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Life and the Labyrinth of Meaning

When we explore our lives as labyrinths of meaning, we deepen our experience.

Key points

  • Our life path can be viewed as a labyrinth guiding us to deeper meaning and fulfillment.
  • Walking a labyrinth takes us through numerous twists and turns that symbolize the ebb and flow of life.
  • Like the design of a labyrinth, what looks like an end point in life can also be a beginning point.
Source: WhataWin/Shutterstock
7-circuit Cretan labyrinth design.
Source: WhataWin/Shutterstock

The labyrinth is an analogy for life. It is not a maze or a puzzle to be solved but a path of meaning to be experienced. Its path is circular and convoluted, but it has no dead ends. A labyrinth has one entrance — one way in and one way out. When we walk the path, we go around short curves and long curves; sometimes we are out on the edge, sometimes we circle around the center. We are never really lost, but we can never quite see where we are going.

Along the path, we sometimes move forward with ease and confidence; sometimes we creep ahead cautiously; sometimes we find the need to stop and reflect; and sometimes we even feel the urge to retreat. The center is there, but our path takes us through countless twists and turns. Sometimes we are at the heart of our life experiences; sometimes we are at a playful turn; sometimes we share our path with others; and other times we don’t. No matter what, we are still on the labyrinth path. It holds all our experiences, in life and in work. And to draw upon the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, we need to be aware that what looks like an end point can also be a beginning point. Indeed, in so many ways, the labyrinth is like life.

"What man does not know,
Or has not thought of
Wanders in the night
Through the labyrinth of the mind
."
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Many great cathedrals were built on the sites of ancient labyrinths. At Chartres Cathedral in France, the 11-circuit labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral is considered by some as symbolic of the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But the labyrinth is also a metaphor for what is sacred in our lives. Through its twists and turns, its ancient spaciousness holds everything we experience — our minds and emotions, our physical beings and our spirits, our losses and gains, our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows. When we walk the path inward, we carry our burdens with us. When we meditate or pray in the center, we ask for grace, forgiveness, and understanding. When we walk the path outward, we are lighter, more joyful, and ready again to take on our life’s challenges.

Because of my Greek family heritage, which is rooted in Crete, I’ve long been fascinated with the Cretan labyrinth, a classic seven-circuit labyrinth dating back more than 4,000 years. Some people believe the Cretan design evolved from the spirals found throughout nature, but it’s the ancient myth of Theseus entering the labyrinth at Knossos to fight the Minotaur that captured my imagination. As a child I wanted to explore the unknown; I wanted to be of service, even as I defied authority to find my way along the twists and turns of the path. And, as convoluted as it sometimes was, the path has always remained my own.

Indeed, the labyrinth that is my life has taken me through many twists and turns. Yet it is my deep belief in the inherent meaning of life that has steadily informed and inspired me, leading me deeper into my life path, deeper into authentic meaning. When we explore our lives as labyrinths of meaning, with all of the design features of classic labyrinths that I’ve noted above, we deepen our experience of life.*

So, how might the labyrinth metaphor help you find greater meaning and fulfillment in your personal life and work? Ask yourself: in what ways is your life a journey through a labyrinth? Moreover, think about how you might use this labyrinth metaphor in a constructive way with others, including family members, friends, and co-workers.

References

*For more information about the “labyrinths of meaning” concept: Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, pp. 57–61.

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