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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. Luke

    Labyrinths are freaking great, I love to stomp around my cool labyrinth and gore athenian youths with my horns

    October 9, 2011 at 6:19 am |
  2. BillInLA

    The self-absorbed hogwash that rich people get into.

    Sally, you were never really that insightful as a Post writer. Elizabeth Bumiller, who followed you on the "party" beat, has a lot more brains and insight.

    You look like an eeejit out there. Kind of like the dummy under the tractor. But at least they knew that was a joke. You, sadly, don't see what a joke you are.

    October 9, 2011 at 6:15 am |
  3. ***Dude***

    Hey Retro, did ya fall down and hit your head in da tub?

    October 9, 2011 at 5:32 am |
  4. Herby Sagues

    What a waste of time. So this is "religion" now? This is a spiritual experience, at most, but not a religious one. And a pretty mundane one at that.
    A person goes and walks a labyrinth. Then he sees some metaphores around her. Later, she begins to like labyrinths. His boy has problems, one day walks a labyrinth and later he's found to have improved (no causal link is ever researched, just some loose correlation).
    is this journalism? Really? It is not even tabloid quality, come on CNN!!!

    October 9, 2011 at 5:24 am |
    • dg

      The differences between a religious and a spiritual experience are in how one would perceive it if there is any difference at all since all religious experiences are spiritual experiences but not necessarily the other way around. That's pretty simple logic.

      Spiritual experiences can be had through a mult.itude of ways mundane to exhaustive, the prior usually much more difficult than the latter. Most spiritual techniques are quite foolish and ridiculous when looking in from the outside and because many are foolish and ridiculous it isn't surprising that she is getting the response she is here but this one as mundane, boring and eneventful as it sounds can lead to experiences that would surprise most and can be very illuminating. These kinds of techniques can take quite a bit of practice and in the process you might feel so stupid that you could short circuit the mental process that is the impetus to such experiences. It really is surprising how many usually intelligent people are so ready to ridicule things they don't understand or have absolutely no experience with. The fact that accounts like this are usually embellished with religious and new age symbolism and vernacular doesn't help how these paractices are perceived but if they took the time to research and explain why biologically and scientifically meditation can affect the human mind than they might have better luck. But since there is such a widespread prejudice against the illogical practices of religion and the new age those few practices that can be scientifically tested like meditation, which labyrinth walking is a subset of, are summarily brushed off as the same as the practices that have no scientific basis. What is interesting to me is that it reveals that even those that think they are very intelligent and at least open minded to practices that can be proven effective through scientific methods, brush them off and reveal their unsubstantiated prejudices. Some atheist comments proving they can be as dogmatic and self righteous as those they condemn which I find sad and hysterically funny at the same time.

      And though this practice may be a waste of time to you, someone who has exhausted all that the medical establishment, therapy, and even medication can provide may find that this is the only thing that has been successful in relieving stress and worry and this works for her, who are you to ridicule it esp coming from such a place of ignorance. Meditation can often alleviate stress where medicine and therapy fail. And just because it is mundane or you can't access the mindstates created by such practices doesn't mean it doesnt work for her and she shouldn't tell others about it to possibly help them. Though I wish she would have ditched the religious/new age aspects of her writing but this would have butchered her article to a couple of sentences.if she would have stuck to scientific reasons and why these techniques fall under such than she may have had a chnace of convincing a few people but as the comments here show the prejudice against religion and the new age is high and in many cases it is for good reason but not necessarily this one. Unfortunately it has taken me quite a bit of research and experimentation to come to the conclusions I have.

      October 9, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  5. lyd

    If it works for you, who am I to knock it? Glad you found what you were looking for.

    October 9, 2011 at 5:19 am |
    • Rational Americans

      Hey, people can believe anything they please. But as a nation, we need to step away from the mindset that those beliefs need to be respected.

      This is retarded, and should be treated as such.

