Grants Pass, OR

An evening talk given May 28, 2004

Good evening. I'd like to start by thanking Marsha Shonkwiler for all that she has done to prepare for today and this evening. She arranged interviews throughout the afternoon for me to talk to people who have used the labyrinth, whether staff, patients, or community residents. It was very informative, and part of my continuing and growing body of information about hospitals.

My message to hospitals is basic: "If you don't have a labyrinth, get one. If you do have a labyrinth, use it."

My comments tonight are based on visits I made to three different hospitals, and the issues that resulted. The first was Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. I knew that they had a labyrinth, so when I was in the area I called the switchboard to find out more information. The young lady who answered didn't know that they had a labyrinth, and she didn't know who to refer me to. Then she added, "Personally, I'm not into that sort of thing."

That led me to wonder, of course, exactly what was the "thing" that she wasn't into. Meditation? Healing? Personal growth? I suspect that she, like most people before they become informed about labyrinths, propably thought it was some kind of puzzle or game.

Labyrinths offer healing on many different levels. Healing was never a big deal for me until my wife got cancer and then I was diagnosed with rhumatoid arthritis. Suddenly we were thrust into the world of healthcare, against our will. A long-time advocate of healthy wholistic living, my wife soon found that within the mainstream medical community, she had few choices or opportunities. She asked her oncologist about alternative treatments, but the doctor replied, in essence, "I'm not into that." She presented only one treatment plan: chemotherapy and radiation. Ultimately my wife chose to go out of the country, to a very fine clnic in Germany, to get the wholistic care that she wanted.

Our experience pointed up the limitations of the modern healthcare system. It claims to be scientific, and it is controlled by pharmaceutical companies. The labyrinth, of course, doesn't fall into either of these categories. In fact, we are quickly presented with two completely different paradigms and types of healing, one for outer healing and the other for inner healing.

Some of these distinctions were brought up in a movie I saw a few days ago in Ashland, "What the [Bleep] do We Know?" It pointed out from the point of view of physics that matter is essentially an illusion. It showed how science over and over again has changed its beliefs and revised its theories. In other words, it isn't as dependable as we might pretend. In fact, healing as seen from a mechanistic point of view is mostly about what happens, with no interest or understanding of why it happens. Science is about the what, but our lives are about the why. Labyrinths straddle both worlds, and deal with both aspects of our experience.

The movie was largely about physics, which reminds me of my only joke about physics. There were two atoms who stopped at a bar after a hard day in the cyclotron. One atom had a few too many and fell off the bar stool. The first atom looked down and said, "Are you OK?" "No," said the atom on the floor. "I think I lost an electron." "Oh dear," said the first atom. "That would be terrible. Are you sure?" The fallen atom nodded its head and moaned, "I'm positive."

I learned today that this hospital received the Norman Cousins award of the Fetzer Institute for its innovative care. I read an article by Marilyn Watkins and others about your Whole Person Caring model. It begins with the question, "Who are we?" and answers it by deciding that we are essentially spiritual beings, and should be addressed accordingly. So, I was going to take a contrarian point of view and discuss how the labyrinth has physical benefits. That wasn't realistic, but we should give credit where it is due. The physical aspects of time and space organize us in certain ways. The lines of a labyrinth guide us, as do the experiences of our lives. Our maladies can work the same way, as guideposts to teach us what needs to be healed.

The movie in Ashland showed with animation how our beliefs and assumptions become hardwired into our physical body. It said that what fires together wires together. It was referring to neural networks. When associations are made, they become groups, tied together so that once triggered, the entire package responds. Thus our beliefs directly determine our physical experience. Change comes about by introducing a new element. Belief in it and not in the old paradigm causes the old neural networks to dissolve and atrophy and rewire to accommodate the new ones. That's how change takes place. That's why walking the labyrinth is cumulative. You may walk it once and have a great experience. But for the best result, walk the labyrinth regularly. Let those new neuropatterns take shape and build up.

So, when the operator said she wasn't into labyriniths, it makes me wonder what she meant. Further, I wondered how well her choices and patterns are serving her.

My second story comes from Stanley, Wisconsin, where I spent 11 days last September, installing a labyrinth at Our Lady of Victory Hospital during its construction phase. Every lunch and dinner time, we would look for a restaurant. I had a simple quest. As a vegetarian, I wanted to find a restaurant with vegetables. It was almost impossible. The local diet was burgers or steaks and french fries. We would go into restaurants and ask for vegetables and they would give us a blank stare. The lady at our motel told us that she had heard a vegetarian lived in the next town over.

