Mary Lane Potter

The labyrinth at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, Washington

The labyrinth at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, Washington

Stepping onto the Path

The Way In

At the entrance to a labyrinth, flanked between two low cairns guarding the threshold, I hesitate. Why am I here?

I’m new to labyrinths and know only this: they’re not mazes. In labyrinths there are no intricate branchings, false veerings, dead ends. One can’t get lost in a labyrinth. There’s only one path: the path in to the center, when reversed, is the path out to the circumference. And that path is clearly circumscribed; every walker must follow it—no detours, no alternative routes, no exceptions.

The labyrinth spread before me is magnificent. On a blanket of shredded red cedar, fist-sized green-granite rocks demarcate the circuitous path, forming a pattern modeled after the labyrinth inside Chartres Cathedral. But this labyrinth is twice the diameter of the French original—an expansive 86 feet across—and it’s tucked in a forest meadow on Whidbey Island, surrounded by soaring western red cedars, western hemlocks, Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, white pines, Pacific yews, Sitka spruces, red alders, bigleaf maples, and madrones. In rhythm with the wind, the trees sough and squeak, giving off a faint briny scent of the ocean nearby. All around, in a green weave of huckleberry, osoberry, red-osier dogwood, nettles, salal, and ferns, small gray-brown birds flit in and out, rustling leaves and chirruping. Who wouldn’t want to walk this path?

Still, I hesitate. I’m not here for an answer. My heart is too ragged to offer up a question to carry with me as I walk. I’m not here to pray. My spirit is too weary, too taut. Wordsworth’s words pound in my blood:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Silence and solitude are what I crave, an emptiness I can fall into and rest.

Whenever I lose my way—when the clamor of meeting obligations, resisting distractions, handling trivialities, and chasing desire deadens my heart; when I’m desperate to revive my languishing spirit—father dying, mother scheming, brothers betraying, friendships unraveling, vocation vanishing, another marriage souring, dread resurrecting—I retreat into solitude and silence, seeking an emptiness in which to find my way again. I pray, meditate, sit by rushing water, hike into the mountains, dance. Walking a labyrinth might carry me there as well, especially this labyrinth in the woods, whose center, a grassy circle round a rock-ringed circle of dirt, lies directly ahead of me, its promise of emptiness unexpectedly close.

Life is the flight of the Alone to the Alone, says the mystic Plotinus.

I am here to fly.

I step through the cairns onto the path laid out before me. Stirred by my feet, the red-gold cedar releases its fragrance, welcoming me.

On the third step, jagged rocks block the way forward. It’s tempting to step over the barrier and walk straight into the center, just a few feet away. Two easy strides would take me there. But the restorative emptiness I’m after can’t be rushed or forced—years of trying have taught me that much. Obeying the granite markers, I turn away from the center.

A few steps farther on, a pine branch the size of my forearm litters the path. I pick it up, vow to pack it out, keep the path pure. Leave no trace behind. That means you, too, I say, looking up at the trees and laughing. I’m already lighter, happy to be on my way, each step carrying me closer to my destination.

The path winds and winds, again and again, doubling back on itself, now leading me closer to the center, now taking me farther from it. Back and forth I walk. Round and round. How long now to the center? How many more turnings?

I hurry on, gathering more broken-off limbs along the way, pine and fir and spruce, the leavings of a windstorm. They mar the path, they hinder, they grate.

The path ahead stretches into a long, flowing curve along the perimeter, no obstacles in sight. I pick up the pace, but before I can settle into a rhythm, a blockade of rocks interrupts my stride, and I stumble, almost dropping my bundled greens. Regaining my balance, I walk on, more slowly now, wary of barriers appearing out of nowhere, sudden turnings, sharp corners, my eyes fixed on the path directly beneath my feet. More fallen branches. One bough is three feet long. As I stoop to collect it, my unwieldy bundle escapes my grasp and scatters across the path. Balancing on my haunches, I gather the severed limbs, cradling the long bough against my body with my left arm and carefully layering the smaller branches onto it. Back on the way, I continue gathering tree scraps, lost in my task. I want the path cleared, the way to emptiness empty.

