The Labyrinth of Life

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.

56 replies
  1. Bronwen
    Bronwen says:

    Perfect for where I am at – the universe never fails to provide – thank you Martha – for me so incredibly timely

    • nicola
      nicola says:

      so excited, didn't expect there to be one in New Zealand, apparently there are 25! TWENTYFIVE – what fun 🙂

  2. Crina
    Crina says:

    Yes…life isn’t perfect, but it is wonderful! The only time I walked a labyrinth I had important understandings of my approach to life and work. I look forward to walk it again someday :).

  3. rebecca @ altared spaces
    rebecca @ altared spaces says:

    “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.” This line is incredible.

    I walked a labyrinth when I was very young on May Day. I tied a string around my wrist, signifying the meditation I was holding as I walked. As long as that cotton string lasted, I continued to walk the labyrinth in my mind. It was lovely. I can’t wait to come and walk in yours. Many blessings to you.

  4. Alissa
    Alissa says:

    I love this. I have walked the Labyrinth at St Mark’s church in Los Olivos CA….It is stone with red clay dirt. I live so close to San Luis, so I can really visualize what your space for this looks like.

  5. Sedona Cole
    Sedona Cole says:

    This is brilliant. I love the saying 'The way you do anything is the way you do everything'. A simple, profound truth and great checkpoint I use daily to ensure I am not slacking. Another favorite quote (that jolted me out of complacency about a year ago) is 'The definition you’ve placed on yourself – or have allowed others to place on you – is precisely why you have what you have, do what you do, are what you are and act how you act' . Martha is brilliant. I can't say enough about how much I enjoy her wonderful wisdom!

  6. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Thanks, Martha. This particular daily inspiration is very synchronistic for me and very much needed. I wish you all the best in the creation and exploration of your personal labyrinth.

  7. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Reading this I am reminded of these lyrics by the Indigo Girls: There’s more than one answer to these questions
    Pointing me in crooked line
    The less I seek my source for some definitive
    The closer I am to fine. How true.

  8. Sally
    Sally says:

    Dear Martha,

    Thank you for the inspiration. And congrats on your Labyrinth. If you are near Dayton, Ohio, we would love to walk with you on our “labyrinth in the woods”. We are blessed at our farm to have Jessica Reisenbeck, Master Coach, teaching workshops. Peace, Sally

  9. DKar
    DKar says:

    Beautiful. This is by far the best and most inspiring of writings I’ve read here (and I’ve read them all). While reading through, I could feel something lighten in my shoulders and head and when I paused and looked up from my desk, I sensed the moment, and the same life riddled with goals, stress and obstacles felt whole, perfect and completely on-purpose. Thanks for this.

  10. Therasa
    Therasa says:

    Even though I’ve thanked you a million times inside my own head, for all that you are and do, I need to let it out-THANK YOU FOR YOU!

  11. David
    David says:

    I have had the pleasure of walking four or five labyrinth’s and every time I have discovered or realized something either about myself or about a situation. A few years ago we build a labyrinth on a beach under a very large tent and asked people to bring a stone for them self and a stone for anyone they would like to be part of the labyrinth, a loved one or someone who has passed away. We very quickly built the most amazing labyrinth with such energy.
    Nice post. Thank you.

  12. Lori
    Lori says:

    Thank you, Martha, for your insight on “The Labyrinth of Life.” I participated in a group labyrinth walk to observe the Spring Equinox and the leader shared with us what you had written. She prepared a beautiful handout with the last two paragraphs and we read them aloud. What you wrote resonates with me deep down in my soul. As I walked the labyrinth yesterday I felt surrounded by love.

  13. Bron
    Bron says:

    I’ve just read Martha’s article and a feeling of relief has come over me. I am navigating a new chapter in my life as my body didn’t want to produce a tribe.
    So one of my “new” things to do is be able to run for 30 minutes. I am 38 year old, being athletic in my youth my brain remembers how to run but my body is not responding as quickly.
    Having read about the labyrinth I understand that I can’t push myself into this, it will just happen. This road less travelled will be good if I practice mindfulness, oneness as well as accepting possibilities that the road less travelled can’t be planned, it will just happen and it will be magnificent.

  14. Vera D.
    Vera D. says:

    Well put the labyrinth is a journey whose center is everywhere , that is my experience while walking through in meditation. I can stop anywhere along the way and feel the same intensity as if I had reached the center.
    Sometimes reaching the center is sort of casual since it is not the main purpose.
    Walking in circles is good for the mind body and soul, been doing this as a practice for about 15 years, like churning the spirit.

  15. Patricia Lyster
    Patricia Lyster says:

    Thank you for a profound description of how a labyrinth in your life can make a significant difference – on Vancouver Island we have more than 50 labyrinths in beautiful settings – imagine a week here walking some of them !

