– Dr. Maria Montessori
On a sunny, pleasant November morning more than 850 students and teachers gathered quietly around the world’s largest temporary labyrinth for a Thanksgiving Community Gathering on the sports field of Hong Kong International School. With melodic wind chimes playing enchantingly in the background, students and teachers took a 45-minute break from the intensity of school life above to contemplate anew the many good things found within our community. Following an introduction of the significance and usage of the labyrinth as a tool for mindful introspection by alumnus Martha Collard, the entire community entered through one of four passageways onto this metaphorical model of the journey of life.
The idea of using a labyrinth walk with the entire high school followed a number of previous visits by Martha to my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class. In October, Martha led my 20 students through an introduction to the concept of the labyrinth, and then for the next 60 minutes my students and I walked through a 22-foot labyrinth, individually or in a small group, with eyes opened or blindfolded, or just sat along the side if they preferred. The only sound came from a hand-held chime that has passed occasionally from student to student. It was one of the few moments in my life where a spiritual energy seemed palpable to me, and for that reason it will remain a highlight of my teaching for years to come. I had invited a member from our communications department to take a few pictures. They stayed and even walked as well. They too seemed to sense the energy in the room.
Suzette, sitting to the right, wrote this comment after the experience:
Going in, I could feel the class excitement and unease even as we were all seated listening to her. Then when the class went to roll out the new fresh mat, I felt the energy. All the lines and the curves of the labyrinth somehow had a calming effect on me. Then, as we walked around the labyrinth with the chimes in utter silence, it was really calming. I walked the old mat labyrinth first, and then the new one. I could feel the immediate difference. I walked the new mat first normally, then backwards, blindfolded and then with two other friends. The question I had in my head was, “What am I doing?” This was just a general question that encompassed a lot of things that I had been worrying about or had been floating in my head. Although I didn’t receive an explicit answer like, “You are here for xyz reason,” I experienced something else. The answer I received was that it didn’t matter. That the question itself, was unnecessary. That it was HOW I was doing it, and what I was learning along the way that mattered. Doing the right thing, was more important than trying to justify the why. It is a simple concept, that I guess was something I may have lost sight of in this busy life that I live here in HK. Yet after walking the labyrinth, the overall sense of calm was something that stuck with me all throughout the day.
Anna, to the left, offered this comment:
The labyrinth was nothing short of a “wow” experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in there and when I saw how “small” the labyrinths were I really didn’t know how we were going to be walking through them for a whole class period. It surprised me how long it actually took to get through once! The whole effect overall was so…calming. The chimes and the steady rhythm of my footsteps at my own pace really gave me time to just clear my head which has always been a difficult thing for me to do. My only real experience with meditation was freshman year in World Religions…but that form was never very effective for me because my mind, as much as I tell it to stop, just doesn’t stop whirring. The labyrinth me something to set my mind on without having to think about it. If that makes any sense. Two thumbs up and I’m thinking we should do it again soon 🙂
A labyrinth walk symbolizes a message of underlying unity amongst diversity and complexity. Members are at different stages in the journey; some move quickly, while others find a slower pace. But there are no dead-ends, no tricks, no attempts to derail. This is not a race or a competition to sift out the ‘most fit’ to survive at highly sought-after universites. To the contrary, one common path leads all walkers in a meandering trail towards home, a place of security, satisfaction, and gratitude. Although some are in different places in their journeys, communal walking of the labyrinth symbolizes a promise to every member: participate in the journey and we as a community will join you on the path towards home. Purposeful individual action traverses a path well-trod by past, present and future students and teachers.
Sadly, this sense of unity amongst diversity is an uncommon experience in modern society. In a section entitled “the world lacks a vision of a viable global future,” Harmon (1998) states:
Since modern culture ascribes no “reality” to inner experience, transcendent values have no power and materialistic values prevail. Thus it seems reasonable for society to be characterized by economic rationalization of an ever-increasing fraction of social behavior and organization (p. 127).
As Harmon alludes, the inner experiences of students are under threat as schools strive to become increasingly concerned with the minute particulars – those items which are demonstrable, measurable, and quantifiable. In what might appear to be paradoxical, contemporary culture’s “big picture” deficit also fails to ascribe inherent value to student introspection and realization that are the most significant fruits of the soul’s journey. In the middle of a culture accelerating towards greater personal achievement, students yearn to even contemplate some overarching organizing principle by which to make sense of their lives. Indeed, it is a challenge for teachers to continue this quest for humane values when it seems that no enduring images are powerful enough to inspire widespread change of ailing sociopolitical systems.
In most cultures throughout history, priests and teachers have been the moral and spiritual leaders of a community. In this modern era of fragmentation, we as educators should seek to re-take this mantle of community leadership. For only when one senses a whole can the small, the personal, the individual successfully find one’s place in a larger unity. Our use of a labyrinth provided a physical model of spiritual terrain, allowing students to first visualize and then actively enter into a symbolic quest for direction and coherence. Using this labyrinth walk as a model, teachers should seek to serve the emotional and spiritual needs of school communities by discovering other efficacious symbols that honor an overall sense of wholeness that is absent in much of modern life.
Harman, W. (1998). Global mind change: The promise of the 21st century. San Francisco: Institute of Noetic Sciences.
- To see a January 3, 2016 South China Morning Post article on labyrinths in Hong Kong, which included comments from my students and myself, click here.
- “12 Reasons for a Church Labyrinth,” by Robert Ferre.
To see another entry I wrote on using the labyrinth as a symbol for social conscience growth, including a 9-minute video that Mike Kersten and I made for the Ndoto conference in February, 2013, click here.
Fellow teacher Rob Ferrin found a labyrinth on the wall of the orphanage his group was working at in Ruhegeri, Rwanda during his trip in June, 2011. Apparently, a friend of a friend (Tash McCaroll) painted it a few years ago. Lots of smudgy kid finger marks were on it… must be much loved.
Below: On July 6, 2011 Martha recruited a group of like-minded labyrinth enthusiasts and built a very large labyrinth near Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. Second picture below: walking a labyrinth in my colleague Richard Friederick’s “Spiritual Practices of the East” class.