Listening for Voices: Another Morning of Labyrinths

This is the fourth part of a series about a trip I took to western New York, something of a pilgrimage, to find and walk labyrinths. If you missed them, click here for Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

I woke up bright and early Saturday in my hotel room in Rochester, grabbed some breakfast and a bucket of coffee, and got on the road. There was frost on my windshield, and a chill in the air. I had a plan to hit a lot of labyrinths today, and I had some questions, all of which dealt with people, and my relationships with them.

1 The first labyrinth was at Ock Hee’s Gallery in Honeoye Falls. It’s a slightly modified 7-circuit classical (Cretan) style labyrinth. Grass path, with inlaid stone walls. There’s also a fascinating sculpture at the entrance, and a matching one in the center.

The question I started with for the day was one that was on my mind all night. “Whom do I need to reach out to now?” I have neglected a lot of my relationships with friends and family, and I felt like I wanted to reach out and fix that. Why are they neglected? Some of it is the business of life, busy job, growing kids. But a lot of it is the fact that I’ve been in and out of depression more frequently, and I always find it hard to reach out then.

I thought that what I’d receive from this labyrinth was a list of names, people I would plan to call or write in the near future. But that’s not what I got. What I got was a message that I need to reach out to people from my center. I thought, okay, that makes sense. In order to really connect with people, you have to be honest about who you are, and reach out from there. But it doesn’t solve my problem, because when I’m stuck in a depression, I feel like the depression is my center. And despite the way I share so openly on this blog (and in my upcoming book Darkwater, quick plug), I really don’t relish the idea of calling an old friend out of the blue and saying, “Hi. I feel like shit, and there’s nothing you can do to help.” As I was thinking about that, I received some clarification: Reach out from your center, but you don’t have to talk about your center. Ah! That makes sense. Be honest with yourself about who you are and how you are, and don’t try to hide it from your friend, but you don’t have to focus on it either. I wanted to continue this at the next labyrinth

2 The second labyrinth of the day was at Mary Magdalene Church in East Rochester. It’s a five-circuit medieval (“Chartres”) style, with mulch paths and a wide variety of rocks forming the walls. There is a Peace Pole in the center.

I walked into this labyrinth with a follow-up question: “How can I reach out to people better when I am depressed?” As I walked toward the center, I didn’t hear much of anything. I felt a sense of silence, like I was missing something. When I reached the center, though, I encountered a voice that I thought was God. You’re trying too hard. You’re trying to do an end-run here. You can’t solve all your problems in two days of labyrinths. Don’t ask me this question now. Ask me again when you’re depressed! Oh, crap, I thought. Is this what I’m doing? Am I just trying to get easy answers here? I started to question this whole trip. I was still standing in the center, and the voice interrupted. Now go! Hold on. That is not how God talks. This voice isn’t God. I waited in the center longer, and I began to feel God’s touch, I think, a sense of being gently hugged from all directions. I don’t remember the words I heard then, but I remember the feeling I had: God wanted me to be abundantly filled, and alive. Unlike the other voices I hear sometimes, in particular the one I call the Dark Voice, who wants me to be lonely and sad. That’s probably who I was hearing. As I walked out, I thought that I had something of an answer here:

When I’m depressed, I have a number of voices speaking to me. The voice of my depression, the Dark Voice, tries to tell me to be quiet and keep to myself. The voice of God tells me that I am worthy, and that God wants abundant life for me. And now I can add my own voice, my voice that says, “I know that reaching out to others is something that gives me more abundance in my life.” I can try to listen to two of those voices, and try as best I can to ignore the third. I headed out toward my third labyrinth of the day.

3 The next labyrinth had a name: Graig’s labyrinth. It’s on private property, but is accessible to the public, and has a very moving backstory. (Check out the link to learn more.) It’s made of very similar materials to the last one: mulch path with various types of rocks as the walls. There is a large rock at the center. This one, however is a 5-circuit modified classical, modified so that the path forms something like a capital “G” for Graig.

The question I brought in was a new one, but about people nonetheless. “Why do I think people can’t change?” This is a belief I’ve held for some time, despite a lot of cognitive dissonance whenever I think about it. I have seen lots of evidence that people do change, that people do grow and evolve, yet I hang on to this belief that it’s impossible. Whatever someone believes today is what she’ll believe forever, and there’s no point in trying to talk to them about it. I’ve used it as a defense mechanism during this polarized political climate. But I don’t think it’s a new idea for me, and I wanted to know where it came from. I had a suspicion, and as I walked, I found that suspicion to be confirmed, or at least buttressed. It comes from a fear I’ve had since at least my teenage years that I can’t change. (For an early, yet powerful, exemplar of this, click here.) Whenever I do something wrong, I feel a terrible guilt. The Dark Voice tells me over and over, “You should have known better.” And I feel like I am yet again a failure, yet again useless, yet again someone who simply cannot grow or change. I want to find out where this comes from. That’s the question for the next labyrinth.

4 So I headed to Clifton Springs Hospital. Not to check myself in as a psychiatric patient, but to walk their labyrinth. It’s very different from the last two. Where they were earthy and connected to their natural surroundings, made with mulch and rocks, this one was also appropriate for its locale. It had a clean, professional look befitting a hospital, with pavers as the path and inlaid bricks as the walls. But there were two surprising details in its design, which helped me find an answer to my question.

It’s a 6-circuit modified medieval design. The modification is one I’d never seen before; medieval (Chartres-style) labyrinths are divided into four quadrants, and there are often switchbacks at the four cardinal directions. This labyrinth, however, is divided into thirds, which made the walk feel somewhat different. The other unique thing is visible in the photo above. I am standing at the entrance, and the path begins by immediately turning left to go behind the bush you see in the left corner. However, there is also another path to the center — an “express lane,” if you will. Look! If you go straight ahead from the entrance, you end up right in the center! I’d never encountered this before either. After trying to process it, I chose to go the long way — after all, that’s what labyrinths are for, at least in my opinion.

So the question I brought in was: “Where does my fear of not changing come from?” A memory quickly came back to me: “Nice Mike Days.” When I was in junior high and high school, I would wake up some mornings and declare the day a “Nice Mike Day.” You see, I was regularly disgusted by my own words and actions, how easy I found it to be sarcastic and cruel, to be thoughtless and selfish. And I wanted to change. I wanted to be a better person. I would proclaim (to myself) that today is the day, and I would pray for strength, and I would make it to lunchtime before forgetting or blowing it if I was lucky. Every single time, I blew it. Every single time. And so I started to believe that I just couldn’t change.

That’s where this unique labyrinth came in to help. As I walked the long, threefold path, I realized that I had been trying to change via the “express lane.” I had tried to change immediately, by fiat. But that’s not how change works. Change and growth and evolution happen slowly, over time. I am not today the person I was in high school. I have changed significantly since then. I think that kid would look at me today and say, “Hey, you are Nice Mike a lot of the time.” So when I decided that I couldn’t change, what I was really noticing was that I couldn’t change in an instant. Which is true. And that’s probably true of everyone. People don’t change in an instant. But change is real. Growth is real. But they move at a slow pace. Change and growth happen at the speed of life. And trying to change? That can happen too, just not at the pace I expected.

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