    Have a look at our website come and visit our world away from the everyday

  16. Shadi
    Shadi says:

    It’s amazing how fast you age when at 39 the MRI results tell you a debilitating illness has surfaced and its here to stay. Add to that accelerated aging process the loss of those who formed your identity for decades, in a wink of an eye. Waking up in the morning feeling anxious/terrified of Life is no exageration. Before you get to ask “btw what’s my ‘life-purpose’ (aka highest achievement)?”, let alone get close to accomplishing it you sense it’s time to go… Then, dear Martha’s blog pops up in your reading material and says things about the labyrinth of life. Whoosh, “the fear” is a lot lot less bothersome. Heck I might even smile at it tomorrow morning. Thank you many times.

  17. Barb
    Barb says:

    This one moved me to tears. It is just what I needed to hear right now. But I have a question. Does this mean we should not have goals? Or perhaps better put, what is the role of having goals in life and in work? Much of what I do relies on backwards design (plan with the end in mind). It works incredibly well once everyone agrees on common ends. I use this method to get everyone collaborating in getting where we want to go with our program.

    So does this meditation simply serve to remind us that it is not REALLY about the goals? Goals are useful, but it’s not what life is about. Life is about right now.

    I still am trying to figure out those two understandings. Could they both be true. And then HOW?

  18. Mark
    Mark says:

    Thank you Martha!
    I find your words and articles to be very uplifting and centred. The Labyrinth of Life story has helped with showing my place in the world and my journey through it.

    The revisiting and revisiting of old patterns is trying to say the least but I feel I’m ready to move on and embrace my future with new eyes and and sense of wonderment.

    I said to partner recently that I feel like a child spiritually and am only really seeing the beauty of the world and universe for the first time as an adult. At first this saddened me but in reflecting back I find it to be a real gift.

    We all need to step back and look with new eyes and learn to appreciate where we have come from and the journey ahead.

  19. Cynthia Turner
    Cynthia Turner says:

    My Aunt Mickey just passed away this morning. "Not onward, but inward." Thank you Martha.

  20. Tianna
    Tianna says:

    Thank you, beautiful interpretation. There is a labyrinth inside the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The 2nd Friday of every month they invite you in for a candlelit, music, "guided" walk through the labyrinth. And the first thing the "guide" says as you enter is, "The Journey is Yours." And it's so true…experiencing the walk with others around you, you see that you are beside each other, in front, behind….but the journey is absolutely mine. And there is a sense of "getting to the end," but my focus was on the journey. As you so insightfully write here.

  21. Robin
    Robin says:

    “…the labyrinth was made solely for the purpose of loving you.”

    My god but I love your work, Martha.

  22. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Bingo….just what I needed to read today. I asked for vision and I receive this with a feeling of being heard and being blessed enough to receive this. Thank you thank you!

  23. selma
    selma says:

    here I am!:) I also travel through my chaotic and wonderful labyrinth of life – trying to follow my guides – the curiosity and awe
    and I am sure, that anytime I loose the way, the life reminds me: ” stop, you are HERE, NOW!”
    listening to the life inside us – with attention and watchfulness towards the outside, than the in and out merge..
    even if we miss it for a while, we can always be back on track

    great post, thank you so much for being the part of my tribe!

  24. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    still awesome, this article has a life of its own and it lovingly finds me when I’ve felt the most scared the last few years. Thanks.

  25. david
    david says:

    All my life I have been driven.

    Driven to start, work and achieve.

    Driven to innovate and improve.

    Driven to make a difference…driven to be different.

    Your message of the labyrinth has given me new eyes to see the circles.

    I may be in the labyrinth but I realize it’s of my own making.

    Strange to reflect it’s times in the labyrinth that have slowed me down only to step me off at the right times in the past.

    I’ve viewed the recent past as “off track” when it may be exactly what I need.

    Interestingly it’s the phrase what we do for anything is how we do everything that brought me to this moment.

    My head is spinning, my heart pounding…and I sense my time in this labyrinth this time is almost ending.

    Thank you for teaching me about these circles.

  26. Viviana Rose
    Viviana Rose says:

    Wow… how safe it really all is… and how needless for us to fret; and how wired for fretting we are, and how it requires awakening to release the fret and just be; simply, humbly, joyfully… <3 <3

  27. Colleen
    Colleen says:

    Martha – every time I read something of yours or hear you speak I feel so much love and connection – you are a very positive and powerful force in the world and one day I am going to thank you in person ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  28. Joni Crimmins
    Joni Crimmins says:

    Again, Martha Beck, you have just the right words. This quiet wisdom coupled with your keen sense of humor- would like to meet you some day. Thanks for sharing your labyrinth.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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