Photographer: Brett Boardman
Interview Emily Simpson [Sydney Labyrinth]

Emily Simpson at the Sydney Labyrinth site, Centennial Park, 31 January 2013

"Welcome, everyone, to this beautiful, peaceful field in this beloved park of ours. For those who haven't seen one before, this is a labyrinth. It's looking a bit tatty now, compared to when we first painted it in September, when the grass was thick and thirsty. Now the paths are worn down with use, which is a lovely problem to have. I hope if you have the time this evening you can stay and experience it for yourself.

The first time I walked a labyrinth was only 3 years ago at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Before I actually saw it, I assumed, as many people do, that it was going to be like a maze. But a maze and a labyrinth are actually two very different things. A maze has several pathways, lots of dead ends and hedges, all of which are deliberately designed to get you lost – to frustrate and confuse and quite literally amaze you (which is where we get the word). A labyrinth, on the other hand has only one path – there are no walls, or dead ends, so you can't get lost. You simply follow the same path in and out again. If a maze is a complex intellectual exercise, a labyrinth is a simple spiritual one.

I walked the labyrinth at the Grace Cathedral again and again and came back the next day and walked it some more and I fell in love with it. When I got back to Sydney I went looking for one to walk and soon realised there weren't any. So I submitted a proposal to the Centennial Park Trust, which they accepted under the proviso that I go and raise all the money, and so our fundraising began this time last year.

For those of you who find traditional sitting meditation challenging (monkey mind won't settle down), then walking meditation is a really easy way into that same peaceful place – an easy way to quiet the mind and open the heart. We've all had moments when we wanted the world to just stop for a minute, so we could gather ourselves and begin again. The labyrinth is a watering hole for the spirit. A place to bring anxiety, confusion or sorrow and walk your way into the relative clarity and calm of the bigger picture. It offers a literal threshold for us to cross, which can help us to leave behind what no longer serves and step into the new. This labyrinth will become a sanctuary for so many.

Labyrinth walking itself is nothing new. It's certainly not New Age. It's an ancient practice, which is being reborn in a growing movement worldwide. The labyrinth has been used as a path of insight and self-reflection for over 4000 years by many different cultures all over the world. There are ancient examples from Rome and Greece, Scandinavia, India, China and North and South America. It's a truly universal archetype, a non-denominational symbol whose long winding path acts as a metaphor for our journey through life. An old fashioned slow-cooking form of contemplation.

In the last two decades in the United States, there have been more than 200 labyrinths built in hospitals alone. In Washington, doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital use their labyrinth to help war veterans with PTSD. There have been hundreds of others built across Europe and the US in universities, parks and schools. There are even desktop labyrinths being used for children with ADD to help them focus and they're finding that they're able to concentrate for longer. But it's not always therapeutic; the labyrinth is also used for all sorts of joyful threshold celebrations like weddings and birthdays. And thousands of people all over the world are installing labyrinths in their gardens. So, this long forgotten mystical tradition is truly being reborn.

The labyrinth we're going to build here in this field will be a sandstone replica of the labyrinth from the Chartres Cathedral in France, which was built in 13th C. At that time there were more than 20 cathedrals across Europe, which all had labyrinths in them. They were used as an alternate form of pilgrimage, instead of making the hazardous journey to Jerusalem during the crusades. The labyrinth in Chartres is the most celebrated of it's kind. The Centennial Park Labyrinth will be the definitive example in this country – made from heritage grade white sandstone, with black sandstone markings and a 6 ft border to frame it. The Centennial Parklands Trust have already begun planting a circle of Morton Bay & Port Jackson Fig Trees which will create in time a sense of wonder and discovery about the field, tucked into the heart of the park, away from the activity of the grand drive. It will really feel like a mini-pilgrimage to come here.

Apart from anything else, this labyrinth will be a thing of great beauty – a significant public artwork and the jewel in the crown of the labyrinth revival that is bound to unfold in this country once its built. The ABC's Compass program was here last week, filming me painting it. They are going to document the construction of the labyrinth over the year. You may have seen the cover of Wentworth Courier, just before Christmas, with an article about the Interfaith Walk we held with leaders from many different religious traditions all walking the labyrinth together – weaving the threads of their faith into the path. It was incredibly inspiring to witness their compassion in action. One of the wisdom keepers that day was an Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Ali Golding, who told me that the labyrinth felt a bit like a Songline, with everybody finding their way 'home to country' together. The labyrinth is a powerful tool for reconciling differences, reminding us that ultimately, we all walk the same path.

So please feel free to walk it before you leave. There's no wrong way to walk a labyrinth, but the general rule of thumb is that it's a threefold journey – releasing on the way in, receiving a sense of calm in the stillness of the centre and returning with a new resolve on the way back out. But there's truly no wrong way to do it – just find your natural pace and see what's there for you. The thing to be aware of is that if someone is going too slow for you, you don't have to stay politely stuck behind – you can overtake, and the easiest place to do that is at the turns. The Trust has given us permission to maintain this temporary painted labyrinth until construction of the sandstone one begins in a few months, so please come back and really take your time with it.

So far, we've raised $465K towards the $500K needed to build it. The funding has come from all walks of life – from the two inspired philanthropists who gave $50K each, to the group of Vietnamese women refugees who insisted on contributing an envelope of silver coins. We've had so much support from so many people donating services over the last year – primarily of course from William Zuccon, who is the architect overseeing the project, also from surveyors and geotechnical companies all wanting to help out, and of course all of the wonderful friends who have helped at events over the year.

I'd especially like to thank Fiona Playfair for arranging the food and wine tonight and our wonderful guitarist, Richard Charlton, who is the Head of Music at Ascham, and who graciously agreed to play for us tonight. Its was always a really important part of the vision of this project to have this labyrinth created by the whole community, so that everyone has a sense of ownership and belonging once its complete. I see many people here who have already donated, for which I am deeply grateful. For those of you who may have been considering it, now is the time. Donations of $5000 or more will put your name on the official donor board here. It's all fully tax-deductible via the Centennial Parklands Foundation. This labyrinth is going to be a really good thing, which will help many people for many years to come and you have the chance tonight to become part of it. Thank you and enjoy!"

To visit the Sydney Labyrinth website, click here.