out of the labyrinth

Out of the labyrinth

(a reminder about peace) Just before Anzac Day, a friend invited me to join a labyrinth walk at the Jessica Mary Vasey labyrinth at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. She was using the walk as part of her evaluation as a certified labyrinth facilitator—yes, they do exist—and she certainly helped us walk this ancient path with respect and reverence. It was an experience rich with both deep feeling and delight. This particular labyrinth is in the classical form perhaps earliest identified on a clay tablet from Pylos, Greece c1200 BCE. The seven curving loops of the form are paved with local stone surrounded by a low stone wall inset with six benches; the whole scene framed by a garden of indigenous plants. Each bench is inlaid with a mosaic representing the seasons according to the Wurundjeri people. We were walking in ‘warin’ (wombat) season, when wombats emerge from their burrows to sun themselves their burrows and lyrebirds are evident. As I walked the labyrinth in the company of others, I was struck by the strength of the experience and the power of the inward and outward journey, and a potent time spent lingering in the centre. As I turned the seven loops, I wept, I smiled, I was captivated by the colours of the stones beneath my feet, I noticed the steady pacing of my companions. We were accompanied by our intention and attention; the potency augmented by the experience of those others gently pacing with us. The care and beauty of those who had designed and constructed this place added to the impact. As it was a pre-Anzac Day event, we were also invited to make some connection with those affected by the First World War. I named my grandfather, George William Cockburn. His life as well as the lives of his descendants were affected when he was gassed on duty as a stretcher bearer in that war. I had recently been contemplating peace and particularly the challenge of holding peace within us as we face the turmoil of world events, political and social disruptions, and even the torments of our own soul lives where we seek to arrest habits which corrode our spirits while we foster those that lead towards transcendence: daily, hourly, moment by moment. Sometimes, we consecrate a period of our lives to achieve that aim—taking time to walk a labyrinth, to meditate or pray. At other times, we are subsumed by the world and all it seems to demand of us, or we are preoccupied by what we would like to receive in terms of material pleasures, accomplishments and deeds. Yet when we suffer periods of forgetfulness, we can always read something as inspiring and intricately imagined as one of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures. We can be spiritually replenished by a holiday (holy day) or even a brief walk somewhere quiet. We can turn up for our regular contemplation or meditation. Yet we still have to face the challenges of our own complex souls and of the beings around us. This can be a lot more demanding than taking time to explore spiritual wonders or great natural beauty, no matter how much these practices and rituals help us towards spiritual replenishment. The Buddhist practitioner, Pema Chödrön pointedly remarks that we meditate not to become good meditators but to become ‘good human beings.’ Robert Sardello reminds us in his exploration ‘Freeing the soul from fear’ that in essence we choose spiritual practices, especially those designed to address fear, so that we may each become ‘an adequate vessel of love’. When we are filled with love, we also experience equanimity, a capacity for peacefulness and empathy. But we can tend to sentimentalise such qualities as love, peace and empathy. Peace becomes some fluffy concept that ‘descends’ on us rather than something we must actively strive to find. On this theme, I like to tell a story which portrays ‘the real meaning of peace’. The tale tells of an emperor who was experiencing conflict everywhere he turned. There were infractions with neighbouring realms; petty battles amongst the people of his cities, towns and villages; disputes in the meetings of his own privy councillors; arguments between members of his family, and if truth be known, he and the empress had the odd skirmish from time to time. Even within himself, there seemed to be frequent clashes between his head and his heart that seemed almost impossible to resolve. So, the emperor sent out a decree to all the artists of the kingdom. He asked them to paint a picture that would demonstrate the real meaning of peace. He would hang it in his throne room as a daily reminder. The artists set out across the realm with their brushes, inks, and parchment. They painted scenes of lakes, of rivers and of mountains; pictures filled with magnificent beauty and extraordinary serenity. Then they returned, bringing scrolls by the hundreds to exhibit in the great hall of the emperor’s castle. When all the works were hung upon the walls, the emperor entered to select the one which showed the real meaning of peace. He walked amongst these hundreds of exquisitely depicted and lovingly created scenes. He took his time to appreciate every one. After many hours, he finally narrowed his choice to just three paintings. The first showed a mountain lake, a little like a tarn in Tasmania, with not a ripple on the surface which reflected just one fluffy cloud. Another depicted a river where a pair of swans swam gently on the surface of still water. Reeds grew along the banks and trees arched across the water. The thirdbird waiting-out-the-storm painting showed something quite different. The sky in this painting was dark with billowing clouds. A sinew of lightning flashed across heavy skies. In the centre of the painting, the clouds swirled about a rocky precipice lashed by rain. Part way down that cliff, there was a small rocky shelf. On the shelf there was just one tree, twisted by wind, its roots clinging to the rocks. Yet on one branch of the tree, there was a nest and on the nest rested a bird. The emperor, hand on chin, inspected each of the paintings carefully. He lingered first in front of the mountain lake, then before the river. Eventually he turned to the third painting and he stood for a long time looking just a little bewildered as he stroked his beard.  Finally, the emperor nodded. He pointed to the scroll depicting the nest amidst the stormy scene. ‘This painting,’ he announced, ‘represents the real meaning of peace.’

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