“Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are.”Tweet
– Barbara Brown Taylor
Roshi Joan Halifax tells a story about an exchange she had with her teacher when she asked him, “Going to the temple, you take the path. Entering the temple you leave the path. What does this mean?” Her teacher’s response was “Joan, the path is the temple.” The spiritual practice of the path without a destination pervades many traditions and is beautifully manifested in the form of the labyrinth, the wall-less maze meant to be walked purely for the sake of walking. In this excerpt from Episcopal preacher and essayist Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, she reflects on her own experience of Labyrinth-walking and the significance of physical practices.
Not everyone is able to walk, but most people can, which makes walking one of the most easily available spiritual practices of all. All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however counterintuitive that may seem. To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time. Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are. When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives, the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say, “Here, I guess, since this is where I am.”
This truth is borne out by the labyrinth–an ancient spiritual practice that is enjoying a renaissance in the present century. For those who have never seen one, a labyrinth is a kind of maze. Laid out in a perfect circle with a curling path inside, it rarely comes with walls. Instead, it trusts those who enter it to stay on the path voluntarily. This path may be outlined with hand-placed stones out-of-doors or painted right on the floor indoors. Either way, it includes switchbacks and detours, just like life. It has one entrance, and it leads to one center.
The important thing to note is that the path goes nowhere. You can spend an hour on it and end up twelve feet from where you began. The journey is the point. The walking is the thing.
“The important thing to note is that the (Labyrinth’s) path goes nowhere. You can spend an hour on it and end up twelve feet from where you began. The journey is the point. The walking is the thing.”
Not too long ago I walked a labyrinth for the first time in my life. I had flirted with labyrinths for years, but my expectations were so high that I kept finding reasons not to walk one. I did not want to hurry. I did not want to share the labyrinth with anyone who might distract me. I did not want to be disappointed. I looked forward to walking a labyrinth so much that looking forward to it kept me from doing it for years.
Then one day I met a woman who showed me the labyrinth on her land. Set in a small grove of pines, it was made of found stones, with a large one as round as a pillow near the entrance. When the wind blew, invisible chimes tinkled in the branches overhead, while pine needles sifted down to pad the circular path below. Beyond the edge of the trees I saw a small pond sparkling in the sun, and two horses grazing behind a fence. I could walk the labyrinth whenever I wanted to, my host said even if she were not there. I did not even have to call first.
With all of my excuses gone, I returned one late summer afternoon, said a prayer, and entered the labyrinth. The first thing I noticed was that I resented following a set path. Where was the creativity in that? Why couldn’t there be more than one way to go? The second thing I noticed was how much I wanted to step over the stones when they did not take me directly to the center. Who had time for all those switchbacks, with the destination so clearly in sight? The third thing I noticed was that reaching the center was no big deal. The view from there was essentially the same as the view from the start. My only prize was the heightened awareness of my own tiresome predictability.
“The beauty of physical practices like this one is that you do not have to know what you are doing in order to begin. You just begin, and the doing teaches you what you need to know.”
I thought about calling it a day and going over to pat the horses, but since I predictably follow the rules even while grousing about them, I turned around to find my way out of the labyrinth again. Since I had already been to the center, I was not focused on getting there anymore. Instead, I breathed in as much of the pine smell as I could, sucking in the
smell of sun and warm stones along with it. When I breathed out again, I noticed how soft the pine needles were beneath my feet. I saw the small mementos left by those who had preceded me on the path: a cement frog, a rusted horseshoe, a stone freckled with shiny mica. I noticed how much more I notice when I am not preoccupied with getting somewhere.
When the path delivered me back to where I had begun, I lay down with my head on the stone pillow and dreamed the same dream Jacob dreamed, the night he saw the angels of God climbing up and down a ladder right where he lay. Surely the Lord is in this place–and I did not know it!
The beauty of physical practices like this one is that you do not have to know what you are doing in order to begin. You just begin, and the doing teaches you what you need to know. What do you need to know? How would I know? When I walked that labyrinth in the pines, I walked it in my 5’10” white woman’s body-a body with a history that is not identical, as far as I know, to anyone else’s. I walked it with my own particular compulsivity, which gave me a chance to notice my own distinct anxieties and longings. If I had walked it on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday, I might have had a different experience. If I had walked it with someone else instead of alone, I certainly would have walked it differently. With so many variables available to me all by myself, I cannot imagine the possibilities available to those who walk the path wearing their own skin. The labyrinth may be a set path, but it does not offer a set experience. Instead, it offers a door that anyone may go through, to discover realities that meet each person where each most needs to be met.
“The labyrinth may be a set path, but it does not offer a set experience. Instead, it offers a door that anyone may go through, to discover realities that meet each person where each most needs to be met.”
I suppose this is frustrating to people who want spiritual practices to work the same way a treadmill does. I have a treadmill, which works very well. If I follow the instructions, walking at least thirty minutes every day to elevate my heart rate up to (but not more than) 130 beats per minute, then I can expect certain predictable results. Over time, I can lower my pulse, improve my muscle tone, and maybe even lose a little weight. My
treadmill is no respecter of persons. It delivers reliable results to anyone who uses it on a regular basis. It makes promises it can keep, at least to those who use it the way they are supposed to.
Spiritual practices are not like this. The only promise they make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know–about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God. The great religious traditions of the world are so confident of this that they commend dozens of spiritual practices to their followers without telling those practitioners exactly what will happen when they do. “Go to your cell,” advised the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, “and your cell will teach you everything.” If you want more details than that, the only way to get them is to choose a practice and begin.
Barbara Brown Taylor
From: An Altar in the World