Walking the N.I.H. Labyrinth
Ruminant With A View
by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
Note: Early in March, the author entered, and exited post haste, an N.I.H. clinical trial considering two drugs in the battle against depression (as well as, in her own case, recalcitrant post-operative back pain): one of them Ketamine (an anesthetic gaining new, 21st-century attention as the “club drug” “Special K”). For further information on “my” Ketamine study, see: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2007/faster-acting-antidepressants-closer-to-becoming-a-reality.shtml , http://www.psychweekly.com/aspx/article/ArticleDetail.aspx?articleid=463, and http://www.technologyreview.com/Biotech/19156/?a=f). Watch this space for an update (“One Flew Right Out of The Cuckoo’s Nest”) as I intend, shortly, to write detailing my experiences in this wretched study and rail against the taxpayer-supported “culture” of US clinical trials in general, especially those in which the researchers have a stake in the patenting of drugs used in their own trials. Human subjects entering these trials, despite their so-called “informed consent,” I see as just so many noble and exploited human lab rats, whose precious time is wasted, whose gentle, trusting natures are deluded, and whose mental health is further compromised as opposed to bolstered. I cannot adequately here express my rage that such trials are financed, and generously, by the American public. Who better to manipulate a captive audience of study subjects than an icy research psychiatrist? Who less able to defend their rights than depressed, “in-house” research subjects? And who let a journalist onto that ward, and will she retain her job after my next column appears in print?
TEANECK NJ—(Weekly Hubris)—3/21/11—Yesterday, I managed to extricate myself from the subtle devices of a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. I had the feeling, while there, of having been enticed onto a pirate ship flying the friendly colors of, say, Liechtenstein, or Luxembourg (to name two relatively benign nations) . . . but all that is subject matter for another column entirely.
This little essay has to do with one of the very positive experiences I was vouchsafed entirely by chance while an inmate at the NIH: walking a labyrinth modeled, yea traced, upon the maze at Chartres Cathedral in France (http://www.lessons4living.com/chartres_labyrinth.htm, http://www.labyrinthos.net/chartresfaq.html, http://www.ashlandweb.com/labyrinth/), located on the first floor of the vast New Building named One South East.
Since all pamphlets alluding to the existence of this marvel were stashed in a dark back hall of Ward 7, it’s a small miracle that I found them, and read about the NIH Labyrinth. The maze is intended to promote “inspirational healing of mind, body and spirit” and, since my own clinical trial-sters had made it abundantly clear to me that they weren’t in the business of therapy, but only research, I now wonder if some agent provocateur of palliative care might have left those Labyrinth pamphlets on Ward 7 as a political statement.
Since The Labyrinth is only open for use every first and third Tuesday of the month, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. till 3 p.m., and since it took me circa 45 minutes to navigate it, it’s a wonder anyone experiences any “inspirational healing” it might provide.
You have to be lucky, speedy, devious, and determined even to find the damned thing.
I guess it was just my week.
The week began with a Lenten service, an interdenominational Protestant affair, presided over by one of the NIH chaplains, a woman from Spain named Diana. This ebullient pastor spoke about repentance, and treated her minute flock as though we were educated, literate and skeptical—a sort of miracle in and of itself.
She traced the etymology of repentance in several languages; one of them, Greek, quite close to my heart. In the Greek, metanoia, badly rendered as repentance, more properly means “to re-think something,” “to change one’s mind” or, as Diana phrased it, “to consider a U-Turn.” If you go through the Bible and replace the verb “to repent” with the more proper “to re-think,” it might, for you discerning as opposed to Bible-thumping readers, lend Christianity an entirely different flavor.
From Diana’s hands, I took Communion for the first time in decades. It just felt right at the time and, involved as I was, in a clinical trial in which I had no faith, I felt I needed all the sustenance I could get.
I found the pamphlet concerning the NIH Labyrinth that same Sunday.
The NIH’s so-called “Pain and Palliative Care Consult Services” produced the pamphlet’s text, and I can do no better than reproduce it here, as it comprises a small marvel of restrained inspirational prose.
