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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. Beelzebubba

    "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?"

    You are DELUSIONAL!

    If you need to walk to get to a spiritual place, you aren't doing it right.

    That place which you seek is within yourself.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • JustMe

      Duh. That's what she said. But sometimes you need to sort out the chaff in your mind and isolate yourself from the onslaught of news and travel and 24/7 entertainment and media and the bombardment of our senses. Why do you care if someone uses a tool to get there? Native Americans did it all the time, with their dances and spirit journeys and such. .

      October 9, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  2. Style Reader

    I knew from the beginning she was a beautiful person with compassion. Share the walk. And if you cannot walk there is a laptop labyrinth you can follow with your fingers. And you can always follow it in your mind.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Beelzebubba

      I will repeat: if you need to follow a labyrinth to get to that place which you so desperately seek, you will fail to achieve what you seek. You will only have reached yet another self-satisfying superficial place. A spiritual dead end, where everything you wish for is granted, instead of revelation of truth. It is a most narcissistic place, and you travel further from truth than if you had simply communed with yourself.

      You will achieve nothing.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  3. Baby Boomer

    For those calling this a "religious" experience, I fail to see how it is tied into any religious doctrine – it's more spiritual then anything; however, I do agree that this revelation she had was somewhat underwhelming and unfortunately preplanned. Let's look at the situation: she's in a controlled environment (a spa) and there is a labyrinth at the center of which is a single lush pine tree. Hello lady, they wanted to make you feel like that. I'm sure most people enter that maze focusing on a part of life that has been particularly troubling them of late, they make their way around the labyrinth having time to think and reflect on the issue, and then they arrive at the center where they see something that stands out completely, but is also very beautiful. Blah, blah, blah, your problem is a beautiful pine tree.

    Next time try a hike through the Peruvian Andes.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  4. Fred22

    I've seen this before! It's like Hopscotch!!! You just walk around without stepping on cracks, and voila! Yer healed! Kumbaya! Comtraya!

    October 9, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  5. J

    When I reach the center of the labyrinth, there are times when I stop and squat like an animal defecating in the woods, holding that position for up to three hours, and I find peace. Other times, I find a tree and stand on my head until I pass out, and peace finds me. I may walk in circles, placing heel to toe and holding my arms out horizontally, while whistling "Born This Way," or I may sit cross legged and place my toe in my mouth while placing a finger in my ear and passing flatulence. I find these things balance the conflicting forces within in me and bring harmony.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Mike

      Hahaha, your statement delivers J, and not just because its hilarious, but it is a perfect satire for what these rich quacks are doing here. I'm heading out to try your meditation methods, which I will then write a book about, get rich folks to pay me for the opportunity of doing, and then when your techniques become popular with the rich and snoody, we will see this blonde old bimbo on the front of CNN.com with her legs crossed, toe in mouth, finger in ear, passing gas with an accompanying article that about how enlightened she is for doing so.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  6. Mike

    This lady is a nut-case. Looks like the firs "Labyrinth" she tried was a rigorous series of plastic surgery and botox treatment.

    My Theory: This rich hen is probably the wife of one of the big wigs at CNN who decided to allow her to toot her own horn through the website. The upside for him: 1) She feels important, like the world will laud her insight, 2) her big wig husband won't have to listen to this crap when he gets home after a long day of work, he can just tell her to take it to the news site.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Fred22

      Great for him, crappy for the rest of us... Like most folks in those positions, they can do what they want at the expense of others... In our case, we don't get any real news – only blather about someone finding their inner zen by playing hopscotch while chanting... sheesh...

      October 9, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • JustMe

      If you don't know who Sally Quinn is, and obviously didn't recognize her name, you really do need to get out more. Broaden your horizons. Get off WOW and start reading some magazines and newspapers.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Mike

      My hunch: Just me = Sally the Hen.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  7. Pau F

    Thank you for the article. We have a son who has some issues and everyday is stressful and the anger builds up inside. Working-out has helped but I will try meditation.

    I'm not sure it belongs on the front of CNN.com but on a Sunday it is nice to see an article that is not about murder, money or the toxic political climate.

    Lastly, I have seen labyrinths in the yards of Catholic churches, Baptist churches, and Anglican churches. I had no idea what they were for but now I will try them despite the risk of being eaten by a minotaur!

    October 9, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  8. jmgaley

    These new age folks get crazier by the day. Always looking to 'things' for comfort and peace rather than dealing with their hearts.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Steve

      I walk the labyrinth daily and it has solved many, if not all, of my problems. I walk in circles for 30 minutes then, when I reach the center, I have a box of Twinkies. I wolf down all the Twinkies. I have gained 50 pounds but personal appearance is not the objective here. For those who are slaves to their waistline, I pity you.

      Anyway, after I eat my box of Twinkies, I crash from the sugar high and usually sleep for 6-7 more hours. When I awake, my troubles are gone. That labyrinth works miracles.....

      October 9, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  9. Autar

    And how much money and land does one need to have to make a labrynith. Rich people are just spoiled – they seek happiness in mysterious ways and want to make sure it is out of our reach!

    October 9, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  10. mdmooser

    Thanks Peter, if not here then where? Planting the seed for civil discourse without flame throwers or blame throwers.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  11. Suggestions Please

    Could I get some suggestions for several REAL NEWS websites? Thanks!

    October 9, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • kimsland

      Agreed

      October 9, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • newzwatcher

      How about just not reading the belief blog if you don't think stories about belief are real news?

