OAKLAND, Calif. — Let's get this straight. A labyrinth is not a maze, and a maze is not a labyrinth.

A maze has walls, blind alleys and dead ends — and you can get frustrated and confused and lost and end up (spoiler alert) frozen in the snow like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." Or attacked by cursed hedges and sucked through a magical portal to encounter (Dark Lord alert) a reconstituted Voldemort in "Harry Potter." Or, at the very least, get stuck for hours amid corny twists and turns in the world's largest maize maze in Dixon every fall and (reality alert) end up calling 911 from your cellphone to get out.

But, relax, none of those things will happen in a labyrinth. Mainly because you're not really in one so much as on one. There are typically no walls — just one path laid out flat on the ground, a route that twists back and forth before reaching a circular space in the center. Once there, you pause, ponder and then, well, you go back the way you came. One way in, one way out. So you can't get lost. No dead ends. No stress.

Labyrinths are an ancient mystical tradition found in many religions. Some say they symbolize the journey of life from birth to spiritual awakening. Walking a labyrinth is considered meditative, contemplative, restorative — you know, the opposite of our competitive, exhaustive and darned-tootin' expensive existence during the holidays.

In fact, this hustle-bustle time of year might be a fine time to consider such a calming — not to mention, free — detour from the crazy maze of the mall. Instead, take a walk on the mild side through one of the many public-access labyrinths.

Many are indeed in religious settings, such as the two at Grace Cathedral on San Francisco's Nob Hill. You can visit the serpentine paths, both the indoor and outdoor versions, any day, or opt for the candlelight walks held monthly. Some are in parks, such as the rock-outlined labyrinth in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the East Bay hills, or the one out on the windswept cliffs at Lands End.

Others are at medical facilities. There's a labyrinth painted on the concrete outside the California Pacific Medical Center's Pacific campus, provided so patients and families can find moments of peace. There's even a portable one at Stanford University's Memorial Church — they roll it out in the chapel area for weekly walks.

I'd never walked a labyrinth before, but my big sister does so regularly and feels the experience calms her thoughts and reveals inspiration from the cosmos. So I met her on a chilly, drizzly day a couple of weeks ago at the lovely outdoor labyrinth at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. Red-and-gold pavers form the pattern in front of the chapel, set amid gardens and eucalyptus just steps off the residential street.

I was early for our date and admittedly tense, thanks to traffic battles and a looming deadline back at the office. So I hoped the meditative effect would kick in — and pronto! So before my sis got there I walked the circuitous path, speeding through it in about 45 seconds. I didn't see the appeal. Clearly I was doing it wrong.

"It's not a raceway!" my sis joked upon arrival.

Instead, she explained, one of the ways to use a labyrinth is to go in with a question in your mind, walking slowly, focusing on gentle breathing. Then pause when you get to the center to welcome vision or guidance. Some people sit down in the center. Some even dance. Then you turn around and slowly walk the path on the return trip.

"The journey out is just as important," my sis said, "an opportunity to reflect on what you've experienced." The whole process can take 20 minutes or more.

So we proceeded. My sister went first, closing her eyes to ponder a question. I tried, but could only come up with a query on what I should have for lunch. Then we walked. No, strolled. No, ambled. Slowly but surely reaching the center and then standing still for a minute or two, taking deep breaths, then heading back out.

And gosh darn it, I did feel more relaxed, refreshed. And I knew I wanted a slice of pumpkin-chocolate cake at Philz Coffee down the street. Our spiritual journey continued there. It was amazing.

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