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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. W.G.

    It´s really funny how this is a belief blog and you have atheist on here repeatedly attacking people that actually beieve in something like their jealous or something

    October 13, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  2. June Oros

    Thank you for the article, I have passed it on to others that I know will appreciate it. I am always amazed how and what I and others gain from the labyrinth. It has given me peace and answers while caring for my mother while she was sick. I got a message to write (I'm not a writer) and what to call the "book." I have written an essay but I am still wondering what the "you should write a book and call it..." actually meant.
    It's amazing the different ways people walk the labyrinth. I find that when I haven't walked for some time I will almost run to the center and back out to calm myself. Then I am able to walk the walk that best works for me.
    The friends and family I have shared the labyrinth with always thank me. I never forget to thank the labyrinth and all the souls that make it possible to continue to to benefit from these experiences.
    Thanks Sally for sharing.

    October 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • W.G.

      to J.O.- Now the labyrinth is a person who this lady thanks . This is classic demonic possession . The Bible talks
      about it . How satan appears as an angel of light . Like the mormons and their moroni . Anything to keep you from
      Jesus . Jesus said I am the truth ,the way and the light , nobody comes to the Father but through me . Islam perverts
      the idea of Jesus by saying he did´nt die on the cross even when you have historians from that time saying that He in
      fact was crucified . CNN does all it can to talk people out of a relationship with God . They should name this blog
      "belief in satan " blog

      October 13, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  3. Central Scrutinizer

    My fellow Americans! Take up the cause. Phoock the mormons and christians and Islam, etc. Let truth guide you! We are running out of time. The country and the world is falling apart!! It is up to US!!

    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 in the right direction. 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-med. It is up to us to remove them!

    Right now, only morons and liars can run for office. How does this help America??

    October 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • wondering

      It is OK to bad mouth and hate certain groups if they disagree with you? How can you claim to be so universally accepting when you spew such profanity about some kinds of people?

      October 11, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • W.G.

      Our greatest presidents were Christians , real Christians and not fake christians like mormons or jehovas witnesses

      October 13, 2011 at 6:10 am |
  4. Reality

    Sally Quinn, a dumb blonde, lost on a slab of concrete severely hallucinating due to sun-stroke. Someone call 911 !!!

    =======================================================================================

    October 10, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • freddiefreeloader

      oh. harsh. I read this and thought "what a load of new age crap" It must have been her first time seeing a tree. Maybe she should become a Buddhist if Enlightenment was so easy to come by.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  5. True Story

    This sounds like a unique and interesting way to focus and calm ones-self. I may give it a shot.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  6. george

    Great article! Only wish you had included a photo of it, but that might have diminished the specialness of it for you. Thanks for writing this!

    October 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • george

      My bad! Sorry, I didn't watch the video, just read the article. Again, thanks! 🙂

      October 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  7. Central Scrutinizer

    My fellow Americans! Take up the cause. Phoock the mormons and christians and Islam, etc. Let truth guide you! We are running out of time. The country and the world is falling apart!! It is up to US!!

    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-med. It is up to us to remove them!

    October 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  8. Jasper_Eliot

    To all the pragmatists who find this laughable, I must admit feeling sorry that you've seemingly lost your spiritual way. Perhaps the labyrinth is only a placebo for this woman. Yet, if it acts as a catalyst to help her to focus her energy, resulting in delivering the answers it needs, why do you pragmatists act so jealous? Have you lost your way? Or is your life's purpose really to buy that new BMW or prep 'lil Johnny for his SATs? Is that really what you're living for? A little sad; a little pathetic. Oh? Do I hear you saying that labyrinth walkers are also pathetic? One big difference: She's happy. And how 'ya all doin'? Not so happy?? Yeah, thought so. Buh-bye.

    October 10, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  9. L

    "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."

    No, Sally, your kid isn't more beautiful than other kids. He's just different, like everyone else. Leave it to an overly self-and-child-absorbed mother to think her child is somehow better or more beautiful than other children.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  10. E

    I walked a labyrinth once. It was truly a religious experience, especially after the nachos gave me heartburn. Sigh... yep you can't beat a good State Fair!

    October 10, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Gta

      i love breakfast for ndnier, this post made me so happy!! French toast by far! I love making french toast with challah bread, its so ridiculously delicious. I cook it on the griddle then transfer it to the oven for a couple minutes and it really comes out great.I actually didnt know alot of these tips for cooking meat, I suppose this is because I dont tend to cook alot of meat myself, but its def useful info for the future Theresa recently posted..

