By Brett Johnson, Ventura County Star, November 28, 2006
Labyrinths and motorcycles – it makes perfect sense to Dorit Brauer, new to Ventura and into another of life’s chapters. She left a budding career in Pittsburgh for a six-week cross-country road trip this summer, just her and her Suzuki Bandit, toting both saddlebags and spiritual longing.
Back in Pittsburgh, with good job in hand, all set to buy a house and settle into that routine, Brauer felt something wasn’t right. She saw the road trip, coming on the heels of her 40th birthday, as a way to start a new life. She’d been aware of labyrinths, those ancient spiritual paths used by many faiths for thousands of years to aid in prayer and meditation, and added them to her itinerary via a national Internet locator service.
All told, the mid-August to late September trek would total 7,430 miles through 14 states on her bike, and 46 labyrinths logged on foot along the way. She walked labyrinths with everyone from nuns to prison inmates. She walked labyrinths cut into stonework, laid in dirt paths beneath towering California redwoods, mowed into Missouri prairie grass, etched atop naked mesas above Santa Fe, and one on land once worked by antebellum slaves. She drew energy from the paths and felt a kinship with fellow walkers, many of whom offered her a place to stay.
But the road also offered its own kind of spiritual settling: Brauer fell in love with the West’s empty, open highways. Its vast, stark realms — she once chased her own shadow for more than an hour on Kansas’ spine-straight roads, and went through rural stretches of the intermountain West where she saw no signs of humans for hours, save for the occasional trucker going the other way — gave her plenty of time to think. The roads and the landscapes were as likely to engender meditation as a labyrinth, she said.
All this prompted a bit of a sea change. Less than two weeks after returning to Pittsburgh, Brauer packed up shop and moved to Ventura. She will teach a series of labyrinth classes in December at the First United Methodist Church on Santa Clara Street — one of two local labyrinths she walked during her summer sojourn.
Brauer, who has taught meditation for 10 years, is clearly intrigued with deeper delvings, saying, “I feel like the mind is our biggest frontier.” With the big trip in her rearview mirror, Brauer said she sees a connection between machine and brain.
“Everything about motorcycle riding is what I try to teach in meditation,” she said. “It’s in the here and now, you have to stay in the moment with all your senses, and it’s about letting go of your worries and fears. It gives you freedom of spirit.”
Stepping back for another view
Brauer also viewed the trip as closing a circle. Nineteen years earlier, growing up on a farm in Germany’s lower Rhine River valley, she’d had a similar feeling that things weren’t right. She felt farm life was too sheltered, that she needed to get out. She was searching, wanting to know what to do with her life. That led to a 10-week backpacking trip to Brazil and later to Israel and ultimately the United States. Almost two decades later, the motorcycle trip would give her a chance to reflect on what she’d done in the interim.
“Sometimes in our life, we need to step out and review where we are going,” Brauer said through a still-thick German accent. One avenue into such reflection is the labyrinth, a unique design of circles within a circle and intestine-like loops that form a path to the center.
Labyrinths date back several thousand years, transcend religious denominations and cross cultural lines. They’ve been found throughout history in all parts of the globe. Images of them were minted on Cretan coins that date back to 2500 B.C. Labyrinths also inform the Jewish Kabbalah, Tibetan sand paintings, Roman mazes and Hopi medicine wheels. They were used during the Crusades by those too old, sick or poor to make pilgrimages to holy lands. But no one knows who made the first one. What is apparent is that they move many people, some to tears. Others report a calm, settling feeling; Brauer said she has revelatory dreams after walking them. The effects, experts say, draw from complex math, science and patterns of nature contained mysteriously in the designs. Some term this “sacred geometry.”
Brauer said she views labyrinths as spiritual transformational devices that accelerate meditation. Unlike mazes, which have dead ends, labyrinths are self-explanatory — one way in, one way out. That frees the mind from having to make conscious choices, she noted.
A labyrinth walk, which can take as little as half an hour, is viewed as three parts. The walk in from entrance to inner circle is called “purgation,” a time to shed worries, fears, negative thoughts and physical pain. At the center, “illumination” occurs, where humans connect with the spirit of their gods and the divine. The retraced path out is called “union,” where the replenished walker considers how to blend enlightenment received with real-world concerns.
“It literally feels like a doorway to another dimension,” Brauer said. “People are drawn back to them again and again and again.” Whatever it is, labyrinths have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the country in the past 10 to 15 years. Part of that, Brauer said she believes, is world turmoil. “There’s this real hunger for spiritual answers,” she said. “Especially in the U.S., life is so focused on material needs. There is a lack of nourishment of our spiritual souls.”
Bumps, but no dead-ends
She got a better read on this with the help of her motorbike. At a prison outside Louisville, Ky., she did a labyrinth walk with 14 cell dwellers — “everybody really got into a deep meditation, including the inmates.” She stayed with the Sisters of St. Benedict in Indiana and the Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame.
The real world intervened along the way. A wet and freezing Brauer endured a hailstorm near a summit in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, leaned sideways almost to the ground to balance her bike against a Kansas wind inferno, and chanted the om to soothe nerves over her Suzuki’s whiny 600-cc engine while blazing through the desolate Utah salt flats.
“There was a sign that said no services for 60 miles,” she recalled. “It was 110 degrees out. I was going 90 miles an hour. Sweat was pouring out of me. Then these sounds started coming from my engine.” She made it to Wendover, Utah, a tiny town on the Nevada border, and stopped to regroup. As it turned out, nothing was wrong with the engine; Brauer said she thinks it might have been a minor hiccup due to the heat and the altitude change.
“I felt like I was on another planet,” she said. She brushed aside comments from others who said it was too dangerous for her to be out there alone and wondered who would rescue her if she got hurt. She never lost her resolve. “I felt very confident out there,” Brauer said. “I wouldn’t have done it if I was afraid. I listened to my higher self.”
By road, landscape and labyrinth, Dorit Brauer has arrived at a new place.