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Vol. LVIII, No. 15
July 28, 2006

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Labyrinth as Holistic Healing
The Calmest Distance Between Two Ears Is Not a Straight Line

On the front page...

Riddle me this: What single word means a dance floor, a convoluted enclosure, an organ of balance, a turbine seal and a place to meditate?

Answer: the labyrinth.

Ancient poets sang of the labyrinth as a place where youths and maidens danced, as well as a mythical structure where heroes and monsters matched wits. The human ear contains, in its inner portion, an anatomical labyrinth of semicircular canals and a snail-shaped coil. The labyrinth seal, used in turbines, has intricate


Fellow Victoria Bohler uses the NIH labyrinth.  

And then there's the NIH labyrinth.

The Clinical Center's Pain and Palliative Care Consult Service (PPCCS) offers a new resource for staff, patients, researchers and visitors: a 30-by-30-foot labyrinth now available for walking.

The soothing blue path, embossed on canvas, is rolled out twice monthly in the Clinical Research Center, where it serves as a respite, a place to slow down and reflect. It winds in a concentric pattern towards a midpoint and you can't get lost — no experience necessary.

"I was skeptical at first," says IRTA fellow Victoria Bohler, "but it worked for me. It made me feel calmer." Bohler helped launch the project under the direction of Dr. Ann M. Berger, founder and chief of the PPCCS, one of the CC's busiest consult services and part of the "quality of life" team. Bohler also coordinates staffing, offers orientation and instructions to labyrinth walkers and collects individual surveys after use. She is currently preparing a poster for this fall's Research Festival. Donna Pereira and Karen Baker, both nurse practitioners who are part of the PPCCS team, also collaborated closely on the project.

Working with PPCCS are the spiritual ministry and social work departments, the recreation therapy section of the rehabilitation medicine department and clinical volunteers.

The initial white paper, "Inspirational Healing of Mind, Body & Spirit: The Labyrinth," defines it as "a complementary modality designed to provide a means for therapeutic meditation [and] an ancient structure that has taken on form to cross all ethnic, religious, socio-economic and level-of-education backgrounds."

Bohler says it’s best to form a question or intention prior to walking the labyrinth.  

Mindful walking has for centuries served as a form of meditation and prayer in various traditions, both east and west. The Buddha was a great walker. Contemporary Zen traditions, among others, incorporate walking meditation and not just to relieve the legs after all that sitting.

The NIH labyrinth is an 11-circuit model, based on the 13th-century exemplar inlaid on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. Those unable to make a long and arduous overland pilgrimage could walk the indoor labyrinth for reflection and contemplation.

The NIH labyrinth is not a maze: the way in is also the way out. The path is unicursal, so there is no puzzle to solve. Since you go at your own pace, in your own manner, the design, in all its intricate simplicity, is engineered to relieve stress. The whole journey takes about half an hour.

Mindful walking can be restful to labyrinth users.  

Bohler says she's found sources describing the labyrinth in a 4th-century Algerian church.

A search on the Internet — itself a sort of labyrinth — also reveals that they were carved into stones, or petroglyphs, dating back thousands of years, spread across the Mediterranean basin and as far north as Ireland. These were much smaller than the ones made for walking and in size, if not conceptually, they are somewhat like the "finger labyrinths" offered as tabletop versions for individuals who are not ambulatory.

All have built-in curves that bear some schematic resemblance to the grooves of the brain. These turns, known as clews, offer a place to pause. "You can stop there awhile," Bohler suggests, "and use it as a place to say a word, phrase, meditate or reflect."

Clew originally meant a ball of yarn or thread, and Bohler cites it as the root of our word clue. In Greek myth, Ariadne offered Theseus a ball of string so he could find his way back out of the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.

"There are no hard and fast rules for using the labyrinth," she explains, "but it helps before you enter to sit down for a moment and form an intention or question. Then walk to slow down and concentrate on that." In addition to the labyrinth's clews, the center, shaped like a blossom, can also be used as a resting point. "You can pause there in the middle, or in each of the six petals," says Bohler. "You can sit down and take the time you need to reflect on where you are in your life. When you come out, reflect on your experience."

"We put it in place to hopefully help reduce stress in patients, families and health care professionals," says Berger. "Our hope for the future is to do research."

The labyrinth is available on the 1 SE corridor, off the main lobby of the CRC, on the first and third Tuesdays of each month from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call the Pain and Palliative Care Consult Service at (301) 594-9767 for more information.

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