Seeking Answers at a Labyrinth

When a promising relationship ended recently, I knew I needed help understanding what was at the bottom of its tumultuous ups and downs. A trusted therapist-by-day and friend-by-night suggested I read up on attachment disorders, in particular the damaging patterns created by mothers who are emotionally ambivalent toward their babies.

Not anything you would consciously remember, of course, but scientists now know that the neurological pathways that develop during the early years can derail intimate relationships later in life.

I’d always felt confident, almost smug, about my post–World War II Norman Rockwell upbringing in middle America. “It was . . . well, perfect!” I would say, without giving it a second thought. So why now, in my 50s, was someone hinting that in the first few months of my life, my mother had emotionally distanced herself and that it was somehow related to my recent breakup? I went looking for information, but not in the self-help section of my local library or a session on the therapist’s couch.

I went to walk a labyrinth. And there my mother told me why.

While they may look similar, labyrinths are not mazes. They’re not designed to trick you into going down a dead-end path. Just the opposite. Labyrinths consist of a path of concentric loops, some short and some long, leading to an inner circle for meditation. The practice of “walking a labyrinth” starts by centering your thoughts on a particular question or area of contemplation and simply walking the path to the center. Once there, insights and “aha” moments often surface, allowing you to contemplate what you have learned as you turn and walk the same path back out to the starting point . This movement of going inward and then coming out again is a nod to the belief that enlightenment comes when we walk a spiritual two-way street and let go of our fear of getting lost. The practice dates back over three thousand years to a time when Christians did not have the means to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and instead created a patterned pathway to walk that symbolized the journey.

I’ve been walking labyrinths for years—in the Arizona desert, among sage bushes in Indiana, and outside a refurbished schoolhouse in Maryland—and find it the perfect safe harbor for sorting through something weighing on my mind when I’m too fidgety to sit still. Labyrinths are fairly consistent in design but differ greatly in size and texture. Some are bordered by smooth rocks from rivers, others are created from high hedges of lavender, and some are printed on canvas for portable use in churches, spas, and schools. What matters is knowing you are on a precise pattern. Because it’s impossible to get lost, labyrinth walking eliminates the mind’s preoccupation with decision making, so you can get down to the task at hand: self-reflection.

Over the years I’ve come to respect the practice and believe in its power to bring me wholly into a space that allows me to hear and feel and experience what I never seem to discover in traditional meditation. It’s quite restorative, as I can meander along the path to the center and back out as I wish and contemplate what needs to be brought to the surface.

On this particular day, in the bright summer sun, with birds chirping in a tall oak beside the stone path, I ask my mother, “Why? Why did you love me from afar?” Immediately I feel ashamed of the thoughts that tumble inside me, but I don’t yield to the notion that I was wrong for asking. I want to know. I look down at my feet and walk.

“Because you didn’t need me,” I hear a dry voice say soon after. It seemed to come from my right side, as if someone had been following me for several minutes and decided to say something but didn’t want to startle me or interrupt my walking. It wasn’t a voice I recognized and it certainly wasn’t my mother’s, deceased 15 years now. I pause, then start walking again, having learned years ago to remain calm and open to what comes next.

I enter the open space in the center of the labyrinth with my eyes closed. There is no one else here. As I stand in Mountain Pose, I hear the voice again, empathetic-sounding this time: “You were always the strong one.”

It’s true. Of my mother’s two children, I was the one always in motion: rushing through dinner, jumping in the deep end, climbing trees, tossing batons. I was the one she didn’t know what to do with. I was the one who constantly challenged her, probably from the day I was born. Walking out of the labyrinth, I see my mother’s love differently. It’s been here all along. I had just created so much noise trying to get her attention and approval that I’d left her very little space to love me the way she knew how.

What I learned would take on different meanings in the days ahead. The labyrinth had been the right place, the safest place, for me to begin that journey.


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