Unwinding on winding path

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By Andrea Jezovit

It was the busy Christmas season, and teacher Larry Tayler wanted to give a gift to his school. So he took some hockey tape and created a pattern on the floor of the Havergal College assembly hall.

The hockey tape was new, but the pattern was old. It graces the floors of medieval French cathedrals, with its roots in ancient Rome and Greek legend — mythical inventor Daedalus first created the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. The labyrinth Tayler made at Havergal (a private all-girls school in Toronto) has a circular design with winding paths that resemble a maze. But you can get lost in a maze. On the labyrinth’s single path, a metaphor for life with its twists and turns, you’ll always find your way to the centre.

Today, dozens of Havergal students continue to find their way through the labyrinth. The hockey tape was removed, but a new, permanent labyrinth was built in tile on the floor of Havergal’s theatre underneath the retractable chairs. During the last several years it’s been open during exam time so that students can walk through it, making use of its meditative properties.

“I usually put some music on — I like Brian Eno, ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’ — I put that on repeat and turn the lights down,” Tayler says. “A small number of students report back to me that they find the experience very helpful and relaxing.”

Labyrinths, used in walking meditation, can provide relaxation to everyone from stressed our scholars to hospital patients. They’re found in prisons, hospitals, churches, and in people’s backyards. Labyrinths are non-denominational — anyone can use one to pray, or simply for quiet reflection. Both ancient and modern versions are found throughout the world with over 100 across Ontario, many of these in Toronto: Sunnybrook Hospital, Centre Island — and right down the street from Ryerson. Mown into a patch of grass sheltered from the busy Yonge and Dundas streets, the Trinity Square Park Labyrinth has been a downtown escape for many.

Located behind the Eaton Centre and the Mariott Hotel, the Trinity Square Park Labyrinth was opened in 2000 by the city and the Toronto Labyrinth Community Network (TLCN). It was the first public outdoor labyrinth in Toronto. It’s open from June to October, but this year the heavily trodden grass path may be remodeled so it can stay open year round. This way it would be available for tense Ryerson students during fall and winter exam periods. The city and TLCN are working toward establishing a permanent stone labyrinth in its place. the project has just received a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and will go ahead by fall if more funding can be found.

“It’s underway and we’re very optimistic,” says TLCN member Jo Ann Stevenson.

The Trinity Square Park Labyrinth sits beside the 157-year-old Church of the Holy Trinity. But the grass labyrinth’s famous 11-circuit pattern comes from a much older church. This 13th century design, like the one Tayler outlined in hockey tape at Havergal, also circles the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. For Christians who couldn’t travel to the Holy Land, the centre was a substitute Jerusalem, and walking the labyrinth was a symbolic pilgrimage. Further back, ancient Romans placed mosaic labyrinths near the entrances of their homes for protection; they believed evil couldn’t find its way through. The oldest known labyrinth is carved on a 4000-year-old grave in Sardinia, but Greek legend says it first belonged to King Minos on the island of Crete. This was the infamous labyrinth Theseus found his way through to slay the Minotaur. Tayler installed a modified version of this seven-circuit Creten design in the theatre at Havergal.

In 1991, Rev. Lauren Artress of San Francisco walked a labyrinth made out of masking tape at a spirituality conference. She travelled to France, only to find the labyrinth at Chartres covered by 250 chairs. It had been out of use for hundreds of years.

So Rev. Artress took the labyrinth’s measurements, and brought the design back to the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

With her efforts, a new labyrinth movement caught on across North America. It was her book, Walking a Sacred Path, that inspired Tayler to give the labyrinth a try.

“I thought it was a great thing to have at school,” he says. “I wish we could use it more.”

When the labyrinth is available at Havergal, Tayler takes his Grade 7 students to walk it.

“I’m already teaching them about Theseus and the Minotaur in class, so they’re aware of it. A [religious education] teacher also uses it with her Grade 9.”

But he says it’s the senior high school students at his school who are most interested in the labyrinth.

“It’s the older kids who have the intellectual appreciation for it and are at an age where you can disengage the thinking mind and engage the instinctive mind. It’s not about logical thinking when you’re walking the labyrinth.”

