Often called a "moving prayer" or a "moving meditation," walking a labyrinth merges the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path.
Labyrinths have been built and navigated for more than 4,000 years in all corners of the world, stretching across cultures, religions and creeds. The labyrinth at EarthTeach Forest Park off Dead Indian Memorial Road south of Ashland provides an example of the magic and mysticism that surrounds these human-made walking spirals.
Built in 1999 at the edge of Big Sky Meadow, the labyrinth was constructed from fieldstone on a flat, gravel base between four oak trees that jut upward from precise cardinal points. At 4,000 feet elevation with views of Ashland, the Siskiyou Mountains, Pilot Rock and Rogue River National Forest, the circuitous path offers opportunities for inner transformation.
"From this place, you can reflect on where you have been, you could be inspired toward where you are going and, simultaneously, you are invited to be conscious and mindful in the present," says Martha Phelps, a former school teacher, who helped design and build the labyrinth.
The EarthTeach labyrinth is patterned after one built at Chartres Cathedral in France around 1200. It's an 11-circuit design divided into four sections called quadrants.
"The walker moves through each quadrant several times before reaching the center and then follows the same pathway out," explains Phelps, who was trained as a labyrinth facilitator at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — a cathedral that features both interior and exterior labyrinths.
"You can walk with the intention of asking a question and hoping there's an opening for the space of an answer. Or it can be used as a way to release something. It can also be used as a form of prayer or pilgrimage."
Much of this ancient tool's association with reflection and personal transformation comes from its proximity to the earth's surface; many people believe the earth holds a power that takes in energy and gives back "all the miracles on this planet."
"A labyrinth is a place where I can go and have a deeper connection to a higher power without an intercessor," says Phelps. "Typically, as I walk to the center, my monkey-mind is talking about all the things in my life. By the time I start out, that has silenced, I can hear where I am, why I'm doing it. I notice the way the wind feels on my face, and I notice if there's any wildlife around."
Phelps is quick to point out that a labyrinth is not a maze. "A maze is a left-brain game," she says. "This is a right-brain activity — you don't think; you feel; you just let your feet move forward."
It's true that a person can get "lost" in a labyrinth, ending up back at the start. When that happens to her, Phelps takes it as a sign to wonder what she's forgotten to think about.
"There's no right or wrong way, no right or wrong speed," she says. "The lesson is that we're all on a path, and we're all on a path by ourselves. But you don't have to look very far to see there are other people here, too."
At least 11 labyrinths exist in the Rogue Valley. They've been built at churches, medical centers, parks and private homes in Ashland, Medford, Jacksonville, Central Point, Eagle Point, Grants Pass and Klamath Falls.
To learn more about labyrinths, read "Walking the Sacred Path" by Lauren Artress. To find a labyrinth near you, go to the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator at www.labyrinthlocator.com.