Professor Monkey’s Discourse on Labyrinths

WARNING: This letter has little in the way of adventures and scenic byways. It is primarily a lecture on labyrinths which was prepared a while ago by Professor Monkey. He insisted that I mail it out because, for the Professor, it is publish or perish. Those not interested in spiritual metaphors may judiciously employ the delete key.


I have been doing a bit of scenic t’ai chi as I ramble on my way. Whenever I come to a beautiful piece of scenery that offers a relatively flat space and some concealment from staring eyes, I like to run through the form. It is at once a sort of obeisance, a way to slow down, a dance with the view, and a meditation on the view and its surroundings. I’ve demonstrated t’ai chi to the Olympic mountains, to streams, waterfalls and lakes, and soaring rock formations. And the back of a Motel 6, but I suppose the divine is everywhere, right?

So it happened, that as I was hiking in the Olympic peninsula rainforest I came to a bridge over Canyon Creek. I looked upstream, to where the stream leapt and tumbled through a green tunnel of vegetation, roaring out under the bridge below. I went through the form, peering around to see if there are any hikers. Do I want there to be hikers or not? I’m not sure – I’m a shy exhibitionist. I suppose my druthers would be to have a few hikers seated discretely off to the side, watching politely and with great interest. When I’m through they could walk by and hand me a flower and say, “That was lovely, thank you.” I would least like for a large hiker to come barreling across the bridge shouting “Out of my way, Chi-Boy”, farting as he passes.

Anyway, I was hiker-free, and I completed a couple of rounds, then looked down to check my feet (Are they parallel and shoulder width?). There in the center of the bridge lay a folded piece of paper that said “Sol Duc, River of Strength”. I opened it and read it. It was a little prayer to the river. Around it, I noticed small stones, a few pennies and a piece of ribbon. Offerings, I thought. I replaced the paper, and continued my t’ai chi, my own offering to the river. But I knew that others had passed this way and had a similar response to the river. Other seekers on the same path.

The image of seekers following a path launches Professor Monkey into his

Discourse On Labyrinths.

(have your blue books ready)

This trip, I have walked two labyrinths, one at Hollyhock and one at camp Winnarainbow. For those of you unfamiliar, a labyrinth is usually a path drawn on the ground. It is unicursal — a single path leading into the center and back out. The simplest labyrinth would be a spiral.

In the more complicated labyrinths, the path meanders closer and further away from the center, even as it leads inexorably inward. It is not meant for disorientation, but rather as a walking mediation. The path inward is a path of concentration, of contraction into the inner world. At the center, you can pause and lay down a burden, and/or pick up a gift. The path outward is a path of expansion back into the outer world. A labyrinth is the opposite of a maze. Mazes are meant to disorient. A maze has many false paths leading to blind alleys. A maze leads from point A to point B as long as you can steer clear of its pitfalls.

Q: Do you think that life is more like a labyrinth or a maze?

Labyrinths offer many metaphors. This trip, I found myself aware of the metaphor of fellow travelers. You’re walk along, your path twisting, doubling back on itself, and suddenly you find yourself walking in parallel with someone else. Another person on a different part of the path has joined you, and you walk together for a while and then one or both paths diverge and you are separated. But maybe your companion will reappear at another time. You head away from the center, your erstwhile companion heads back toward it.

Q: Do you have faith that you are both travelling to the same place, if in opposite directions?

At camp Winnarainbow, in Mendocino, the labyrinth was constructed of small rocks out in a hot and dusty field. We walked the labyrinth after closing circle, as a sort of walking meditation. And it was a joyful one, with strolling seekers meeting other seekers coming along the path. Some people held their hands out by their sides, and you could give a kind of spiritual low five to them as you walked past. There was an aromatic herb growing in the path, which when crushed underfoot gave up a scent somewhere between oregano and mint. I could imagine myself a bhodisatva walking on scented air. As seekers walking in passed seekers walking out we paused to hug and say a good thing about one another – a spontaneous reflection of what we had seen that was great in one another.

When I arrived at the center, I squatted there, focusing on the objects left that had been left there – a ganesh, a rubber duck, a crystal, a clown pez dispenser – trying to leave there my own self-judgment and possessiveness, praying to allow myself to be who I am, love that, and blossom. And as I looked at the sere fragrant plants, a shower of water fell from above me, landing only on those plants. A miracle! I looked up to see Mahalia, a fellow camper, watering the plants.

