Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is This a Labyrinth I See Before Me?

Last week I got the news that I'll be presenting a paper on the labyrinth later this year. It'll be my first chance to expand on the work I did in my dissertation and show how it's relevant to society. Labyrinths seem like kind of an arcane subject until you start to wonder why you still see so many of them today. When I say "labyrinth," I'm talking about the ones you encounter in churches, parks, community centers, and other places that are variants on the medieval design and look something like this:


There's been a resurgence of interest in labyrinths over the last 20 years, which accounts for the number of new ones that have been installed all across the United States as well as in other countries. I'm interested in the history of labyrinths and mazes, how and why they reappear in different forms over time, and what meaning they have for us today (which is not necessarily the same as what they meant to people in the past).

Labyrinths go back thousands of years and didn't always look like the one pictured above. There are variants on the design even now, and what's really interesting is the fact that such an ancient symbol still fascinates people. And labyrinths are not just for looking at -- they're for walking in. They're often placed in locations associated with contemplation or meditation -- churches, hospitals, gardens, or cemeteries -- and the setting may be secular or non-secular. So what is it about this design that draws people to it?

I think the labyrinth has a double nature that says something about the dilemma we find ourselves in as a society, at least here in the United States. We're a nation that celebrates the rugged individualist, the pioneer, and the self-made man or woman, but we have come together to form a union. Our democratic processes require that we all participate to make things work, from taking turns at jury duty to turning out to vote. So there's a tension between the individual and the greater good that's never fully resolved. We hold the rights of the individual to be sacred, but we also cherish the idea of "E Pluribus Unum" ("out of many, one"). We're different from many countries that have always believed that the communal takes precedence over individual rights. That's not our way.

In thinking about the visual impact of a labyrinth, I'm struck by its resemblance to a mandala, which Jung considered a symbol of wholeness. You might argue that the maze, which represents a variety of paths and alternatives, is a more fitting symbol of the way we live now than the labyrinth, and I agree, up to a point. But when something is out of balance -- perhaps the tendency for individuals or groups to move in separate directions grows too strong -- another symbol, like the labyrinth, rises from the unconscious as an answering archetype. I think that's what's happened over the last two decades, as the country has grown more diverse and, in the case of politics, more highly polarized.

It's not as if we have to choose between the individual and the community; our society is based on the belief that they serve one another. The labyrinth integrates the opposing forces in an elegant, harmonious fashion. It has a single, highly circuitous path representing a common road that's experienced in many idiosyncratic ways. The heroic, individual path is seamless with the shared path so that there's no contradiction between them. In this way, the labyrinth suggests a way out of the conflict between individual rights and participation in a democracy. A person engaged in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness who remains true to something greater than himself finds he was part of the larger story all along.

There were individuals who helped popularize the labyrinth with their own enthusiasm and explorations into its meaning, but the movement wouldn't have taken hold if the labyrinth hadn't struck a chord with many people. If you're curious, it's easy to find a labyrinth to explore; there are hundreds or thousands of them in North America alone, and unless you live in a remote area, there's probably one nearby. If you're interested, the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator (a joint project of Veriditas and The Labyrinth Society) is a great resource. Just put in your city, state, postal code, or country.

And remember, it's solved by walking.

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