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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. Colin

    So, the author suggests that the labyrinth somehow used its magic powers to send telepathic assistance to her mentally challanged son who was doing cognitive tests on the other side of the country.

    New Age, religo-hippy garbage.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • El Flaco

      It's like praying for someone to get well. It doesn't help the sick person but the one doing the praying feels better about everything.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Howie76

      The use of the brain walking to the left and right to follow the path makes you focus. Thats all. No magic.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Colin

      Howie, she suggests that her presence at the labyrinth caused her son to do better on the maze portion of the cognitive tests.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  2. Creg

    There is nothing wrong with meditation, or finding ways to calm/focus the mind, but Sally Quinn is wrong about one thing, and that is the definition of what a labyrinth is. This is important as it is the key subject of her entire article. She starts out by saying:

    "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."

    She is incorrect. The definition of a labyrinth is that it is a maze. Look, I don't care if you meditate, that's fine with me, and it's a healthy way to calm the mind, but don't go around trying to redefine something so that it fits around your interpretation of things. Write about the positive aspects of meditation and how it works, but going around telling people that they are wrong about the correct definition of a word, or phrase is wrong unto itself.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Arturo

      Pretty well said..

      October 10, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  3. hogger

    More New Age hype. Real peace and soul saving happens thru the Lord. Meditation only awakens the brain to both good and evil forces existing on the earth. Its a Russian roulette for the mind. Trusting in Jesus will give you the peace so sought after and is no gamble at all.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • El Flaco

      That Jesus guy said he would be right back, but it's been a long time now. I don't think we can trust him.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • herbert juarez

      @el flaco
      It is clear you do not understand what was said,even as those closest to Jesus did not understand.Do not rely on what you have heard and been told regarding the return of Christ.The date and time are predestined by the Father,and like the Advent will occur at the perfect fullness of time.God bless

      October 9, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Atheist

      No, Herbert! The date was May 21, 2011.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  4. Samuel R. Preston, III

    My kids leave so much junk around the house I have to walk through a maze to get from the living room to the kitchen. I broke down and cried after I read this article because now I realize my kids were helping me get to my inner Chi and be at peace with Pikachu. Thank you for this!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  5. Iceaxdave

    When I walked the Labyrinth, I had to fight the Minotaur...an experience that shaped my life. It left me scarred and exhausted, but the amount of courage and strenght the experience bestowed upon me was a seminal moment in time.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • Samuel R. Preston, III

      OMG full-on coffee spew all over monitor...LOL!

      October 9, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • JustPlainJoe

      But did you bring your golden thread?

      October 9, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Jordan

      Hehehe. Thank you for that. Today's going to be happier for it.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  6. El Flaco

    I'm glad that Ms Quinn has found a practice that helps her manage her inner emotions and focus on what is important in her life. It doesn't really matter which spiritual or religious path one chooses – as long as it works for the person who is doing the choosing. The idea that one religion can be 'true' thus rendering the others as false is nonsense.

    You can shop for a religion like shopping for a pair of shoes. Choose the one that fits you best.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • El Dirty

      This is so stupid man

      October 9, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • El Flaco

      Negatory. It is the plain truth. There is nothing stupid in what I wrote.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  7. kyle

    I stopped liking her when she interviewed those freaks the Duggars. And she names her son Quinn when her last name is Quinn. Self absorbed woman..

    October 9, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • BIlly

      Actually his name is Quinn Bradlee......husbands last name is Bradlee......

      Yeah....that's the kind of people they are.

      Spiritual people with autistic kids are hilarious...they always want to blame god for their child...never willing to accept that it was their own BAD genetics that caused it.

