Labyrinth at medical center designed to soothe souls

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The bleak, windswept concrete deck that once greeted visitors to California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco has a new look.

Today, the space next to the main entrance on Buchanan at Clay is painted with a 36-foot-wide beige and purple circular maze pattern. Surrounded by clumps of fragrant rosemary and a set of wind chimes that ping gently when the breeze blows, the labyrinth is modeled after an ancient spiritual meditation medium aimed at soothing the soul.

Its presence exemplifies the increasingly popular synthesis of traditional Western medicine with alternative and complementary treatment.

Thursday of last week, upon dedicating its Labyrinth Garden, California Pacific Medical Center became the country's first hospital to install such a symbol, whose use as a walking-meditation device dates back at least to the 13th century.

"A shift is taking place in health care," says Victoria Stone, a San Francisco health educator and interior designer who designed and developed the labyrinth. "The importance of the spiritual aspect of health and healing is just now being recognized and supported by medical research."

Stone, who is Jewish, has long been interested in the connection between spirituality and healing. In addition to the labyrinth, she has created other examples of what she calls "sacred healing environments."

Some of these have incorporated symbols from Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which she has studied in depth.

In creating the labyrinth, which Stone calls nondenominational, the artist thought of various elements used to create environments with the potential to heal: soothing sounds and colors, seasonal vegetation and soft rather than angular shapes.

While she designed the project with hospital staff, patients and their families in mind, Stone stresses that the entire community is invited to walk the labyrinth.

Comprising concentric circles and a rosette-shaped center, the labyrinth has only one path that leads to the center and back again. It is believed that walking a labyrinth's course can help suspend conscious thinking and quiet the mind and heart.

"The circle is the symbol of the universe, of wholeness, of unity," Stone says. "Subconsciously, when we're in round spaces, we have that feeling."

She points to San Francisco Congregations Emanu-El and Sherith Israel, both of which have domed sanctuaries.

"That is a very traditional architectural form for a sacred space," she notes. "I have always been very aware of the shapes and arches in the synagogues here in San Francisco."

Ultimately, Stone hopes people of all faiths will derive comfort from walking the labyrinth and imbuing it with their personal spiritual conceptions. In formulating the California Pacific project, she did, however, turn to Rabbi Eric Weiss of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, seeking insight on Jewish roots of circles and circling.

Weiss, who previously worked in California Pacific's pastoral care department, told Stone about Honi Ha-Me'aggel, a character who appears in the Talmud.

Ha-Me'aggel, regarded as a miracle worker in the period of the Second Temple, drew circles whose interiors were considered sacred while the spaces beyond their perimeters were seen as profane. Existing inside the metaphorical circles of community, of family, of healthy spirituality, Weiss explained, can transform people.

The labyrinth, which cost $40,000 and was financed by an anonymous donor, is modeled after a similar pattern installed in a plaza next to Grace Cathedral on San Francisco's Nob Hill. That geometric design was taken in turn from a stone labyrinth inlaid in the floor of France's Chartres Cathedral.

Grace Cathedral staff members say many visitors walk the labyrinth before surgery or while recovering from illness.

The medical center's labyrinth has already been put to such use. Several days after the dedication ceremony, a number of visitors quietly strolled the circular pattern in the afternoon sun.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.