Following the Tug

May 13, 2024
I imagine you may well relate to what I mean by ‘the tug’.

‘The tug’ is how I describe a deep knowing within me that I need to do something or go somewhere. My head often has no idea why. And my head, rather than being alongside me, can tend to throw up all kinds of reasons not to do that thing. Sometimes, my head wins. Other times, it doesn’t.

Eighteen years ago, I remember very clearly a time when this happened. I wonder how different my life would be now if I had listened to my head on that day rather than follow that deep knowing.

It was the day I first walked a labyrinth.

A labyrinth is an ancient pattern that looks like a maze. However, whereas a maze has multiple paths designed to bring forward the logical mind, a labyrinth is a single path that leads to the centre and back out again. The simplicity of one way in and one way out allows the logical mind to switch off and the intuitive mind to step forward. From personal experience, when someone is led by intuition rather than logic, very different and often remarkable things can happen.

The oldest surviving labyrinth is 3500 years old and was discovered in a burial chamber in Sardinia. It is a finger-labyrinth, that can be traced with a finger rather than walked. Since then, this pattern has been used across the ages and throughout the world over thousands of years. No one religion or culture has claimed it as their own. Examples include labyrinths built into the walls of Pompeii, woven into baskets by the Hopi Indians, creating the stone floor of cathedrals and made from stones on Scandinavian coastlines.

This is a pattern that was created by a prehistoric mind, and has stayed with humanity through the ages. I find this captivating.

I knew none of this when I first heard of a labyrinth. I just knew that I had to go and walk it.

A different life

That day I first walked one marked a turning point in my life.

I was in a very difficult place at the time. I could sense I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which was something I had experienced in my early twenties at University, and so I knew the signs.

I was working in a professional career within a corporation and overloaded with work. I was stressed and exhausted working sixty hour weeks. I didn’t have the capacity to take any more on, and yet more came. I didn’t have any time for myself. I was desperate and couldn’t see how things could be any different, and yet I was struggling to cope.

In recent months I had begun exploring different spiritual practices that had led me to take up Qigong classes. Then my Qigong teacher sent me an email that said: ‘You are into things that are different Nicola. You might be interested in this’. It was a flyer for a labyrinth at Gorton Monastery in Manchester. I had no idea what a labyrinth was but something about it drew me in.

It came to the Sunday and I remember how odd it seemed driving into Manchester. I lived on the edge of the Peak District National Park. It was the first warm and sunny Sunday of the year. Normally I would be driving in the opposite direction, into the hills with my then-husband to go walking. But I had left him at home and chosen to spend the afternoon on my own at Gorton Monastery.

It was the 6th May 2006.

The eleven-circuit labyrinth at Gorton Monastery in Manchester

The labyrinth at Gorton Monastery was marked out on a huge piece of canvas. It was an exact replica of one of the most well-known labyrinths, the eleven-circuit labyrinth in Chartes Cathedral in France. I approached the starting point and read the information sheet explaining how to walk it. There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. You can dance it, crawl it, laugh your way around, stop and pause or run.

I don’t remember anything in particular about the experience of winding my way around the path. And I can’t recall the question I asked at the threshold, if I even asked one. It was what happened in the moments straight after I came out that had the impact. I sat at the table and chatted to the lady whose labyrinth it was, Liz. She was a psychotherapist. I had been wondering about starting therapy as I was so confused and unhappy.

On paper I had everything going for me, and the perfect life I had set out to create ten years ago when I had left school. But inside, I was crushed, and I didn’t know what or who could help me. I asked Liz if she was taking on new clients, and she was. I asked where she was based. It turned out that she lived three minutes up the road from me, at the other end of my village. I couldn’t believe it. This felt perfect. I reached for my diary to book in for my initial session.

I remember how hard it was to book in. My diary was full for two months. I had no space during the daytimes and she didn’t work evenings. But she offered to have my session at 7.30am in the morning. Again, perfect.

Everything changed from that moment. I had an elder to go to who would listen to me, and help me forge a different life. It took four years of weekly sessions to learn how to say no, and stick to my guns. This enabled me to take control of my life and create space for me. Ultimately through those therapy sessions I found shamanism. It took just over ten years, but I did eventually shut the door on almost all aspects of that life and step out into an entirely different one.

And it all began with the labyrinth.

Into the woods

The seven-circuit labyrinth at our Space to Emerge woodland retreat

Every year at Beltane Jason and I create a labyrinth in a woodland glade at our Space to Emerge retreat.

In fact, it was my therapist, Liz, who first brought the labyrinth into Fell Foot Woods.

Although labyrinths look complicated to draw, they are in fact very easy. The basic outline is a few dots and right-angle lines. The challenge Jason has in this location is getting the centre point in the correct position, as the space is bounded by a steep bank one side and a mountain stream on the other.

