On October 27, 2018, BFW facilitators Deidre Coutsoumpos and Koyuki Smith had the honor of presenting a workshop, “Learning through Listening: Using the Labyrinth to Move Through Trauma,” at the second Black Birth Matters conference hosted by Birthmark Doulas in New Orleans. Many participants were eager to learn more about labyrinths, both real and metaphorical, and how we use them in BFW. So we went through our archives and found this wonderful classic piece to add to our BFW Dictionary library. -Eds.
There are so many words that are special to Birthing From Within, words that we use in very specific ways that are important and meaningful — but not always entirely self-explanatory. The purpose of the BFW Dictionary posts is to shine a clarifying light on the language used by BFW and its practitioners and to explain how some of these words are so central to our unique approach to the childbearing years.
The labyrinth is an ancient symbol representing our journey through life, ordeals, and transitions. Its single, convoluted pathway begins at the opening, leads directly to the center, and then returns along the same path to the outside again. Walking or finger-tracing a labyrinth invokes a sensation of turning inward, then outward — perhaps reminding us of our first journey from our mother’s body into the world.
One of the oldest universal symbols found the world over, the labyrinth has been discovered on cave walls, on pottery, in weavings, and in centuries-old churches. With renewed interest, you may be able to walk a labyrinth in your community.
The psychic and physical journey from innocence to wisdom during pregnancy, labor, and postpartum, is surely labyrinthine.
Without exception, parents who have experienced birth enthusiastically confirm that their internal experience of birth and postpartum was exactly like moving through a labyrinth, no matter what the physical outcome. Encouraged by the lively dialogues that accompanied making labyrinths in class, we now teach our doulas and mentors about the Labyrinth of Birth and how, in turn, to use it in their childbirth classes, rituals, or sessions, to instill in mothers and fathers how the journey of birth is about much more than the physical outcome or “birth choices.” In class, parents are thrilled to learn how to make their very own labyrinth (drawing on paper or making one out of clay), learn a bit about the meaning and history of labyrinths, experience a mindful tracing of the labyrinth’s path, and enjoy a conversation about their experience with other parents.
How Labor is Like a Labyrinth
Birthing parents experience labor as a labyrinth. “Ready” or not, with the first contraction, or when the water breaks, they are catapulted across an invisible, but felt, threshold. Once in labor or in the labyrinth, steady progress is made by taking one step at a time until the center is reached. The center represents the birth of the child, the birth of the parent, the birth of the family.
You could be blindfolded and still reach the center by feeling your way through the path. You don’t need to study the path before you enter it. You don’t need a birth plan or a cell phone to call for help! There is no time-line and no mistakes. Any and every birth fits within the labyrinth– whether long or short, medical or natural, cesarean or vaginal — or anywhere in between!
Unlike in a maze, you cannot get lost in a labyrinth. A maze is a kind of puzzle that must be “solved” with the mind; it has more than one entrance or exit and many dead-ends, and there are choices to make. You have to plan, remember, and think to avoid getting lost (not unlike the medical model of birth).
In the Labyrinth of Birth, the journey (with its twists and turns) reflects the emotional, spiritual, and social experience of giving birth. When parents (and birth professionals) focus solely on the medical outcome, a huge piece of this Rite of Passage is overlooked. Often people feel there is something missing, but cannot put their finger on it. The Labyrinth provides this missing piece: the soul of birth…that which goes far beyond intellectual preparation, choices, and “getting it right.”
Ancient Labyrinth Rules:
- No unnecessary talking in a labyrinth. Hold your question, intention, or prayer in mind. No laptops or cell phones.
- You can rest in the corridors; catch your breath; smell the earth; even cry, tears falling into the thirsty earth. In the labyrinths of old Europe, there were benches in the hairpin turns for people to stop and contemplate.
- There are no clocks or shortcuts in a labyrinth. Once you enter a labyrinth, never cross lines to get to the center or to get out quickly; if you do, you will get lost.
- How to get to the center: KEEP GOING!
BFW founder Pam England shares,
Once I was in a seven-day winter Zen training; it was grueling. With only five hours to go, I decided to ‘jump over a few lines’ and get out of the pan before I was cooked. I packed up and tried to leave quickly before my Zen teacher saw me. I was sneaking up the hill heading toward the parking lot with my backpack, thinking I’d gotten away unnoticed. Down the hill he comes, Seiju in his black robes, walking like a brick in sandals. I told him my rationale for ‘crossing the lines’ and leaving early. He listened. I doubt he heard a word I said. When I finished, he said, ‘You can leave, but wherever you go, you still have to breathe.’ With this, he nodded and kept on walking. I just stood there. I didn’t know where the lines were. I didn’t know whether to go up the hill or down the hill, because I stepped out of the labyrinth.
Before you freak out and step out of your Labyrinth, stop!
Remember, “Wherever you go you still have to breathe.”
In labor, this means that even if your labor is not what you expected or wanted, even if it’s taking too long, or there are interventions that might make you feel like you’ve lost control, or a cesarean becomes the “next best thing,” the one thing that can’t be “taken” from you is your determination to be loving and mindful.
Even in a straightforward labor, you may feel you are trudging through the trenches of your Birth Labyrinth and living your determination in breath awareness. In doing what needs to be done next, and nothing extra, again and again, you are birthing as a Love Warrior.
Breath by breath, you will reach the center; your baby (and you as a parent) must be born.
— originally published in 2014