Rollins to house prayer labyrinth for meditation
By Madeline Sims, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, October 23, 2008
When stress builds, Matt Jorgensen '12 wanders the stacks of the Sherman Art library to "clear [his] mind."
"I'd definitely feel less weird if I had a structured place to try to focus," he said.
The "structured place" Jorgensen seeks will be available in the coming weeks at Rollins Chapel, future home to a new 24-foot-wide, 24-foot-tall custom prayer labyrinth.
The labyrinth will be made available for use by students, faculty and community members during regular chapel hours, unless a special event or group reserves the space.
The labyrinth is a circular maze-like structure made entirely of canvas placed on the floor. The structure reflects the idea of concentricity, which some people associate with getting closer to God at the center, according to Dierre Upshaw '09, the student director for the Office of Religious and Spiritual life and the Chapel organist.
The College purchased the labyrinth from The Labyrinth Company of Riverside, Conn. It is modeled after a medieval labyrinth from the Charter Cathedral in France.
"The size [of the labyrinth] we're purchasing can accommodate up to 20 people at one time, but my guess is it will be mainly be used by individuals," Tucker Dean Richard Crocker, the College Chaplain, said.
The labyrinth costs around $2,200, raised through the combined efforts of the Offices of Religious and Spiritual Life and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity.
While the labyrinth will be housed primarily at the chapel, all groups on campus, including those that have no religious affiliation, will be able to borrow and transport it.
"One of the things we're very open to is suggestions for alternative locations, which is why we got a portable labyrinth," Upshaw said. "We decided on the chapel for now because it's one of the main spiritual centers on campus and it has a somber, medieval feel to it."
They also needed to find a building that was large enough to hold the 24-foot-wide structure, he said.
Kurt Nelson, multi-faith program advisor for the Tucker Foundation, said he hopes that the labyrinth will help members of the Dartmouth community view the chapel as a public place.
"It spans religious communities, and folks who don't find themselves at home within a specific religion can also take this on as an individual practice," he said.
Upshaw said that one of the office's missions is to encourage multi-faith dialogue, discussion and activities.
"The labyrinth, which predates most modern-day religions, has now been used by many different religions and also by individuals who are not necessarily religious, but who consider themselves to be spiritual people," he said.
Nelson added that he prefers walking the labyrinth to meditating in a still position.
"I have what the Buddhists call 'monkey mind.' When you're sitting still, your mind is all over the place," Nelson said. "The idea behind meditation is that you are there, focused and fully present, and not wandering from here to there within the contexts of your own mind. For me, walking a labyrinth allows me to achieve that focus."
Dartmouth can be a stressful place for students and faculty, Upshaw said, adding that he hopes the new labyrinth will help relieve tension for those who use it.
"It's something that can be thought-provoking and can be used for reflection and relaxation," Upshaw said.
Crocker acknowledged that meditating in the labyrinth is "not an activity that is right for everybody" but said he hopes it will appeal to many.
"Many people find walking a labyrinth extremely helpful as a spiritual discipline," he said. "The act of walking this prescribed path, with its twists and turns that seem to imitate life itself, can be a tremendous help to many people."
Last summer, Crocker attended a conference at the University of Richmond about college students' spirituality relating to labyrinths.
"I realized that on campuses across the country, labyrinths had really become a special resource," Crocker said. "I came back from the conference and said, 'Let's make this happen.'"
Upshaw, who conducted much of the research on the labyrinth prior to its purchase, said that Crocker first informed him of his interest in obtaining a labyrinth at the beginning of August.
Initially, the Chapel considered constructing an outdoor labyrinth, but concluded that it would be impractical due to Hanover's snowy climate.
Anne Peale '11 said she has walked through the park labyrinth near her home several times. When she was little it felt like a game, she said, but as she grew older she found the experience to be very relaxing and focusing.
"As you follow the track, the part of your brain that's deciding where to go goes on autopilot so there's more room to think about and sort through other thoughts," she said.
A Harvard Medical School study on labyrinths reinforced the notion that they can help alleviate stress. Researcher Herbert Benson found that walking a labyrinth can be highly effective at quelling anxiety and bringing forth what Benson refers to as the "relaxation response," which has been shown to lower blood pressure, lower breathing rates, reduce insomnia and improve fertility. Many hospitals, health-care clinics and therapy offices use labyrinths because of their health benefits and soothing effects, Upshaw said.
The College set up temporary labyrinths in Collis Common Ground to help students combat stress during finals in fall 2004. The labyrinths were open for about one week.
During recent years, there has been a significant revival of labyrinth practice, according to Nelson.
"They've been uncovering medieval labyrinths in a number of cathedrals across Europe," he said. "It's a practice that has spanned different periods of time and different religious traditions, and it's currently seeing a real revival."
Records of labyrinths go back as far as 3,500 years, and some people think they might be even older, according to Upshaw. Labyrinths were initially devices meant to entrap evil spirits. Eventually, they came to be seen as symbols of pilgrimages for individuals who were unable to go on an actual holy journey.
"Today, most people see the labyrinth as being symbolic of the journeys we each take," Upshaw said. "We all follow different paths and have different religious experiences, but the labyrinth is a symbol that we're all still taking some sort of inward journey."
This journey is not meant to be tricky, according to Upshaw, despite the apparent similarities between a labyrinth and a maze.
"There's one way in, one way out, and no dead-ends," he said. "Walking a labyrinth is not meant to be a deceptive process."