      When people believe in magic or other stupid things, they need to be shamed into shutting up about it and not encouraged to wear it like a big dumb badge of honour.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:23 am |
    • Atheist

      Actually, Sally Quinn seems on a doubtful quest to find a happy overlap of the religious, the spiritual and even the atheistic. That a labyrinth makes sense to her maybe reflects the less figurative labyrinthine high society she finds herself caught up in.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • dg

      Though the authors descriptions and approach are a bit ridiculous the underlying technique is perfectly rational and effective. Labyrinth walking is just a form of meditation and I find it interesting that neither of you are knowledgeable enough to see this. Do you both often speak about subjects you know nothing about? I don't usually spout off about anything having to do with sports because I am not well read , educated or experienced on the intricacies, history or fine elements of most sports. I do write about the subjects of religion, metaphysics, the occult, cult religions, psychology, and related subjects because I am well read, educated and experienced with them. Niether of you appear to be educated, well read or experienced in this articles topics and therefore your responses are no more than uninformed opinions that are a waste of peoples time. If everyone that posted knew what they were talking about than some great debate could be had but as it stands now we just have a bunch of people spouting off on subjects they don't really know about. I suppose I am foolish for hoping conversation here would be more productive but occasionally I do find the rare intelligent and well informed response or the opporunity to correct someones knowledge that genuinely is putting forth what they have learned on a subject thus far.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Amber

      wow Rational Americans...what you have just said defeats the whole idea of being American. What do you suggest next? That we should stone people to death if their views conflict with what some deem as "normal" religion or beliefs? Maybe the circle you come from has a set of social mores that dictate we should shun and shame others whose beliefs go against your set of accepted morals and beliefs ,but don't make a generalization that we ALL as "rational Americans" should feel as you do. Shaming others over their beliefs is exactly the kind of psychological abuse that should never be tolerated and is a type of bullying.So you might not believe in a higher power or whatnot: good for you. That is your right to believe as you wish. Please do not label yourself Rational Americans though, as if you were some kind of representative for us all, since our nation was founded on religious freedom and the escape of religious persecution. Rationality is not static. Rationality is dynamic and depends on the context. You can be a rational being and still have beliefs that can seem to defy the rationality of another person.

      By the way: We aren't in England so it is honor, not honour.

      October 9, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  6. Sad

    And sadder, I'm sure she's not alone in this

    October 9, 2011 at 5:16 am |
  7. Bob Hamilton

    One time, I saw a cloud, and then I knew everything would be better. And from that day forward, everything was the same. No wait. Different, I mean better, wait. I know! Everything was all cloudy and stuff.

    October 9, 2011 at 5:06 am |
    • Rational Americans

      So it's you I have to thank for all the clouds. Nowadays, the dark side clouds everything!

      October 9, 2011 at 5:11 am |
    • BillInLA

      Methinks thou mocketh Sally Quinn.

      Hope so.

      October 9, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • John Richardson

      -eth is the archaic third person singular. You want the archaic second person singular suffix -est

      October 9, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  8. elizabeth

    I think it takes courage to share this in a world where ridicule is a given response. The whole purpose of these articles on CNN.com is to look at faith and religious belief/practice in the U.S. That's why the articles are here. If you're not interested, skip them.

    October 9, 2011 at 4:59 am |
    • retrostar1000

      If Christians were not so evil we all might be interested in this article. They have killed more people in the name of religion than in all of the wars of all mankind combined. Christianity- the greatest killing machine of all time. Christianity may have been a good thing for one hot minute thousands of years ago, but it has become so perverted and disgusting it is not even recognizable. They have also been poisoning our political system over time with their ridiculous, over the top social agenda that has nothing to do with governance. Religion is nothing but big business.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:19 am |
  9. Rational Americans

    See? This is why we make fun of you, religious people.

    You're gullible, and believe in things that don't exist. And you're PROUD of this.

    It's called willful ignorance. Please stop.

    October 9, 2011 at 4:59 am |
    • TheBossSaid

      Probably like your believing that extra terrestrials exist without proof.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:03 am |
    • Rational Americans

      I believe the possibility exists. That's a far cry from believing they exist.

