Before my son was born five years ago, I used to attend semi-annual yoga retreats at Kripalu in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While there, I would take classes to help me develop my skills as a yoga and meditation teacher. But just as importantly, the retreats helped me to take a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life. I didn’t have to cook, or clean, or take care of anyone but myself, and I reveled in the relative peace and solitude.
Once my son arrived, yoga retreats were the farthest thing from my mind. I had a baby to take care of, and then a toddler, and then a preschooler. I might find small pockets of time for myself, but never a whole week or weekend.
At Kripalu, one of my favorite activities was walking the labyrinth. Dating back 4,000 years and present in cultures around the globe, the labyrinths presents an ideal opportunity for meditation. Circular in shape, it is in essence just a walking path. But its intricate design – a series of precisely rounded corners that fold in upon themselves – lends a certain meaning or power.
Labyrinths may be constructed of any material. Some are situated indoors — like the one comprised of blue and white stone inside Chartres Cathedral in France – and some are laid out in a more natural setting. There are even portable labyrinths, printed on canvas. At Kripalu, the labyrinth stands on a grassy hill, its path outlined with stones.
To walk the labyrinth as a meditation, when you first step onto the path, you might ask a question or set an intention for yourself. Then with each step, you continue to ponder that question. Maintaining focus is not easy, but setting a very slow walking pace helps a lot. When you reach the center, you might pause to reflect, and then you continue on, retracing your steps all the way out.
If nothing else, walking the labyrinth offers quiet time for reflection. But it’s been my experience that it tends to evoke insights and inspiration. Often the question I ask going in is answered soon after. Maybe not while I’m in the labyrinth itself, but within a few hours or days. I find it a helpful exercise when I need to change my perspective or sharpen my focus on a particular thing.
Shortly after my son was born, I learned about the labyrinth at Miramar Retreat Center in Duxbury. I wrote a note to myself, pinned it to my office bulletin board, but never actually managed to get there. I forgot about it, more or less, although the note remained plainly visible, its salmon-colored paper fading over time.
Last year was tumultuous for my family. My husband and I split up, and my son and I moved across town to live with my parents (he goes to his dad the second half of each week). With shared custody, all of a sudden I had a little bit of time to myself. As 2011 drew to a close, I felt like I needed to reflect on the past year and figure out my priorities for 2012. A yoga retreat was an option, but I wondered if I might find the same benefits closer to home. Then I remembered the labyrinth.
So on the last day of the year, I headed over to Miramar. Do you know about this place? Built by the Loring family in 1876, Miramar – three buildings on 27 acres overlooking Kingston Bay — became the summer home of William Cardinal O’Connell of Boston in the early 1900s. In 1922 it was converted into a seminary for the (Catholic) Society of the Divine Word. Over time, additional facilities were constructed – a chapel, a school, a gym, even grottoes, and 37 adjacent acres were purchased. Miramar flourished as a minor seminary and eventually gained accreditation as a two-year college liberal arts program. Due to changes within the church, the school itself closed its doors in the 1960s, but Miramar lives on to this day as a retreat center.
When I inquired, five years ago, a staff member explained to me how to find the labyrinth. She said to drive all the way into the parking lot, and then look for the walkway near the gift shop. But instead of going toward the shop, she instructed me to take a right and walk across the grass, down a slight incline. The labyrinth would be visible at that point.
And indeed it was. I found a small garden, and beyond it, a flat grassy area with a six-foot tall crucifix at its farthest point. The labyrinth was set out on a circle of reddish wood chips; its paths lined with simple gray bricks.
Stepping into the labyrinth, I set my intention: to ponder what changes I wanted to make in my life, and what goals I wanted to achieve, in 2012. I repeated the question to myself a few times as I began to walk, very slowly, through the labyrinth. I walked, and I walked, each step soft yet deliberate.
There was a stone bench at the center. When I reached it, I opted not to sit down (it was chilly out), but instead turned toward the water. It was too gray a day to enjoy the view, so I just stood there in the breeze for a few minutes, breathing the ocean air. Heading back, I began to answer my own question, listing things I could do, or change, to help attain my goals for the coming year. By the time I’d completed my walk, I felt better – more in-charge and focused for the year to come.
Do labyrinths have mystical or magic powers? Some say yes; some say no. For me, they present an opportunity to pause and reflect, and a structure in which to do so. For those of us who think more clearly when we’re moving (as opposed to sitting still), labyrinths are ideal settings for meditation.
After returning from Miramar, I spent some time on its website (miramarretreat.org), hoping to learn more about the facility and its history. What struck me most was the stated mission of the Society of the Divine Word.
To set the captives free
To give sight to the blind
To heal the broken-hearted
To proclaim a year of favor from the Lord
Wasn’t that exactly (in my own way) what I was asking as I walked the labyrinth that day?
Visitor Information: Miramar Retreat Center, 121 Parks Street, Duxbury. 781-585-2460. firstname.lastname@example.org
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com