Suddenly the goal of my journey opens before me. Three steps will take me inside the grass-bordered, rock-enclosed earthen circle at the center of the labyrinth.

The Center

The center is a trash heap. A dump. A mess of detritus from others’ journeys, others’ lives. Junk left behind. Hideous. The beauty of granite and cedar, grass and dirt, silence and solitude trashed by human leavings. A dented golf ball propped up high, dead center. Bottle caps. Sea shells. A red die with three white dots showing. Quarters, dimes, pennies, foreign coins. Decomposing pine cones. Aluminum ring pulls from pop-top cans. Long fingers of crystal quartz. A barnacle-encrusted beach stone. A steel bolt. A pink-orange, big-bellied plastic laughing Buddha, tipped on its side. Feathers everywhere—some still downy and sleek, others scraggly, almost bare.

Crowded. Deafening. Noisome. Fouled.

My spirit can’t breathe.

Life is the flight of the Alone to the Alone.

Where have I flown?

I kneel for a closer look at the garbage strewn in the dirt. A blue plastic button from a man’s dress shirt. A black-and-white metal button proclaiming “The Stevedores.” A crumpled business card. Scraps of paper with typed and handwritten notes, the letters blurred by rain and dew. A lime-green silicone finger puppet, a monster with bared teeth and eight long tentacles popping out of its head, each one ending in a bulbous eye. A tiny wooden heart painted black. A sand dollar broken open, emptied: its mouth, with its five teeth, the five white doves of the spirit, gone.

The rock nearest me is etched with slime. The trail leads from the grass where I’m kneeling, up the rough granite, over the top, and down to the dirt and debris. Even the slugs have left their trace, marked the path with their existence, their presence. Is this what it means to exist? Is this the goal? Our deepest desire? To leave one’s mark? To announce I, I!, was here! I walked the path. I made the journey. To insist on ourselves, force ourselves on the world? Litter it with our selves?

I’ve brought nothing to mark my journey, left no trace on the trail. Nevertheless, I have arrived at the center. Haven’t I?

I have arrived. That’s the barrier: I have arrived. How can I be alone with the Alone, dwell in emptiness, when I have not emptied myself, when I am here clinging to my judgments, my needs, my desires—all the lovely white doves of my spirit I cherish above all else? I want to be the only one here—all others intruders, trespassers. I believe my ascetic ways to be the mark of spiritual maturity; signs and markers are for those less schooled in wisdom. I demand that my sensibilities banish all others—no plastic, no kitsch, no blemishes, no flaws.

It is not those who have traveled here before me who are fouling the center; it is I, my jealous, demanding ego, my constricted self. Intent on clearing a way for my soul, purifying the path to emptiness for myself alone, I have shrunk my spirit. My heart has become tiny, hard, black—no room for the world, no room for others. I have forgotten to love. To love like the host of unnamed, unsung seekers whose hearts, in the flight of the Alone to the Alone, were opened to a world of love, expansive love, a love that forgets self and remembers the One, a love that carries one beyond the self to its encompassing, a love that embraces all beings, trees, rocks, slugs, other selves, the whole of creation, a community of being.

You are the center-point of the sphere and its encompassing, says Ibn ’Arabi.

Without the encompassing, there is no center. The way in is the way out. The flight of the Alone to the Alone leads out to the world.

This is why I came: to lose myself in the One, empty myself of all the lovely white doves of my spirit, so I am free to love.

I look again into the littered center, the signs left in the dirt. These leavings are not refuse; they are pledges, thanksgiving offerings, confessions, sacrifices, tokens of love—cries of the heart. I’ll stop drinking. I will never gamble again. I’ll quit smoking. I’ll go to rehab. I won’t chase after money anymore. I’ll give up porn. I renounce false gods. I’ll stop demeaning myself. I will tell the truth. Thank you for healing me. I dedicate my talent to You. I sacrifice my ambition to follow the vocation You have called me to. I lay my hardened, black heart in your merciful arms. I lay down the burden of myself. Thank You for saving my life. I sacrifice my pride, my piety, my purity, my righteousness to Your truth. Take my innocence, my jealousy, my rage, my anxieties, my desires, my grief, my song, my doubt, my certainty, my indifference, my fear, my faithlessness, the slime of my existence. My trammeled heart—Yours. All I have, all I am—Yours. Thank You. I love You.

