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Whenever Carol Orth walks the labyrinth, its smooth concentric paths carry her inward like a current. Approaching from the parking lot, she senses energy flowing from the classic design. It's as if she were at the shore, she says, watching the waves.

Just looking at the circular formation feels really relaxing to me, she says at the beginning of the path. I wait here until I have an internal cue that tells me it's time to go.

Before her, on the ground near the hospital, are seven rings spiraling into a pattern thousands of years old. Ancient people of Crete walked a version of this labyrinth. So did Native Americans in the Southwest. Medieval pilgrims traveled to Chartres to pray and pace the labyrinth in the French cathedral. For many cultures, this pathway represents the journey of life - or of many lives.

Walking the labyrinth is a way to gain perspective, confront problems, explore random thoughts.

Carol Orth looks forward to these soothing meditative walks. Now, as the hot midday sun beats down, she prepares once again for this exercise. She sways slightly like a swimmer preparing to dive. Almost without realizing it, she begins to walk.

Step by step over the next half hour, Orth will float farther away from the sounds of hospital traffic, the chatter of workers on lunch hour, from her own thoughts about a client who just canceled.

Step by step, she will relax.

Getting closer to the center is very exciting and suspenseful. You'll get pretty close, then the next thing you know you're two pathways away. To me, that's a metaphor: Something you want so desperately seems so close, and then the very next minute it's farther away than you thought.

She has decided that this labyrinth is a sacred space. Sacred because people honor it: There is never any litter. Sacred because it is a circle, the most powerful of shapes. Sacred because it challenges her perceptions even as it refreshes her.

A path to meditation

This labyrinth is a newcomer to the sprawling kingdom of Johns Hopkins Medical System. Situated on the Bayview campus, it opened this summer to serve the hospital and surrounding neighborhood as a tool for meditation and reflection. Sixty feet in diameter, it is constructed of cobble pavers in gray and salmon with paths wide enough for wheelchairs.

It calls to mind an elegantly formal game of solitaire in which each player brings his own rules. Some visitors avoid traveling the traditional path and head straight to the middle. Others walk slowly, stopping often, careful to stay within the lines. Some follow the path only in the most general sense. . . . or walk as briskly as if they were being timed. Some appear to be mesmerized, sleepwalking. A few choose to dance.

Unlike a traditional maze, the labyrinth has a center that is always visible and always accessible. It is not meant to be a puzzle. And at Hopkins, a place of apprehension as well as healing, the labyrinth stands out as a place where there is no wrong way of doing things. There are no blind alleys, no false turns, no nasty surprises. The outcome is always certain: Anyone who visits will get to the center and back again.

Its appeal is its simplicity: Powerful therapy you can still draw on the ground with a stick. In the past few years, thousands of people have discovered the benefits of walking labyrinths, both portable and permanent. Various versions have appeared in churches, hospitals, schools, prisons and backyards. Some devotees have even mowed spiraling patterns into fields or defined paths with rope or cornmeal or aluminum cans.

Labyrinth designer Dave Tolzmann created the Bayview labyrinth in collaboration with Nancy Romita, a Baltimore dancer who initiated the project at Hopkins as a way to promote healing through the movement arts.

"Working with the dance troupe, it became clear to me that designing a labyrinth was moving people through space - that I was designing choreography," says Tolzmann, who lives in Baltimore and New York. "It brought home that I have to remember it is basically choreography and that I have to 'walk' it as I design it.

"When I walk a labyrinth, I always get relaxation or a creative insight. You can call it what you will: a creativity enhancer, stress reduction, a form of prayer, meditation."

Just as therapy is more than counseling, meditation is more than an exploration of wandering thoughts, says Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Angelino. For those who wish it, walking the labyrinth is a guided exercise.

"The instructions basically say: 'Stand at the edge. Clear your mind. Step in and begin to walk. Don't rush. By the time you reach the center, come up with a solution. On the way out, think of how you're going to implement it.'"

