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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. Really?

    Excellent article!

    I've found that, by not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, I've kept my mother's back intact for the past 45 years. What would she have done without me? Four leaf clovers, a rabbit's foot, and horseshoes have also kept things right for me. Toss some salt over your shoulder in the labyrinth and there's no telling what kind of good fortune may befall you!!!

    Oh, well. Glad to hear you're not wasting your time with the bible and church and trying to evangelize folks. Nope, you've got your priorities straight alright. Hey, there's a really cool movie with David Bowie in it you might like! I loved to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan playing with him, too.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Colin

      Too funny! You've got to love the New Age nuts. Every bit as nutty as the Christian sky-fairy believers, but more colorful and ditzy. You just know she has a New Age name with "wheat" or "rainbow" in it.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • kimsland

      Really true, I agree really.
      Oh and I'm glad you now see the humor I spoke of many times.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • mdmooser

      Sounds like you have a dialog which has been run through a blender,

      smattered shattered
      twisted ribbons of hyperbole
      Your summarizing
      surely not clear to me

      Nobody said with the voodoo
      or salt over your shoulder
      So why come with arrogance
      about BS much older

      If someone looks harder and finds more
      Well that's time well put
      But don't add juvenile stuff
      Like that rabbit's foot

      October 9, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  2. samsword

    @wow Yeah.... you know what else is silly? That people nowadays give up faith so quickly for misguided "logic." You're absolutely right! The human brain can be tricked into believing (or not believing) anything.

    But hey, who am I to say? Maybe you're right... maybe we should eliminate every "illogical" element from society. Who needs art, music, movies or games. After all they're just silly sounds and shapes that trick us into "feeling something" right? It's just a bunch of nonsense that makes us "feel better," right?

    October 9, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  3. joan foster

    http://www.mediaite.com/print/sally-quinn-loses-washington-post-column-after-wedding-drama/

    A silly woman. A silly column.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Really?

      That link lead to a labyrinth of interesting reading on the web this morning.

      Wow. This chick's a real winner, isn't she?

      October 9, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  4. mdmooser

    As some caught up with cynicism in this blog, we all get caught up in different facets of life, a lot of them negative. It is a shame most of us never tap into our personal, spiritual whatever you want to call it side more often. I watch people driving to cut you off, beat you to doors, lines, just in everyday life. Humans have much more potential than being caught up in self serving greed or aggression. Good for her tapping one of probably billions of way to do so. I wish dialog of these areas could be held without religious zealots or cynical haters, there is a lot of potential for balanced approaches and sharing.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Peter

      A logical, well thought out response. I hardly think this forum is the place for that. 😉

      October 9, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  5. gizmoidi

    Flake.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • gizmoidi

      Then again, if it makes her happy more power to her.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  6. morsecoder

    Oh please. Get real, lady.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  7. Giant1

    My son has severe autism. All the meditating and therapy and IVIG treatments and suppliments and countless other things we do is not going to change his autism. It may improve the quality of his life a little.
    What is the point of this article.. to give false hope that some meditating will give you a fix?
    Maybe it is really just an article about finally coming to an understanding of what your child is. And she just got lucky.

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

      I watched my friends work with their son through his entire life (he is in his late 20's now) and try and help him in his grips of autism. No two paths are the same in autism but in their case, when I would have probably not been able to give CONSTANT support like they did, they were able to tirelessly and all these years later it genuinely bore fruit. That doesn't mean it will for you but when I saw this child through the teenage years I would never have thought anything positive would have happened, ever. Now he is an artist, working in his studio and having exhibits. Do the best you can and look for support groups.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  8. kimsland

    .
    This person is truly lost.
    A labyrinth? Can religious people be more confusing?

    Seriously did others read this and laugh like I did, it is a joke isn't it?
    Good luck to people who hope to be found, most normal people try to survive and do things with their life.
    All religious people do is talk about how wonderful it will be when they're dead, this is seriously messed up.
    .

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

      I'm sorry for all you cynical skeptics. I walked through a labyrinth with my boyfriend. I actually was surprised by the outcome. I became so focused on him and his experience that I actually became lost in the labyrinth. How stunning...as a southern female I had always given my life over to following the man in my life...and never really knowing where I was going. It was a real eye-opening experience for me.

      You cynical skeptics can say what you want...but if you've never done it...YOU are the unfortunate clueless!

      October 9, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Ann

      People are allowed to have their own spiritual experiences in whatever way they unfold. There are no rules, rhyme or reason; that's why we are individuals. The only confusion is yours.