I tell you this as a point about balance. We were there because the hospital had so much business it needed to expand. I see a direct connection between that fact and people's life styles. You see, the labyrinth is about balance. Illness is about being out of balance. The labyrinth heals simply by returning us to a closer sense of equilibrium. Similarly, our priorities in life need to be in balance. The labyrinth takes us within ourselves to get a good look. Often, especially in the case of serious illness, we decide to change our priorities. For that reason, there are people who say things like, "Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me."

The 12th century Sufi poet Rumi suggested that we should spend at least as much time in the invisible world as we do in the visible one. Do any of us come anywhere close to that? Virtually every spiritual teacher that I admire has had a background in extensive meditation. Balance. Get out of the noise. Spend some time with your soul.

At the University of Minnesota they have begun a five-year study of the benefits of teaching hospital patients Vipassana meditation. Think about it. It's not that they have too much to do. They can use their time constructively. After only six months, they already can predict that the results will blow people's socks right off. Once people start to meditate, they have fewer complications, they heal quicker, they require less medicine, and their attitude is better. I'm sure that walking labyrinths, which is also a type of meditation, will have the same benefits.

Like vegetables in Stanley, our lives are out of balance. We put ourselves last. We are over extended and over worked while under nourished, physically and spiritually. We decided to go to the next town, 10 miles away, which was Thorp, Wisconsin. there was a restaurant there called the Thorpedo. On the way, we were stopped by a highway patrol officer for going too fast. She asked where we were going and we said that we were headed for the Thorpedo for dinner. She nodded her head and told us we could go, saying these fateful words: "No one speeds to the Thorpedo." Indeed, it was the only time I have seen it written on a menu that all of their entrees are frozen. When ordered, they are heated in a microwave oven. Once I tasted the food, I could have guessed. But they did have broccoli.

We are the world's richest country with the most over-weight population. We can afford better, but we choose junk food. Diabetes, blood pressue, cholesterol -- they have reached epidemic proportions. We have a crisis in healthcare because we are in such bad shape.

In 30 years we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars searching for a cancer cure.We haven't found it, because cancer is a lifestyle disease. There will never be a pill that we can take to prevent or cure cancer. That's what we want, though. Just give me a pill and let me get back to work. When we suggest self-care, people bemoan the fact that they don't have time to do it. It is all a matter of balance, and of priorities. More and more we need labyrinths, to help restore us to a sense of well-being and equilibrium.

My final story is from Memphis, Tennesse: West Clinic, a cancer treatment facilit specializing in chemotherapy. They have a division that offers patient support in the form of alternative and complementary therapies, including a labyrinth. They first went to San Francisco, California, where they visited California Pacific Medical Center to see their labyrinth. What they saw there became their strongest motivation to get a labyrinth. It was an elderly man in hospital garb, walking very slowly through the labyrinth. A nurse was holding his arm, and pushing his IV stand.

Associated with West Clinic in Memphis is Wings Cancer Foundation. Free of charge, they offer a wide range of holistic, complementary, and alternative treatments, including a beautiful labyrinth. Their program is a model for others to follow. You can find it on the Internet at Next to the labyrinth is a piece of sculpture that is a bell tower. After completing their final round of chemotherapy, patients are given a bouquet of yellow balloons. They then walk the labyrinth, and as a final gesture, ring the bell, indicating that they are moving forward with their lives.

West Clinic built a new building, planning to occupy part and rent part. Instead, they took the whole building, and have still outgrown it within a few years. Contrary to all of those Healthcare Design architects trying to build with the right color walls or the right view from the window, West Clinic is a common, off-the-shelf design for a commercial building. No fancy lobby. Long straight institutional hallways. The chemotherapy room is just a big room with lounge chairs side by side. From a design point of view, the building offers nothing extraordinary. But what they do have is a culture of caring. I interviewed one patient in the presence of a staff member. She asked the staff member, "Where do you find such wonderful nurses? Is there something you put on the job application?" The staff person replied that no, they simply give the nurses a chance o do what every nurse wants, to really help people. They have established a culture of caring that pervades every level of their staff. It costs nothing extra, but it makes a huge difference.

So, these were my three stories: Scripps Memorial in La Jolla, "I'm not into that." She might want to reconsider. Our Lady of Victory in Standley taught us about balance and priorities. And Wings Cancer Foundation teaches us about a culture of caring. These are three major lessons that I have learned with regards to labyrinths.

Labyrinths: If you don't have one, get one. If you have one, use it. You have a lovely one. We will now have a chance to walk it together, with live flute music. I hope you can stay for that. I want to end with this assurance. I have been involved with labyrinths now for almost a decade. I have interacted with thousands of people who walk labyrinths. Not once in all of this time has anyone told me, nor have I ever heard, that they walked a labyrinth and it ruined their life. Just doesn't happen. There may be no down side, but there are many up sides. You have a beautiful labyrinth. I encourage you to use it.

We have time for a few questions.