In ancient Greece, the labyrinth was first mentioned in a story about a prince who was vying for the throne of Crete against his brothers. Prince Minos prayed to Poseidon for a snow-white bull as a sign that he would win the crown. Poseidon sent him a magnificent snow-white bull, the Cretan Bull, but the Cretan Bull was not for keepsies; after he became king, Minos was expected to sacrifice it back to the gods. King Minos could not bring himself to slaughter such a beautiful creature, and Poseidon, seeking revenge, made the king's wife fall in love with the bull. She climbed inside a wooden cow, mated with the bull, and gave birth to the Minotaur. She tried to suckle her babe, but the Minotaur became vicious and went on a destructive rampage, destroying the fields and villages. King Minos hired a renowned builder to construct something to contain the beast- and thus, the labyrinth was born.
Recently, I went to "An Evening With Noah Levine," a Buddhist teacher and the author of Dharma Punx: A Memoir (2004), which chronicles Levine's use of meditation in recovery. Levine led a meditation and dharma talk on loving kindness, and he spoke about showing kindness to ourselves while trying to meditate. At the end a young man raised his hand and said the most wonderful thing: "There was a word you used that I didn't understand, and that word was mercy." Noah said that mercy is having the power to do harm, and choosing not to. He said that we don't judge our lungs for breathing, or our heart for beating, so why do we judge our minds for thinking? He said mercy is the first step to acceptance. For example, when he is meditating and a negative thought arises, he first tries to simply not make it worse. That's mercy.
Someone else said, "I have been meditating for 13 years, but when things get really bad, I still can't get myself to, even though I know it might help." This seemed to hit home for many people in the audience. Noah replied that sitting meditation isn't always the right thing, and that people forget that there are actually three parts to the teachings on meditation: sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindfulness. He suggested that a person could try walking meditation, and he talked a bit about EMDR- a type of trauma therapy that uses bilateral stimulation, often in the form of holding alternating buzzers in each hand. But, he said, walking, tapping your legs, or even biking could provide the same effect, which is shown to help patients create new pathways in the brain around trauma. He also suggested trying mindfulness- which is concentrating fully on the task at hand. As the Buddhist saying goes, "Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water." When asked if he thought EMDR was still necessary for those who meditated regularly Noah said, "Do I wish I had EMDR 30 years ago? Hell yes." His point was that meditation, in the narrow way that we picture it- on a cushion, in full lotus position (legs crossed), is not the only answer to well-being.
Noah's talk inspired me to watch a film called "Fearless Mountain: The Monks of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California." I wasn't expecting the narrator to be a troubled young man from Kentucky, and in fact all of the monks interviewed were Americans who had left society to live on a mountain, with next to nothing, for the rest of their lives. The young monk explained how the young monks do most of the physical labor around the monastery, while the old monks meditate and meet with people who seek spiritual counsel. Laughing, he explained that the young monks complain that they wait on the older monks, while the old monks complain that the young monks are free from the spiritual concerns that they face. There is young monk suffering, and old monk suffering, he said. Although the other person may appear to have it easier than you, everyone suffers.
A Chinese fable tells this story: a farmer's horse escaped into the hills and when his neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, "Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?"
Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?"
Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and took every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg, they let him off. Bad luck? Good luck?
The builder that King Minos hired to make the first labyrinth made it too well, and nearly trapped himself inside with the monster. This seems an apt metaphor for the mind itself- within it we create systems of stories and judgements, but often trap ourselves inside, along with the monster we were trying to contain. It is so easy to compare ourselves to others, but unfortunately,(fortunately? who knows?) we don't get to know what is in store for us. It is so easy to judge everything that happens to us, and label it good or bad, and really, we are designed to make judgements- it's what helped us to survive as a species. After all, we had to categorize things like bad-berries-that-kill-you vs. good berries. Again, Noah might say that we shouldn't judge our minds for doing what they are designed to do- instead, we should show ourselves some mercy, and maybe even some humor.
I was inspired by all of this to immerse myself in a mindfulness experience, making a labyrinth in my back yard out of found objects on our property with the intent of also using it for walking meditation when it was done. Putting each pinecone, or stone, in place attuned me to the quiet of where I live, at the end of a dirt road, the light pouring over Bates Butte as I set the last of the stones. It took me three full days. One morning, I came out and the soil had eaten one of my rings that I had made of smaller stones- the whole ring sank several inches perfectly into the ground. I began again.