The purpose of a labyrinth isn’t to see whether you can figure out where you’re going. There’s only one footpath. The purpose of a labyrinth is to attune you to each step you take on the journey, and to the twists and turns along life’s path.
Remarks offered by Rabbi Rachel from the bimah on Yom Kippur morning about the meditation labyrinth and how it can be used.
A few weeks ago, while the Al and Frances Small Memorial Labyrinth was still under construction, my eight year old son was with me at synagogue and ran outside to explore it. He immediately wanted to walk its spiraling path. And I asked him whether he knew what made a labyrinth different from a maze.
He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “You can’t get lost in it.”
He’s right. A maze is designed to confound and confuse. Think of the hedge mazes on elaborate European estates, or the placemat mazes that challenge you to draw a path from entry to exit without lifting your pen. A labyrinth is something else entirely.
In a labyrinth, there’s only one path. It goes all the way in, and then you turn the other way and it goes all the way back out. The purpose of a labyrinth isn’t to see whether you can figure out where you’re going, because there’s only one footpath. The purpose of a labyrinth is to attune you to where you’re going, and how you’re going, and how the path twists and turns.
As some of you have seen, we have a beautiful new meditation labyrinth outside our sanctuary. It was designed by Lars Howlett, a professional labyrinth designer — yes, that’s an actual profession — who came to CBI and walked our land and selected a shape that is suited to our grounds. Deepest thanks to Bill Riley for transferring the design to the ground, to Valerie Ross and Josh Goodell of New England Lawn and Garden Care for stonework and installation, and to Cheryl Small for her generosity.
Our labyrinth has seven circuits, which is a traditional shape for Jewish labyrinths. Seven is a meaningful number in Judaism: the seven days of creation. There are seven colors in the rainbow. There are seven qualities that we and God share, which we meditate on and cultivate during the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot — and some of us do this during the seven weeks between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah, too. In a Jewish wedding, the partners make seven circuits around each other, and we hear seven blessings. At a Jewish funeral, the pallbearers pause seven times en route to the grave.
Some look at our labyrinth and see the Tree of Life, another one of our tradition’s great metaphors for divinity: we enter at the roots and walk all the way into the crown. Some look at our labyrinth and see the crenellations of the human brain. All of this informed the design of our labyrinth.
A labyrinth serves to remind us to pay attention to the journey, not the destination. If I wanted to reach the center of the labyrinth quickly I could walk across, from one stepping-stone to the next, directly inward. Four or five big steps and I’d be there. But that defeats the purpose. It’s not about how quickly I can get there. It’s about the feeling of my feet on the pavement, and how the view changes as I move along the path. It’s about how sometimes it feels like my goal is tantalizingly close, and then the path swerves and I’m heading in an entirely different direction from what I expected. It’s about surrendering to the journey.
I have to pay attention to where my feet go on the path, and that serves to mostly keep me in the moment, in this place, in this here-and-now. And even if I can see the journey’s end when I begin it — even if I lift up my eyes and see the switchbacks and turns that await me before I reach the center — I don’t know how it will feel to walk the path until I actually do it. And I don’t know how walking it this time might feel different from walking it that time.
A meditation labyrinth is an embodied metaphor for spiritual life — for all of life, because all of life is spiritual whether or not we call it so. Here are four things that our labyrinth keeps teaching me:
1) How we get there is as important as where we are going.
2) Every journey has unexpected twists and turns. We may think we’re headed in one direction — a job, a marriage, a happily-ever-after — and then it turns out we’re headed somewhere entirely different.
This is true not only on an individual level, but a collective one. Of course, on a national level the metaphor breaks down, because we aren’t locked in to a single labyrinthine path. But the emotional experience of being an American these last few years has felt a little bit like walking the labyrinth — wait, you mean we’re going this way? — and it demands some of the same patience as walking the labyrinth. There are no short-cuts to the center. The only way to get where we need to go is to keep on walking.
3) The labyrinth reminds us that we can’t hold still. Everything passes. Sometimes this is grief-inducing: I’m so happy right now, and I never want that to go away, but I know that it will. And sometimes it’s a profound relief: I’m in the narrow straits of despair right now, but I know I won’t be here forever. But if we work at it, we can learn to draw comfort from the fact that everything changes.
4) What we see depends on where we are. In a physical sense, this means that our view changes depending on how much of the labyrinth we’ve walked: we’re gaizing at the mountains, no, at the gazebo, no, at the wetland, no, at the shul. In a metaphysical sense it’s equally true.
Yom Kippur is like a labyrinth. You can’t get lost in it: there’s only one path through. It began last night and it will end tonight. Over the first half of the day we’re moving ever deeper in, and over the second half of the day we’re moving slowly back out again.
It’s the same path every year. We start with Kol Nidre. We end with that final tekiah gedolah. In between we reach the same touchstones, the same stories and Torah readings and prayers.
And every time we walk it, we are different. We bring the sum total of our life experiences to Yom Kippur, and every year we have grown and changed since the year before.
If you think about Yom Kippur in terms of where it “gets you,” it may not seem like much of a destination. It’s not a cruise or an adventure, a birth or a wedding or a promotion. But if you think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to see yourself more clearly, then it’s an entirely different kind of journey.