or religious faith, and contrary to what you have been told, it is not a virtue. For those who cannot stand living in an uncertain world, it offers a wet blanket of comfort. For those who embrace the uncertainty, and live good lives without having been commanded by an imaginary jailer to do so, life is a wonderful set of mysteries. Science *is* marginalizing religion, and the more we learn, the more obvious it becomes that this one life we have is more valuable than can be imagined. Take off the religious blinders and you'll immediately appreciate how lucky you really are to be alive.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  20. musings

    Outside a prehistoric tomb in Ireland, Bru na Boyne, there are "megaliths" – carved stones, with swirling patterns which nobody has deciphered. But they seem to some to be the paths of stars in the heavens, as seen from earth, over the seasons. Similar cultures existed in parts of France and elsewhere. I'm not sure we even know why the cathedral floors, where you can see these labyrinths, were constructed. Was it something which had nothing to do with the Mass and christianity? Was it something earlier brought in like many of the gargoyles and mythologies? Anyway, the central experience seems to be meditative, and creative. It worked for Sally, and it helped her.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:36 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
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.