As the chorus of voices grows louder, I hear its invitation. I take a branch from my bundle and lean it against the outside of the rocky border. Then, one by one, I lay down the remaining broken pieces I have collected, overlapping them, weaving them into a lush, unbroken wreath round the hallowing center.

Who knows what those who walk this labyrinth after me will make of this wreath of scraps? Soon it will turn brown and brittle, and someone will clear it away. Yet I leave it here, the trace of my journey—a confession of pride, my ungenerous heart, my diva spirit; a thanksgiving offering for the signs others left behind, pointing the way to true emptiness; a pledge to keep opening my spirit to love; a token of love; a cry of the heart, I once was lost but now am found.

This is why I came: to join the chorus.

The Way Out

Empty-handed, I begin the walk out, from the center-point to its encompassing. The path out is the same as the path in. It is the walker who is not the same.

A slug has joined the path. Dark-brown. Glistening. Smooth upper body, lower body crenellated. It holds still, wary of the presence looming over it. I bend toward it. It senses my breath and retracts its feelers and head, making itself small, waiting for the danger to pass. Peace be with you, I say. To the slug? To myself? To the companions who have walked this path before me and who will walk it after me, the ones who leave traces and the ones who enter and leave empty-handed?

The path winds outward, passing under the low-hanging branches of a fir. I walk under them, upright, not stooping. Dew-moist needles brush the crown of my head, as if blessing me. Three times the path winds under these boughs; three times they caress me. On my last approach, I raise my lips to kiss them.

Walking on, I look out, beyond the outer circuits, toward the forest, the lush green circle of ancient trees and burgeoning life encompassing the labyrinth. As I turn and turn, following the path, the landscape changes. To the South, cabins, stacked wood, and a sanctuary built of hand-hewn cedar. To the West, a path leading into old growth forest. To the North, a path leading into wetlands, meadows, farmland. To the East, the entrance, soon to be the exit, and just beyond it, a mound of granite rocks, set aside to repair the path. South, West, North, East. A never-ending round of wonders widening to a boundless embrace of Being.

Suddenly the exit is before me; the place where I entered. Returned to a new beginning, to set out once more into the world. Standing between the cairns guarding the way out, “my heart new open’d,” I pray never to stop traveling, in toward the center and out toward the encompassing—to be always on the way to love.


Mary Lane Potter

For years I have combined three forms of meditation: Sufi dhikr (chanting to remember the One, with traditional movements of the head and torso), hitbodedut (Hasidic form of vocalized spontaneous prayer, often performed while walking outdoors ) and Gabrielle Roth's 5Rhythms movement meditation practice known as "Sweat Your Prayers." Moving my body has always been fundamental to my spiritual practice. But until I happened upon the beautiful labyrinth in the woods at the Whidbey Institute, I had never meditated by walking a labyrinth. That experience opened up a new path for me.

Mary Lane Potter is obsessed with the body-mind-spirit tangle, whether she’s writing theology, fiction, or creative nonfiction. She’s the author of the novel A Woman of Salt (Counterpoint), Strangers and Sojourners: Stories from the Lowcountry (Counterpoint), and the memoir Seeking God and Losing the Way. Her essays and stories have appeared in Feminist Studies in Religion, SIGNS, Beloit Fiction Journal, North American Review, Tampa Review, Tiferet, SUFI Journal, The Other Journal, Spiritus, Chaleur, and others. She’s been awarded a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship, as well as writing residencies at MacDowell, Hedgebrook, Caldera, and the Collegeville Institute of Cultural and Ecumenical Studies.

More on Mary Lane Potter’s work can be found on our Links page.