The idea of walking around and around in circles may seem like an ideal way to get dizzy, but veteran labyrinth walker Sarah Gish knows she can always find serenity at the center.
“A labyrinth is a walking meditation. It’s a way of getting centered, of getting connected to God and to myself,” she said. “It’s kind of a weird paradox the way it works, because you’re active — but I love it because you are active. The action of moving your feet forward helps you calm down and get focused.”
Unlike a maze which is a puzzle with multiple dead ends, a labyrinth is a series of winding loops that lead only to the center.
“It’s always one path in and one path out,” Gish said. “You’re unlikely to get lost.”
Gish said there are many parallels to be drawn between labyrinths and life itself, and it’s easy to understand them if you think about the center as the soul.
Labyrinths can be traced back to the Minoan era of ancient Greece and Pliny’s World History, published in Latin long before his death in 79 AD, references labyrinths in Crete, Egypt, the Greek island of Lemnos and Italy.
Those following the traditional Cretan design consist of seven circuits, but some may contain nine or 11 layers of loops that meander toward the center. Others can be very creative in their designs, with heart shapes or utilizing a cross as their center point.
Today, labyrinths are commonly located at hospitals, retreat centers, parks and even prisons. Gish said she’d like to see a labyrinth constructed at every school, because of its calming benefits.
In 2006, John Rhodes, Ph.D., past president of the Labyrinth Society, developed a questionnaire for 122 respondents to report on their feelings after walking a labyrinth. More than 80 percent reported feeling “much more” or “more” relaxed, peaceful, centered, quiet or reflective. And, 73 percent reported less anxious, while 80 percent reported a reduction in their stress level.
The Labyrinth Society’s website (www.labyrinthsociety.org) provides a labyrinth locator that includes 5,100 listings in 80 countries. There are at least 43 within 100 miles of Houston, and the locator includes photos and notes about size, materials, hours and whether or not they’re on private property.
It’s no coincidence that many of these labyrinths are on church grounds because in Europe during the Middle Ages, they were frequently used for prayer, reflection and meditation when actual pilgrimages to Jerusalem were impractical. One of the most famous is the one built in 1200 AD at Chartres Cathedral, south of Paris.
In Scandinavia during the 17th century, about 500 non-ecclesiastical labyrinths were constructed near fishing villages to trap trolls or rough winds, thus ensuring a safer fishing expedition.
Gish, a Houston native, is the administrator of the Houston Labyrinth Walkers Facebook page, which has 350 followers. She organizes and leads labyrinth walks regularly across the Houston metropolitan area, many of which are paired with art projects.
In May, she led a group of walkers on World Labyrinth Day, wherein people all over the world agreed to “walk as one at 1 p.m.” The event will repeat on the first Saturday in May 2017, with the goal of “creating a peaceful wave of energy across the time zones.”
Although she is not invested in any one traditional religion, Gish said she has studied a few and, now, characterizes herself as “a seeker.” Spiritpicks.com is also her site, leading other seekers to find inspirational activities in the Houston area.
While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in art history, Gish spent six months studying in Europe and then lived for three years in Japan as an ESL teacher and radio deejay. Today, this mother of two grown sons maintains a weekly e-newsletter, Gishpicks.com, which is a guide to cultural activities for families, and thesummerbook.com, a guide to day camps for kids.
She launched a campaign and ongoing community art project at IgniteYourOwnLife.com to inspire others to find their passion. In honor of her brother who died in 2003, a portion of donations to the site help fund Archway Academy and Teen and Family Services, two organizations that support teens recovering from alcoholism and addictions.
Gish calls herself an “infopreneur” because she loves to peddle information via all these websites.
“That's what I love to do –– ignite lives and create connections,” she said. “For me, that includes all kinds of connections, including the labyrinth.”
“Labyrinths are just a beautiful way of getting quiet in this crazy, crazy world and connecting to yourself and whatever you call your higher power –– God, creator, the universe or nature,” she said. “If everyone walked a labyrinth every week, then we’d have a different world.”
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a staff reporter of Houston Woman Magazine.