Mid-Coast at center of Maine's labyrinth scene

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BRUNSWICK — Churches, holistic healers, and crisis recovery centers have all started circling in on a tool they say can help ease a troubled mind: the labyrinth.

“It centers me,” said Paula Gustafson, who works at the Learning and Recovery Center on Mere Point Road. “It calms me. It pulls me to the now, instead of the what-ifs.”

Labyrinths may just be the next big thing to cross over into mainstream culture. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic idea is the same. Unlike a maze, which is designed to stump or confound the user, a labyrinth has only one path, which leads to the center.

“They’re plain and simple,” Gustafson said. “There’s no dark corners.”

Labyrinths have been around for 4,000 years; in ancient Greek myth, a labyrinth houses a monstrous minotaur.

Now, the old idea has been given new-age life.

For the last 14 years, a worldwide network of labyrinth enthusiasts have been quietly connecting through the Labyrinth Society; the result is more than 3,000 walkable labyrinths across the country.

If the group of labyrinth users continue to grow, it could add to the tourist appeal of the Mid-Coast region, which is already home to nine of the state’s 26 labyrinths.

Gustafson said that her labyrinth has become the biggest draw for the LRC since it was constructed in 2004 by community members, with support from the Whispering Grove Labyrinth Society.

Last summer, the LRC got a visitor from Colorado who was touring labyrinths from coast to coast. A monthly moonlight labyrinth walk, during which attendees are invited to leave their troubles at the labyrinth’s center, brings as many as 15 participants.

Dr. Sally Haley, who runs the White Pine Holistic Medicine Center on Church Road, said the labyrinth behind her home practice always seems to be attracting some curious visitor.

“People come from all over, I mean internationally, to visit and do their meditation,” she said. “People just show up here. It’s open 24-7. Sometimes, I come back from shopping and I’ll see a strange car in the driveway. I view it as a self-serve thing.”

Haley said she first became interested in labyrinths after seeing one that was operated by the First Parish Church. Today, she estimates about 30 percent of her patients use it as a meditative tool.

“There’s body, mind and spirit,” she said. “This is part of the spiritual component of healing.”

The actual effects of a labyrinth on the psyche are open to debate. Supporters say they are a tool that facilitates meditation. The act of walking along the defined path allows the mind to wander and the consciousness to be opened to thoughts that would otherwise be drowned out by the bustling activity of a normal day.

“You’re watching where you’re going; it’s just kind of soothing,” Gustafson said. “This is all laid out. You don’t have to think.”

“I do feel calmer, more at peace,” Christine Dipiazza, a peer support specialist at the Learning Recovery Center, said after walking the labyrinth for the first time.

Stephanie Hanner is a community relations worker at Sweetser, the behavioral health-care center that operates the LRC, among other facilities.

Hanner said the labyrinth has been so successful, it might be replicated at other Sweetser offices.

“We have an opportunity to do something similar in Sanford,” she said. “It’s a great draw. The organization sees value in these types of things.”

Most labyrinths don’t have walls that close off the walker from the outside world. Their paths can be delineated with rocks or rope; the LRC labyrinth has a bird bath with an angel in the center, while the one at White Pine has a stone bench.

Other labyrinths are printed on canvas and can be unfurled where and when desired.

The labyrinth at White Pine includes decorative imagery from a variety of different religions, which underscores the fact that labyrinths aren’t associated with any particular religion. A survey by the labyrinth society found that 56 percent of the walkers were Protestant, Catholic, or unspecified Christian; 15 percent were either Wiccan, pagan, or “spiritual;” 10 percent identified with no religion at all.

Those who have studied labyrinths appreciate and debate the appeal of different designs, which can include classical, concentric, or a Chartres design based on a world-famous labyrinth built in the 13th century in a cathedral in Chartres, France.

“This is a four-circuit Baltic design,” Haley said, describing the finer points of the labyrinth at White Pine. “It’s more curved and rounded, as opposed to having sharp pivots.”

She said she likes the continuous flow suggested by the lack of pivots, and also because, unlike most popular designs, it has a short, direct path to the center in addition to the more traditional circuitous route. This allows elderly and handicapped people to enjoy the center of the labyrinth more easily, she said.

If the labyrinth society continues to work to bring labyrinths to schools, churches, prisons and hospitals across the country, they may one day become as mainstream as yoga.

If and when that day comes, the Mid-Coast region will have a head start on becoming the labyrinth hot-spot of the state.

Sidebar Elements

Assistant Coordinator Paula Gustafson, left, leads Christine Dipiazza, a new employee, through Dipiazza’s first labyrinth walk at the Learning Recovery Center on Mere Point Road in Brunswick. The public is invited to use the labyrinth.

This labyrinth, at White Pine Holistic Medicine Center in Brunswick, is used by patients and visitors as a tool for achieving relaxation and meditation.