Whenever Carol Orth walks the labyrinth, its smooth concentric paths carry her inward like a current. Approaching from the parking lot, she senses energy flowing from the classic design. It's as if she were at the shore, she says, watching the waves.
Just looking at the circular formation feels really relaxing to me, she says at the beginning of the path. I wait here until I have an internal cue that tells me it's time to go.
Before her, on the ground near the hospital, are seven rings spiraling into a pattern thousands of years old. Ancient people of Crete walked a version of this labyrinth. So did Native Americans in the Southwest. Medieval pilgrims traveled to Chartres to pray and pace the labyrinth in the French cathedral. For many cultures, this pathway represents the journey of life - or of many lives.
Walking the labyrinth is a way to gain perspective, confront problems, explore random thoughts.
Carol Orth looks forward to these soothing meditative walks. Now, as the hot midday sun beats down, she prepares once again for this exercise. She sways slightly like a swimmer preparing to dive. Almost without realizing it, she begins to walk.
Step by step over the next half hour, Orth will float farther away from the sounds of hospital traffic, the chatter of workers on lunch hour, from her own thoughts about a client who just canceled.
Step by step, she will relax.
Getting closer to the center is very exciting and suspenseful. You'll get pretty close, then the next thing you know you're two pathways away. To me, that's a metaphor: Something you want so desperately seems so close, and then the very next minute it's farther away than you thought.
She has decided that this labyrinth is a sacred space. Sacred because people honor it: There is never any litter. Sacred because it is a circle, the most powerful of shapes. Sacred because it challenges her perceptions even as it refreshes her.
A path to meditation
This labyrinth is a newcomer to the sprawling kingdom of Johns Hopkins Medical System. Situated on the Bayview campus, it opened this summer to serve the hospital and surrounding neighborhood as a tool for meditation and reflection. Sixty feet in diameter, it is constructed of cobble pavers in gray and salmon with paths wide enough for wheelchairs.
It calls to mind an elegantly formal game of solitaire in which each player brings his own rules. Some visitors avoid traveling the traditional path and head straight to the middle. Others walk slowly, stopping often, careful to stay within the lines. Some follow the path only in the most general sense. . . . or walk as briskly as if they were being timed. Some appear to be mesmerized, sleepwalking. A few choose to dance.
Unlike a traditional maze, the labyrinth has a center that is always visible and always accessible. It is not meant to be a puzzle. And at Hopkins, a place of apprehension as well as healing, the labyrinth stands out as a place where there is no wrong way of doing things. There are no blind alleys, no false turns, no nasty surprises. The outcome is always certain: Anyone who visits will get to the center and back again.
Its appeal is its simplicity: Powerful therapy you can still draw on the ground with a stick. In the past few years, thousands of people have discovered the benefits of walking labyrinths, both portable and permanent. Various versions have appeared in churches, hospitals, schools, prisons and backyards. Some devotees have even mowed spiraling patterns into fields or defined paths with rope or cornmeal or aluminum cans.
Labyrinth designer Dave Tolzmann created the Bayview labyrinth in collaboration with Nancy Romita, a Baltimore dancer who initiated the project at Hopkins as a way to promote healing through the movement arts.
"Working with the dance troupe, it became clear to me that designing a labyrinth was moving people through space - that I was designing choreography," says Tolzmann, who lives in Baltimore and New York. "It brought home that I have to remember it is basically choreography and that I have to `walk' it as I design it.
"When I walk a labyrinth, I always get relaxation or a creative insight. You can call it what you will: a creativity enhancer, stress reduction, a form of prayer, meditation."
Just as therapy is more than counseling, meditation is more than an exploration of wandering thoughts, says Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Angelino. For those who wish it, walking the labyrinth is a guided exercise.
"The instructions basically say: `Stand at the edge. Clear your mind. Step in and begin to walk. Don't rush. By the time you reach the center, come up with a solution. On the way out, think of how you're going to implement it.'"