Space to Emerge is our springtime woodland retreat. Perhaps you have shared in this adventure with us one or more years? It is such a special community that is created in amongst the bluebell perfume and birdsong overlooking Lake Windemere.

Space to Emerge was born out of the idea: what would happen if we ran away to the woods with like-minded souls to celebrate Beltane? It is an epic weekend on many levels.

Beltane is the old Celtic fire festival that marks the end of winter. It is a time when our ancestors would come together and celebrate the transition into summer. It is the perfect time to hold a weekend like Space to Emerge, as the whole of nature is erupting. Our original idea was to create a space where people could experience spirituality and therapeutic practices they might not otherwise come across, just like when I went to Gorton Monastery and walked the labyrinth for the first time. From these touchpoint, great things can happen. Space to Emerge is about creating a space where these meetings can happen.

We set up camp in fifty acres of woodland stretching up above Lake Windermere. We have workshops running through the weekend, covering thirty different topics, three healing tents, a ceilidh band, four sacred places, including the labyrinth, and three ceremonies. Two hundred of us spend four days in these woods together and quite incredible things emerge.

It is quite a thing to come to, especially if someone is coming on their own. And a lot of people do come on their own. I would say about one-third. It is common for people who are on a spiritual path to be alone in their explorations as their friends and family "aren't into this kind of thing". Space to Emerge, and the wider work Jason and I do through The Way of the Buzzard brings together lone travellers so they can be a part of a community of like-minded people. When we come together, growth is exponential. 

And as folk follow ‘the tug’ pulling them into the woods, I  imagine for some their internal chatter saying reasons to pull out is running overtime. It seems that our internal neighsayer walks alongside 'the tug'.

Transformation happens in those woods through the reflections, dancing, laughter, tears, joy, drumming, singing, crafting and playing. The theme we focused on this year was play and there was a lots of it. We laughed so hard in the glade on Sunday night during the Beltane ceremony, there was a report that we were heard several miles away. Our laughs had bounced their way down the valley. 

The labyrinth portal

Walking the labyrinth at Space to Emerge

We use the labyrinth at Space to Emerge as a way for people to enter the weekend. It is a space for people to land. To take time to pause for themselves. To take a moment for reflection and ask: ‘what do I need?’

We also use the labyrinth to help people reflect on leaving Space to Emerge at the end of the weekend.

In many ways, I liken walking a labyrinth to a shamanic journey. There is a starting point in both. In a shamanic journey, this is the axis mundi leading down to a door. In the labyrinth, it is the point where the path begins, which can be called a threshold. Then there is the journey going into the centre and a journey coming back out again. I like to walk a labyrinth with an intention, although it isn’t necessary to do this. A person could walk a labyrinth with no intention whatsoever. As I said earlier, there is no right or one way to do this.

It is incredible how insights are achieved walking a labyrinth. Things just pop into my mind, magically almost.

Looking back, labyrinths have played such an important part of my spiritual journey.

Since then, I have walked many labyrinths. I have also created them myself. With Jason, I have drawn them in the sand on beaches and from wool in church halls. If I find a labyrinth, I will always walk it.

The seven-circuit labyrinth at Gorton Monastery in Manchester

The labyrinth has been an important part of the process of writing my book, which is one of my greatest achievements. Five years ago, at the Celtic fire festival of Samhain, Jason and I were running a ceremony back at Gorton Monastery, and there was a smaller seven-circuit labyrinth there, like the style we create at Space to Emerge. At the time, I had recently discovered the story of my great-great-great grandmother, who fled Ireland's Great Famine to take refuge in London. It was a heart-wrenching story that touched me beyond measure. I felt compelled to share it by writing a book, but I had no idea how to start.

So, I walked the labyrinth and asked how I should begin to tell my ancestor Catherine’s story. When I reached the centre of the labyrinth, I cried. I then heard the words as clear as anything: ‘Focus on the emotion’. That gave me what I needed. Six weeks later, by the Winter Solstice, a writing mentor approached me and offered to help. This, I believe, is the power of the labyrinth. By setting the intention and asking for help, we put a call out to the universe and to our guides. The book flowed from that point, and I worked with the labyrinth through the writing process to help me during various stages.

At Space to Emerge, I always walk the labyrinth at the start of the weekend and again after everyone has left. It is my way of ending and closing down. This year a little cairn had been created in the middle from stones. Some years I might find a flower. Last year there was a sweet in the shape of a pig!

18 years to the day

I had a realisation when I was preparing for my two labyrinth workshops this year. I was immersed in reading books about labyrinths, which Liz had gifted to me when she retired several years ago.  