Q: How big does a miracle have to be before it qualifies? If it is explicable is it not a miracle?

This part of my trip has found me doubling back, visiting again people I have seen before. I danced in Seattle with Viola from the Catalina dance camp. I went scuba diving with Rani, another friend from Catalina, in the dark, cold waters of the San Juan Islands. I stayed at the home of Txi (pronounced chee) Whizz and her faithful canine companion La-dee-dog, both of whom I met at camp Winnaranbow. La-dee is 14 years old and in decline. She’s deaf and her hips are arthritic. Txi is very torn up because she is not certain if it’s best to put La-dee down. She wonders if she is keeping La-dee alive just for her own enjoyment. She worries that she might put La-dee down just for her own convenience. It is hard to let go of a companion who has walked the labyrinth with you, even when it is time for the paths to diverge. Harder when it is your choice, not the choice of your companion. Hardest when your companion can’t voice an opinion.

Q: Do you think that Txi’s path and La-di’s might continue to intersect even after La-di has died?

Breitenbush was clearly a nexus for seekers. I met at least four different Questing Males there. All of them had given up a successful career to go out and find their particular grail. We all came galloping into Breitenbush, kights errant, pennants flapping, as if that place were a spiritual rotary. Take the waters, do some yoga, yada yada yada, and off we go questing in another direction. Hoofbeats fade into the distance…

Q: Did the Questing Males miss the fact that they just passed through the center of the labyrinth?

I’m not sure why there were fewer questing women. Perhaps women seekers are just less dramatic than men, though I have a gnawing suspicion that it has to do with women being more clever than men in general.

Q: Do the women tend to realize that wherever they are, they are at the center of the labyrinth?

Two letters ago found me optimistically sweeping my foot in front of me, as I blindly felt my way along the path. Of course that metaphor presumes that there is a path to find. There’s another metaphor that says that even if your headlights only reach 30 feet in front of you, you can still safely accomplish a journey of 30 miles with them. Again, this supposes that you are on a road. What if you happen to be out in the middle of the desert with no road, and its cloudy so you can’t see the stars or the moon? You’d just drive around in circles, scaring the night dwelling creatures.

Q: Maybe it would be better to stay put and save the gas and wait for dawn, wouldn’t it, Mr. Smarty-Pants Metaphor Man?

END of Professor Monkey’s Discourse on Labyrinths

(pencils down)

All of this is leading us nowhere in particular, which is precisely where my trip may be going soon, because within a couple of weeks I’ll have run through all the camps which Professor Monkey and I scheduled way back in the Spring. I’m heading to Montana to visit with my friends John and Debre. Then perhaps a storytelling festival in Utah, then Burning Man in Nevada. That’s the end of the scheduled activities. I’ll probably stop in the Bay Area to recharge for a week or two. After that the Great Aimless Drift commences. Santa Fe and Austin appear to be on the agenda.

Professor Monkey peers anxiously into the Magic Eight Ball to find out where this might lead, but all he gets is “Answer hazy, try again”. This is not a satisfactory answer for Professor Monkey.

Personally, I’m mostly relaxed about the future. I know that I’ll keep travelling through September, and that I’ll arrive in New York by November for the wedding of my much-loved cousin Maria. I’ve discovered that as I slow down, unexpected things emerge from the landscape. I never would have found the Huckleberry Feast had I not wandered to Breitenbush. Professor Monkey couldn’t schedule it – usually the feast is earlier, but this year it was late because the huckleberries ripened late.

My experience of central Oregon, where I am now, has been a good example. I had seen it mostly as country that I needed to traverse on my way to scheduled activities. I had no expectations for it. As I’ve slowed my pace, meandering the backroads, I’ve come across painted hills, sudden basalt canyons with waterfalls cascading from their rims, badland rock formations so startling that I need to pull over and do the t’ai chi again. Yesterday, I looked up from my journal, and clouds of flaming red were shooting up from the ridge in front of me. I made a sound like somebody had hit me in the stomach.

Oh but Professor Monkey wants to know about meanings and directions and whether there is a path or not and where it’s going. He chatters and bites his nails. He fumes and frets.

I don’t know why he’s so worked up. After all, I’m the one who’s paying for gas.

Q: Who saved the money in the first place?


About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

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