Written by Margaret Rainbird
I ventured out one beautiful crisp Autumn morning to walk the labyrinth in the community garden in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This example of an ancient path for walking meditation had been my staunch companion through some pretty turbulent times that included the death of my beloved dog and watching my ex-husband waste to his death in the same year. These were accompanied by the sale of my home and commencing work as a doctor to the dying. These experiences culminated in admission to a psychiatric hospital with crippling anxiety and depression. Already, a few months since my hospital stay, that duo were once again pinning me to the bed early in the morning. Heaping fears and recriminations upon me and making it well nigh impossible to crawl out from under the doona and face the challenges of day to day reality.
I paused at the entrance to this mosaic beauty and felt the sun on my upturned face, the cool fanning breeze on my skin. Aptly, as I made one of the turns on the path an idea emerged. It felt as if it left the shelter of the heritage apple trees and walked up to me. It carried a question: What would my life be like if I walked a different labyrinth every day for a year? I felt excitement rise up from my feet and pass through my body. Such a quest would involve travel. After all, there aren’t 365 labyrinths in Australia. Immediately I had a sense that, unlike the planning and forensic diagnostic thinking that guided so much of my life, this would evoke a willingness to trust in invitation, inspiration and serendipity. Of course, I was already talking myself out of it by the time I got back to the car.
I gave myself the final piece of permission to fulfill my ‘crazy idea’ and go on this personal pilgrimage when I was diagnosed with two large tumours squashing the left hemisphere of my brain 3 days before Christmas in 2016. I had already made moves that defy logic and ‘good sense’: I had quit my job at a palliative care hospital and was in the process of surrendering my apartment and giving away many of my possessions. My young adult children had both left home.
On the eve of my surgery I was reflecting on this ultimate test of trust: Allowing other people to take sharp implements to my brain! I was told that I may have a stroke or die. At the very least, I was to expect things to be worse before they got better. However, leaving the tumours in place would kill me. No-brainer really!
Prior to the operation I was experiencing weakness in my right hand and foot, was walking in to walls, my writing and memory were deteriorating. A whole constellation of symptoms worsened slowly then much more rapidly. By the morning of surgery I couldn’t sign my name. I vowed that if I survived with my intellect intact I would start to share more of what I had learnt in the last 40 years: no more hiding the magical, metaphysical and mysterious that medicine pushes aside. I pictured myself kneeling and touching my forehead to the floor of the 800 year old labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France.
I realized how important my intellect was to my pleasure in life: reading, writing, intelligent conversation, studying, teaching. I didn’t want any of that taken away from me. It was with great relief and gratitude that I found myself the next day walking, talking, writing much more clearly. My brain slowly creaked back in to place and in to action. I was discharged home within 5 days with the mother of all headaches but excited to be alive.
I got to fulfill that dream plus many that were unforeseen. Within four months of my surgery I commenced my travels to 8 different countries including France, England, Sweden, Ireland, Scotland, USA and Australia. My grateful feet trod the path of 400 different labyrinths. It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. One whose wisdom I’m still harvesting. I called it my penciled-in-pilgrimage because I learnt very early in the piece that the landscape was constantly shifting and changing. It didn’t pay to write any plans in ink!
Harvested Wisdom from my Labyrinth Journey
In case it is valuable for other people undertaking something fairly major I will share some of what I learnt through the course of this 12 month process.
- Share your ‘crazy’ idea out loud (perhaps not with your accountant and other seriously pragmatic people). Stating your intention allows you to start feeling your way. It also allows other people to come forth with help, knowledge, assistance and useful contacts. Telling others also makes it harder to talk yourself out of it.
- Put in place things that will encourage you. I plastered a quote from Goethe to the fridge:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
In retrospect I can strongly attest to the truth of this. While I was quitting my job and packing up and relinquishing my home I was flying more by the hope that this was so.
- I created a collage that included pictures of labyrinths I intended to walk and quotes from books on pilgrimage as well as some of the world’s great philosophers including Woodstock and Michael Leunig. I included the thought that came to me one cold, anxious morning in bed: I am tired of living a small, scared, defeated life.
- One of the things that I turn to when facing major decisions that won’t appeal to everyone is divination tools such as Runes, Labyrinth Wisdom cards and others. I find they are often an uncanny source of encouragement particularly when I am contemplating things that fly in the face of logic and ‘common sense’.
- I can’t write this in big enough letters: reach out to other people: for support, for encouragement, for practical help. We/I have such strong values around independence and self-reliance yet every single person who extended their hospitality to me said that they benefited from my knowledge, my company and my experience. They were reconnected with the labyrinth and with each other. Obviously there was reciprocity in all of these aspects of my travels.
- Be willing to live with ongoing uncertainty. You may only be able to see a couple of steps ahead at any one time.
- That the linear models we create of set a goal, take action, achieve the goal are a false representation of how most of life unfolds.
- Trust your gut feelings and your bodily responses to things: go with the ones that energise and enliven you.
- Be prepared to change course and alter plans. What actually unfolds is likely to be far richer (though at times difficult and painful) than anything that you originally envisioned.
I wish you all the best with whatever you dream of bringing in to being.
Dr Margaret Rainbird decided to undertake a quest to walk a different labryinth every day for 365 days. You can learn more about her journey on her website – https://labyrinthsforlife.com/
You can read more articles like this one in the Maga Woman Magazine, a magazine for women over 45. You can grab your free copy HERE.