Increasingly, labyrinths are being used as psychological therapy, the idea being that there is an exit after the challenges, which is reassuring and builds confidence and contentment. In that regard a labyrinth is not a maze, where there are many dead ends and no assurance that there is a safe exit. But in history and lore — and in collective personal experiences and the patterns of dreams –the labyrinth is a maze because in real life we don’t know whether there is a safe exit and we do experience dead ends from which we must back away and begin again. In history and lore, the maze is only broken by a supreme sacrifice of one’s life or that of a surrogate or “scapegoat” — we can think of the youth sacrificed to the Minotaur or, more emblematically, Jesus. Ultimately, however, the sacrifice takes the form of “death” to the world, renunciation of the world and its red dust. Negotiating the maze of life means simplifying, rarifying, dwindling the self until it is indistinguishable from the universe and slips effortlessly through the maze like an ether or a spring breeze.
The half a dozen egrets are barely visible as they feed in a watery ditch below the ground line of green and brown. Behind them is a solid wall of dark green woodland. Something startles them and they ascend quickly, a brilliant series of black and white against the rich backdrop. The egrets hover a moment, then glide back down to a slightly different spot, again hiding but the tops of their heads.
In the pre-dawn fog, a lone owl quietly hoots his five notes, three short, then two low and longer. He is not the rooster attempting to awaken anyone with loud and celebratory cries, calling attention to himself. The ear must strain to detect his solemn remarks amid the rising bird cries. The owl notes the end of night not the beginning of day. His forlorn and reflective sound is like a last comment on the possibilities of the diurnal cycle, now quietly ended.
Most spiritual traditions expect that the individual will need to associate with a group of practitioners and learn from a master or spiritual director. This assumes a culture wherein the group is inherently trustworthy and wise, and the individual holds not merely an open mind but an attitude open to obedience or authority. And the results are not guaranteed. For the solitary, the goal of searching for such trustworthiness is not only unlikely to be fulfilled but the whole idea of such a search seems to oppose personality, temperament, and judgment. In the Dhammapada (61), the Buddha says simply: “If on the great journey of life you find no one who is better than yourself, joyfully walk alone.”
Documentary war photographs, says Susan Sontag among others, have the potential to stir the viewer to aspirations for peace as much as prurient and violent passions. The manipulation of images today makes cruelty and heroism part of the same source. Only the modern technological means of capturing images has changed, however, not the age-old passions. The virulence of passions is ancient. By stirring memory, whole peoples build up and are overtaken by their worse vices. Forgetfulness becomes treasonous to the desire for vengeance (usually falsely identified as justice). And the conditions of the present only serve to fuel the passion of vengeance. To recommend not forgetfulness but transcendence may seem frivolous and irrelevant to an oppressed people, as does an appeal to the oppressor for humanity and peace. It is our dependence on the here and now that dooms us. We are punished by our own cruelty, violence, passion — but we do not learn from them, instead wanting to engage them again and forever, like Laacoon.