On the grounds of many churches and meditation centers one finds labyrinths. Those wishing to plumb their inner depths walk these paths in meditative contemplation. As the trail spirals inward, appreciation of the journey increases; experience in the labyrinth becomes a metaphor for experience in life. Sometimes ground seems to be gained, and other times it seems to be lost. Regardless of impressions, however, the path leads to the center. Both labyrinths and life work this way: no matter the twists and turns, we arrive at our destination.
In a way, living within a human body is like living within a labyrinth. The body is a landscape—a complex terrain of living cells—that constrains the mind. The mind experiences cellular activity as a dynamic swirl of thoughts, emotions, and sensations whose wanderings seem largely beyond its control. As we notice the waywardness of inward life, we are—in a sense—learning about our body’s cellular connections. The cells channel inner movements in a way similar to—but vastly more complex than—the way lines in a churchyard channel outer ones. Human awareness reverberates through biological corridors, and with mindfulness we begin to feel more comfortable with the resulting twists and turns. A MindfulBiology perspective can help us appreciate that inner experience is guided by complex cellular networks in body and brain.
This biological labyrinth possesses a quality ones traced at meditation centers lack: it changes. Life experience shapes the body and its brain. What’s more, in a kind of feedback loop, the body-brain complex (the mind, in other words) shapes life experience through its behaviors. What happens in the world, and how we respond, sculpts us into who we become, which influences what happens in the world. With attentiveness, we can begin to notice how our lives mold us, and vice versa. Since human consciousness is both conditioned and a source of conditioning, we can use the body-labyrinth creatively, gently redrawing it until it takes us where we want to go.
This is a powerful medicine. It requires us to remain honest with ourselves and question our habitual responses. For instance, past traumas often seem to shadow us with discouragement; we think of ourselves as broken or even damned, and we act accordingly. But if we are persistent, we can transform the trauma into its own source of light, and darkness vanishes; we behave like wise elders rather than wounded children. How does this work? By a slow process of recognizing habitual responses, looking for opportunities to change, and building more constructive habits. With the labyrinth redrawn, we wend our way toward our healthier selves.
When we walk a metaphoric labyrinth drawn on the earth, we make choices: how fast or slow to walk, when to stop, when to turn around. And yet, constrained by guiding lines, we also experience the imperative of destiny: the path determines the goal. In a similar way, the body permits us to make choices but also propels us. In a complex dance of mind and body, self and world, inner and outer, we make our way home.
This body-labyrinth is the teacher: when we pay attention, it shows us how our lives direct us toward the people we become, and how—as those people—we direct our lives. We learn to stand at the boundary between choice and destiny, watching for those moments when we seem to control the flow of mental life (versus those when it seems to act–so to speak–with a mind of its own). Gradually, living with intention, we find ways to intervene and build better habits, acquiring wisdom and authenticity.
The Buddha said that everything we need for liberation is available within this ‘fathom long body.’ This body is a labyrinth that often seems to keep us ensnared but will—if traversed with mindful sincerity—guide us toward freedom.