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Building a Playground for Your Spirit


Labyrinths created by Crystal Star

This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health.

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m awake, exhausted, my mind and heart tangled in a conflict with a close friend. Eventually, I give in. I sit up in the darkness and reach for the wooden finger labyrinth beside my bed. Placing the labyrinth on my lap, I find the entrance by touch, say a prayer for guidance and comfort, and begin to trace the cool smooth grooves with my left index finger. As my finger hits what feels in the darkness like one dead end after another, only to find that each is simply a turn in the labyrinth, my mind begins to ease. I breathe more deeply. My body lets go.

Within a few minutes my finger arrives at center, and I rest there. For me the center is T. S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world. It is the deep recesses of my own heart and soul. It is a place of God, whose circumference is nowhere. Here, what’s left of my knotty problem untangles into an invitation to deepened compassion and understanding for both my friend and myself.

I breathe a prayer of gratitude into the rich and silent darkness and mindfully trace my way back from center to entrance. Once done, I lay both hands gently on the labyrinth on my lap, grooves worn smooth from years of use, and say thanks once again. I lay the labyrinth back down on the floor, flick on my bedside lamp, and record new insights and ideas in my journal. Closing the journal, I turn off the light, sink back into the comfort of my bed, and slip into a deep and restful sleep.

Small Is Powerful

The now familiar full-sized labyrinths popping up in churchyards, hospitals, public parks, and retreat centers like Harmony Hill are examples of one of the oldest spiritual tools known to humankind, dating back at least four thousand years. Finger labyrinths like the ones cancer patients make in my workshops are relatively modern, but are also quite old and remarkably powerful. According to Mara Freeman, Celtic storyteller and author of Kindling the Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine Your Life Throughout the Seasons, finger labyrinths known as “Troy Stones” (named after local labyrinths called “Troy towns”) were used in Cornwall, England at least five hundred years ago. Etched in local slate, these finger labyrinths were used by wise women to enter altered states of consciousness by tracing the circuits with their fingers and humming. Troy stones were considered sacred and passed down from generation to generation or destroyed upon the owner’s death.

Kay Torrez, “a grandma of modern labyrinth building,” was probably the first American to suggest the therapeutic uses of finger-walking a black-and-white drawing of the seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth, and the practice quickly became richer and more complex. Labyrinth-expert Neal Harris developed a variety of grooved, wooden finger labyrinths with both seven circuits and eleven, like the famous labyrinth at Chartres. Wooden finger labyrinths were also developed for Veriditas, the labyrinth organization founded by the Rev. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In recent years I’ve seen finger labyrinths with a variety of circuits, made not only from paper and wood, but etched glass, clay, acrylic, stone, slate, and papier-mâché. Each material feels different, and feel is important.

While modern hospitals and nursing homes now advertise large and visible outdoor labyrinths, many more healing institutions are quietly bringing finger labyrinths inside. One simple reason is that many patients are confined to beds or wheelchairs. But finger labyrinths have advantages beyond convenience and accessibility. Walking a large labyrinth requires users to keep their eyes open and be conscious of the path, thereby reducing to some degree the ability to let the conscious mind rest. With a finger labyrinth, you just get in the groove, allowing more creative parts of the self to come out and play. You can also close your eyes, which can make the journey more introspective. People use finger walks not just for prayer and healing, but also to get ready for meetings, break through writer’s block, or cure insomnia.

You can get a sense of the power of a finger labyrinth just by walking the seven - circuit labyrinth below. Better still, you can create your own fourteen-circuit labyrinth using the template further below. As you get a feel for walking in a groove, you may be drawn to wood or glass or stone. All are available and easily accessible on the web. 

Try here


Labyrinth created by Crystal Star

Playground rules

Before you start any finger-labyrinth "walk," take time to breathe and relax. If you keep a journal, have it ready for recording any insights after your walk. Set an intention or question for the walk. Without an intention a finger-labyrinth walk can become an exercise in hastily and mindlessly moving your finger along the circuits and wondering why at the end of the walk you even bothered. Say a prayer, if you like, for support, healing, and guidance.

Place a finger from your nondominant hand at the entrance to the labyrinth. (Research shows that often our non dominant hand has easier access to our intuition.) As you trace the circuit, stay open to whatever presents itself: feelings, sensations, memories, images, or just "knowings." Pause at any time to breathe, cry, be with a memory, work with an image, or simply relax in to the labyrinth. At the center of the labyrinth, feel its connection to your own center. The center is a wonderful place to relax, pray, sing. When you are ready, trace your way out, still staying open to whatever comes up for you. When your walk is done, place both hands on the labyrinth and give thanks for whatever you learned and experienced.

Experiment and play with your labyrinth. Try using a favorite word or phrase that evokes the sacred for you. Repeat the mantra slowly in your heart as you "walk." You may also walk with questions such as "In what way do I most need to grow spiritually right now?" or "What most blocks me from fully receiving and living God's love?" You can also walk the labyrinth in intercessory prayer for someone else, sending them the fruits of your walk.

If you are experiencing a difficult feeling — anger, grief, bitterness — have as your intention its healing and release (knowing, of course, that many deeper feelings may take more time than a walk).

If you are struggling with a problem, ask for insight and guidance: What must I release in order to allow healing? What am I not feeling or acknowledging that I must let in to my conscious awareness to allow healing? Whom do I most need to forgive, and for what?

If you are working with an illness, whether serious or insignificant, you may walk into the labyrinth simply asking to return to balance with yourself and life, no matter what the circumstances of your illness. You can also walk with the question: What part of my life (or me) am I neglecting that needs attention?

Illness may also be a teacher or an ally. If you are interested in exploring your illness as a teacher, you may walk asking: How may I open to my illness as a teacher and ally? What does my illness have to teach me at this point in my life?

Labyrinth created by Crystal Star

Creating your groove to fall into

Materials needed: 15" x 15" foam core or stiff art board; 9.5 yards of string or yarn for the walls of the labyrinth (fabric paint with a nozzle tip works great too); acrylic paint; craft glue.

Take the above template to a copy store and have it enlarged 200% so that the width of the labyrinth itself is 13 inches.

Assemble your materials. Center the paper labyrinth on the artboard and glue it down.

While the glue is drying, place your non dominant hand at the center of the labyrinth, close your eyes, take some deep slow breaths and relax. Imagine light from your heart traveling down through your arm and hand and suffusing the heart of the labyrinth under your hand.

Ask for blessings for this labyrinth and all who use it. Imagine these blessings filling the labyrinth.

Glue the string, or whatever you are using, along the lines of the walls of the labyrinth. If you are planning to paint the labyrinth, and don't want the materials of your walls painted, you can leave this for the last step.

Paint and decorate your labyrinth in whatever way you like. You can paint symbols if you wish. (Several participants in a labyrinth retreat I led painted runes for healing and growth in the center and around the edges of the labyrinth.)

If you left off the walls of the labyrinth, put them on after the paint dries.

After the labyrinth has dried, close your eyes once more, place your non dominant hand in the center, breathe, and connect your heart once more with the heart of the labyrinth. Give thanks forth is labyrinth as an instrument of healing, growth, or whatever qualities are important to you.

Melissa West, M.A., is a psychologist and program manager for Harmony Hill Retreat Center. She is the author of Exploring the Labyrinth: A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth (Broadway Books, 2000), and Silver Linings (Fair Winds Press, 2003) about trauma as a catalyst for an extraordinary life.

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