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Your Altar
Your Altar
Creating a Sacred Space for Prayer & Meditation

By: Sandra Kynes
Imprint: Llewellyn
Specs: Trade Paperback | 9780738711058
English  |  240 pages | 6 x 9 x 1 IN
Pub Date: December 2007
Price: $15.95 US,  $18.50 CAN
In Stock? Yes, ready to ship
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EXCERPT: CHAPTER ONE
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The one thing that will never leave you, once you transcend all unstable mental states, is the joy of your soul.

-Paramahansa Yogananda

Meditation

Although considered by some to be a Buddhist practice, meditation is a tool used in many spiritual traditions. Texts found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt describe techniques of spiritual disciplines not unlike Buddhist or Hindu practices designed to achieve enlightenment1. Like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the text called Zostrianos emphasized the importance of removing physical desires, reducing the chaos of the mind, and stilling it with meditation. Likewise, Paramahansa Yogananda called meditation "the science of being actively calm"2 and considered daydreaming and sleeping to be forms of passive calmness.

Meditative pathways encompass a wide range of practices and spiritual orientations. The range includes koan meditation, vipassana, yoga, tai chi, ecstatic prayer, Hindu and Christian mysticism, the Western mystery schools, and the Kabbalah. In general terms, meditation has two primary facets: the search for the Divine and the search for the true or inner self. As these are frequently intertwined, it is common to seek the Divine in our everyday lives. Regardless of individual details, meditation is about one's spirituality and transformation.

In a third-century province of Syria, spiritual master Yamliku (whose Latin name is Iamblichus) wrote a classic work called On the Mysteries. He emphasized a distinction between theology, what he called "talk about god," and theurgy, or "god work-doing the spiritual practices that actually produce real inner transformation."3

A question arises: how do we make this happen? The answer is that it will be slightly different for each person, and finding what works can be an interesting and rewarding journey. Whether it's concentrating on a symbol, rhythmical chanting, or physical movement, it comes down to focusing the mind. Over time, the mind becomes like a Möbius strip-a circle created by a strip of paper that has been twisted once before the ends are joined, so that the inner surface flows into the outer surface. In meditation, we move inward but eventually connect to the world outside, and vice versa.

This inward and outward flow occurs as we cultivate focus and mindfulness. Malcolm Eckel suggests the "deliberate cultivation of mental images."4 In a commentary on Yoga Sutra 1:39, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait suggests that by meditating on an object of choice, one can attain "steadiness of mind." He also recommends that one use "wise selection" in the choice of objects on which to focus.5 Using a series of objects or symbols creates a flowing meditation in which a "meditator works with a sequence of stimuli."6 The stimuli become a chain of thoughts that lead deeper into the inner world toward insight (or "in-sight"), which is "seeing into the real nature of things."7


Grounding and Centering for Meditation

Sit comfortably and close your eyes so you can begin the shift from the everyday outer world to your interior space. Focus on your breathing, and let each breath start from your belly. Slowly fill your lungs, and then pause before you slowly exhale. The last air should leave from your belly. Pause again, and then start the next inhalation. Allow your body to let go of any tension. Become aware of your feet on the ground. Think of your energy extending below the floor, below the building to Mother Earth. Feel the solid foundation of earth that extends thousands of miles below you. The earth nourishes and cradles us.

Begin to draw this energy up into your body. Feel your legs become heavy and solid with earth energy. As you continue to draw the energy up into your abdomen-your center-feel the energy lighten into water. Continue to draw the energy up to your chest, to your heart, where we think of spirit and love. Feel the spark of fire energy burn there with the passion of life. As the energy continues upward, feel air energy, the power of mind and knowledge, surround your head. Hold the sensation of all four elements for a moment, and then allow the energy to return to Mother Earth, taking all negativity and tension from you.


