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. krussell25

    Stories like this are what has destroyed my sagging faith.
    Christians, muslims, jews, and SCIENTOLOGISTS all have experiences like this, and they all somehow think it is proof that THIER religion is the right one, and that THIER god is with them.

    I think that when people are desperate they are highly impressionable.
    I do not think that the god of the bible exists, and these stories are the reason so many others do.

    If this is what this woman needs to support her son, then i'm glad she found it. However, i think her extrapolation to an all powerful being is a case of seeing what she wanted to see, even if it isn't there.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  2. Malkntnt

    Personal experience aside, which is great and good for her, this article is just an ad. The ad is focused on her son's book and website. Money. She might as well have said "I saw a money tree in the woods" (versus a pine tree). This is what I find tragic. Oh well.

    October 10, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  3. Jim

    Does a corn maze count?

    October 10, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  4. ryan

    jesus christ

    October 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  5. Paul

    I find it amazing how many bitter people there are in this country and how easy it is for them to say something critical about someone else. This woman wrote of her experience. Pehaps it was in hope of helping someone else who may be at the point she was at when she found the "labyrinth". Perhaps she wrote it to write something for the sake of writing something. If you found another path, if you never needed clarity and you are all that and a box of chocolates, good for you, but the sheer bitterness I read in many of these comments is sickening. You all should be ashamed of yourselves. Obviously what ever "path" you did find or are on didn't do much to make you better people.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • chidanand

      very true and very rightly mentioned.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • geeeno

      paul, you need to walk a labyrinth yourself. all perspectives are gifts for you to use.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • matthew

      Here here. Live and let post and don't be a troll.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  6. citizenUSA

    I'm glad she found a device that helped her. Unfortunately for me I can't add Labyrinthing to my other rituals, Zen gardening, aura cleansing, dream catching, juicing and Zumba.

    October 10, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Johnny B

      How about meditating to Transcendental Tones?

      October 10, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  7. Michael

    What a pack of complete loony hooey. I swear, I think some of these people in the public eye got completely nuts once they get some notoriety or fame.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:49 am |
    • GEZUS

      Yea, I am sick of all of those Christians, Jews, Mormons, Baptists, and Muslims.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • aa

      darn, I agree with you. People have some silly little experience and we all have to know about it. If this labrinth crap is so useful then lets see something concrete like a mathematical theorem for which there can be no debate; otherwise I think you are full of it

      October 10, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  8. hmmmmi

    good for her, but sad for the slab of cement on the land in her quest for reconnecting to herself and nature. typical new age materialism. most labrynths are generally made with rocks and don't leave a permanent statement. clearly this is her personal ego machinery, like her exercise bike.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • DoingThisForYears

      I know, it's hard to take her seriously when she's talking about her cement path – seems she might have missed the point.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  9. The Humanist

    What a pity that contemplation and critical thought are new concepts to Ms. Quinn. Even more astonishing is the fact that she thought these concepts were so cutting-edge that she had to write a column about them. Seriously...can she hear herself?

    October 10, 2011 at 6:58 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Read the idiotic comments to this article and you'll see that the raggedy-azzed masses are completely ignorant about labyrinths. Ms. Quinn didn't write as if they were new, but she might as well have.

      "New age mumbo-jumbo" is one phrase that's been used on here.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  10. Ernest

    What people are describing here is nothing new, since the foundations of humanity's beginnings people have known they could enter altered states of consciousness, that enable them to quiet their mind so as to tune out the outside world & their own internal voice, which tends to range from a quiet whisper to a loud roar, depending on how much stress we are under. A real world labyrinth serves this purpose, by blocking out the outside world physically, from those within. We see this too via sweat lodges, saunas, etc, that like wise separate one from the hustle & bustle from the outside world. This effect can be magnified through the use of subdued lighting via candles or torches, by adding relaxing, rhythmic music, chanting or singing, etc. Mood altering substances ranging from chocolate, tobacco, or even pot, mushrooms & even heavier substances. I'm not demeaning the author's experience, I just discount the concept that its unique to Christianity or people of faith. As for those who denounce the author for using the labyrinth rather than talking to god directly, well since all religion including Christianity is based on faith & belief, everyone's view of god or any other higher power will vary from person to person, as will how they perceive how best to worship or pray to who ever or whatever they worship. If you read your good book, it says not to judge others, & not to speak as to god's will, for by doing so you are committing the sin of being a false profit. The one thing I can't stand is people who try & tell others, how they should have gotten through a crisis, & those who use someone Else's illness or death as an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon & start preaching. Just because someone's faith is different doesn't give you license to shove your faith down their throats.

