The Labyrinth

The labyrinth is a symbol of conditioned existence, known in Buddhism and Hinduism as samsara. The labyrinth is the prison we build for ourselves when we become alienated from our own nature. Whether we have ever truly been in harmony with our own nature is a matter for debate, but the prospect of escape from the labyrinth has appealed to humanity throughout history.

The labyrinth has its locus classicus in the myth of the Minotaur. On the island of Crete, Prince Minos was competing against his brothers for the throne. Minos asserted that the gods favored him, and he prayed to Poseidon, the sea-god (symbol of the unconscious mind in modern psychological terms) to send as a sign a white bull, which Minos promised to immediately sacrifice back to the god.

“The bull had appeared, and Minos took the throne; but when he beheld the majesty of the beast that had been sent and thought what an advantage it would be to possess such a specimen, he determined to risk a merchant’s substitution – of which he supposed the god would take no great account. Offering on Poseidon’s altar the finest white bull that he owned, he added the other to his herd” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, pp13-14)

Originally Minos was in harmony with his nature and the gods favored him, but his deception causes him to become alienated from his own nature. The alienation manifests itself as external success – the Cretan empire flourishes under Minos – but at the price of a growing inner sickness. At home, Minos’ wife is infected by Poseidon with an ungovernable passion for the white bull, and she conceives a child, the Minotaur, half-man half-bull. Discovering the child, the king summons the master craftsman Daedalus, and orders him to construct a labyrinth where the abomination can be hidden and imprisoned, never to see the light of day.

“So deceptive was the invention, that Daedalus himself, when he had finished it, was scarcely able to find his way back to the entrance. Therein the Minotaur was settled: and he was fed, thereafter, on groups of living youths and maidens, carried as a tribute from the conquered nations within the Cretan domain.” (ibid, p14).

This illustrates that the unhealthy mind, in its state of alienation, is full of complexes which are essentially destructive, even though on the surface all may appear to be well.

Eventually the hero Theseus slays the Minotaur with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne and escapes with her to Greece. Minos, enraged at the loss of his daughter and the killing of his son the Minotaur, imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. Daedalus and Icarus escape from the labyrinth and, to escape from Crete, Daedalus fashions wings out of feathers held together with wax. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as it will melt his wings, but Icarus is exhilarated by the thrill of flying and soars too high, whereupon the wax binding his wings melts and he falls to his death, drowned in the sea.

The story of Icarus epitomizes what Thomas Moore calls puer (boyish) spirituality:

puer is the face of the soul that is boyish, spirited in a way that is perfectly depicted in the image of a male child or a young man. But the attitude of the puer is not limited to actual boys, to males, to any age group, or even to people . . . Because the puer attitude is so unattached to things worldly, it isn’t surprising to find it prevalent in religion and in the spiritual life. For example, there is the story of Icarus . . . One way to understand this story is to see it as the puer putting on the wings of spirit and becoming birdlike as a way of getting out of labyrinthine life. His escape is excessive, exceeding the range of the human realm, and so the sun sends him plummeting to his death. The story is an image of spirituality carried out in the puer mode. Anyone can turn to religion or spiritual practice as a way out of the twists and turns of everyday living. We feel the confinement, the humdrum of the everyday, and we hope for a way to transcend it all.” (Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, pp247-8)

When I was twenty-one I became a Buddhist monk, and I was the epitome of puer spirituality. Seeking to escape from the labyrinth, and exhilarated by an idealistic spirituality, I flew too close to the sun and came crashing down to earth. Aged twenty-four I disrobed, and ended up living in my mother’s house, where my brother bought me a framed picture of The Lament for Icarus by Herbert Draper to hang on my bedroom wall!

Hand-in-hand with puer spirituality goes what the psychotherapist John Welwood calls spiritual bypassing:

“Starting in the 1970’s I began to perceive a disturbing tendency among many members of spiritual communities. Although many spiritual practitioners were doing good work on themselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual practice to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional ‘unfinished business’. This desire to find release from the earthly structures that seem to entrap us – the structures of karma, conditioning, body, form, matter, personality [in other words the labyrinth] – has been a central motive in the spiritual search for thousands of years. So there is often a tendency to use spiritual practice to try to rise above our emotional and personal issues – all those messy, unresolved matters that weigh us down. I call this tendency to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks spiritual bypassing.” (John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Shambala pp11-12).

The antidote to puer spirituality or spiritual bypassing is a grounded spiritual practice. A grounded spiritual practice enables us to recognize our habitual, distorted patterns of thought and behaviour (our labyrinth) as material to work with and eventually grow out of. If we prematurely attempt to transcend the labyrinth we will discover the hard way that our neurotic tendencies are still compulsively, unconsciously conditioning us. John Welwood recommends we adopt a psychological approach to complement our spiritual practice:

“the essential practice, common to both psychotherapy and meditation, is to bring our larger awareness to bear on our frozen karmic structures. Often this larger awareness is obscured – either buried beneath our problems, emotions, reactions, or else detached, dissociated, floating above them. So it is essential first to cultivate awareness and then to bring it to bear on the places where we are contracted and stuck. This allows us to taste the poisons of confused mind and transmute them.” (ibid, pp20-21).

Posted on June 8, 2008, in Buddhism. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A labyrinth can also be positively symbolic of a spiritual / transformational journey. (And a lot of fun.) There’ll be one at Peace in the Park in Sheffield next Saturday (14 June) – check it out !

    Pictures from last year –

    Healing Garden - Peace in the Park 2005

    and the labyrinth at Ashley Hay Festival-

    Peace Dome and labyrinth at Ashley Hay Festival
  2. Great article. Glad you didn’t mind about the painting – I thought looking back as a gift it was a bit near the knuckle!

    Great quotes from my man Welwood too.

    Your bro

  1. Pingback: Not a Chameleon « Politics of Soul

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