      October 9, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  12. kimsland

    How walking the labyrinth changed my life
    Lady pictured lying down. ?

    Religion has no other option than being absolutely pathetically confusing.
    This story although amusing shows signs of someone calling for help.
    Get the number for 911, this lady is sick.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • samsword

      Almost like atheism.... See how easy it is to point fingers? 😉

      October 9, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • kimsland

      I point my finger at religious people and laugh at them often.
      They are funny.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • samsword

      just like atheists =)

      October 9, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • kimsland

      Religious people believe in fairy tales.
      Arr got yu. (wink)

      October 9, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Leonard

      No matter how "funny" it might be to you on the outside, I'm willing to bet you have so much pain on the inside yourself. Although I'm spiritual myself, I have good friends who are atheist and deist. Although are theological views differ, they are never disrespectful unlike you. This is coming from psychologist. If you're ever in Maryland...please come and see me. You're the one who needs help. Peace be unto you...

      Leonard

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

      Hope. Trust. Love. Yeah those are silly things to believe in......
      We should all wander around believing that "meaning" and "willpower" are an illusions... indulge ourselves in whatever we want to, because Hey! It doesn't matter, right?

      Now which of these two beliefs sound more unhealthy.....?

      October 9, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  13. Michael

    What Ms. Quinn describes in her story of her labyrinth seems to me a form of walking meditation that is practiced in Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan practices. One thought for this practice would be to try to maintain stillness of mind while walking, and observing, instead of thoughts or problems, the feelings of walking and the movements of the body as one is walking slowly, silently. This stillness leads to an opening of the heart, which can then be helpful seeing problems for what they really might be.

    I found it interesting the number of angry and even hateful comments about this article. I really worry for the emotional and psychological status of many people in this country. Here, we have such a positive article, and so many seem needing to throw stones at it. I wish more in the US could find, instead of hatred, division, and conflict, a sense of wellness, happiness and peace. Then one's problems seem less insurmountable, and one can begin to feel less angry and cynical about the world around them.

    Hatred/anger is a hot coal that you hold in your hand, and it burns only you.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • kathy mansfield

      Well said. Thank you. .

      October 9, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • samsword

      Well said.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Nikolai svoboda

      Precisely. Thank you Michael.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Kate

      Yes. Thank you.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  14. Chris

    another example of trying to find the peace and answers within and that never works.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Al Russell

      Chris. I couldn't disagree more. Finding peace within is the ONLY thing that works. Looking for it externally is always disappointing because you can never truly control outward forces.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Kate

      Where else would you find peace? If you can't find it within you through whatever means works for you–praying, meditating, walking meditation, music, gardening, star gazing, whatever–where else would you expect it to be?

      October 9, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  15. bg

    fyi

    October 9, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  16. Nancy M. B.

    This is a load of hooey.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  17. Rui

    I'm sure in her brain she thinks she makes sense but in the real world it sounds more like "Quack, quack quack quack....quack....QUACK!!! QU QU QUACK!!" lol

    October 9, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  18. kathy mansfield

    Thank you CNN. In my opinion, too few people understand what a laybrinth is and can do for them. Walking the labyrinth has changed my life and has become an integral part of my week.

    The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool – a single path of prayer and meditation( for everyone, not just Christians) leading to a center and returning back. Labyrinths are thought to enhance right brain activity.

    Unlike a maze – there are no dead ends, only a clearly defined path. The labyrinth journey quiets the mind as it removes us from the distractions of daily life. In so doing it allows us to reflect – receive – and to be renewed. The inward and outward turns, symbolize our path through life and our spiritual journey. We appear to reach our destination, only to find that we still have a long way to go.

    I would encourage anyone who reads this article, and watches the video to "give it a try." You can find a labyrinth located near you by going to http://www.labyrinthlocator.com and putting in your city and state. . . .

    Two wonderful organizations have websites where you can go to learn more about labyrinths.

    Veriditas @ http://www.veriditas.org
    The Labyrinth Society @ http://www.labyrinthsociety.org/

    Enjoy your walk!

    October 9, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • xSEEYAx

      Jesus, is the only spiritual tool you need.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • kimsland

      xSEEYAx I think you may need a hammer yourself.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • What?

      I can't believe you said Jesus is a tool.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Al Russell

      We need more quiet lovely places to reflect in our society. It's unfortunate, but most of us cannot afford to go to a fancy spa or build a labyrinth on a beautiful spot overlooking a river. We need to find those places in parks or somewhere off the beaten path. It's amazing what spending just a few moments in a tranquil setting can do for your peace of mind.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  19. xSEEYAx

    You need to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your Savior, by which allows you to have peace with God, who will provide everything you need for you, good or bad. So instead of walking ontop of some chalk marks on the ground and then staring straight ahead at some tree. Why don't you look straight up and say Jesus, I know you died on the cross for me, to absolve me of my sins, and I accept you into my heart as my Savior.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • J

      bla bla bla. Jesus Schmeezus. You need to stop talking like you know anything. You are just regurgitating the brain washing you've accepted.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      We don't look up b/c we are realists living in a real world without fairy tales. We grew up, too bad you haven't!

      October 9, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • xSEEYAx

      I'll pray for you guys

      October 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  20. Rui

    Quack, quack quack quack....quack....QUACK!!! QU QU QUACK!!

    October 9, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • kimsland

      Now you're talking.

      October 9, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Nancy

      To Rui:
      Just another "New Atheist" screaming about his (or her) lack of faith.

      October 9, 2011 at 10:04 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.