      March 4, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  11. yeahalright

    Yeah I have a job I can't hang out in labyrinths. Nice to have money.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  12. Paula

    I'd rather focus and pray to a living God who has a proven track record than a concrete circle.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • yeahalright

      I guarantee you you pray to your god and pray to the concrete circle on the same topic and the result will be the exact same. Every single time.

      Neither has anything to with reality.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Lian

      Posted on Hmm blog siatande sorun var :iyess merak etme bunun 1 a?ustosu da var ??mar?kl?k fln kalmaz sen raad ol

      March 2, 2012 at 3:31 am |
  13. Phil

    You lost me at "is Editor in Chief of On Faith, an online conversation on religion".

    October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  14. Nathan Prophet

    Nice story and I'm glad the labyrinth works for her; however, it is not just an artificial device to use for focus, perspective, and meditation for those who believe in it? There are numerous devices like this, certain forms of yoga as an example. It's a matter of personal belief and what works for you. I just hope she doesn't ascribe "magical powers" to a labyrinth like in the crystal and pyramid fads.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Meditator

      Exactly. It's not about form, but about content. If a certain symbolism makes your consciousness expand, well be it. It's not "praying to the concrete", it's reaching a higher state of awareness. I do that by meditating while playing sounds of nature. Since these sounds are so random, my brain is fully absorbed in concentrating on the subtleties of the sounds, thus I can release my mind from other distracting thoughts and can reach deep states of consciousness. I use the sounds from TranscendentalTones.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  15. KiddSS

    So spiritual enlightenment found in a maze is enriching and fulfilling, but people question Christianity.

    This woman is totally lost in a labyrinth of ignorance and self aggrandizement. It couldn't be all about her son. It had to be about her and her enlightenment in the maze. This is typical CNN tripe.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Floyd

      Mycroft: I believe you hit it right on the head! People do need to think about things now and then, but there's nothing "magical" about a labyrinth (though I liked the movie "Labyrinth" years ago).
      Personally, I like going on a hike in a forest or the mountains. You all can "go your own way" if that works for you.

      October 10, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  16. myweightinwords

    My experience with walking a labyrinth wasn't life altering or anything as momentous as that. It was a number of years ago at a retreat in the California hills. I was having trouble sleeping, and it was really early, just about dawn, when I gave up trying. I decided to get up and take a walk. I ended up at the property's labyrinth just as the sun was coming up.

    Walking into the center of the labyrinth was sort of like walking into myself, it led me inside, and when I paused in the center to meditate I was probably the most relaxed and calm I had been in months, despite a daily meditation practice. Walking back out felt a bit like waking up, and by the time I had walked back to where the big outdoor kitchen was, it was just about time to begin making breakfast. It was a wonderful experience.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  17. T3chsupport

    David Bowie has that effect on people.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • frespech

      So does a couple of valium or Oxy.

      November 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  18. MommyTheorist

    Great article! They should fix the typo in this passage: "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."

    October 10, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  19. mycroft

    You know everyone of her friends and family is dead sick of listening to her prattle on about the Labyrinth...the labyrinth this...the labyrinth that...blah blah blah labyrinth. Seriously get her friends and family together in a room, promise them she will never hear what they say and I guarantee you they rip her labyrinth experience apart. Folks...it's simple...you look for something you want 'spiritually' and you will contrive it's discovery in whatever 'path' you chose. It's a contrivance...a contrivance!!!! Otherwise know in pill popping and medical quackery as the placebo effect!!!

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

      I wonder what your friends (if you even have any) say about you when you're not around.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  20. Tiffany

    What a great idea! This really helps with the idea of living in the now. Focusing on one thing at a time. I want one in my backyard. I truly believe it is akin to praying. Walking the labyrinth could help you work out your deepest troubles. I am going to build one. Thanks for the article CNN, first thing I can actually say I was inspired by in a long time.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • mycroft

      So could just sitting down with a cup of coffee and the TV off and really thinking about your deepest troubles. Why do you need the gimmick of the 'labyrinth' or even 'praying'. Just grow up and focus and think.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's no more a "gimmick" than is doing a pose in yoga. It's one way of focusing thought. No one said you had to do it, and just because it's not your cup of tea doesn't mean those who think it helps them need to "grow up." Grow up yourself and realize that what works for you isn't the only way, mycroft. Mind your own business and let others do the same.

      October 10, 2011 at 1:15 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.