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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. Reality

    From p. 15:

    Greg [Sa-rgent] is right that ["The Village"] stems from the no-torious Sally Quinn article about the Clintons.[6] But it's more than that. It's sho-rthand for the permanent DC ruling cla-ss who have mana-ged to co-nvince themselves that they are sim-ple, pu-rita-nical, bou-rgeois bur-ghers and farmers, even though they are actually celebrity millionaires influencing the most powerful government on earth. It's about their pho-niness, their pre-tense of speaking for "average Americans" when it's clear they haven't the va-guest clue even about the average Americans who work in their local Starbucks or drive their cabs. It's about their into-lerable san-ctimony and hyp-ocritical prov-incialism, pretending to be shocked about things they all do, creating social rules for others which they themselves ignore."

    (hyphens added to defeat the dredded word filter. Never determined which word (s) were targeted. )

    October 9, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  2. Zippy

    A high-fiber diet gave me a spiritual experience and changed my life.
    To each his (or her) own.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  3. Ryan

    We can attribute anything we want to God...or unicorns...or a toaster flying next to an asteroid in one of Jupiter's rings... silly goofy religious people and their silly goofy ideas. Ugh.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Kelly

      ugh, yourself. Spirituality helps many people get through things in life. As long as they aren't hurting anyone, let them be.

      October 10, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  4. wolfe

    The Labyrinth changed my life too! All those close-up shots of David Bowie's crotch scarred me for life!

    October 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  5. liz1388

    Ms. Quinn doesn't say when she told her son about the first labyrinth experience with the pine tree. I can't imagine why she wouldn't have shared her maze experience in some form as soon as she got home. Seems logical that the story could inspire him to focus on the maze part of the test. No supernatural miracle there. Just natural human inspiration.

    Some people do seem to find more inspiration when natural settings are formally arranged by humans. Order and balance bring them comfort and the ability to focus. How nice she can afford her own elaborate garden. I hope she didn't cut down any pines to create it.

    For myself. I much prefer wild nature. I like to walk along an undeveloped river near where I live. Just muddy, meandering dirt paths beside a crooked stream, crowded by un-manicured trees, bushes and weedy growth, beautiful in all seasons. Makes me feel like part of the world and dearly protective of it. To each her own according to her wallet and her needs, I guess.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  6. KatranM

    When I went back to my alma mater, Bryn Mawr, I was pleased to see a labyrinth had been installed on a quiet out-of-the-way lawn for the students to take a break out from their busy day to ground and center. It's wood chips and grass. It appears to be the Chartres design.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • Jim

      If I'm paying for a kid at Bryn Mawr, she better have a book in her hand studying while she walks the labyrinth.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  7. Jessie

    If you really think about it, you don't even need the labrynth. You have the power within yourself to center yourself and find clarity. The labyrnth might help some people I guess, but I don't think you really need it. Wherever you are, consider this point in space as just as sacred as any other place on the Earth. Why should a few feet away over there be more sacred than the spot you are already standing in?

    October 9, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • steveinmo

      Very good point Jessie. I can get just as much meditation time, or even prayer, just by hiking a scenic, quiet peaceful trail, or even when walking behind my mower while mowing the yard. All you need is a way to shut out the outside world for the privelege of either.

      October 9, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  8. birdybell

    Sally I too have walked a labyrinth at a beautiful place on Whidbey Island (Washington Puget Sound) and it is meaningful and peaceful. I walked it while on yoga retreat, so I have to also correct you that lying in corpse pose is also called Sivasana (NOT chaturanga, which is plank pose, or a push up)!

    October 9, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  9. Diane

    Well, it looks like a great thing to be able to do but how many of us can get a replica of a labyrinth created in our backyards? I live in an apartment so I don't even HAVE a backyard.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  10. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    I see Dickie is face-down on the floor again, having imbibed too much of the "communion wine", as he likes to think of it. Goodnight, Dickie. Get cracking on that English language mastery, honey-bun. You need a lot more practice before you actually make sense!

    Good luck!

