For the past few days, I’ve been busy helping to build a labyrinth. My awesome friend Chris Brandt, master coach and landscape design artist, came and spray-painted an ancient pattern onto a 40-foot circle of earth under some huge oak trees near my house, and then everyone got busy finding rocks to mark the pattern as the rain washed it away. We put a statue of Kuan Yin, an ancient Chinese goddess representing compassion, at the entrance to the labyrinth. It’s like a gigantic human brain, all folded into itself.
I told a friend about this on the phone and she said, “I know how to solve those. You just keep your hand on one wall, and you’ll find your way out.” She thought I meant a maze. This is how our culture sees things: you’re in a place full of tricks and blind alleys, but if you’re clever enough, you’ll “solve” it and get out. That’s not what a labyrinth is. It’s a path you walk as a kind of meditative practice. You could walk out of it at any time, but you follow the patterns at your feet while releasing the patterns in your mind. Walking labyrinths is an ancient custom. Now I know why. I’ve walked my own labyrinth just a few times, and its curving lines have taken me straight to the truth about the way I live my life.
About halfway through my first walk, I found myself feeling terrified and angry. My thoughts went something like this: “This is such a waste of time. What am I doing here? I was two feet away from here before, now I’m doubling back for no reason—where is this taking me? What’s the goal? I can get there faster than this if I just jump….” on and on, ad nauseum.
As every life coach knows, the way we do anything is the way we do everything. The same thoughts that make me squirm in the labyrinth torture me when I’m writing, emailing, even sleeping. I should be going faster, getting somewhere. I should have more to show for this. I shouldn’t have to double back, to revisit old emotional issues, to wipe the same damn kitchen counter every day. These thoughts burble along just under the surface of my consciousness every day. They make me slightly anxious—okay, some days irrationally terrified—and lend a driven quality to moments when I could be relaxed and present.
I’ve heard the same comments from countless people, all schooled to the same obsession with forward progress. We set goals, draw flowcharts, march forward, criticize ourselves if we have to go back, if the same old stuff comes back to haunt us. We want to be DONE with things: the chronic pain, the haunting doubt, the bad relationship patterns, the grief of loss. We want to solve the maze and get out, to the place where we imagine there will be no problems to solve.
The labyrinth is teaching me to question the bits of driven, linear, achievement-based dysfunction that can make me miserable in a life of incredible blessings and good fortune. We didn’t enter life to get it done. There is no place not worth revisiting. We double back to find the pieces of ourselves that still clutch the same issues like a baby clutching its pacifier. Compassion invited us to this unbearably repetitive, slow, complex path of self-discovery, to show us that only when we surrender our idea of how things should be going do we notice that the entire thing is breathtakingly beautiful.
My loved ones and I are still building the labyrinth. Our land is not particularly rocky, so we’ve become obsessed with rocks the way a teenage starlet is obsessed with shopping. We cruise slowly past areas of nearby roads marked with “falling rock” warning signs, then stop the car, heave a few mini-boulders into the car, and speed off feeling the joy of acquisition. We have a goal (finish the labyrinth), we have a process (find rocks and arrange them), and the sense of purpose that comes with that is so familiar, so comfortingly linear. But in the end, what we’re building is a circuitous, contemplative, enfolded path that teaches us to be comfortable with the circuitous, repetitive, contemplative aspects of our lives.
Today, if you’re confronting an issue for the ten thousandth time, or feeling that your life is going nowhere, or panicking over how little you’ve achieved, stop and breathe. You’re not falling behind on some linear race through time. You’re walking the labyrinth of life. Yes, you’re meant to move forward, but almost never in a straight line. Yes, there’s an element of achievement, of beginning and ending, but those are minor compared to the element of being here now. In the moments you stop trying to conquer the labyrinth of life and simply inhabit it, you’ll realize it was designed to hold you safe as you explore what feels dangerous. You’ll see that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be, meandering along a crooked path that is meant to lead you not onward, but inward.
As Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Stop now, right now, and look around you. This is your place in the labyrinth. There is no place else you need to be. See with eyes that aren’t fixed on goals, or focused on flaws. You are part of the endless, winding beauty. And as you learn to see the dappled loveliness of your life, as your new eyes help you begin loving the labyrinth, you’ll slowly come to realize that the labyrinth was made solely for the purpose of loving you.