The use of labyrinths as a meditation tool can be traced back to many religious traditions, and has been associated with various cultures, including Greek, Celtic, and Mayan. The McGill Chaplaincy services have recently incorporated this tradition by setting up a weekly labyrinth in the SSMU building, open to anyone wanting a quick way to clear their head, de-stress, or find solutions to life’s nagging problems.
Although there is a tendency to think of the labyrinth and the maze as interchangeable, the former differs from the latter in that it does not contain dead ends – instead there is a single path which leads from the front to the centre and back. “Ancient people discovered that walking a complex, but single path that requires your attention can change the state of your being,” Chaplain Neil Whitehouse explained in an interview with The Daily.
The concept behind the labyrinth as a meditation tool is that when a person makes frequent left and right turns, the brain’s awareness also shifts between left and right hemispheres – allowing for a greater engagement of both.
“The design that we’ve chosen is from the cathedral in Chartres, which is the classic medieval labyrinth. It dates from 1201 and includes many 180 degree turns. Analysing some of the effects of that, people have pointed to the way in which those turns may encourage a connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and that correlates easily with some of the well-known, recorded and proven effects of deep meditation.
“Most of the time when we’re working in a logical, rational fashion, we’re using most of the left hemisphere of the brain. If walking the labyrinth encourages a connection between the left and the right, then we’re using more of our brain… It can be a more powerful experience, and it can help you intuit answers to questions that you can’t rationally solve… It can help people to have deep insight into their lives,” Whitehouse said.
“The inclusionary aspects of the labyrinth experience must not be ignored – it provides an active form of meditation for those who find themselves unable to sit still for long periods of time. “When [the body] is moving, the mind is not so shocked by experience. Classic meditation (when you’re sitting still), deprives the mind of a lot of normal sensory input,” Whitehouse explained. “So, an itch that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed amplifies, because the brain amplifies the fewer signals it gets to the same level as before. That’s why sitting still can be a challenge… But a labyrinth, it allows you to walk, you’re still getting input from the brain, but it’s very similar input all the time, you just walk in a pattern,”
Whitehouse expressed hope to generate more interest in the labyrinth over time. “[The reception right now] is good. I think it’s just difficult to get people to break their routine from being so busy and so under pressure. It’s a sort of paradox…if you actually encourage your spiritual side whilst you’re under pressure… I think you will perform better, actually. It’s [about] trying to set up healthy patterns for lifelong learning,” he said.
Beyond their function as meditational tools, there has been research into extending the use of labyrinths for medicinal purposes, such as in the treatment of Alzheimers. Galantamine, a chemical used to treat this disease, is naturally occurring in many amaryllis flowers – which in turn could be used to plant labyrinths. In addition, anyone suffering from diseases caused by chronic levels of stress can benefit from the labyrinth’s soothing effects.
The chaplaincy’s labyrinth provides students with a de-stressing experience that is arguably more personal, and does not rely on outside perspective or expert input. The experience centres around a person’s own thoughts, making what one attains from it distinct and variable. The overall potential of the labyrinth lies in its ability to soothe and de-stress, as well as an inherent ability to improve overall mental and physical health.