      Darwin says you weren't supposed to breed.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  8. Chuck

    So lay off, will ya? If you don't believe what somebody else believes, move along to the next window, please. What is the point in bashing somebody's beliefs? Why the nasty comments and name calling? If there's somebody out there with all the answers I'll bet they don't spend all thier time telling other people how messed up they are. Lighten the puck up feople!!! It's not going to raise your taxes if some lady finds peace by meditating.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  9. TruthPrevails

    There is nothing wrong with meditation if it helps relax the mind and bring inner peace. If this woman needed a piece of man made structure to bring her that peace, so be it. Dealing with a child with a disability is heart-wrenching experience regardless and if this is what it took for her to come to terms, let her be. I don't agree with seeing her son as a tree or whatever but in cases like this, the parent tends to blame themselves instead of the natural genetics that occur. It's not like she is falling for a god or other supernatural being, she is seeking inner peace.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  10. Corwin

    At least when you got to the center of my labyrinth you could transport yourself to anywhere in the universe. Try reading "9 Princes in Amber"...

    October 9, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Chuck

      I read that series! I wish I could find it again, it was really cool. The closer you got to the "center" world, things like gunpowder didn't work, or any kind of majic. Good series!!!

      October 9, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • BIlly

      Terrible series.

      It was like one big long Deus Ex Machina.....sorry that kind of literary device works fine once and a while. If you use it constantly it means you're a terrible writer who can't create the proper situation gracefully and has to force it.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  11. steveinmo

    This article only demonstrates that, once again, man thinks he has the power to heal himself and steps in to interfere where the Lord needs to work. Labyrinths are fun, but meditative, medicinal in nature, able to heal? That's what Church is for.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • El Flaco

      My sawbones tells me that I have cancer. My choices are:
      1. Walk the labyrinth.
      2. Go to church and pray for healing.
      3. Go to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

      Which choice is best for me? I'll be flying to Houston a week from tomorrow.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • herbert juarez

      @el flaco
      Why is it a choice between?Houston is a moment in time,prayer is a moment in time and walking and contemplating is a moment in time.I am not clear on the either/ or aspect of your statement.God bless

      October 9, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • El Flaco

      My belief is that walking the labyrinth and praying for healing are both a waste of time. Neither will result in any improvement in my situation. I believe that the surgeons at MD Anderson will probably remove the tumor in my stomach and I will have a good shot at more years of life.

      Walking the labyrinth and praying for healing are as effective as shopping at the local mall or taking a drive in the country.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • herbert juarez

      We are currently praying for a lady with cancer ,once cured,she has suffered a devastating set back.Heading to a large city for chemo,which she dreaded, it was found that the chemo was not necessary because not only had the spot not grown, it had receded.She has acknowledged God and prayer in her healing and we will continue to pray for her and with her.Many do find peace and comfort in the knowledge that people they might not even know are supporting them in love.God bless

      October 9, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • steveinmo

      @ El Flaco
      By all means if at all possible go to Houston. Prayer is for spiritual healing and help in matters that you or I can't overcome, such as prayer that you and others you'll be with there have the strength and courage to see you condition through, but most importantly to heal your soul or any spiritual sickness, that you might be found Saved and ready for the end when it comes.

      Those who try to infer "failth healing" as an option today have seriously misinterpreted what was written, if they ever understood it in the first place. That power was not passed down after the first Apostles gave up their lives, nor was the witness and example for it needed anymore for the message to spread.

      By all means get treatment, and I pray for you that it will be well. 🙂

      October 9, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • Atheist

      El Flaco, Option 4: Buy distilled water from a homeopath.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • ...

      report all herbert juarez posts as abuse. Just because.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • herbert juarez

      @...
      Only an atheist or a moron would use that logic and reason.God bless

      October 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  12. texgirl2762

    Someone actually got paid for writing this insipid, ridiculous article? Jeez. Contrived, shallow, and above all, boring. And totally fake, I'm sure. "My son = the unique tree" - seriously????

