Labyrinths, lads & letting go of how ‘learning’ looks

Earlier this month, I was asked by Dr Amy Armstrong to deliver teaching on self-compassion to her undergraduate business students at Ashridge Executive Education as part of a module on ethics and care, which had embedded contemplative practice from the outset. I am hoping that Amy might agree to share some more details about the course as a whole in a future blog. My intention here is to reflect on what I learnt with particular emphaisis on my first labyrinth facilitation experience.

We initally talked a little about the theory of self-compassion, using Kristen Neff’s model as well as a little of Paul Gilberts work.  I was particularly moved by how engaged students became when we discussed how our uncompassionate and critical selves can show up in our lives. Their list was far better than the one I had prepared:


Class discussion on our uncompassionate selves…

In terms of practical exercises, I used a common humanity practice in which the students are placed in pairs and then, having closed their eyes and become still, reflect on phrases such as ‘this person gets ill, as I do’; ‘this person wants to be happy, as I do’; ‘this person suffers, as I do’. We also did a compassionate breath practice in which the students were asked to close their eyes, focus on the breath and imagine breathing in compassion for themselves and breathing out compassion for the person they had been paired with.

On the day I noticed that I felt very unprepared to teach a group of 24, largely male, 19-21 year olds about things I would normally assume they would not be interested in. I am used to small groups of predominately female professionals who appear relatively unthreatening to teach. Here, there was a playfulness, directness and boisterousness that I was unused to. Just to be clear  – they were a great bunch of students, who really engaged, but the energy was just incredibly different to what I am used to.


The beautiful labyrinth at Ashridge

This difference became most apparent when it came to leading the labyrinth walk which took place after lunch. I had imagined that the students would be so captivated by my introduction to labyrinths, so thrilled by the opportunity to engage in such a deep and historic practice that we would walk to the labyrinth in awed silence. The students however did not get the brief! There was lots of good-humoured banter, the throwing of the odd pine cone, skipping, jumping – not the solemn atmosphere I had envisaged!!

I realised very quickly that I had to let go of what I wanted to this to look like, that I risked alienating them if I tried to make this ‘my’ labyrinth walk. When we reached the labyrinth however, I did say that while they were waiting to enter, it was important to be quiet in order to respect the experience of the other students. I also emphasised that it was optional to walk and one student decided not to take part. To my surprise (and, if I’m honest, relief!) they were very respectful once the walking started. Some also asked to take their shoes off – something I took as an encouraging sign of willing engagement.

Although I had walked the labyrinth several times the night before, waiting for the first student to reach the centre was a nerve-wracking business. I had a very real sense of not wanting to look stupid in front of the students, so when the leading student passed another on the way out of the centre for the first time and they high-fived each other, my feeling was not annoyance that they were not taking it seriously but a humourous recognition of how much their gesture reflected my own internal sense of relief! Some students walked in silence, others shared a few words, there was skipping, shared smiles and raised eyebrows. The sense of community was palpable from the ways they interacted as well as the way they did not interrupt each other without invitation. I realised that I was there to witness how they would walk and support them in that, rather than make them do it ‘right’.

After the walk we discussed what had made them feel vulnerable or what they had found difficult on their walk. They identified that it was different from what they usually do, that the couldn’t make any choices about where to go once they started, that they didn’t know where the centre was or how long it would take to get there and several experienced bordem. I had also asked them to leave their phones the classroom which had, I think, contributed to a sense of insecurity. Then we discussed what they had enjoyed or found pleasurable, interestingly many reported liking the fact that there were no choices to make, someone said their mind became quieter, another reflected on how going first made him feel like the leader and that this had evoked a sense of care in him for the others but also a self-consciousness about whether he was doing it right.

One of  the most pertinent student comments, was that the experience had been paradoxical, that although he had no choices as to where to go within the labyrinth and that to some extent he had been disempowered, he found the decision to walk, and the experience of doing so, empowering.

I came away with a stronger awareness of the importance of giving up my preconceptions about what learning looks like, because only then can I really meet students where they are. I noticed how vulnerable I feel when it doesn’t look like I think it should. We are of course responsible for setting up the conditions for learning (and in some cases assessing that learning) but we also need to allow space for the learning process to emerge from within each student and to actively welcome that difference and diversity. The labyrinth proved to be a powerful teaching tool. I found it challenging because I was aware of how little control I had over what the students learnt from it. I was then forced to consider whether we ever have the power to determine what students learn from what we teach?

Any thoughts welcome!





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