When Carol Maurer has a lot on her plate, she finds it useful to visit the labyrinth made of river rocks at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington.
"It quiets my mind," said Maurer, who lives in Hockessin, Del. "It sets the path for me so I can spiral inward."
Labyrinths, which have been constructed for thousands of years, have become a popular addition to hospitals, gardens and public institutions.
With a single path in and out, labyrinths are designed to encourage reflection. They differ from mazes, which are designed as puzzles. Labyrinths have been associated with religions and cultures throughout the world.
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The number of labyrinths in the United States has been steadily increasing for about 15 years, said Robert Ferre, a labyrinth builder who founded Labyrinth Enterprises.
"Nowadays, they're so widespread, it's more about how to best utilize them than what they are," he said from San Antonio, Texas.
When he started the business in 1995, churches were his primary customers. Labyrinths were an important feature of European Roman Catholic churches in the Middle Ages; walking one was a devotional activity and represented a spiritual journey.
They can be constructed of turf or stone or painted on pavement.
Today, labyrinths are widely used in secular spaces, too, said Maurer, who serves on the board of The Labyrinth Society, an organization dedicated to using and promoting the paths. She helped get the labyrinth built near the sculpture garden at the Delaware Art Museum.
"People are looking for ways to travel inward," she said. "They're trying to find a deeper connection with themselves that may be spiritual but not necessarily religious."
It's even possible for homeowners to build labyrinths themselves in their yard, with rock, gravel or mulch, Ferre said. Plans are available online or through his company.
Allegany College of Maryland in Cumberland built a labyrinth in 2005 as part of its integrative health program, which focuses on holistic approaches to healing.
The walking path has become widely used on campus, said Cherie Snyder, a professor and director with the program.
"It's just been a wonderful tool to introduce people to walking meditation, walking prayer and communing with nature," she said.