When faced with the challenges, confusion and mental roadblocks often associated with mental illness – what a person often wants most is a simple, straightforward way to cope.
A labyrinth would likely not be the first thing to come to mind.
Especially when you think of the dictionary definition of the word: a complicated, irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way; a maze or a confusing situation where it is difficult to know which direction to take (Oxford Dictionaries.)
And yet – the labyrinth at the Waterford Hospital in St. John’s, in an interesting ‘twist and turn’ of phrase – has actually become a source of help and therapy for many people looking for clarity – or rest – in the midst of mental stress or illness.
And for a couple of reasons:
First of all, the labyrinth is marked out on the floor of the chapel – a quiet room in the Waterford Hospital – which in itself has a calming effect.
Secondly, navigating the labyrinth is a way of measuring time and space – at a person’s own pace, according to Susan Cummings, the manager of Pastoral Care and Ethics at the Waterford Hospital. She is also a trained facilitator who works with people interested in using this form of meditative practice to enrich their healing journeys.
“These kinds of labyrinths offer one path opening at the outside edge of the pattern then move this way and that throughout the pattern until the centre is reached,” Susan adds.
“It’s not a path of puzzles and decisions – but one without obstacles – which leads from the outside of the design to the centre – and by the same path back to the beginning.”
The labyrinth at the Waterford was introduced about 15years ago by Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes, then manager of Pastoral Care at the Waterford, who enlisted Susan and a few other interested persons to draw out a labyrinth with masking tape to use as a walking meditation in the hospital setting.
Since that time – and through many stages – a 30-foot, Chartres style permanent labyrinth now graces the floor of the chapel.
Susan says walking the labyrinth is a way to engage your body with your thoughts and emotions.
“The labyrinth is considered a sound choice of meditation practice for those working with mental health issues,” Susan adds. “Sometimes as we walk this journey of life we feel like we have ‘lost our way.’ The labyrinth is a tool which becomes a powerful metaphor for our experience of losing and finding.
The labyrinth is a place where you may find your way, find your God, and find yourself.”
Just ask Bernardine Ring. An articulate, professional woman who has worked for 30 years at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese – four years ago, she experienced an acute psychosis – a disturbance of thought processes and behaviour, which can manifest itself in hallucinations, delusions, agitation, and rapid deterioration in behaviour. She was hospitalized for several months, in order to help her recover.
One day, Susan Cummings suggested she visit the labyrinth. And the rest, as they say, is history. It helped bring order to the chaos of Bernardine’s thoughts and feelings – and long after her discharge from hospital – it remains an important part of her weekly routine.
“It’s a walking meditation that settles me and helps me to relax,” Bernardine adds. “It brings me into the present moment; I’m not thinking back – I’m not thinking ahead. Walking the labyrinth just allows me to be present – and when I finish, it’s a release.”
Finding your way
Olive English is a nurse who’s also seen the therapeutic benefits of the labyrinth in her clients. She and her colleagues Pam Burry and Martina Hickey manage an eight-week group therapy program for adults under Eastern Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Program. The clients have been diagnosed with a major psychiatric disorder, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, who are in remission from the acute phase of their illness.
“The Day Treatment Program is a holistic program which focuses on the components of body, mind and spirit, and the labyrinth can be used as a practical tool to improve the client’s mental health and assist with their Road to Recovery,” Olive says.
“The labyrinth is a walking meditation which the clients often find beneficial in helping with relaxation and mindfulness. It provides a time for reflection and an opportunity for self-awareness, and helps them gain a sense of balance in their life, with emphasis on their spirituality.”
For those who can’t, or prefer not to walk, the chapel also offers a couple of small locally-carved wooden labyrinths on which you can trace the design with your finger.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to walk the labyrinth. There are traditional practices but the labyrinth is a tool richly suggestive to the individual psyche and so many approaches are fruitful. There are, however, a number of written guidelines and suggestions on the wall, recommended reading before you begin walking the labyrinth.
“What are the fears, temptations and physical obstacles I must slay, overcome, outwit or befriend on this part of my journey?”
Walking the labyrinth has not just helped Bernardine Ring heal mentally – it has made her more aware of the circle of life itself.
“You were born. You live. You die. And then eternal life,” she says. I thank God every day for my physical health, my mental health and my spiritual hope. There’s help out there!
“I got through my illness – and found that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” ■
The Waterford Hospital Chapel Labyrinth is open to the public 12 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. every Wednesday. If you wish to share in this walking meditation, please call (709) 777-3545.
This story was written by Deborah Collins, a communications manager with Eastern Health, based in St. John’s.