    October 10, 2011 at 5:55 am |
    • WhiteKnight

      My friend, it seems you are preaching to the preachers. What's the word for that?...mmm, something to think about. Also, with all your fine writing you refer to a profit?!?! Do you mean prophet? I think your attempt to enlighten the public was lost in your own ego. Not a sermon, just a thought.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  11. SE Wright

    Labyrinth? Why not pray to the God of the Universe that created labyrinths and – by the way – you!

    You might be amazed by the Grace you will receive from God. Labyrinths are not known for their Grace-giving ways are they?

    October 10, 2011 at 2:30 am |
    • ElisabethinCA

      Well since you are telling the author to look to god instead of a labyrinth...why don't you look up where Labyrinths started. and where you can find the most well known ones...Ok I will tell you so you don't have to go digging... CHURCHS. Never ceases to amaze me that the most holy of holy "christians" always are judging someone.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • skeptic

      It's easier to judge others than to look in the mirror and accept the insanity of your own beliefs.

      October 10, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  12. Central Scrutinizer

    My fellow Americans, until such time as an Atheist, an Agnostic, an openly ho-mose-xual person, or any other minority can be seriously considered for political office, particularly the presidency, then I hang my head in shame as an American. Sure, Obama is half black and that is a step. But where are the Asians, Africans, Mexicans, Gays, Atheists, Agnostics and all other minorities? Scr-ew the Christians! Let some intelligent folks move the country forward for a change. The Christian Right are liars, cheats, thieves and charlatans. The Dems just lie to fit in. Americans, let’s take back our country! The time is now! Call out the politicians on their lies. Call out the banks on their thievery. Take Wall Street money away from the politicians. Smart people in Congress, that should be our mantra, Carry on with common sense or we are doo-ed. It is up to us to remove them!

    October 10, 2011 at 1:49 am |
    • Jerkface

      How about instead of focusing on race we focus on who can do the job right, regardless of race or religion? That, my friend, is true equality. The fact is, your desire to put someone in office based on their race is... you guessed it... RACIST.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:17 am |

    My church....Methodist.... has had a labyrinth for about two years now. Methodistm is about as inocuous as
    it can get in the arena of dogma and doctrine. Personally, I've never walked a labyrinth, but I do not doubt the
    power of the journey for people seeking inner reflection and peace. Too many of us are in turmoil, physical,
    mental, and spiritual probably because we have never taken the time to isolate ourselves from worldy
    distractions and contemplate our inner selves and the meaning of our lives. In my circle of friends are
    several Buddhists. Much of Buddhism is about spiritual discernment achieved from intense inner reflection,
    which is the essence of the labyrinth experience.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  14. Steve

    I walk the labyrinth daily and it has solved many, if not all, of my problems. I walk in circles for 30 minutes then, when I reach the center, I have a box of Twinkies. I wolf down all the Twinkies. I have gained 50 pounds but personal appearance is not the objective here. For those who are slaves to their waistline, I pity you.

    Anyway, after I eat my box of Twinkies, I crash from the sugar high and usually sleep for 6-7 more hours. When I awake, my troubles are gone. That labyrinth works miracles. Anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.....

    October 10, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • ElisabethinCA

      Hellooooooooo pot calling kettle.....

      October 10, 2011 at 2:53 am |
    • Hellooooooooo

      Helloooooo, Sense of Humor calling ElisabethinCA...

      October 10, 2011 at 2:59 am |
  15. Tim

    So, is her son's name Quinn Quinn?

    October 10, 2011 at 1:14 am |
    • Roger Rogers

      What's wrong with that that?

      October 10, 2011 at 5:05 am |
    • Ken C

      Actually the son's name is Quinn Bradlee. Sally Quinn is married to Ben Bradlee.

      October 10, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  16. Jenn

    This could be improved if she threw in David Bowie and a few musical numbers.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • Hank

      Don't forget the muppets!

      October 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  17. jmgaley


    October 10, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  18. Michelle

    I love this article.

    I have heard of the labyrinth but didn't really know anything about it.

    I love her description of how it helped her.

    However, some of the "skeptic" comments here are hilarious, even though I disagree with them!

    Especially the one about her naming her son Quinn Quinn! 🙂

    ok,I digress. I like this article!

    October 10, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  19. BillInLA

    If pastor Jeffress thinks mormonism is a cult, wait 'til he gets a taste of Sally Quinn.

    October 10, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  20. 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."

    October 9, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
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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.