Constantly moving, we walk through the life timeline as a series of smaller pathways within the broader journey. Each step is a moment, with unavoidable change defined by the permanent link to time. All matter in the universe is locked into two things: physical form and the arrow of time.
As humans, we are stuck with our body vessels and have no choice but to move forward in time. And yet, so many other choices! Breakfast food. Running in the park. Meditation. Turn signals. Petting the dog. Compassion for naughty kids. Prayer. The universe offers plenty of options in the buffet.
For the life journey, there are as many metaphors as there are paths: the long walk along the fractal-like shoreline, the short and strenuous stint up the mountain, slow meanderings through a dense forest. Narrowing down these visualization to circular paths, to travel from the outside to the inside, these journeys have at least three possibilities the maze, labyrinth and spiral.
My first and most recent labyrinth experiences were at churches. At Castleton Hill Moravian, in the courtyard near bustling Victory Boulevard in Staten Island, the paver labyrinth is next to the children’s playground and peace pole. The Grove, in contrast, chose nature as its setting with an all-grass design, tucked a bit away from the main sanctuary and busy East W.T. Harris Boulevard in Hickory Grove. I’ve encountered many labyrinths in between at yoga and retreat centers, and all have one thing in common: a single, fixed journey with lots of turns. If all of life is a big conglomerate of past events, where what’s done is done, the labyrinth asks us to acknowledge that our total life journey will be ultimately fixed, given enough future. The present, however, is indubitably affected by our choices. And, though it might not feel that way, life is generally multiple choice.
Think about it: all the things we feel are required. Here are a few:
I must walk the dog. No: you choose to walk the dog because it’s good for the dog, your relationship to the dog, and the carpet.
I have to finish my degree. No: you choose to finish because of your intention to be a professional in discipline X.
I have to use turn signals. No: you choose this because it’s lawful and courteous. You choose not to be a jerk.
In the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task”. This applies as much to the mundane chores as the existential threats. In the end, all possible outcomes, like the quantum states of small things like atoms, collapse into a single timeline of things happening, one after the other. All we do is to mind each microstep.
What about the maze? Is this path a fairer reflection of life? Maybe. We know some of the turns lead to dead ends, forcing us to turn around and begin gathering geographic data. Which way will you go? The path of scuttling, lack of clarity or direction, randomly chosen right or left turns, going backwards all the time, and then having to memorize the goddamned map? The maze is a problem to solve; perhaps we’re privileged with tools like a compass and pen/paper. But is life an unknown landscape ready to be solved like a puzzle?
The future is unknown, yes, but life goes by whether or not we’re in full problem-solving mode. Our attitude governs the management of the maze. In contrast, the labyrinth path is one foot in front of the other…oh, here’s a nice long arc!…dang this tight turn…another arc but not as long…switch directions…in essence, go where the path takes you because no decision is truly “wrong”.
The two journeys of maze and labyrinth mirror ego vs. non-ego paths. Those are the two ways to be in this life. Which will you choose? The conflicted, reactionary path, or the receptive path of intention and trust? If you’re wondering where the “gray area” lies in this labyrinth/maze binary, there is none. If you design a labyrinth and purposely introduce dead ends, what do you have? Just another maze. If, instead, you’re able to navigate a maze completely chill, kudos: you’ve converted it to a labyrinth. You either choose the path of conflict, or the path of peace. Every single choice comes down to that. Even choices considered neutral are inherently peaceful. Paraphrasing Sri Swami Satchidananda of Yogaville: since peace is our intrinsic state, a thing can either disturb peace, or not disturb peace. That is all.
Zooming out to the universe from our daily micro-choices, let’s now talk about thermodynamics. In terms of the two universal elements of energy and entropy (randomness, chaos or disorder), the maze is high energy and high entropy, where we’re scuttling about, stressed out, yearning to solve the puzzle. The labyrinth, though, is low energy and high entropy, where our journey still has plenty of turns, but we’re significantly less frazzled. The tendency for the universe, at all times, is to keep energy low, while maximizing entropy. Thus, adopting the labyrinthine attitude happens to go with the flow of the universe. In other words, by endeavoring towards a peaceful path, we’re aligning with the universe as creatures of nature.
Of course, there’s another way to get to the center of a circle: by spiral, a neat and tidy path. While low in energy, this path has extremely low entropy in terms of thermodynamics, and thus not so applicable to life. Even so, the shape of the spiral has its symbolic place in any practice asking us to channel our thought into a single prayer, mantra, or focus on breath. Taking the consciousness back to presence brings it into the singularity of the now, without the clutter of future and past. Subjects of the future or past are numerous, and layered with possibilities, analytical energy, overlap and complexity – and, indeed, pondering these can be a rich practice in practicality, valuable lessons and artistic ventures. In other words, we should still be learning lessons from the past while we thoughtfully plan for the future. However, in everyday living, these pieces should be considered sparingly if the intention is to stay in the present moment.
Life may feel like an insufferable maze. But if you zoom out, you can see the labyrinth. And channeling the spiral every once in a while clears the mind.
Circles are awesome.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness