Shiva Rea: Labyrinths and Cowrys
On a beach in Costa Rica, a trail of shells leads to a journey of insight.
On the morning of my winter solstice retreat in 2011 in Nosara, Costa Rica, I woke up with unusually clear direction: “Collect 108 cowry shells.” This seemed an impossible task, as before, in all my many travels, I had collected only a small number of cowry shells—less than a handful. I had found a precious few in Bali, Brazil, Kerala, and Nosara, where I have made a pilgrimage for the past few years, and I had found another few during New Year’s visits to Costa Rica in a magical place that is a sanctuary for nesting turtles.
I began my morning with a long ritual walk on the beach, a time for reflection. I walked for three hours.
Between the ebb and flow of the waves, every few steps I found cowry shells. It was as if they had been strewn along a magic trail. Each shell was empty of its former inhabitant, and each seemed to me like a tiny yoni, a symbol of woman’s creative power. After the walk I had more than 108 cowry shells. I put them all in a case I had bought in Bali as a place to gather offerings.
On the long walk back, I came upon a local artist creating a large labyrinth on the beach, an ancient pattern. She began it by drawing three lines at the center; these then expanded outward and returned to connect back to the center. This is a symbol of the spiral journey of our adult life, where we are unsure whether we are going forward or backward but always make our way to the center, with faith.
That evening, my partner and I built our own labyrinth using the cowry shells as an offering. At the moment the sun dipped below the horizon, its final beams shone directly upon the center point of our labyrinth before disappearing on the horizon. We gazed at each another in reverence for the magic-making on the solstice—the return of the light.
When we begin our day of retreat prepared to open ourselves to whatever presents itself, we can never be sure what magic will unfold.