Friday, December 7, 2012

Into the Labyrinth

Myth, according to scholar Karen Armstrong, looks at events not as one-time historical happenings, but instead as something that happens all the time. In myth, there is No Time or perhaps, All Time. Mythological events happen again and again, or constantly, in thematic or psychological metaphor. The same event seen historically happened only at one time and in one place.

In a historical sense, I walked into a labyrinth a month ago and walked back out an hour later. In a mythical sense, I walked into the labyrinth and I am still there. In the center of the figure, where the grace happens, in the midst of transformation. Historical truth is that the fear that I walked in with is now the peace that I hold. Mythological truth is that the demon is still shape-shifting into its angelic form.

I walked into the labyrinth a month ago, still trailing wisps of smoke from the smudging of handmade incense that my walking partner had brought. She stepped in ahead of me, crossing herself. I made my own gesture of reverence at the opening, acknowledging the sacred intention we had come to manifest. Step by step, through the gentle curves and hairpin turns that comprised this labyrinth, I placed my foot as on holy ground, knowing that it is I, actually, who am the holy ground.

Along the winding path, I held the posture of fear, a permanent flinch. It is a mental posture that I have maintained for decades but that has become a physical necessity in my pain of the last few years. The fear has kept me a literal captive in my own body as the muscles and joints pinch and ache. But walking into the path, I held the posture deliberately, gazing with the mind's eye straight at the fear, regarding it, admitting that both fear and flinch had served a holy purpose: survival of soul and mind.

I met my partner in the center. She planted her candle in the ground, among the rocks and pebbles of the tiny altar that grows there from the offerings of the pilgrims. Contrary to custom, I had brought nothing to leave in the labyrinth. This ritual was, for me, not about leaving something behind but about transforming something within. So instead of a tangible offering, I made a prayer of my body, with my body. Through a series of mudras, yoga-like gestures of the hands, speaking from that soul-place beyond words, I offered the pain and fear and flinching and utter terror to that sacred space. I submitted humbly to the spiritual path upon which I have been set, asking that I find authority over the demon fear, that it would be a companion on the journey rather than a jailer in my prison. I acknowledged the holiness of all things, even the demons, who still act according to a higher plan.

Then I bowed to show respect to the power of grace that sanctified the space. And I walked back out of the labyrinth. Or did I? The change in perspective that I sought in the center of the labyrinth is not complete, my body and mind do not yet fully believe that the demon Grace is under my control.

After the walk, my partner and I entered a tiny, spiral-shaped chapel, steeped in the prayers of the many supplicants before us. In the center of the chapel was a small sunken space that drew me in. I left my partner on the wall-bench that circled the chapel and sat on the floor in the very center of the spiral. Why had I been pulled to this place?

The work of Peter Levine, one of the foremost names in the field of trauma and trauma recovery, demonstrates that the natural response of an animal (or human) to a perceived life-threatening situation, after the fight-flight-or-freeze condition has ended, is to release the enormous quantities of fear-induced hormones like adrenaline through a period of shaking or trembling. In his work with recovery, he found that people who have been allowed to have this period of trembling rarely if ever have post-traumatic reactions. Similarly, people with PTSD who can call up in their bodies the memory of the trauma (whether the memory is conscious or not) will nearly always experience some kind of shaking, however small or large, as part of their release.

Cross-legged on the chapel floor, I sat with my hands resting on my knees, awaiting whatever had called me into this space. The tiny trigger point in my shoulder, where pain so often grabs me, tensed and a powerful electrical impulse shot down my arms. Both my hands twitched and clenched. My left hand started to shiver, then shake, and finally to flail. The muscles in my wrist and my forearm spasmed, the nerves firing completely without my conscious control. The intensity of the shaking was enough to hurt, the muscles were contracting so hard. Faster and faster, harder and wilder, my arm danced with the demon. I wondered if my whole body would be pulled into this last dance of fear, the birth spasms of freedom.

I have no idea how long I sat there with my arm shaking, at least five minutes, probably less than than fifteen. What I do know is that the trembling waxed and waned three times before the wave passed off me.

By the time I got home, I was completely wrung out. For the next several days, I was incapable of much more than brushing my teeth. I had the classic detoxification symptoms--weakness, flu-like digestion, headache, general aches and pains.

During the rest of the month, the shaking and spasming of my left arm would come over me many times, fortunately without the flailing, since it often came while I was driving or laying in bed at night next to my husband. Each time, it left me tired and drained. But somehow also liberated.


  1. Did you name this post after a Dead Can Dance album? :)

    You and your ideas are too interesting to pass up. Subscribed.

  2. Anonymous, I have never heard of Dead Can Dance. I will head over to YouTube and look them up. I named the post quite pragmatically because it is a story about walking into a labyrinth. No allusions to anything. But if it works that way, too, then I'm just more awesome than I thought!

  3. WOW!

    To many Christians, this would seem very heretical, of course. I am, on the other hand, so pleased that you have found through this ongoing experience at least some relief from your situation; and I pray that it may continue to produce positive results in your life.

    With my limited knowledge of Buddhism (since preparing for last school year and teaching the class in The Buddha and Buddhism this year), I understood your experience more so than if it were coming to me “cold.” Ha, I even knew what the word “mudra” meant!

    I am so happy for you … trusting that this will be part of the reestablishment of complete health for you. Maybe when you reach that point, you can help me find release from my fears!

    Terry Gray

  4. Anyone who has a problem reading heretical ideas should have stopped reading at the title of my blog. Everyone reads here at his own risk!