    October 9, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  13. Bo

    The thing that caught my attention with this article was the author's name, I thought I knew her; I was wrong. I've been told that atheists are negitive people, however, this is the first time I have really realized how negitive atheists can be. They attack an article without without really knowing what they are attacking. Even though many labyrinths are found in churches, I think labyrinths have very little with what a person belives, but rather it is a method to help a person meditate. MEDITATION HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION. Meditation has to do with getting intouch with one's self–so why do atheists find that this has anything to do with God or faith? I have to agree much with Sharon's post 3:11a.m. and dg's post 4:27a.m. @Christopher, why do you imply that this is front page news? I feel you just want to be critical, so that is all you could think of?

    October 9, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  14. wow

    This is an amazing example of how human beings, while intelligent, can fool themselves into believing or convincing themselves that anything has meaning. Such as: a 2000-5000 year old book (bible), An idea whose very existence defies all logic and the laws of physics (god), or a stupid stone shape some idiot put into the ground (labyrinth). It truly amazes me that human beings continue to cling to such outdated ideas like faith. Where else do we see concepts from between 2000 and 5000 years ago taken at face value today? Throw in a smattering of selective interpretation of passages, the ever changing position of the church (i.e. divorce, suicide = hell, god = wrath yet today = love), and the selective elimination of entire books from the bible (first council of nicea). How would anyone feel if their neurosurgeon decided to follow ancient egyptian manuscripts when performing their brain surgery instead of following modern accepted and proven techniques? This is the essential nature of religion vs. science. It doesn't take much effort to see that science always wins, it just takes longer to prove its points and become accepted, but when it is accepted it is proven correct.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  15. Cheeseburger

    Whatever.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  16. Sunday

    Quiet Time with God. To Commune with the Creator the Almighty God!

    October 9, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      She wasn't communing with god or anything of the liking...to her this was more spiritual. Being spiritual for some people doesn't always entail the fairy tale god you take as the only acceptable form of being spiritual.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  17. Mitchell Kirby

    Ha @ that picture. Meditation while wearing jewelry and expensive sunglasses kinda goes against every religion that practices meditation.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • herbert juarez

      A vow of poverty is not required of all Christians.There are those who fund great works because God has entrusted them with wealth.It is the love of money that is the root of evil not money itself.God bless

      October 9, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • Ctillery

      I mean if the suns in your eyes and all...

      October 9, 2011 at 8:01 am |
    • ...

      report all herbert juarez posts as abuse. Just because.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  18. esprit ouvert

    I cannot believe the cruelty of these remarks. Even the rich have heartache. I'm sure that it took courage for Ms. Quinn, a card-carrying member of East Coast liberalism, to share such an intimate part of her life, and I suspect that she was motivated by charity: the idea that if it worked for her, it might work for someone else. Is there any possibility that there might be some truth here since Ms. Quinn has managed to offend zealots of the right and the left at the same time!

    As for the labyrinth being "New Age," the practice dates back to at least the Middle Ages. I am surprised that so many people here, who undoubtedly consider themselves liberal and tolerant, ridicule one woman's way of finding peace. What Ms. Quinn experienced – and apparently continues to experience – is a deep connection, a sense of oneness with the universe, life, God – call it what you will. Countless scientists have described the value of meditation on physical health.

    Life can be so difficult for all of us. Let's not ridicule a practice that makes a person more able to handle the difficulties in her life.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  19. drinky

    Oh my gosh lady...get over yourself...it was a maze.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  20. MadDog

    Meditation and yoga that she obviously does helps the mind and the mind controls the body. While one Texas idiot here wears a tinfoil and claims to achieve the same mental focus, he is of course kidding. As the lady suggests it has nothing to do with religion or belief in God. It is the same as taking a few deep breaths and trying to focus in a Corporate office or in a play field! Its mind over matter, if you don't mind it doesn't matter. Our mind thinks up many things in a minute and it tries to sort, the prioritization of a thought is what meditation does. Its deep thinking with a mental filter to shut out distractions. If you don't understand this, then you are with the Texas idiot.

    October 9, 2011 at 7:30 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.