Home > Stories > East and West: The Healing Labyrinth
East and West: The Healing Labyrinth

September 12, 2014

By Angela Jeffs

A great calm has fallen upon us in recent weeks. Despite a near constant flow of visitors from London, Tokyo and Edinburgh – four days here, two weekends there, and any number of one nighters – we seem (quite suddenly) to be remarkably  grounded and indeed centred.

It began with a vision in July. A vision that required collaboration, provided focus, made demands on body, mind and spirit – and patience.

In the beginning my partner was not sure. He watched as I walked back and forth, criss-crossing the piece of spare land between burn, road and cottage that in Japan would be termed harrapa (gone to seed and of no use to anyone). Had I finally lost the plot? Lost my marbles?

I have a mental image of a labyrinth here, I explained. It will be beautiful.

Akii appeared unsure. Looking around, he could not see what I could see. So I set about making it reality, so that he could share: we would be able to see together.

In Japan we had made labyrinths on local beaches for several years, drawing five and seven circuit designs in the sand and then digging to denote the pathways for people to walk. I liked creating something practical and healing that nature – the tide and sea – would then reclaim.

There were many incidents that I can recall, but two stand out:

The Japanese woman who did not want to walk but was shamed into doing so by her partner, and then stamped around in a fury. Yet later she returned alone and walked slowly and quietly, emerging smiling and acquiescent.

Another young woman who had woken in Tokyo one morning with a deep desire to go to go to the sea, did just that, getting on the first train that took her to the coast. In our resort town, wandering along the beach in a daze, she stumbled across the labyrinth, about which she knew nothing.  She walked several times over as many hours, and returned to the city not only de-stressed and invigorated, but amazed at the power of so-called coincidence (synchronicity).

I remember the first time I ever walked the walk: on a portable 11-circuit design laid out on the floor of a gymnasium in Yokohama.

While Akii found the experience simply “relaxing”, I was astonished at what came up: a genuine reluctance to enter (fearing that somehow I might fail?); alarm that I might somehow fall off the path (even though painted on canvas); trouble negotiating the bends, encouraging me to take short cuts (indeed the phrase ‘short cuts’ resonated throughout the walk, making me question how often and in what situations I took the easy way out); solutions – and resolutions – regarding family difficulties.

Reaching the centre I felt just that: centred, so wholly present and at one with myself that I didn’t want to return  (to the outside world). And yet I walked back in half the time, feeling excited and ready to take on new challenges.

Looking back to that time in 2003, I can in all honesty say that life has been doubly, trebly interesting ever since: gloriously uplifting, deeply traumatic, yet always moving me forward… For one thing I can fully acknowledge that while not religious in any dogmatic sense, I am a spiritual being engaged on a human journey. Understanding back then that my conscious journey had only just begun, I knew that the labyrinth was one path that I intended to tread as many times as opportunistically made possible.

I walk two in Scotland, at retreats where I was facilitating workshops. Yet the need to create our own was a slow blossoming that came with spring into summer.

I had never known what to do with the triangle of nettles, docks and sorrel, marked with the sites of bonfires, that lay between the burn, the road and our cottage. Overhung with ancient willows, youthful ash, elder and sycamore, and a summer-blossoming laburnum, it never served any useful purpose in human terms.

In the 1960s my mother had tried to grow vegetables near the clump of century old redcurrants, but given in to the voracious appetites of rabbits and deer.  Since her death, it had lain fallow in a different sense: a sea of snowdrops in February, followed on by daffodils and then bluebells. Dry in summer, a marsh in spring.

Yet one fine day in late June, I found myself standing with a bundle of canes and a ball of string, marking out a circle. Then – several weeks later – smoothing out the worst of the dips and hollows with topsoil dumped over the wall by a kindly neighbour. Next, a scattering of grass seed and what has become a weekly mowing. I’ve even bought a small hand mower to better negotiate the left and right-brain trickily curvaceous nature of the 5,000 year-old design.

The stone – the moving of which was described in last month’s EAST TO WEST – now stands at the centre, marking the grave of our globe-trotting cat, Tora (for tiger) who died mid-summer. The seven-circuit path of the labyrinth becomes more and more defined with each and every shower and mowing. I am slowly planting herbs around the outside edge; woven hazel hurdles hide the compost heap of grass cuttings.

Akii mows pathways through the remaining wilderness, around bushes, along the burn side, between trees… And I keep down nettles and brambles with some gentle scything.

Oh, and somewhere along the way I set up two archways planted with honeysuckle and roses (Compassion, Alchemist) and honeysuckle. And bought – cheaply – a set of extremely dilapidated garden furniture at a local auction. The Highland Handyman  (local carpenter) did a fine restoration job with new planks and a bucket of plastic wood, and I repainted the table, chairs and bench in a lovely very distinctive bluebell blue. They stand now under a sweeping birch, at the entrance to the walk.

The Burnside Labyrinth, nicknamed Tora’s Labyrinth, opened Sunday last with an open day to friends and neighbours.  While not that well attended – rural Scots tend to be conservative in the traditional sense, churchgoing and rather suspicious of new ideas, especially if they’re very old, as in pre-Christian – those who chose to come were eager to learn the labyrinth’s history and take a walk.

They looked through photos from Japan, flicked through books, read the flier that introduced the labyrinth to newcomers by a series of questions and answers. The first?
What is a labyrinth?  The reply: The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool. It is offered here as a meditational pathway, a symbolic pilgrimage.

At one point there were six people aged between 18 and 80+ walking at the same time. Yet everyone remarked how quiet and focused they felt afterwards. Several asked if they could come again on a regular basis, and it was explained that the labyrinth was now open to all comers at all times… even when we are not here.

Here now, we walk early morning and at the end of the day. I find the routine dissipates anxieties, offers solutions to problems (as in how to start writing this…), flexes my arthritic back and knees, and concentrates the mind quite wonderfully.

As for Akii, he is addicted. Sitting together the other evening on our blue bench, with the warm light of early autumn filtering through the trees to cast patterns across the labyrinth’s green green grass of home, he said quietly: Now I see.  See your vision. This is a beautiful place. The setting is perfect.

Harappa no more. The Burnside Labyrinth – Tora’s labyrinth – is a garden.


The mystic spiral - Journey of the Soul, by Jill Purce. Published by Thames & Hudson, 1974

Exploring the labyrinth, by Melissa Gayle West. Preface by Reverend Dr  Lauren Artress, author of Walking a Sacred Path. Broadway, 2000

The Healing Labyrinth - finding your path to inner peace, by Helen Raphael Sands. Barron's, 2001

The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth - Architecture, Hidden Languages, Myths & Rituals, by Patrick Conty. Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2002

Also by Angela:

- East and West: Purposive drift

- East and West: Growing in the Broken Places

- East and West: Bitch of a Month

- East and West: Stepping Stones

- East and West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 3)

- East and West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 2)

- East and West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 1)


About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs ( stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within. Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via
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