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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. Chedar

    Labyriith is just a very expensive way to do walking mediatation. It works but it is as good as walking in the woods with mindfulness.The key is your mind.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Everything in Moderation

      a labyrinth can be made using street chalk on a driveway or string on a lawn. If you want one made out of a hedge or patterned stone, that's your business, but it is not the labyrinth that is expensive.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  2. lola

    Coming from a mother, any woman obsessed with their son's capabilities is creepy; you sound narcissistic. Labyrinths are cool, but this article is not because I didn't learn a darn thing other than a shallow woman's interpretation of piece of mind.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Floretta

      Wow, so many nasty comments this morning, where to begin? First, The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is not some "pretentious" church (you got the French part right) but a work of medieval art in the High French Gothic style and is very beautiful. Next, for those who didn't "get" the article, she was reflecting on how meditation, using the labyrinth, helps her sort out and clarify in her own mind her problems – your mileage may vary. It is an old custom and works for many people. If it doesn't for you, no big deal. The most peaceful spot on earth I ever found was at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. Works for me.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  3. howalive

    Meditation walking is one of the most clarifying experiences one can have...try it.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  4. Motrek

    When I have problems I ask God about them. I can do that because Jesus' death paid for my sins so I have free access to God at any time, any place. The insights and answers he gives go far beyond merely giving me another way to look at a problem. Sometimes he gives me direction about what I should do, other times he makes the problem go away. Sometimes he guides me to be a solution to someone else's problem. But he always provides the solution and in ways that are amazing. I am not religious. I simply have a real two-way relationship with God. I have faith in him because, at his invitation, I have put him to the test many times he has shown himself to be trustworthy. Pretty cool. No labyrinth required.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • dg

      No God is required either. If I invest enough belief in barney the purple dinosaur he can heal me as well, the problems occur if I don't come back to reality and forget such ridiculous beliefs when I try to interact in reality with others. It is just a way to trick the mind.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Everything in Moderation

      A labyrinth is merely a tool. It is no different than prayer beads for others or, in your case, the language you use. The same yearnings and desires you have to put into words are merely felt by others, who pray in completely wordless communication with G-d. Each finds their own path, and whatever works is a good thing.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  5. Bo

    =====@El Flaco, Post8:16 that's the negitive thinking of atheists, Good news! You can have all three! You are't limited to just one choice.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • dg

      Yes, atheists are just as guilty as religious nuts at being self righteous and being dogmatic in their beliefs.

      Agnosticism or secular humanism and a little secular spirituality works better imho and many agnostics and secular humanists dispense with the secular spirituality... it is not necessary but I find it a useful trick of the mind because pure conscious thought doesn't always do the trick all of the time.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  6. Floatingbridge

    I remember a retreat that included a labyrinth walk and someone asked what are the rules? The builder of the labyrinth (labyrinth-enterprises-dot-com) said there are no rules. I always liked that – we always want rules and to be the "best" labyrinth walker, but, it's just something you do. Expect nothing, just be open.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  7. Martin

    The Lord told wickedimproper . com that he liked what he's been seeing within the human spirit. We welcome him and others at any time.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  8. Truth of reality

    Gotta love it when a rich person has a piece of yard art built that mimics a pretentious french church labyrinth in an effort to "find clarity" and acceptance of the disability her son has, then writes about it as though she's done something unique. welcome to the world of acceptance the rest of us live with everyday.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Rabia Diluvio

      Oh those eeevil eeevil meanypants rich people...yeah we get it.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  9. Bill

    The message: Get your child tested today for "learning differences" and enter the exciting world of medical labels and unnecessary prescription drugs. Very clever.

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

      It is sad that you do not get the message here. It is easy to see you have an Axe to grind, but this is not the place for your particular issue....

      October 9, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  10. papajones

    My wife built a labyrinth in our back yard. We are not rich. She built it by herself with stones and mulch. There is a statue of a woman in the middle and a stone bench to sit on. I don't think about it too much. But for her it is a source of peace of mind. When she's happy, I'm happy. Hooray for the Labyrinth!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Sara

      That is wonderful. I'm happy to see a husband respecting a wife's 'happy place'. Not many couples have that. So keep it going. Both of your journeys will be long and a happy one! 🙂

      October 9, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  11. Reality

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

    October 9, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  12. Jo

    Interesting story. Thanks for sharing such a personal and beautiful story! I think I can relate a little. My "labyrinth", if you can call it, has been the temples of my church, where I go to seek peace, guidance, meditation and prayer with my Heavenly Father. 🙂 Go Quinn. So proud of him!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  13. MaryAnne

    Everything has worked out for Sally Quinn and her son. Acceptance is a beautiful thing. So is a wealth of assets.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  14. jim dandy

    Good to see that rich people are finally discovering religion – all those hours walking through gardens and in circles is finally paying off.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  15. jim dandy

    Good to see that rich people are tomorrow discovering religion – all those hours walking through d=gardens and in circles is finally paying off.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  16. Religious Sects

    Self psychotherapy, we all have it within ourselves. It's a choice, a self awareness that brings clarity ... don't confuse faith/spirituality with organized religion.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • dg

      Don't confuse faith with spirituality either.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Religious Sects

      Very true dg, very true.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  17. lulz

    There was a labyrinth on the grounds of the church next to my college. We always walked it as a sobriety test on Friday and Saturday nights.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Sobriety is overrated

      I thought there was a labyrinth outside my local tavern .. the next day I realized it was a sidewalk.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  18. Mr. Spirit

    Ms. Quinn has the celebrity syndrome: she can afford her path in life. She married money including Ben Bradlee the boss of the Washington Post. She has a lot of money which means she can afford her politics and her faith and health care and anything else. Take the money away and what is left? Not much. I don't read the WP or any paper. Nor the mag rags whose only purpose is to tell us how Katie, Barbara and any other Hollywood or New York celebrity has overcome something. NEver is there a discussion about the cost or the millions they take in. Why? Because it would negate their celebrity.

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

      Did not know that! So she has her own private labyrinth from what I read? Poor people live in a maze they can never get out of while she has her own private labyrinth where she can block out the reality of the rest of the world. Makes it easier to figure out your problems when you rich.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • dg

      It does not require money to utilize the techniques (meditation) that are the basis for the positive effects she receives from walking a labyrinth. A labyrinth is most easily created by drawing one on paper or in the dirt or sand and tracing it with ones finger... basically the same effect is achieved.

      The sad thing about this article is couching it in religion/faith/new age mumbo jumbo when they could have approached it from the angle of how there are different ways to meditate and how meditation is a proven and scientifically proven to have positive effects on the mind.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Cadiz

      You are right, it is easy to be a new age loon if you have plenty of money to buy food.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  19. Howie76

    A labyrinth is not a maze and should never be referred to as a maze. They are two different dogs.

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

      When you're rich, it's a labyrinth, when you're broke it's a maze.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  20. kingjohn

    I too have challenging children, 2 boys, both of which were kicked out of numerous schools. In our family, the revelation was their's, not mine. When the 17 year old finally started swinging at his 60 year old father, I put a knee in his back and his face in a wall. Then I had him Baker Acted. The 16 year old younger brother witnessed this and took heed. The change in both of them was immediate. That was 2 years ago, now, older brother is out of high school and deciding whether it's to be college or trade school. The younger boy is a HS senior and drum major in the band. He receives college offers almost daily. If I had known, I'd have tossed them around sooner!
    BTW, I sure hope it doesn't happen again. The older boy has been UFC training for the last year!!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • *frank*

      I....what?

      October 9, 2011 at 6:17 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.