Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Breast Cancer Journey and the Labyrinth

With October being breast cancer awareness month,  I personally did alot of reflecting on my journey as a survivor.  In honor of that journey and my spiritual relationship with the Labyrinth I have decided to share the entire chapter about my Labyrinth relationship on Labyrinth Mondays.  Here is that Chapter.  To read more about my journey you can purchase my book at http://www.amazon.com/ or directly from me at http://www.psychotherapyunlimited.com/



My life has always been a mixed tapestry of spirituality. Spirituality is a part of who I am and not something that I do. I deeply believe that we are spiritual beings and it is our job to attend to our spiritual garden. The spiritual garden is within each of us and we can let it grow weeds, let it dry up and die, or we can gently tend to it throughout all of the days of our lives. When we face a storm our garden can become overwhelmed with waves and wind damage and we must use our resources to repair it and re-establish it. When there is a drought, we must carry water to our spiritual garden. In the next few chapters, I want to share some of the spiritual practices that I used during and after my journey with breast cancer. It was natural for me to turn to my spiritual resources during this time. The Labyrinth, the Healing Power of a Native Sweat, and a Vision Quest are three key components of my journey.
During the Nineties, the spiritual significance of the labyrinth began pouring into print. It seemed that everywhere I turned someone was writing or talking about his or her experience of God as he or she walked the labyrinth. I began to read about this spiritual practice and discovered its ancient history. A labyrinth is not a maze. In the English language, the words “labyrinth” and “maze” are often used interchangeably. A maze contains dead ends and often has many entrances. A labyrinth has one entrance and one exit. It is a path from the outside in and then from the inside out. It has a sacred sense of journey about it; perhaps the eleven-circuit labyrinth began as a spiritual practice for those who could not make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. No one really knows the reason labyrinths were created but there are eleven-circuit and seven-circuit labyrinths. Seven-circuit labyrinths date back four to five thousand years and are seen in Hopi, Cretan, and Celtic spiritual practices. The most famous eleven-circuit labyrinth is in Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France, and dates back to the twelfth century. The number of circuits simply means the number of times the pilgrim passes the center of the labyrinth during his or her walk.

My interest in the labyrinth grew. I responded to that interest by making a special pilgrimage to San Francisco to walk the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. There, I, too, experienced a peaceful sense of purpose. I felt a sense of holiness about the journey in and out and around the path that brings us into the center of God, and back out to the world again. Grace Cathedral has an indoor and an outdoor eleven-circuit labyrinth. The indoor one provides the pilgrim with quite an intense experience because sacred music is playing during the labyrinth walk. It was easy for me as I walked it to become lost in the music, feeling as if I was transcending consciousness. The outdoor labyrinth overlooked the busy San Francisco streets. Walking it created a sense of purpose, with a special connection to the world. The two labyrinths provided me with an experience and a picture of God inside of me and outside of me at the same time.

When I left San Francisco, I wanted desperately to have a local labyrinth. I felt a strange loneliness for it. I felt connected, sort of called to it as a way of worship. There was something about this walking meditation that provided me with an experience of God that fed my hungry soul. That journey to San Francisco was in 1997.

In 1998 our Episcopal Cathedral, Trinity, was under reconstruction. Trinity is a local historical landmark for Phoenix as well as the headquarters for the Episcopal bishop and church administration. The Dean of the cathedral at the time, Rev. Rebecca McClain, was in charge of the reconstruction. Lo and behold, she was having a beautiful eleven-circuit labyrinth built in the center of the courtyard. I felt like God had answered my prayers. I was ecstatic about the plans. I couldn’t wait for it to be finished. Trinity finished the labyrinth in December 2000. One of my New Year’s resolutions of 2001 was to walk the labyrinth once a week for the entire year.

I walked it every Wednesday. If I was out of town for some reason, I made arrangements to walk it at some other time. The experience of that commitment created a sacred space inside of me and I developed a personal relationship with this sacred art form that allowed me to be touched and touch God in unique ways. I was very aware during my labyrinth walks of the gift of life. It seemed that each week my gratitude for my life and my recovery became deeper. I was aware on these walks with God that my life was meaningful and that I needed to be awake to all God had in store for me. During this time my gratitude for being alive grew.

I definitely have an attention problem that becomes a bother in times of prayer, but the motion of walking, following a path, and making a pilgrimage to the center where all is well and perfect is a powerful and unifying experience. I used this time with God to refocus my life, to pull close to the spiritual world, recommitting to a life of meaningful experience with God. I not only re-dedicated my life to one of service and ministry but also used the time to refocus on the art of prayer and watched as my prayer life transformed from a dead stick in the ground to a beautiful lush green plant.

The story of the dead stick is significant because when I was a student of spiritual direction during my master’s program, I had a director who told me to plant a stick in the ground and to water and care for it as if it were alive. Of course, I thought this was a silly exercise, but part of being a student of spiritual direction is learning to follow direction. I learned so much from this exercise that it still empowers my consciousness in my psychotherapy practice. For example, many times I think to myself, we are not getting anywhere in therapy. Nothing is ever going to change in this person’s life; it is just the same old thing. In my discouragement it would be easy to give up, but I remember the exercise of watering the stick. This mutually powerful and silly exercise taught me to stay with a project even though it seems fruitless.

The stick did not change, but I did. I learned just how much water the earth was able to absorb in order for the stick not to get too wet and rot. I also had to learn just how much water was sufficient to keep the ground closed around the stick in order that it remained erect. I practiced caring for it daily while acknowledging that I got nothing back in return. I had to live through my own embarrassment about the craziness of watering a stick, thinking horribly judgmental thoughts at times. Sometimes, those judgmental thoughts were directed at me and my stupidity for participating in such a ridiculous exercise and at other times those criticisms were directed at my spiritual director.

In my head, I accused her of being mean and manipulative. Walking the labyrinth on a weekly basis sometimes was like watering the stick. Sometimes I felt silly, as if I were going nowhere. At other times, it was a soul-ripping experience that shook me to my core. I was able to unravel complexities in my life during that time. I was able to pick up pieces of my life that I had laid aside, such as my writing. I was able to focus again on the alpha and omega of God. At the same time that I started my relationship with the labyrinth, I also started a professional relationship with a teacher and healer.

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