They begin with a quote from V. Freedman, which reads: “St. Augustine, a fourth-century theologian, stated ‘solvitur ambulando’ or ‘it is solved by walking.’”
As a sidelined Yogini and athlete who had come to the NIH as much for possible relief from recalcitrant spinal pain (following spinal fusion a year ago) as for the resulting depression, walking, and walking towards health, was something that resonated with me.
I may not be able to do backbends any longer, but I can walk.
The pamphleteer continues: “What is a Labyrinth? A form of walking meditation, with the intent of actively engaging the individual in mindfulness; a winding path that leads you in one direction towards its center. You then take the same path out to exit; it is not a maze or test, and there is no wrong way to go; an ancient structure that crosses all ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and educational backgrounds . . .” and: “Individuals who require supportive devices (wheelchair, cane, crutches, or walker) will have the opportunity to use a stationary lap-sized/table top ‘finger labyrinth.”
My own experience of the larger-than-laptop version proved to be profound. I took my own sweet time, as there was absolutely no one else in the huge room with me, and someone had kindly left on a tiny boom box which was, unsurprisingly, playing some of my favorite Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.
The Chartres labyrinth is large, as convoluted as a cross-section of the human brain but, seemingly, all there before you: an uncomplicated path, from Alpha to Omega. Until you begin to walk it.
I myself walked it or, rather, danced it, as once taught meditatively to walk by Meditation Teacher John Welshons (http://onesoulonelove.com/about/john-welshons-upcoming-appearances/). Slowly. Keeping my gaze, unfocused, just before my leading foot. Breathing rhythmically apace with my slow, sliding footsteps.
It seemed that to walk the maze would take forever. At first, I waxed anxious about whether or not my energy would hold out; whether my aching spine would hold up. And then, realizing I could just walk over all the lines-on-canvas and head out to the cafeteria and a sofa any damn time I wanted to, I relaxed into my rhythm, and begin “to be there.”
Much just fell away. The beginning and the end fell away. My anxiety about beginnings and ends fell away. My balance faltered, every now and then, so I spread my arms out slightly, like a crane, and righted myself. I bent my knees into every step, and added a little Yoga to my gait. My thighs got into the act; my busy brain bowed out.
The labyrinth took me left and right, forward and back, around and around, to the center and out, from the periphery in. The sweetest part of the circuit was towards the end when, even concentrating on the here and now, I could see the finish line peripherally. I then turned my back, bowed to the center once more, and backed out of the maze, as though taking my leave of a queen.
I entered that sublime tangle with baggage. I walked, backward, out of it, with peace.
More from the pamphleteers. Elizabeth H. Wiggins writes: “Life is walking a labyrinth. I cannot always know which way I will turn, or even see far ahead, but there are no tricks. It is not a maze; no chance of getting lost; trust in the path that has been laid for me or in the path I have chosen. Walk it in trust, stop when a break is necessary, and know that the center is always there.”
And: “To be a Pilgrim/To be on the move slowly/To notice your luggage becoming lighter. To be seeking treasures that do not rust/To be comfortable with your heart’s questions/To be moving toward the holy ground of home with empty hands and bare feet.”
And, from Dr. Lauren Artress: “The labyrinth guides us through the troubles of our lives to the grand mysterious patterns that shape the web of creation. It leads us toward the Source and eventually guides us home.”
I walked The Labyrinth on Tuesday, and left the NIH for home, for New Jersey, on Wednesday. I am certain that there is good, noble work being conducted on many of those rich wards; NIH clinicians struggling against mankind’s yet incurable ills.
That I, myself, happened to enter a study I feel to be manipulative, misrepresented, and damaging comprised simply a tiny detour in the vast labyrinth of my life.
Walking the benevolent maze on One South East, and attending Diana’s Sunday services, helped me put the fly in my ointment in better perspective.
To Diana, and for The Labyrinth, I will be forever grateful. They were well worth the cost of admission.