      Would I bet $20 on it? Sure. $100? Nah.

      Incidentally, there is much more evidence for ET than talking snakes, oceans parting, or any of that other crap.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:09 am |
    • dg

      Well, we would probably be better off without your arrogance as well. The author in a roundabout manner happened upon an ages old technique, meditation, to help her in dealing with the anxiety, fear, apprehension or whatever mental issue she is dealing with regarding her child. While I would have no problem with people pointing out to her that she has embellished and wrapped out a bunch of unecessary religious/new agey concepts around the simple technique of meditation, it still doesn't make what she is doing any less effective. That very few here can see through the psycho/relgio/mystical babble, the fact that meditation works seems to be completely overlooked and this attribute to most people not being knowledgeable on this subject but still feeling self righteous enough to brow beat her as well as mistakenly thinking that what she is doing is worthless. This is one of those instances where you are acting no better than those you often raili agaisnt.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  10. Bob

    Quinn Quinn? No wonder the poor kid needed therapy.

    October 9, 2011 at 4:56 am |
    • Amy

      I'm assuming the author writes under her maiden name and her son has a different last name...seems pretty obvious.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:44 am |
    • Sydney P.

      Sally Quinn a "maiden"? Geez, is every reader of this junky site under age 30?

      October 11, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  11. Herf

    A bliss ninny who is rich enough to build their own concrete labyrinth. Ah the irony. 🙂

    Although I am happy that things have worked out well for her child, there are more logical ways of achieving the same thing without resorting to supernatural mumbo jumbo.

    October 9, 2011 at 4:48 am |
    • dg

      While the authors beliefs and words may make it appear what she is doing is mumbo jumbo, in all actuality what she is doing is a form of meditation and is perfectly logical practice to be doing. Though there are other ways to meditate that are much more simple and don't require any elaborate or expensive construction it doesn't ake away from the fact that the supernatural or mumbojumbo has nothing to do with why what she is doing is effective.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  12. Christopher

    It's sad what passes for journalism these days when an article like this is front page news.

    October 9, 2011 at 4:32 am |
    • NJBob

      Agree!

      October 9, 2011 at 4:45 am |
    • Mitch

      Amen. That's pretty pathetic.

      October 9, 2011 at 4:54 am |
    • Tourn

      This was listed under Religion/Blogs... hardly the "front page"

      October 9, 2011 at 5:05 am |
  13. Joshua

    What does hindu yoga have to do with the Christian faith? Honestly ...

    October 9, 2011 at 4:26 am |
  14. snarks

    Liberalism, the greatest mental disorder. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElJFYwRtrH4

    October 9, 2011 at 3:53 am |
    • dg

      Snarks, while cherry picking the most extreme examples of kook liberalism is the easiest route to take, this example hardly represents the mainstream liberalism of most that adhere to such a political/philosophical beliefs. Similar examples could easily be cherry picked from the opposite side of the spectrum.

      Your approach is just cheap rhetoric used by extremists from either side.

      Maybe those with open minds may listen to you if you were a bit more intellectually honest.

      October 9, 2011 at 4:05 am |
  15. snarks

    The labyrinth – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElJFYwRtrH4

    October 9, 2011 at 3:52 am |
  16. EB

    I had an interesting experience on a labyrinth a few years ago. I was in upstate New York at a retreat house. I was not participating in any of the religious activitie, but one afternoon I took a walk and found a labyrinth on the property. It was late winter, and a few days earlier there was a snow fall. I "quickly" walked the labyrinth, and found the experience interesting, but nothing particularly special. I walked it again at a much slower pace. (I am not a fast walker, and the slow pace was natural for me.) I listened to the crunch of the snow under my boots. I noticed grass trying to shoot through the snow. I could hear the Hudson River flowing in the background, and yes, I noticed details on trees that I had not noticed earlier. I wouldn't say the experience was "religious" but it was very peaceful – and that was just fine. I found a peace within that wasn't there earlier – or that I just hadn't noticed. And that was just fine.