As I immersed myself in the fascinating stories about how labyrinths have been used worldwide through the ages, I thought about that first day I met Liz and her labyrinth. I looked up the date. It was then I realised that it would be my 18th birthday of walking a labyrinth to the day on Monday, the final day of our Space to Emerge retreat.

Einstein said: ‘Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous'.

Over the years I have come to learn that never a truer word has been spoken. These coincidences are so important to me. They show me that I am on the right path, that I am being cared for, that everything is OK. Amongst the turmoil what is the modern day world, synchronicity is one of my guiding compasses.

The tug led me to a labyrinth. That in turn led me to closing the door on the corporate world, a professional career and the stress and pressure that came with it. Which then led to many fabulous things through The Way of the Buzzard, including Space to Emerge. 

I expect you can relate to the tug, and it has led you to transformational spaces as well. My encouragement is for all of us to continue to follow that tug. It takes to the remarkable. It is our soul nudging us closer to where we truly want to be.

As Rumi said:

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”

Space to Emerge closing ceremony 2024. Photo credit: David Ledger.


Use the World Labyrinth Locator website here to locate labyrinths and click here to learn how to draw a labyrinth.

If you like the sound of Space to Emerge, Space to Emerge, you can find out more on our website here. It always runs on the May Day bank holiday weekend. The dates for 2025 are Friday 2nd to Monday 5th May. Tickets go on sale in the autumn, along with working ticket applications.

If you would like to find out more about my book, The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma' click here. There is a film on the webpage that talks about the story and includes examples of how I worked with the labyrinth during the writing process.

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to keep in touch but aren't on our mailing list, you can sign up via our homepage here. Scroll down to the bottom to enter your details. We send out regular emails, which include blogs, videos, live events, online training, and in-person retreats.  

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. Thank you Nicola for your fascinating article. I have seen labyrinths, but never really understood the meaning of them. But now I feel like I want to walk one to see what may be revealed to me, or what I may uncover ☺️ thank you for your insights ❤️

  2. In January this year I moved to Saffron Walden, Essex. There are several mazes and labyrinths here, the most famous of which is the Turf Labyrinth on the Common. It was originally created over 300 years ago. I investigated how to use it before setting out to do the walk and experienced a profound meditative state as I made my progress to the centre, emptying the concerns that were on my mind. Solutions presented themselves as I wound my way back out. After reading "Following the Tug", I am reminded to go back there to seek the answers I need at the present time. How fortunate am I, that this ancient labyrinth is just 10 minutes walk from my home!

    1. Hi Betty I didn't realise there is a labyrinth in saffron Walden. Im in Clacton and may make a trip to there in the summer thank you for that information ☺️

    2. Wow, 10 minutes from your home! I find it extraordinary how turf labyrinths are cared for through the generations for so long. It feels very special.

  3. A beautiful blog! It hit a lot of chords with me and has given me a sense of peace today. Of being on the right path.
    Having walked the labyrinth on the first day of Space To Emerge, I felt its importance and its transformative power. It has opened up a new area of spiritual "tug" for me. Thank you Nicola.

  4. 'The tug' .. often subtle, much more so than the mind… the magic resides in those quiet impulses. I followed one myself recently and was led to pure magic on a life changing scale and then I was led to your blog and felt that sense of community and understanding. I also walked the labyrinth once at Space to Emerge and I felt the magic there also. Quiet nature magic mixed with mysterious human magic ✨️

    1. You are bob on in the way you describe ‘the tug’. It leads to magic. I love that you walked the labyrinth at Space to Emerge 🙂 and how you describe your experience here too. Thank you.

  5. Thanks Nicola….yes indeed, your blog and the Space to Emerge Labyrinth Portal workshop did indeed resonate with me! As did Jayne Johnson's Wild Edge workshop at Space to Emerge – which I embodied by stepping across a twig on the edge of the labyrinth, at the boundary wall of the Fell Foot site. Sometimes the simplest of things trick the thinking brain into disengaging and intuitive mind to take over. So your prompt to enter the portal with "What does my body need?" started with "comfort" and magically changed to "holding" at the centre of the labyrinth – to be comfortable no longer going inwards or outwards. And the experience of walking the labyrinth with other people walking alongside a concentric ring, or in opposite direction, or conflicting on the way out whilst other people came face to face on the same circuit coming in. What a mirror for real-life experiences of how we approach parallel lives energy or conflict energy is quite remarkable without even thinking about it!
    I used the labyrinth finder (putting Devon in as the City) to find there are three in Devon and many more in Cornwall. But the shamanic journey axis mundi or Wild Edge is almost as effective wherever we live!
    Thanks for your Labyrinth Portal workshop and Space to Emerge 🙂

    1. Thanks Peter for your note here and your thanks. You are most welcome! I love how you describe the labyrinth as a mirror. It is incredible how it words. I have enjoyed your twig story too, getting a little window into one of your experiences at Space to Emerge. Amazing you have found some labyrinths in your neck of the woods.