Numbers: Sacred, Space, and Form

Since ancient times, people have had a desire to acknowledge numerical patterns in the world around them. This allows the mind to bring order to (or at least perceive it in) a seemingly chaotic universe and simplify a complicated world. For example, basic reckoning of time provided the means for mapping the cycles of the natural world. The ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Hindu, Celtic, Aztec, and Mayan people all developed complex calendar systems, which gave them the ability to make predictions-for example, when to sow seeds and when to prepare for weather changes or river flooding. In addition, numbers weren't just for counting days or predicting cycles; they were essential for making measurements and expressing abstract ideas. Even today, depending on the subject, a simple
number can tell us if the weather is cold or hot (Fahrenheit or Celsius), the severity of an earthquake (Richter scale), the hardness of a crystal (Mohs scale), or the acidity or alkalinity of a substance (pH).

In ancient Greece, arithmetic was considered a high form of art since numbers were thought of as "abstract, spiritual entities."8 Philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (c. 560-480 BCE) held the belief that "the essence of everything seemed to be expressible in numbers."9 He founded a school/community, part scientific and part religious, where he further developed his "theology of numbers": he believed that the study of arithmetic was the way to perfection.10 Pythagoras ascribed symbolic meanings to numbers, which formed the basis for the practice of numerology. However, he wasn't the first. Numerology in one form or another was used by the Phoenicians, Hindus, Chinese, and Babylonians. The search for esoteric meaning in numbers was also pursued by the Sumerians and Egyptians, as well as the Aztecs and Maya. It seems that seeking metaphysical associations for patterns found in nature and attempting to understand the mysteries of life are basic human traits.

Gematria, the art of assigning numbers to letters, has been used to seek a connection between alphabets and numbers in the belief that a lost word of great power would be revealed. Gematria was used by the Babylonians in eighth century BCE,11 as well as by medieval Kabbalists.12 The Kabbalistic Tree of Life provides mystical interpretations of numbers, and the Enochian alphabet, with its numerical codes patterned into 644 lettered squares, was believed by John Dee and others to contain secret information.13 True magic squares (grids of boxes with numbers whose sums are the same no matter which direction they are added) represented perfection and were used as amulets. The Sumerians believed that certain numbers represented particular gods and goddesses. Likewise, in the Bible, 666 is an example of a number that was believed to be a symbolic reference to a particular person; attempts to decipher it have challenged people throughout the centuries.14 In many cultures and spiritual traditions, the notion of sacred numbers provides a way to deal with the great mysteries that confront us on a spiritual level. Numbers go beyond the function of symbols for the abstract; their use-mathematics-forms one of the building blocks that affect our experience of the physical world.

Pythagoras wasn't alone in associating numbers with shapes and exploring sacred geometry, where the relationship of form and proportion creates a vibrational resonance of interconnectedness. The ancient Chinese and Hindus designed temples with these harmonic principles, as did the builders of the great European cathedrals. Like sacred sites in nature, these places provide a setting in which to perceive and interact with divine energy.

Numbers are not just for measuring; when used symbolically, they can reveal underlying energy, purpose, pattern, and structure. According to Annemarie Schimmel, a number "develops a special character, a mystique of its own, and a special metaphysical meaning."15 On an altar, they can serve as yantras-geometric diagrams for focusing the mind and accessing our numinous souls. As Patanjali pointed out in the Yoga Sutras, "Symbols should be used to help transcend them."16 He also mentions that having a physical object or symbol helps the mind grasp abstract ideas and work with them on a deeper level. The altar grids in this book can also be perceived as geometric shapes, circles, and stars, which have transcendent qualities for the psyche to interact with them.


Methods: Who, Why, and How

In the introduction, I referred to the altar setups as "game boards" as an easy way to convey this idea. If you want to play backgammon you wouldn't use a chess board, as each board game has its own physical layout, its own rules, and its own mindset. However, using an altar matrix is no Candyland. It creates a place for serious contemplation and deepening of the soul. Dividing the altar top with specific intentions allows the mind to focus on a particular matrix of symbols in order to access certain energies. (Please note that the terms matrix, layout, grid, and setup are used interchangeably.)

Some altar setups in this book guide you through a sequence, while others provide room for your intuition to choose the path you need to follow around the altar top. Many setups are merely presented, allowing your personal intent to build the meditation sequence.

