It is by no means a coincidence that the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance that is under the purview of the University of Maryland–College Park’s Stamp Student Union Center for Campus Life contains a labyrinth. Labyrinths, after all, have been used throughout history as a ritualistic device for personal meditation.
“Since the path is continuous with no decisions needed to be made before reaching the center, it is a metaphor for recovering balance in life, focusing inward for self-reflection and personal insight,” said Richard Bienvenu, the director of landscape architecture for LPA Design Studios, which designed a permanent, outdoor labyrinth on the grounds of California State University–Northridge student union’s Oasis Wellness Center. “We had to remind everyone that a labyrinth is not a maze—for a maze everyone thinks of the movie The Shining, with Jack Nicholson—whereas a labyrinth is used to encourage quieting the mind and stress reduction—the exact opposite of a maze.”
The labyrinth on the College Park campus was in part the result of a collaboration with Nature Sacred, a nonprofit that helps communities design public green spaces with the intention of improving mental health. The project was initiated shortly after two crises struck the campus and the region: The attacks of 9/11 and a tornado that two weeks later ripped through campus, killing two students who were sisters. Using natural gardens, labyrinths, and particularly contemplation benches that contain all-weather journals for guests to use, Nature Sacred has developed public sanctuaries across the United States, including on campuses at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, and Talladega College in Alabama. A second sanctuary space is in the works in Alabama, at Jacksonville State University.
Not surprisingly, there are labyrinths in many varied sizes, shapes, and forms on a number of campuses, some associated with chapels, others in public green spaces or arboretums, and some tied to student unions, like the one at California State University–Northridge. Emory University has a stone and brick outdoor labyrinth next to the university student center, another one—a medieval designed carpet labyrinth—in a chapel, and a mobile, cloth one that can be used in classrooms and outdoor spaces. Coleman Commons, located in front of the student union at the University of Akron, contains a labyrinth, and at Gustavus Adolphus College, a canvas labyrinth is used during “Sacred Space” programs that also include yoga mats, Reiki practitioners, and a chaplain on hand. At the University of Georgia, the Presbyterian Student Center offers an outdoor labyrinth made from recycled materials; Middlebury College has a seven-circuit outdoor labyrinth, dedicated by the 14th Dalai Lama in 2014, that is modeled after the world famous one in Chartres Cathedral in France; and Davidson College’s labyrinth, part of its Buddhist and Meditation Initiatives program, is lit at night for increased accessibility.
It is the labyrinth at California State University–Northridge’s Oasis Wellness Center that was intentionally designed to be one in a spectrum of outdoor “rooms” that were designed to provide distinct and holistic experiences to reconnect with nature. The labyrinth experience was meant to support meditative thinking, spiritual centering, and mindfulness, according to LPA Design Director Winston Bao. “It’s literally teaching us to be in the moment,” he said. “A student mentioned he didn’t know what the labyrinth was about but referenced that his grandfather uses it for mental balance in his well-being routine. This was a chance to learn something new and perhaps help other students discover opportunities to find balance in their busy and demanding lives.”
The labyrinth is central to the campus wellnessfair, Spring Into Wellness, an event that includes yoga, meditation, art classes, and rejuvenating massages. During this annual event, the labyrinth is used as a space for sound healing and vibrational therapy, in which crystal and bronze bowls are used to emit specific frequencies used for relaxation, healing, andpersonal development.
“We also offer Qigong, a Tai-Chi-like ancient practice that cultivates and directs energy through the body’s meridians, strengthening the internal organs and soothing the central nervous system,” said Condor, manager of the student union’s wellness center. “When there is no scheduled programming, the labyrinth is always one of our ‘passport’ stops amongst other services within the center that promote wellness and well-being.” The rewards program allows students to collect punches on the passport when they use wellness services like the labyrinth, earning wellness-related prizes at the end of the campaign.
The center also added a QR (Quick Response) Code station at the labyrinth in 2019 that provided some instructions on how to use it, and that, in turn, led to a significant uptick in users: Prior to the QR Code station the labyrinth was averaging from 45 to 92 visits per month, but once in place, visits increased to 250 per month, pre-pandemic.
And while it is only one of the wellness options provided by the Oasis, the labyrinth was a component in research related to student outcomes that found that first-year and second-year students visiting the wellness center had higher GPAs were less likely to find themselves on academic probation and had a higher probability of third-term retention. Recognizing that only a small percent of first-year students used the center (just over 1%), the outcomes report found that “encouraging students to take advantage of Oasis’ services not just for their well-being, but also for positive academic outcomes, might therefore be a good strategy.”
That report mirrors work done by a number of researchers over the years related to labyrinth walking as a meditative tool. Research published in the journal Medicines in 2018, titled “Effects of Reflective Labyrinth Waling Assessed Using a Questionnaire,” identified meditative labyrinth walking being used at elementary schools, with incarcerated people and those in integrative therapy programs, and by hospitals with cancer patients.
The classic labyrinth pattern is seven to 11 circuits, depending on available space, with 180-degree turns marking the beginning of each circuit. Patterns lead inward toward the center, and from the center back out again, and most designs do not contain dead ends, but offer unique entrances and exits. Just as the QR Code used at the Oasis labyrinth may have successfully increased use, there are specific stages to labyrinth walking to get the most out of the experience. Lauren Artress, author of the book “Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool,” and a psychotherapist and priest who founded the international labyrinth non-profit Veriditas, notes that there are three stages to the experience:
- Preparation. Walking the labyrinth toward the center at a rhythm of choice, either slow-or fast-paced.
- Illumination. At the center, the individual may choose to sit or stand, assuming the most comfortable position, with eyes either opened or closed (Our design included a mandala; participants could choose to look at it or not).
- Restoration. Consists of walking back out away from the center and towards the beginning, whereupon some type of reflection is encouraged.
No training necessary, no specialized physical movement, just a meditation technique that anyone can try, with an objective being improved attention and judgment-free awareness of the present moment.