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A Chaplain's Own Labyrinth Walk

July 29, 2020
by Clayton Simses

During her years at Connecticut Mental Health Center, Mary Dansinghani has personified community outreach to an exceptional degree. In her role as Chaplain and Coordinator of Spiritual Services, she established and led the Spiritual Roundtable, a large network of people interested in the intersection between spirituality and mental health recovery. She ran a highly successful bereavement group to help clients suffering from loss and grief, and she established the meditative practice of labyrinth walks at the Center. Ms. Dansinghani, a lay person and self-described spiritualist, retires on July 31 after thirteen years of service. I talked with Mary recently over Zoom about her experience at CMHC and how she views the role of the spiritualist in mental health recovery.

As a child growing up in the 1950’s, Mary Dansinghani lived in an American military compound in Japan. It was the era of Japan’s post-war reconstruction, and Mary recalled the locals’ discontent with her family’s presence: they shouted phrases such as “Yankee go home!” as her family passed by on the street.

“That experience has had a tremendous effect on me and my sister all our lives,” Mary commented. “We were the other, there was no way we couldn’t be.”

Mary’s housekeeper Kimiko, however, adamantly stood by the family. “She would storm into the house furious,” Mary elaborated. “People would complain about the kids in the other houses in the compound, and she would go out there, lean over the fence, and tell them, ‘My girls, in the house where I work, are good girls.’”

Years later, Mary said this early experience with social isolation—and Kimiko’s actions as a supportive ally—enabled her to connect with CMHC clients, many of whom feel ostracized and stigmatized due to poverty, serious mental illness, addiction, and histories of homelessness and/or incarceration. Mary recalled the story of one client who, unable to afford food, survived off of ketchup packs for a week until they could stabilize their finances. As she served this vulnerable community, Mary kept the best interest of clients at heart and treated each person with compassion, often admiring them for their resilience. “I learned more from my clients than I could ever teach them,” she said.

As Chaplain and Coordinator of Spiritual Services, Mary graciously assisted anyone seeking her help by empowering them to take control of their own recovery process through spirituality. “(Spirituality) gives people hope,” she explained, “and only you can choose to accept it.”

The daughter of a U.S. Army officer, Mary learned about religious diversity from her military upbringing. “When you went to the chaplain on the base, you could have one who’s Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, etc.,” she recalled. “It didn’t make a difference—whatever you were, you were. It brought us up with a sense that whatever gives you meaning, or whatever your source of strength, that is important,” she said. Supporting other people’s freedom of religious expression was a cornerstone of Mary’s work as CMHC Chaplain. Sometimes, she said, “People feel very uncomfortable talking about religion. It can cause great stress. But if you look at it as, ‘Tell me what you believe in, tell me what gives you meaning,’ those feelings often dissipate,” she commented.

For several years, Mary led a highly attended bereavement group at CMHC. She remains proud of the support and inclusiveness the members of her group expressed toward one another. Clients with drastically different ideologies, such as humanists and Baháʼí’s, formed a community together based on mutual respect and the freedom to express their personal beliefs. “I don’t include just religion, but spirituality,” Mary explained. “There are people who are not religious, but spiritual.” Mary led her bereavement group with an open mind and an open heart; she encouraged the group's members to serve one another in a similar way. When she encountered people of different faiths, Mary eagerly learned about their spirituality and practices, and she incorporated their wisdom into her leadership.

Mary’s leadership, however, didn’t mean giving instructions. She preferred to enable her clients to take part in their own recovery process through self-reflection. She also supported CMHC staff members and sometimes, their families. Mary recalled speaking with a distraught person who was unsure of where to go in life. As the meeting ended, the person said, “I came here thinking you were going to help me with an answer, but I realize now I have to find the answer myself.” One year later, the person emailed Mary thanking her for the conversation and said that they were interested in pursuing some form of chaplaincy. “Very often,” Mary explained, “you know the answers to your own questions, you just can’t get out of your way enough to unravel what it is you really want to do.”

Figuring out what to do in life was no easy task for Mary either. Prior to coming to CMHC, she worked in a few jobs that she found unfulfilling, including as an elementary school teacher and a trust administrator at People’s Bank.

“When my kids were little,” she explained, “I worked very often to make a living, as opposed to working a passion. But let me tell you, it was miserable,” Mary said. She went to Yale Divinity School as an adult and accepted the position at CMHC soon after graduating. At CMHC she brought her knowledge as an educator with her, “but this was different than working in elementary,” she laughed.

Mary also established regular labyrinth walks at CMHC for the benefit of clients and staff. A labyrinth walk is an ancient spiritual practice in which walkers take a singular, maze-like path to a central meditation zone, where they can reflect before taking the same path out. Under Mary’s leadership, CMHC purchased a labyrinth uncolored and printed on canvas, unlike the permanent renditions found in India or other parts of the world. Mary worked with CMHC employees to fill the empty circuits with prayers and kind messages before painting over them, immortalizing their positive energy in the process.

Mary adamantly praised the therapeutic aspects of labyrinth walking. The labyrinth’s ornate path requires great focus to walk, and the experience offers a moment of respite for those willing to journey to its center.

At CMHC, walkers reported extraordinary experiences while taking the path. Mary recalled one patient's comment that “I have not been this relaxed in a very long time,” and another who said, “This is the only time I don’t hear voices.” Mary touched those outside the CMHC community by bringing the labyrinth to public settings for others to enjoy. She also acquired wooden, handheld labyrinths for clients who were physically or mentally unable to walk the cloth version but still wished to participate. Due to the pandemic there has been only one labyrinth walk this year, but Mary is hopeful for the future.

Mary’s life has itself been a labyrinth's walk. In Japan she learned the necessity of compassion to make others feel comfortable and accepted in their community. She channeled this sentiment into devotion for her clients. The love she put into her work has been evident throughout her career. “My time at CMHC has never been a job,” she said. “It was my passion.” A tree on the Yale campus will be planted in honor of her service, but Mary’s greatest legacy will be the roots she has planted in the numerous lives she’s touched.

Submitted by Lucile Bruce on July 29, 2020