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The Sunnybrook labyrinth, meditation, and what you need to know before you start meditating

Rohan Harrison maintaining the Sunnybrook labyrinth

Right outside of Sunnybrook’s H-Wing, you might find people walking on the lawn in a repetitive, circular path.

While it may look peculiar, these people are walking with purpose as they are using the Sunnybrook labyrinth, a round trail in the grass that can be followed for a moment of quiet reflection.

The Sunnybrook labyrinth

Recognizing that a hospital can be a stressful environment for staff, patients, and families, Rohan Harrison, Sunnybrook’s environmental services team leader, advocated for the labyrinth’s installation.

“It can be used symbolically as a walking meditation,” he says.

Users have told him that they use the labyrinth as a tool for self-care and mindfulness, and even to just get some physical activity.

“I’ve been really encouraged by a few comments I have been privy to receive, mostly commenting about an ‘inner relaxation,’” he says.

Staff using the Sunnybrook labyrinth

Staff using the Sunnybrook labyrinth. Image courtesy of Rohan Harrison.

“Having tools like labyrinths can be very helpful,” says Dr. Robert Simpson, a staff physician and associate scientist who studies mindfulness-based interventions for people with disabling long-term conditions. “If nothing else, tools can serve as a metaphor or reminder that I’m here to meditate.”

And while these tools can be great, Dr. Simpson says there’s more to meditation than the simple act of walking through a labyrinth.

“It depends on the attitude that you bring to your experience,” he says. “If you’re just zooming off into the ether, I’m not so sure that’s good for you. ‘Mind-wandering,’ in some studies, has actually been associated with worse mental health. However, if you’re focusing yourself in the present moment, that’s much healthier, especially if you are kind, patient, curious, and compassionate with yourself.”

Meditation and its impacts

Generally speaking, meditation is used to help bring calm and peace to those who use it. But, due to its many forms, understanding the practice can be confusing.

“Meditation has been conceptualized in many different ways,” says Dr. Simpson.

For some, it has philosophical and religious purposes. It can be done alone or in group settings. It can involve stillness or movement. It can be done in a class or while doing everyday activities.

To summarize the diverse practice, he says, “Typically, meditation would involve a structured set of techniques designed to access a particular mental state. It is often intended to be relaxing and restorative or to bring insight on a given focus.”

Elaborating on what may be happening in the body during this time, he continues, “Some evidence suggests meditation can affect regulation of the autonomic nervous system, dialing down the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response (sympathetic nervous system) and facilitating the ‘rest and digest’ function (parasympathetic nervous system). This leads to a relaxation type response.”

This response is one reason why Dr. Simpson and his colleagues use mediation in clinical care.

“Across many disabling long-term conditions, there are pretty consistent findings of improved stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and quality of life following mindfulness training,” he says. And when a patient’s mental health gets better, he says that improvements to physical symptoms often follow.

These benefits, grouped with the practices’ flexibility, diversity, and increased publicization in the mainstream media have led to meditation becoming hugely popular in recent years.

Caution when meditating

And while he’s happy more people are learning about the benefits of meditation, Dr. Simpson notes that, “It has to be applied with caution as there is some evidence that meditation can be harmful if used indiscriminately.”

For example, some research suggests negative effects of meditation on individuals with epilepsy, psychosis, and suicidal ideations. Further, if applied rigidly, some types of mediation can increase negative physical symptoms, such as pain or fatigue — for example, long bouts of seated stillness or more advanced yoga postures would be inadvisable in certain health conditions.

That is why, when Dr. Simpson suggests meditation as a health intervention for his patients, he considers an individual’s history, symptoms, impairments, disabilities, and goals, as these are important components in ensuring the modality is accessible, effective, and safe for the individual. He advocates for people with severe or unstable conditions to consult with their health-care providers before undertaking meditation training.

Getting started with meditation

In fact, Dr. Simpson says, if possible, most people should consult with their health-care providers when taking up meditation, as they can evaluate an individual’s symptoms and goals to help find services that fit the specific needs. Further, he recommends structured sessions led by an instructor with relevant clinical experience to help participants better understand and apply the practice to their unique circumstances.

Though, when that’s not possible, he suggests turning to content from credible resources, by people with formal training and certification to teach meditation. Dr. Rebecca Crane at the University of Bangor, UK is one example of someone whom he would suggest.

“If you’re tuning in to a random YouTube video, it’s more difficult to quality control and to be sure that there won’t be adverse effects,” he says. “There might not be; it might be the best thing out there. It’s just hard to know.”

Since there are so many forms of meditation and a plethora of choices, Dr. Simpson says that it’s important to ease yourself into a practice and take time to find what works for you.

“Learning to meditate is a very personal thing,” he says. “It’s about personal growth, insight, and understanding. It’s not always easy, but it is something that should be beneficial for you.”

And if you’re worried about whether or not you’re meditating correctly, he says, “Rather than thinking in terms of ‘the right way’ or ‘the wrong way,’ practice in a way that is conducive to feeling well and learning over time. Meditation shouldn’t add an additional burden that you must do this correctly. Remember that it’s a process, not an event, so be patient with yourself.”

He continues that when meditating, it can be helpful to set one’s intention, be conscious of one’s attitude, and pay attention; try to be present, and practice self-compassion.

“Take that into your exercise, take that into your time with friends, take that into your labyrinth,” he says, “and I think you’re looking at a form of mediation that can be very beneficial.”

Conclusion

For his own meditation practice, Dr. Simpson travels to India when he can, to learn from a yogi who has dedicated his life to the practice. Dr. Simpson practices meditation in both structured and unstructured settings — being in nature is one of his favourite pastimes.

“That’s my labyrinth,” he says of being in the outdoors.

For Rohan, he chooses his home labyrinth as one of his main forms of meditation.

Rohan's home labyrinth

Rohan’s home labyrinth. Image courtesy of Rohan Harrison.

“Four to five times per week, even in the winter, I walk the labyrinth I have created in my own backyard as a way of grounding, environmental re-connection, and a means to balance life,” he says. “It truly gives me the space to thankfully accentuate the positives of the day and realign the mind, body and spirit.”

Whether people are using their own labyrinth, the Sunnybrook labyrinth, or some other modality, this is the kind of well-being that both Rohan and Dr. Simpson hope people can find when they use meditation.

Thinking about the circular steps he takes on his backyard path, Rohan says, “It’s a step toward joy and peace.”

About the author

Kaitlin Jingco