  6. My 'tug' happened 6 years ago. I was in a lot of turmoil, personal and within the workplace. I decided that I would like to visit northern Ireland although I had been many times before. I feel it is my spiritual place. I visited and felt that one day I would go back but on a more permanent basis. I eventually changed my job which led me to work in NI for a short period in which I was offered a permanent role! How could I resist. I put my house up for sale and was advised that I needed to start the role in NI the following 2 weeks. I tried to find somewhere to rent which was impossible so I tried air BNB. I spoke with a farmer who was doing up a small cottage and agreed that I could move in and so I boarded a ferry with my meagre belongings. I wasn't sure where I was going as the postcodes mean very little here! I met a wonderful person on the ferry who told me about her experience of sailing around Cape hope and the many sounds and sights that were unexplainable. I then drove to the cottage to find the most lovely and encompassing farmer and his family who wanted to allow me to stay there rent free. If course I didn't accept the rent free part. I was supposed to be there for 3 months while I sold my house but ended up staying 3 years, helping on the farm and undertaking my paid work. Eventually I sold my house in England and found a property just over the border in southern Ireland. I have the most stunning views and again have met some wonderful people. I think I have a reputation as the mad English woman on the hill with lots of animals and that's probably true. I have 25 animals of carrying shapes, sizes, some with fur, wool or feathers all of who are rescued from various places. I have never been so happy and feel that this is where I truly belong!

    1. Wow, Sue, I have loved hearing your story here. You paint such a fabulous picture of your life and how it came about over there in Northern Ireland and Ireland. It is incredible how this all works isn’t it. I sounds such a courageous thing you did there, following the tug and just going for it. I am punching the air! Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Thank you Nicola, so beautifully insightful and inspirational. I feel a tug now to walk a labyrinth and maybe get a little insight into the prehistoric mind. Love the quote from Einstein, I’ve been having many coincidences recently without walking a labyrinth, just think what may happen after I have walked one!

  8. Oh yes I can relate to this – feeling the tug, having to do something, because my soul, because my Gods and guides demand it, even though my conscious mind is screaming a hundred and one reasons not to do it. It's so hard to surrender and trust but things usually work out for the better when I do.

    1. Don’t they! Thanks for sharing your experiences here Patience. You have got me reflecting whether things ever didn’t turn out well when I have followed my guides advice. I’ll think back but I recon the answer is probably not. It can be so hard though taking that leap sometimes can’t it.

  9. I first experienced a labyrinth on a retreat in the Lake District at an incredibly difficult time in my life. My parents had died within 5 months of each other and I was overwhelmed with grief. As I walked the labyrinth I felt the strong presence of my mum and dad holding each of my hands and this helped to give me the comfort and strength to carry on.

    1. Gosh this is so beautiful to hear you had this experience walking a labyrinth Anne during a really challenging time. I really appreciate you sharing this story.

  10. Dear Nicola
    I came away from Space to Emerge fascinated by your talk on Labyrinths and my first experience of walking one with spiritual intent. I was going to ask a question on the next coaching call but the synchronicity of your email regarding this blog was perfect. Thank you for introducing me to them 🙏x

    1. Hi Katrin, I love that you enjoyed your first labyrinth experience and my blog was timely 🙂
      If you still a question/ questions after reading my blog do pop an email over to Tina for tomorrows coaching call. I will do my best to answer 🙂

  11. I attended your Labyrinth session at the 2023 S2E and really enjoyed it and found it beneficial with a realisation coming to mind that I had changed my path in life and moved on from a previous spiritual pathway. Prior to then I didn’t understand the purpose of walking a Labyrinth.
    I had been asking the same questions for years about my guides who I had not met and did not receive an answer until being nudged to explore this with the Buzzard tribe.
    The “tug” can be very difficult to recognise and follow, or be guided by but I find the “tug” continually repeats itself until I am accepting of its value and message.
    What I do find is that the pathway may not be easy but always worth it and would not have found my particular tribe without it.

    1. Ann, you have expressed the tug so well here, thank you for sharing your reflections. I am made up that it led you to the Buzzard Tribe. It is all so clever how these things work isn’t it 🙂

  12. Thank you for sharing this with myself and others, Nicola.
    I've found it very interesting.
    It's great that you found your true path in life from that day navigating the labyrinth.
    If we seek enlightenment at some point we'll find it.
    It's as if the truth is looking for us all along.
    I enjoy reading and learning from your emails/newsletters and I wish I'd left a reply before.

    1. Ah, thank you so much for your note here Elizabeth. I am touched by your words and so delighted you left this message here. I love how you have expressed this: ‘If we seek enlightenment at some point we’ll find it. It’s as if the truth is looking for us all along.’ Thank you

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