    October 9, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  11. Tony Baker

    Do you remember that girl on the high school newspaper staff, and year book staff, and debate team, etc....etc....etc..
    Well this is her, again, but now an old lady.....trying once again......to be important.
    I want my 4 minutes back......

    October 9, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  12. cm

    Love labyrinths!

    October 9, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I do, too. I don't find religious meaning in them, but I think the symmetry of them is beautiful.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • CJEH

      Oddly enough, Tom- the symmetry of them is one of the reasons many early church labyrinths were destroyed. Ones like the Chartres labyrinth are very mathematically precise, and were designed at the height of the 'sacred geometry' movement, which later church doctrine decided was 'evil'.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I didn't know that. Thanks. I wonder if the idea that symmetry is somehow "evil" has anything to do with the pervasive notion of the trinity.

      October 10, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  13. Olaf Big

    My children, I have just founded a new religion. I drew a circle and have been trying to fit a square into this circle for the last four hours. When I start seeing double the state of unity with God is achieved. Now, children start praying and don't forget to send me your donations.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • cm

      Olaf your village called - they miss you.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  14. rand

    Her son's name is Quinn.and her last name is Qunin? Doesn't that make her son Quinn Quinn?

    October 9, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • GaryD3

      Her husband's name is Bradlee and the child has his father's name.

      Quinn Bradlee. Not Quinn Quinn.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • CCC

      Not if it her maiden name. some ppl back east use thier names as a childs first name. he may have his fathers last name.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  15. Jim

    It's called "walking", and combined with "relaxation" and "meditatation" while doing the walking, one can acheive an innermost peace unlike that ever experienced in a a normally narcissitic and overly-busy life. The cracks on a sidewalk are just as effective as a labyrinth.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  16. okaaaayy

    Seriously? When is Sally Quinn going to stop talking about herself? And using her kid as fodder for her narcissistic ramblings?

    October 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When you stop reading and commenting on her articles and she stops getting paid to write them. Do your part.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  17. PRISM 123

    There are many different paths a person can take into spirituality. But not all that seems good and even proves to be profitable is safe. This is hard to understand for many people, especially in our pluralistic culture that has lost discernment between what is the truth and what is a merely an opinion. WSe live in an age where many voices alure hungy souls.... But what, or rather WHO is behind them, it's teh rea issue that neds to be searched out....

    October 9, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What?

      October 9, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Howie76

      went over someones head.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah, PRISM's.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  18. kimsland

    I see this lady has already made a concrete slab, except some immature kids have drawn all over it.
    Anyway time to erect the pool. That would be a great spot for it, and I'm pretty sure you'd get more satisfaction and exercise.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  19. Howie76

    As long as I have my own personal labyrinth I can ignore the disenfranchised and my life is in focus.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • kimsland

      Ha Ha Ha ha
      Good one.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  20. abby

    our church has a labyrinth and it is a wonderful experience whether you do it once or many times....

    October 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • kimsland

      I'm just visualizing this queue of people in your church pushing and shoving, saying I'm next.
      Guys you are just walking cement with lines, try walking along the footpath, you'll get the same result.
      Strangely I prefer walking on grass and the earth, or even on sand at the beach, but walking around circles on concrete or bricks would not be fun or enlightening, it honestly would be dumb.

      October 9, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Just wondering, kims, have you ever even seen a labyrinth or tried walking one?

      October 9, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Somehow, I doubt kims CAN walk; she sounds like she's stoned or drunk.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • kimsland

      At least I have my eyes open Tom tom tom tom tom.
      And by the way, I walk past a church most days (as we all should) and have a laugh to myself.
      If I'm with my kids we all point and laugh at the foolish church, its very uplifting. Have you tried it? How do you know if you haven't tried it?

      October 9, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Don't need to. I simply let others believe as they choose. As long as they're not demanding that I live according to their beliefs, I have no problem with what others do.

      Why do you, jackazz?

      October 10, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I wonder what people who pass you on the street must think when they see some whackaloon like you pointing at churches and laughing, with a passel of brats in tow.

      I'll bet the people in your town call you "that nutjob" behind your back. And they probably make sandwiches for your kids out of pity.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:37 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.