By Amit Janco
Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking. ~St. Augustine
Not a day goes by that I don’t feel blessed to have survived a near fatal accident four years ago with all parts intact. I had fallen through a bridge in Cambodia while cycling, landing on a rocky riverbank ten meters below. Despite suffering a concussion, multiple fractures and open wounds, the prospects for my recovery were good. I was lucky and hopeful.
Ever since I was released from hospital, walking became integral to my rehabilitation schedule, and helped me grapple with lingering stiffness, numbness and pain. From my own personal experience, and from many books, articles and websites, I learned about the healing benefits of walking. And so, with a fervent belief that the mere act of setting one foot in front of the other would help bring my body back to wholeness, I went from crutches to cane, and became a devout walker.
Like many people I came to Bali to heal. Two years ago, when I arrived in Ubud – a renowned center for healing – I felt certain that it would be the perfect place to indulge in my passion for walking. I expected to find parks, gardens and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks; and excited at the prospect of exploring the outdoors year-round, drenched in sunshine and warmth. What I found instead were impassable sidewalks with steep inclines, parked cars and motorbikes, gaping holes dangerous to life, limb – and pride. Even walking through rice fields without slipping into mud became a tricky endeavor.
These hindrances were more than just an inconvenience. Since I rarely ride on scooters or in cars (due to injuries from my accident), I rely on my feet as my primary mode of transportation more than most people do. I needed to find an obstacle-free path on which I could walk easily and meditatively, with no fear for my safety. I suddenly knew what I was looking for because I’d walked such a path many times before: what I really needed was a labyrinth.
In ancient times, the labyrinth was a symbolic rendering of a fortification, or a protective talisman against invaders and evil spirits. In the middle ages, labyrinths were used as substitute sites for pilgrimages, when devotees were unable to undertake travel to other lands. But in the modern era, labyrinths have developed into spiritual walking paths, typically concentric circles, with multiple turning points and with a single entry and exit. Labyrinths of various sizes can be found around the world, in public parks, private gardens, university campuses, hospitals and places of worship. They are walked for meditation, prayer, contemplation, and healing.*
Shortly after I began my search, an unexpected opportunity arose. A meditation retreat center was under construction in Tabanan, and its visionary founder wanted a labyrinth. So I offered to design and install it as a gift to the center and its guests. I also imagined it as a gift to myself; a peaceful sanctuary where I could walk free of the impediments I was facing in Ubud.
Our enthusiasm grew as the labyrinth’s design began to take shape. We considered size, direction, placement of trees, shade and seating. In deference to the orientation of Balinese structures towards Gunung (Mount) Agung, dwelling place of Hindu gods, I resolved to align the single entry and exit point with a view towards this sacred mountain. I was also mindful of placing the labyrinth’s entrance in close proximity to a rock nestled into the ground a revered relic from an ancient ashram uncovered on the site.
Through months of blistering sun, rain and unrelenting winds, and with input from experts and volunteers, our ideas were transformed into reality. I would walk the path at least twice a day, grateful for the wide open space, the grass beneath my bare feet, the surrounding sounds of nature.
The labyrinth was nearing completion when I noticed something going awry. Weeds were growing out of control, limestone pieces were sinking underground, and grass around the stones was turning into mounds of burnished rust while spreading in strange and unmanageable ways. In a matter of weeks, the grass showed further signs of decay: wilting and withered with large patches turning into colorless blades of grass, the circuits were barely visible. Moreover, an army of red ants was threatening to overtake the field – and to bite every inch of my skin.
I gazed at the labyrinth with a mixture of disappointment and sorrow. Like Ubud’s sidewalks, the path was becoming virtually impassable. Not only was the labyrinth falling apart – so was my body. Under dirt-covered gardening gloves, sweat-soaked work clothes and midday heat, I was straining. I’d had to resort to boots to keep the ants at bay, and found myself knee-deep in gardening hell when all I had signed up for was to create a labyrinth. My body was aching all over and my efforts were being scuttled by recurring bouts of pain.
I briefly considered leaving the project, but was already too deeply involved and invested in seeing it come alive and thrive. Abandoning was the easy way out.
Who promised that either journey – healing or building a labyrinth – would be simple and straightforward? If I wasn’t prepared to give up on my body, how could I give up on the labyrinth? I decided to stay on course, but resolved instead to give us both – the labyrinth and myself – a rest.
I returned to Tabanan at the end of January, well-rested and with a renewed sense of purpose. It was particularly auspicious because that visit marked four years (almost to the day) since my accident. I meandered down the path to the labyrinth, with a prayer in my heart, hopeful that salvage (and salvation?) was still possible. As I turned the corner and stepped onto the terrace, the wise words of Frank Lloyd Wright sprang to mind: Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
Indeed, signs of rebirth and renewal were everywhere. Freshly laid soil was covered with manure. Tufts of grass, transplanted from healthier mounds, were settling into the ground. Limestone pieces, by then understood to be the culprits in this saga ,were temporarily replaced with bamboo sticks until later, when the grass would be fully grown and new stones would be placed.
How do we grow ourselves if not by stripping away temporary setbacks and appreciating the gifts that are disguised within obstacles? Through these unexpected turn of events, the labyrinth revealed itself as a mystery and lesson about life, as well as a vehicle for growth and sustenance. Perhaps this is precisely the path I had to tread in order to truly appreciate and share the gift of walking with others. If we take steps towards healing – by walking or any other way – without expectation of results, we may discover that nature will support our journey, in mysterious and inexplicable ways. Ultimately every path will lead us precisely where we must go.
Read more about labyrinths here: http://www.labyrinthsociety.org http://labyrinthlocator.com
For more information about the labyrinth and retreat center, please visit: www.balisilentretreat.org
Amit’s future plans include creating labyrinths on other islands, in a jungle – and at a rice field (with a small footprint) in an effort to preserve the sawah. When not designing and installing labyrinths, Amit practices Iyengar yoga, meditates for self-healing, writes, photographs daily life in her banjar and practices bahasa Indonesia.