Daedalus, the Greek mythological architect, created the first labyrinth. He built it for King Minos of Crete to imprison the Minotaur (half man, half bull). Every year, Minos sent seven young men and seven young women as fodder, to pay tribute to the beast. Daedalus built it so cunningly that when he finished it, he could barely find his way out himself.
The symbol of the labyrinth maze has been recorded since ancient times when they served to trap bad spirits. The full flowering of labyrinths came during the Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals of Europe each had one, symbolizing the difficult path to enlightenment and salvation. Nowadays, the labyrinth is used as an adjunct to achieve a meditative state. Walking the labyrinth is a contemplative experience, intended to help you look at where you are and where you are going.
I visited one of the oldest labyrinths at the Duomo di Siena when I visited Tuscany recently. We were in a Rocca d’Orcia, a picture-postcard-beautiful Tuscan town with red tiled roofs, steep hills, ripe vineyards, exquisite food and wine. I was teaching and participating in an intimate weeklong retreat with Austrian CEOs and trainers. We stayed at the Hotel San Simeone, which came with its own 800-year-old church attached. The church still held a yearly Mass, but mostly it was unused. The acoustics were extraordinary, the resonance within made ordinary conversation sound like Gregorian chanting. The musty, dark, cobwebbed interior made it eerily magical. I was so taken with the space that I did my teaching day in it.
One night, the Church of San Simeone was transformed into a labyrinth. The design was laid out on the floor with hundreds of candles. When I entered the dark sanctuary, illuminated only by the flickering of the candlelight, I got so dizzy I had to sit down. I’d been a bit dizzy for a week from all the takeoffs and landings, which left me with some fluid in my middle ear and accentuated my existing balance problem. The stroboscopic candlelight was so disorienting, I couldn’t walk unless I held onto the walls.
I loved the idea of walking the labyrinth, but now I was pretty sure I couldn’t pull it off. I watched my friend’s eight-year-old son demonstrate the way through in less than two minutes. My ego wanted to do it (maybe needed to do it). If I got up and acclimatized myself to the lights, maybe I could manage it slowly. I waited a good ten minutes before I approached the entrance.
Standing directly in front I saw how narrow the path was. I could not walk with an ordinary gait; to stay balanced I had to advance my lead foot, and then drag the other up. I slowly made my way down the first row, and by the time I got to its end, I was sweating so profusely I had to take my shirt off.
There was no way out . . . I had to walk, crawl, or be dragged out. At that moment I understood completely why I was here, and said to myself, I know I’m less stable than I once was, but if I can find a way to walk out, I’ll still feel good about getting through it in this shaky way. So I tamed my ego, spread out my arms and, swaying like a tall pine in the wind, made it through in 20 minutes.
I say thank you Tunkashila, Grandfather, Earth Mother, Ribbono Shel Olam, Great Spirit, thank you for helping me see new beginnings in the old endings.
I say this for all my relations, mi takuye oyacin.