Overall, this book is an interfaith exploration of ourselves and our personal relationship with the Divine. While the concepts and practices presented here come from a variety of spiritual traditions, they do not require you to leave your own beliefs behind. We bring our own spirituality to the altar; it does not work the other way around.

This book is also about manifesting change in our lives. Some changes may be on the spiritual level while others are firmly rooted in the everyday world, but ultimately, because our lives do not consist of tidy pigeonholes, the mundane and sacred can flow throughout every aspect of life, bringing wholeness and balance.

Whether or not you use or keep a permanent altar, the altar layouts can help you focus your mind, open your energies, and receive information relevant to you at this point in your journey. These altar layouts can help you resolve issues or simply experience ideas in a new way. The altar matrix provides symbols or can be symbolic of ideas and energies. As symbols, the matrices provide the following:

·A way to access and activate archetypal energies
·A gateway to deeper layers of self
·A way to receive knowledge and wisdom
·Methods for aligning your physical, mental, and spiritual energies
·Alternative ways to view yourself and the world around you
·A system for working on life issues, big or small

Like yoga and other methods of using energy, altar matrices help us unlock emotions held within that we may have no other way to access. Since emotions and memories are not just in the mind but also in the body, you may find it helpful to do yoga or gentle stretching before settling in front of your altar.

Above all, the altar layout is a tool for accessing or processing knowledge. As such, you may find it useful to set up an altar grid that coincides with things in your life or with something you may be studying.

Like deep meditation, shamanic journeying, and vision quests, using an altar matrix consists of three steps for opening the self and accessing wisdom: symbol, trance, and vision, or concentration, tranquility, and insight, as noted by Dr. David Fontana.17

·Symbol/Concentration-A place to focus the mind; the altar
·Trance/Tranquility-Quiet the mind and allow it time to rest in stillness
·Vision/Insight-See what's there and be open to receive; gnosis

The first step, Symbol/Concentration, is the altar itself, which serves as a point of focus. The way in which you divide your altar and the things you place on it will serve as a pattern to access information and guidance.

The second step, Trance/Tranquility, does not mean that you have to put yourself into a hypnotic state. It is a matter of quieting the mind and letting go of the day-to-day chatter that clutters our heads. This step may take a little practice if you are not in the habit of meditating. Getting to this step is not difficult and only requires persistence and setting aside the time to allow yourself to get there. On the other hand, don't feel that you will need to reach a state of nirvana in order to make it work. Simply be present in the moment as you focus on the symbols on your altar.

In the third step, Vision/Insight, meditation and contemplation begin with intention, but once the altar is set up and you sit before it, all intention must be set aside, because our minds can interpret intention to mean expectation. If we don't hear a choir of angels and zoom right to a higher level, we may be disappointed and give up. This is a product of our modern world: we expect gratification instantly. However, true change comes in its own time. Whether from within or from outside, wisdom comes softly into our consciousness. It may arrive as an image if you are a visually oriented person, or it may come as a feeling or something that you "just know." The important point is to be open to receive. Information may come to you as you sit in front of your altar or it may come later-even a day or two later. It may also happen over time if you repeat your work with a particular altar grid. You may find that you need to make adjustments in the altar setup as you continue to work with it. Remain open to your intuition and allow it to guide you.

The main requirement for working with layouts is that your altar be located where you can sit comfortably in front of it. If you have a permanent altar that is located on a shelf, you may want to use a temporary altar on a table that has sufficient space. If your altar shares a desk or table with other things, consider covering the everyday items with a tablecloth or towel, or firmly set a mental demarcation between these things and your altar area.

The way in which you physically set up your altar matrix is a personal decision that depends on how you prefer to work. If it is best for you to physically divide the space on the top of your altar into sections, do so. This can be done by using a large piece of paper and simply drawing a grid for whichever altar matrix you plan to use. For example, if you are using a nine-part altar matrix, it would look like a tick-tack-toe grid. If you are doing a four-part element or direction matrix, you could use different pieces of construction paper that correspond to the colors associated with these according to your tradition or practice. If you prefer to work a little more simply, you can use anything straight and thin to demarcate the borders of the sectors. Items such as pencils, twigs, and chopsticks work well, as do cut lengths of string. Each sector does not need to be completely  walled off. Experiment to see what works for you.

