Labyrinths guide walkers on spiritual path

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by Deana Carpenter, South Hills Living, February 2012

When someone hears the word “labyrinth” many things can come to mind – a wooden toy maze that tilts or even a 1986 Jim Henson feature film.

Labyrinths are often confused with mazes, but unlike a maze, which can be confusing, a labyrinth is a single pathway outlined on the ground.

For one local woman a labyrinth is a type of sacred circle where one goes to meditate.

“Labyrinths are a one-way path,” said Dorit Brauer of Scott Township, who has designed many labyrinths. Brauer said that in a labyrinth the path leads you to the center, “so you cannot get lost,” she said. “When you reach the center, you come out the way you came in.”

Labyrinths are primarily non-denominational and more meditative than religious, although many can be found at churches across the country.

Brauer, 45, grew up on a farm in Germany where as a child she busied herself by milking cows and riding horses. She said growing up she always had an interest in the arts. As a young adult, Brauer said she tried going down several different career paths, but nothing felt right. At age 21, she went backpacking in Brazil. “From there,” she said, “there was no coming back to regular life.”

In 1989, Brauer moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, where she went to Hebrew School and then art school to study painting and fine arts. While at art school, she became interested in holistic meditation and yoga and eventually graduated from the Mahut School for Complementary Medicine and Holism in Tel Aviv.

In 1998, Brauer moved to Pittsburgh. Now living in Scott Township, Brauer is a certified Veriditas labyrinth facilitator and a member of the Labyrinth Society. She has practiced holistic reflexology and taught meditation and guided imagery at the former UPMC Center for Complementary Medicine. She has also taught meditation and guided imagery at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and other corporate sites.

Brauer said she was “always interested” in labyrinths. She said “sacred circles” have been around for a long time, dating back to Stonehenge.

“I always knew about them,” she said of labyrinths, but it wasn’t until 2006 when Brauer was turning 40 that labyrinths started to play a larger role in her life. It was at that time that Brauer was planning a motorcycle road trip to California to mark her birthday. She said while planning that trip a friend of hers had recently returned from a labyrinth facilitator training in France. She said that friend was very excited about labyrinths and showed her a website that listed all of the labyrinths in the country – The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator at www.labyrinthlocator.com.

So Brauer mapped her route so that she could see as many labyrinths as she could on her trip – and ended up visiting more than 40. “On the way (to California) there were so many,” she said.

Walking a labyrinth

Brauer said being in a labyrinth is a “walking meditative” experience where one should go to focus on one’s thoughts.

“It’s great to have the physical aspect of moving through time and space,” she said.

Labyrinths can be any size, Brauer said, although most of them are more than 20 feet in diameter and can often be larger. Brauer said the largest labyrinth in the United States is The Prairie Labyrinth located in Kansas City, Kansas. It is 166 feet in diameter.

Brauer said people should walk through a labyrinth slowly. She said depending on the speed at which one walks and the size of the labyrinth, the walk can take about a half hour to an hour-and-a-half.

Walking a labyrinth can be something to do on your own or within a group for a specific purpose.

Often, churches hold walks designed for specific purposes at certain times of the year, like Easter.

Brauer said when teaching about labyrinths she always asks participants to “envision a ball of light” and breathe in the light. She said it’s best to focus on abdominal breathing while connecting to the light. While walking through the labyrinth, Brauer tells participants to breathe out all their worries, concerns and even aches and pains.

Brauer said it’s important to focus on what she calls the “Three R’s” – release, receive and reflect – while walking through a labyrinth. “It’s all about the journey to enlightenment,” Brauer said, “not a journey to endarkenment.”

“Labyrinths are a great metaphor for life,” Brauer said. She added that labyrinths originated during a period in time when “people were more connected to nature.”

Building labyrinths

Brauer designed a labyrinth at the Cameron Wellness Center in Washington in 2008. She said it took a few days to complete it, from picking the site at the center – it’s located on a walking trail – to overseeing the clearing of the space. She said the labyrinth she designed at the center is a classical 28-foot in diameter seven-circuit labyrinth made of pea gravel and river rock.

“The ones I build are usually seven-circuit labyrinths,” Brauer said of the paths that lead to the center of the labyrinth. She said in order to be able to build a labyrinth one needs to be “in tune with the landscape” and in tune with how the energy flows in the space. Although labyrinths are often two-dimensional, she said, “I see three-dimensional because I see energies.”

Brauer said she tries to build labyrinths wherever she can out of whatever materials she can find – even if it’s just sand.

“I built one on the River Rhine,” in Rees, Germany, Brauer said of a labyrinth she made in the sand near her family’s farm.

Brauer said she has built temporary labyrinths at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center during conferences. “Any space can be transformed into a sacred space,” she said, adding that during her road trip even a parking lot at a church in Arizona had been transformed into a labyrinth, which had been painted on it.

Brauer also makes personalized, custom labyrinth paintings for those who want to enjoy a labyrinth at any time. She said the simple act of tracing a labyrinth with one’s finger or one’s eyes can have a relaxing effect.

Brauer has a book about her road trip coming out in April called “Girls Don’t Ride Motorbikes: A Spiritual Journey into Life’s Labyrinth.”

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