Encountering a Mystic Around the Labyrinth
September 10th 2010
Jac O’Keeffe and John Burke arrived in Ottawa for a collaborative labyrinth event after months of planning and emailing. I met Jac for the first time on Thursday Sept. 9th for a brief look at the labyrinth and the space of the hall. We reviewed the schedule and talked through the details and then Jac departed to spend the evening with her sister.
John Burke has become a friend and collaborator as this was our third project together in the space of a year. John was able to do some initial setting up of the special bows he had made to use on the strings of the piano. Eventually we had to take a break so the boys of the choir could finish their sacred hockey game. Our labyrinth is located in a multifunctional busy church hall and is not always available to us.
We arrived at 9:00 the next morning to set up and figure out the details of sound and lighting, food, drapery, and the many details that go into creating a beautiful setting for the labyrinth. At 11:00 a small group of invited guests (a spiritual director, a dance educator, a meditation teacher and a vocal coach along with our mystic)joined us for what we declared to be the first or maybe it was the second workshop of “The Institute”. When Vanessa and I first met John Burke last year he shared his vision of a “Labyrinth Centre”. Vanessa caught onto the idea and it became the “Institute for Labyrinth Research”. So we begin without waiting for the bricks and mortar of a building to materialize. Our interest this day was to explore and learn more about the potential of the labyrinth as tool as site for transformative experience.
When John and I first spoke last winter about the idea of working with Jac O’Keeffe I wondered how the labyrinth experience would serve Jac’s purpose. We do know the labyrinth to be a place of great and sometimes profound listening, where we are occasionally able to get out of our own way and hear greater wisdom than our own. So why not seed the labyrinth experience with “pointers” as Jac calls them from the realm of non duality.
As we went through the steps in organizing to host Jac we encountered great difficulty in finding the appropriate words to describe just what was on offer when Jac would be at the labyrinth. We did not want to create expectations that could not be fulfilled. There were no words we could agree upon to entice people to come and join us. In the end Jac said anything we said would be a lie! Somehow this was not freeing.
In the past when I ran into difficulty representing my artwork through photographic means I would resort to making a pleasing or beautiful image. So Vanessa and I made a poster using one of the geometric drawings of the labyrinth that represents the expanded energetic space of the labyrinth and as few words as possible. After all a photo of an artwork is but a remnant and does not truly represent the art.
One of the most difficult parts was deciding on the price of admission. Both Vanessa and I have chosen to earn our way through our work with the labyrinth and it cost quite a bit to bring an Irish Mystic to Ottawa, along with a musician to work with two facilitators. The date that Jac was available was not auspicious, being the first week back after the summer holidays. We knew Jac was unfamiliar to our Ottawa audience and we also knew we did not want to have 100 people there. In the end we decided we could host 40 people and just cover our costs.
Everything was set, down to the fresh strawberries and help in the kitchen. Jac arrived dressed not in her usual sneakers and jeans but in an elegant japanese kimono and makeup! As I watched her I wondered about a comment the Dean had once made in reference to priests and their robes. Vestments are not meant to adorn the ego but rather to provide a ceremonial focus. The robes allow the personality or ego to recede and this was what Jac was doing with her “costume”. She was creating a shell or exterior that was not her, thereby allowing some distance between herself and the message. As I watched her pass by me many times during the evening I had little sense of the person Jac I had met and talked with earlier in the day. It was as if she was not there. As she said we need to get out of our own way and allow.
Vanessa began the evening with a poetic introduction to the concepts and “how to’s” of the labyrinth. I was meant to introduce Jac and had been searching for words to describe her. After our lunch time experience of each making our introductions from our ego-bound identifies as artist, musician or academic and being told this was all false, I knew better than to attempt an introduction at all. So we skipped that altogether. Less is more.
My task this evening was to be the “gate keeper” and to let participants into the labyrinth giving each one their own space. We had thought the labyrinth would be a fine place to gently absorb the pointers that Jac had to offer but as I stood at the mouth of the labyrinth for over an hour, I found that this was also a good place to listen.
Photo: Liane Chiblow
John Burke has worked for the past decade on music for the labyrinth. He has read and researched the labyrinth extensively. He has traveled widely in a effort to collect and explore the labyrinth experience and we are very pleased to have an opportunity to hear yet another version of his musical offering for the labyrinth.
Photo: Liane Chiblow
As Jac walked the perimeter of the labyrinth I found I began to lose the identification with her as a person and instead just listened to the voice. This may have been in part because of the sound system we were using. She was moving around the room but the source of the sound was static and unmoving, coming through the speakers. There was an anonymity that occurred because the sound system disembodied the voice. I think Jac would have liked this phenomenon.
By the time all the participants had entered the labyrinth I had no desire to walk it myself. I had observed the difficulty some were experiencing while walking a very slow pace and knew that tension can build in the body and disturb one’s balance. I sat for a while and bent forward to release the tension in my own back. After a cup of tea and a rest I was ready to walk the labyrinth. I had only walked the labyrinth one other time when spoken word was a part of the setting. On this evening Jac’s message came with questions. I’m not my body?,………..there is no right and wrong?……… I am not my profession or my role………? I’m not an artist or a mother?????…..I am so much more or is it less?????
Some of the messages I found I could agree with or at least consider and others were reassuring. “There is nothing to be achieved, fixed or changed, mended or healed.” How reassuring! But then I found myself debating the merits of dropping my identity as an artist and as a mother. Why would I want to do that, as it is through these activities and roles that I know the phenomenal world? The great pleasure and beauty I experience comes through the activities of both art and parenting, and I am not sure I want to give them up. However, I think what Jac proposes is a shift of which I can only imagine but I do know or rather hold open the possibility that she lives on a different plane or realm, as mystics do.
John’s beautiful music provided a continuous and supportive element. He mastered bowing the strings of the piano to create a gentle drone element. In between he played variations on a simple chant that Jac would occasionally sing. The evening flowed beautifully. The angst of all the preparation was finally gone and I stopped puzzling over Jac’s pointers and just let them wash over me.
As the labyrinth emptied I took my place once again at the mouth of the labyrinth, this time to close our sacred space. From the centre of the labyrinth I thanked both Jac and John and all of the participants and bid them peace on their journey home.Vanessa and I said goodbye to everyone and there was a beautiful glow of contentment that seemed to surround them. Several offers came to re-connect and to collaborate on new projects and it was a gratifying and lovely end to what had begun many months earlier as a spark of curiosity. “I wonder what it would be like to listen to Jac and walk the labyrinth?”
Curiosity comes at a cost as Vanessa and I are finding out. This adventure with Jac was risky both financially and philosophically and it may be some time before we attempt something of this nature again. In the end, it’s all learning and we are far richer for the experience.
Here is a short video that captures some impressions of the evening.