Once you have used an altar matrix, you may find it useful to leave it in place for a day or two or longer. The power of your intention and energy raised may help to propel you along the path of study or energy work. Seeing a particular setup frequently after meditating with it may serve as a gentle reminder for you. Leaving the altar matrix in place also allows it to evolve, as you may find yourself adding to it as you continue to ponder and work with the experience. This is especially helpful if it is a meditation you intend to repeat.

After a time, if you find that a particular altar matrix is important to you, you may want to make it more permanent. This could be done by creating a special altar cloth by stitching different colors of cloth together or by drawing a grid with fabric paint. Alternatively, a piece of wood or foam board could be painted to suit your purpose. These could be kept under an altar cloth that you remove when you want to use the matrix. However, in working with symbols, Patanjali noted that we should use them as spiritual aids but be prepared to outgrow them and move on. Once you have learned the necessary lesson for you within an altar matrix, move on to a new one or expand on it in such a way that you are able to continue to grow. I find that the three-part matrix is a powerful setup for me, but the content evolves. Alternatively, you may find it beneficial to repeat an altar matrix meditation without using the physical altar setup. The sacred space you create with an altar and your intent may hold the energy of the matrix after it has been disassembled. Follow your intuition and experiment.

While setting up the altar matrix, use the time for mental preparation with silence or perhaps soothing music, saying or singing chants that will help you to transition away from your everyday mindset. When the altar is ready, seat yourself comfortably in front of it. Close your eyes and continue singing or chanting, or quietly focus your attention on your breath until you feel relaxed and calm. The present moment is the only thing you need to be aware of; yesterday is over and tomorrow does not yet exist. Anything important will return to your mind when you have finished the meditation; if it doesn't, then it wasn't truly important.

Another way to begin is to become aware of your feet on the floor. If you are sitting on the floor, become aware of your "sit bones" in contact with the floor (or pillow). Think of your energy as extending downward through the floor, through the building to the foundation and below to the earth. Sense your connection with Mother Earth, with the natural world, and with the universe. Feel your place on this planet and, in turn, its place in the cosmos. The energy of the universe is the same energy that flows through you. Slowly bring your awareness back to your inner world. When you feel connected and centered, open your eyes to a soft gaze and begin the meditation. Guidance on how to proceed is provided in each altar section.

During meditation when other thoughts intrude, acknowledge them and then set them aside. Remind yourself that if they are important then they will come back to you later. Trying to push thoughts away, ignore them, or set up a barrier in the belief that they won't intrude may provide more of a distraction than the distracting thought. If you find that you have become distracted, don't beat yourself up about it. Be glad that part of your mind has realized the distraction. Simply accept it and return to where you were. Despite interruptions from our chattering monkey brains, if we can stay focused and keep returning to the point of focus, the meditation will move deeper and we will be able to peel back each layer of onion skin toward our inner core, our real nature.

When you conclude a meditation, take time to ponder the experience. Let it touch you deeply. Take the knowledge into your soul so it becomes part of you. You may find it useful to journal your experience. Impressions can fade quickly, and by recording information, you will be able to return to it later to pick up threads that can help you weave your pattern of growth. Above all, trust your intuition to guide you.


1 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 135.
2 Paramahansa Yogananda, Inner Peace, 19.
3 Linda Johnsen, "Beyond God Talk," 54-58.
4 Malcolm David Eckel, Buddhism, 60.
5 Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, "The Yoga Sutras," 52-53.
6 David Fontana, The Meditator's Handbook, 77.
7 Ibid., 57.
8 John McLeish, Number, 74-75.
9 Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers, 11.
10 John McLeish, Number, 51.
11 Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers, 34.
12 Encyclopedia Britannica Micropaedia, 15th ed., s.v. "Gematria."
13 David Allen Hulse, The Western Mysteries, 149.
14 Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers, 277.
15 Ibid., 16.
16 Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 123.
17 David Fontana, The Meditator's Handbook, 42.


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