It’s a dark February day, and the Trinity Square Park Labyrinth is too icy to walk. But inside the Church of the Holy Trinity, a canvas labyrinth sits illuminated by candles and the light that streams in from the high stained glass windows. The TLCN is holding one of their indoor labyrinth walks, which takes place once a month until the grass labyrinth reopens in June.

The indoor walks are open to the public, but today, only one woman sits in the lotus position, mediating in the centre of the labyrinth amidst solemn piano music.

“Did you want to walk the labyrinth? It’s a wonderful experience. All we ask is that you take off your shoes,” says Charles Laver. He’s here today, but he usually walks the outdoor painted labyrinth in High Park for stress relief.

“You should try it outside as well,” he recommends. “I love the open air, and it’s a different sort of light every time I walk it.”

I remove my shoes and, in socked feed, step toward the labyrinth for the first time.

Inside or outside, there’s no particular way to walk a labyrinth.

“It’s time out, time to be quiet with yourself, time for whatever you want,” says TLCN member Camilla Gryski, who has done workshops on the labyrinth and stress and taught the labyrinth to high school students.

Gryski studied labyrinths academically while obtaining her master of education, and will play a key role as the TLCN works to develop a program encouraging labyrinth use in schools.

“There’s a danger is limiting how we see the labyrinth. For each of us, each time we walk it’s different,” she says.

Gryski introduces newcomers to the labyrinth in a very basic way.

“It probably takes about 20 minutes, the path is time for becoming quiet, releasing. If you have a question, or something that’s bothering you, walk with it. The centre is a place for receiving — time for listening, prayer, meditation. The path back out is returning, coming back with the feelings you have experienced — a quiet feeling of peace you bring out with you, or a decision or insight you bring back with you to the busy world.”

Ruth Richardson, coordinator of continuing education at Algonquin college’s School of Health and Community Services in Ottawa, uses a labyrinth laid down in hockey tape with her nursing students.

“Walking the labyrinth every day will help you find a calm centre within you,” she says. “On a stressful day when you’re in a situation you’ve never seen before, that calmness will be there at the snap of a finger.”

She says this is a particularly important skill for nurses.

“The labyrinth helps you to not panic, and the patient can feel it.”

Her patients are introduced to the labyrinth to help them feel comfort and gain insight about treatment decisions. When Richardson worked as a home-care nurse for the Victoria Order of Nursing, she took chalk everywhere so she could draw little three circuit labyrinths on patients’ driveways.

“I’ve decided I don’t need to know how it really works, it just brings my patients such peace,” she says.

Richardson also encourages her students to take time to walk a labyrinth 40 times each day to help them learn better.

“It gives your mind a little break and they your body is back working for you again. It’s as good as a little shot of caffeine.”

But she says not to worry if you don’t see the results right away.

“Just doing it once, if it’s your first time, there’s still a lot in your head.”

Richardson says walking the labyrinth a few times and reading about it will enhance the experience.

As I step across the meandering path inside the church, my first time on the labyrinth, Richardson’s words are encouraging. I don’t think I’ve had any type of revelation or received any new insight at the centre. My eyes follow the vast pattern spread across the floor, creating a hypnotic effect, while the quiet atmosphere leaves me time to think. The walk is over too soon, and I see how the labyrinth could be used as a tool for relaxation again in the future.

For Tayler, the Trinity Square Park Labyrinth in any season is a great idea for Ryerson students. “Anything to relieve the ugliness of Jorgenson Hall,” he says. But he finds the labyrinth is not for everyone, and has advice for students using it for the first time.

“They need to be open to it and remember it’s not the labyrinth that does it, it’s what they bring to it. If they’re not introspective, it’s not going to mean much of anything to them.”

While, so far, only a small number of students have been interested in the labyrinth at Havergal, Tayler doesn’t mind.

“It’s just enough to make me keep doing it,” he says. This year, exams will be held in the theatre with students sitting right on top of the labyrinth, he adds.

“I hope symbolically that will bring some relaxation. Even though there’ll be desks and chairs on top it it.”

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