A labyrinth can be defined simply as a single path, often circular, that leads to the center. It is not to be confused with a maze. “Maze paths have dead ends, obstacles,” says labyrinth designer Dan Niven of Lynnwood. “With a labyrinth, once on the path, you’ll get to the center.”
In 2006, Niven created a labyrinth for St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Edmonds using vinyl-flagging tape laid down on grass.
“I anticipated it would be a temporary installation for Holy Week,” Niven recalls, “but the enterprising folks at the church get credit for deciding to maintain the design by mowing it, which has been done to this day.”
Barring a downpour, anyone is welcome to walk it during daylight hours (21405 82nd Place W.). “It can get muddy after a lot of rain,” says Maryellen Young of St. Alban’s. “We love it. Dan did a great job.”
Visitors are asked to sign a guest book near the labyrinth and pick up an informational brochure.
If you’re willing to travel, join Niven and many others who will be walking an indoor labyrinth at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle this New Year’s Eve, from 6 p.m. to midnight (1245 10th Ave. E.).
It’s becoming the thing to do, but the custom is hardly a New Age gimmick. In fact, labyrinths are ancient, dating back four thousand years or more. Evidence of them has been found in prehistoric rock carvings and across cultures.
“There’s something elemental about them,” Niven says, who designs a dizzying variety of labyrinths for individuals, clubs, churches, schools and events.
He’s especially interested in making them accessible to everyone. “Often, labyrinths are made in the ground or on cobblestones. Those don’t work very well for canes or wheelchairs.”
To that end, he worked on a labyrinth for a Seattle retirement center where the path was exactly the width of a walker.
Dan also designed one that’s wheelchair friendly. “You follow the lines, not the space between the lines. A friend of mine in a wheelchair loved it.”
But why do it at all? What happens in a labyrinth?
“We’re all on digital and informational overload,” Niven says. “We spend plenty of time in our left brains. Why not make a little time for the right brain, to refresh and reboot?”
What might start out as a slog could turn into insight. He offers the experience of his then-fiancé, now wife, Elizabeth. They went to a church for her first labyrinth walk, and being an energetic person, she grew frustrated behind a woman going heel-to-toe slow. Elizabeth was beyond annoyed, but by the time she arrived at the center, the word “patience” came to her. “I could see the difference in her face,” Dan says.
Perhaps ironically, as a maker of labyrinths, Niven hasn’t had his own peak experience on the path. But he’s not ruling it out.
“That’s because each experience is new. You’re a different person every time you step into it,” he said.
And while this all may sound very hushed and sacred, Niven says there’s room for fun.
Kids love labyrinths.
“I tell kids the only rule is there are no rules. I did a labyrinth for some Girl Scouts, a bunch of nine-year-olds. And they made it their own. They took this ancient template and invented rules for a game of tag. I trust people to do with it what they will,” Niven said.
As a board member and local representative of The Labyrinth Society, Niven takes pride in his designs, but he has also come to feel great humility about the work. “They’re only lines on the ground until you bring yourself to it.”
–By Connie McDougall