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

      You BOTH are seriously ill, seek help.
      Again, I found the article very funny, was it a joke or not? Answer the question.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  9. Compassion

    I see from the previous comments made on this board that many do not understand that having a child with learning differences is an incredibly painful experience for a parent (and child). Basic of reading, writing and computing skills are absolutely necessary in our culture and when your child can't, or has difficulty, mastering them it is agonizing to watch. As a mother who has watched her child suffer and has spent countless hours worrying about his future, I empathize with the author, despite the fact that she has more material assets than me. We are both human– and mothers who love their children. I am inspired by her ability to find peace–and the fact that her son is leading a full and productive life.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  10. jsm

    Nice back yard

    October 9, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  11. stevie68a

    Why anyone would doubt her experience is beyond me. These same people don't question absurd beliefs about religion.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  12. Wow!

    How does this have to do with spirituality, faith, or belief? She walks around a maze, blanks her mind out, sees something and has a thought. What does she believe in? Not getting how this is relligious at all.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  13. Bo

    ======El Flaco I've read several of your posts–you are totally negitive. Maybe you need a labyrith just to start thinking positive.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  14. Mark9988

    I found a stick on the ground and it changed my life.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • Denise

      congratulations

      October 9, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • gayjesus

      Maybe the stick was in your a$$

      October 9, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • mdmooser

      And I didn't think dogs could type, amazing, good boy, good boy.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  15. Johnny

    For some reason this whole thing reminds me of the Shining, with Jack nicholson. I wonder what she will do when she finds him around the corner.. axe and all..

    October 9, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  16. Cadiz

    Some of us are too busy trying to make ends meet to have the money or time to waste on new age 'weekend self discovery seminars'. It is very easy to preach when you don't have to worry about money for food. Maybe if I married a multi-millionaire I could do that too.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  17. Sean

    I wonder if cnn would ever do a respectful article on someone who daily wakes and prayerfully studies the bible? I'll check back next week!

    October 9, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • Just Me

      Don't hold your breath, Sean. CNN appears to be ok with any religion but Christianity.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  18. W.G.

    HAHAHAHAHA ! What a bunch of pysco-babble BS ! I guess she´s a real blond !

    October 9, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Denise

      Nope. Just means that you don't grasp the spiritual.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • W.G.

      hey denise , answer this reply or you will have 10 years of baaaaaad luuuuuuck ! HAHAHAHAHA! Anybody that believes
      this psyco babble BS deserves the name DUMB BLONDE

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

      Spoken like a true Christian sheeple. You probably think you talk to god

      October 9, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • dg

      While the author imho is mixing religion and new agey aspects to her experience, the practice of walking a labyrinth goes back at least as far as the Norse and is a form of meditation. Meditation has been proven scientifically to have a positive effect on some people.

      Your test is laughable and your not being knowledgeable enough to see through the psychobabble and realize what techniques actually are the basis for the authors experience just goes to show how uneducated you are on the subject and how immature and ridiculous you are for spouting off on subjects you actually know nothing about. I can only figure you have self esteem issues and act like this to boost your ego and dysfunctionally make yourself feel better about yourself. Which is just sad anyway you look at it.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • mdmooser

      Careful when your driving with those blinders on buddy.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • W.G.

      To G.J Yeah that´s right spoken like a true Christian you know that believes in a God who´s Book that´s been correct for over 2000 years . A book that idiots like you like to condemn with out ever reading it and reading it in the correct way .
      Over and over I hear about how incorrect the Bible is because people like you that believe in crystals or walking around oak trees like this bimbo does or singing chants or other psyco babble HAVE NEVER READ IT !!!! Over and over people are
      finding out just accurate the Bible is The ancient cities talked about in the Bible they´re finding today . There really was a
      Pontius Pilot . It says in the bible how the Messiah would be crucified long before there were even the people who actually
      invented crucifixion and that the people who were responsible would reject him as the Messiah Read the Bible and learn something

      October 9, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  19. Arturo

    This is one of the most stupid things that i have read in my life.. Enought said

    October 9, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Denise

      Yeah, you're a long way from "getting it"

      October 9, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • dg

      You obviously do not read much. Which according to studies is something very few people do these days. I read at least a couple of books a month and this doesn't count all the internet and required school book reading I do. It sure seems like this not reading trend has dumbed down many.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  20. Adam

    Wow, there are some magical thinking people on here.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:57 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.