    By the way, mazes are made to confuse one. Labyrinths are for guiding, or following, or just walking. They are just labyrinths. How Zen.

    October 9, 2011 at 3:50 am |
    • Give me a break

      A labyrinth has always been a form of maze. Saying it is for "guiding" is New Age wank-speak.

      October 9, 2011 at 3:58 am |
    • Amy

      I like that...sort of a form of meditation, which can often result in revelations. Nothing wrong with that. People are so rude around here.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:47 am |
    • dg

      Yes, labyrinths are a meditational tool used to confuse or keep the conscious mind busy or occupied. Your insight is much more perceptive than many posts here. It seems many people do not realize that even in psychology our conscious minds can sabotage our thinking. Meditation is a technique that can affect the sub/latent conscious and therefore the conscious. Labyrinths are not necessary but some times people find that elaborating on simple techniques can make them more effective, which is one of the principle of ritual and religion. Most religions utilize sets of techniques that span the scale from the mundane to the bizarre and then paint them up in theatrics that are unnecessary. Many occultists today realize this and experiment with techniques and whichever religious theatrics they find most enjoyable whether it be catholicism, voudon, or satanism. all which appears quite silly looking when viewed from the outside but as long as belief is nott used as a ends to means and is used as a means to an end and it is forgotten when dealing with the real world, than no harm no foul.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  17. tbus

    why did people in the bible have magical powers but no one does today?

    October 9, 2011 at 3:44 am |
    • Well Obviously

      Because the magic in the Bible is fiction. Like the Magic in the Book of Mormon or the Koran or whatever. Totally invented bullshit.

      October 9, 2011 at 3:46 am |
    • Rational Americans

      Lets combine the book of Mormon with the Koran. we can call it:

      The Book of Moran!

      Morans.

      October 9, 2011 at 5:02 am |
  18. tillzen

    Light leads to light just as dark leads to darkness. Those who believe in nothing must denigrate those who seek but to we who travel the road of enlightenment the haters and the ignorant are just litter and road kill beneath our wheels.

    October 9, 2011 at 3:41 am |
    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      I see you took a double dose of your smug pills today to go along with your extra scoop of narcissistic arrogance.

      October 9, 2011 at 3:49 am |
    • Rational Americans

      The swimmer swims in the fast moving current, two mighty forces, yet null.

      Look, I can be retarded too! Yay!

      October 9, 2011 at 5:04 am |
    • John Richardson

      Enlightened people run other people over? How zen!

      Oh, this DOES put me in a Haiku mood!

      The road winds slowly through the labyrinthine hills
      Splat, splat splat! The smell of blood and asphalt!

      October 9, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  19. John

    I wish I could do this.

    October 9, 2011 at 3:24 am |
    • dg

      You can, you just need to get off your b.utt and as Nike says "Just do it!"

      Anyone can walk a labyrinth, but many will not experience anything enlightening without practice. The thing with practicing any form of meditation and the reason it is laughed at by atheists and other dogmatic types is that the practice appears foolish and ridiculous from the outside. But the simple fact is that meditation, of which labyrinth walking is a form of, has scientifically proven effects on the human mind and body and for some it does take boring practice to master, much like lucid dreaming.

      Please keep in mind that meditation and certain types of spirituality do not have to have anything to do with religion or supernatural forces or beings but can be based on scientifically proven techniques and sociological facts. Don't believe me, do a little research and you may be surprised. Meditation doesn't require sitting still for hours as even short stints of meditation can be more effective for relieving stress than any medication or therapy. Meditation itself is not at odds with atheism though those that wrap it up in religion or faith like the author of this article do not help how the practice is perceived.

      October 9, 2011 at 4:27 am |
  20. John

    Haters gonna hate...

    October 9, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film

      Stereotypers gonna stereotype . . .

      October 9, 2011 at 3:50 am |
    • joe T.

      Why do you hate?

      October 9, 2011 at 11:54 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.