Johns Hopkins urologist Dr. James Wright uses the labyrinth to sort through thoughts about difficult cases. As a reconstructive surgeon, he must often mull over various ways to rebuild a bladder or restore a pelvic floor. His approach to the labyrinth is a "relaxed wandering," eyes focused downward as if he were pacing the hospital corridors. Although the surgeon may return to work convinced of a solution, more often he leaves satisfied that he has given a problem his full attention. Occasionally he receives that sudden flash of insight that counts as inspiration.

Memory lane

Walking the pathway is also a way to remember. Chezia Thompson-Cager, a writer and professor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, is a survivor of ovarian cancer. Whenever the 48-year-old woman visits the labyrinth, it sweeps her back to the time when she couldn't walk - and she pays tribute to the spirit that helped her heal.

She begins with a dance. Moving to an inner curve of the path, she bends down to sweep the ground with her arms, then raises them triumphantly.

You go down and you get up, she sings, celebrating life. You go down and you come back up.

Just as Thompson-Cager did after she almost died in childbirth. Just as she did years later when they told her she had an early stage of ovarian cancer. And, again, after the hysterectomy.

You go down and you get up. You go down and you come back up . . . And then the baby's wonderful. And you have fun at work. And what more can someone ask for in life, right? No more weepin' and wailin.'

Whenever she's at this point in the labyrinth, deep into her dance, she begins to feel lighthearted. And for some reason the wind always picks up, no matter whether it's raining or the sun is shining. The wind starts blowing and Chezia Thompson-Cager commences to make poetry. She slows her journey to a ceremonial pace, sweeping the path with her words.

We survive together in this place because we are one. . . .

Beauty is my reflection in your eyes because without knowing, you care. . . .

The silence of the circle is a gift that comes down to us from the ages.

We hear its voice inside us when we listen.

Personal therapy

While Carol Orth walks the labyrinth, she often thinks of Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road. It gives her a warm feeling, reminds her of being a kid.

Orth manages Key Point, a residential program to rehabilitate mentally ill patients and ease them back into their former lives. Through her training as a dance therapist, she knows how to help people express emotions and regain a sense of purpose through movement. Walking the labyrinth has become personal therapy, a way for her to sift through all that claims her attention.

There are worries about clients whose conditions suddenly worsen and concerns about how to motivate the staff. In her role as a community volunteer, she is searching for a way to introduce the labyrinth to more people who could use its low-cost stress relief. Then there's the matter of attending to the house she recently bought . . . and of finishing courses she needs to become a licensed counselor.

Orth first came to Bayview 10 years ago when she was serving an internship in dance therapy for her master's degree. She remembers stepping off the bus with trepidation: The 1940s look of the place back then suggested this institution would not welcome her style of healing.

But the architecture changed over the years - as the labyrinth always reminds her.

And so has she.

Recently as she was walking, Orth wondered what it would be like to push a stroller along these paths. She thinks she would like to adopt a child, maybe a little Asian girl like the one she sees running over there on the playground of the hospital's daycare. She has always longed to be a mother, she says.

But first she must concentrate on becoming a counselor. She is 39, as mindful of her obligations as her options. Traveling the labyrinth offers a dependable approach toward balancing the equation.

However, it's always a surprise, she says, when the familiar path brings her to the center. Again she stands motionless, just as she did at the beginning.

Sometimes when what you've anticipated so long is finally right at your feet, it's the thing that scares you most - and you hesitate. I'm not necessarily hesitating, but I want to be able to experience the moment fully.

Then the labyrinth reels her into its heart, a passage she later describes as the most powerful part of her experience. By any reckoning, the center is an emotional pinnacle - the kind of spot where a person might fling her arms wide open, pause with a silent promise, take a deep breath.

Orth marks the occasion by walking in ever smaller circles.

I want to fill up all the space, she says. I want to make sure I've gotten every ounce of it. That's what it's here for.

And while cars wind toward the parking lot and children shriek with laughter and jackhammers pound a nearby pavement, the woman continues her journey, touching every last bit of labyrinth as if she were the only one left to soak it all up.

Local labyrinths

The labyrinth at Johns Hopkins Bayview is open 24 hours a day on the medical center's East Baltimore campus, just off Eastern Avenue. Other outside labyrinths in Baltimore are located at:

St. Anthony's of Padua, 4414 Frankford Ave. in Gardenville

Govans Presbyterian Church, 5828 York Road

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