Your altar is more than just a place to put things. Through the ages, the use of altars has been both communal and private. Although home altars seem more prevalent in certain faiths, in recent years their use has become more widespread regardless of one's spiritual path. While altars and their purpose have evolved over the millennia, they continue to fulfill a fundamental need that transcends spiritual orientation.
There is a certain power to an altar. It is not just a thing that holds a collection of objects; intention and energy transform an altar into a space that is separate from our everyday world. When we use an altar, we step outside the boundaries of our day-to-day lives. When we sit in front of an altar, we place ourselves in the presence of spirit and open ourselves to receive answers to the questions that guide our souls.
As a central part of ritual and worship, an altar is a place of spiritual encounter. It serves as a reminder of our contact with the Divine as well as contact with our souls. Using an altar strikes a familiar chord within us. We may not understand why this occurs, but we can sense a shift of energy away from ordinary awareness. Altars hold objects of inspiration and devotion, personal and sacred, resulting in a space that visibly and energetically links the spiritual and physical worlds and provides clues to our innermost thoughts and feelings. The Greek word gnosis is usually translated as "knowledge;" however it can also be translated as"insight." According to Elaine Pagals, "[g]nosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself." 1 An altar becomes a tool for gnosis—knowledge that comes from spiritual insight and self illumination.
In the past, the sacred and secular were not so rigidly segregated. This is not the case in today's world; however, having a place where these aspects of our lives come together can be a means for finding balance. This meeting point of spiritual and mundane energies can provide an orientation or anchor in the world—a place to hold onto and come back to for personal strength and exploration. The things that we place on an altar become symbolic of what is going on in our hearts and minds. Because of the convergent energies, an altar is not a passive space—there is constant interaction.
In addition to providing a place for worship, an altar functions as a tool for exploration and growth. Like a labyrinth, an altar top itself can act as a "blueprint for the psyche to meet the soul."2 An altar is a place where you lay out your intentions—put your cards on the table, so to speak—to manifest particular energies into your life. In describing how Peruvian shamans interact with their altars, Jim DeKorne said that the altar top functioned like a "game board, a symbolic paradigm against which the ritual is played."3
This is the premise of my book, Your Altar; using the altar as a game board—for lack of a better term. The phrase "game board" is not meant to be irreverent. It's a way to convey the concept of a matrix or setup for an altar and a different form of meditation practice. While it is standard practice to use an altar for focus, it can be used as an integral part of the meditation technique. Dividing the altar top into multiple sections and using them to focus a flow of thoughts allows the altar to function as a powerful and symbolic tool not unlike a Buddhist mandala, classical Christian icon, or Hindu yantra.
When we create any type of matrix we bring the power of numbers into play. The ancient philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras believed that "the essence of everything seemed to be expressible in numbers."4 He further developed his theology of numbers and ascribed symbolic meanings to numbers, which formed the basis for the practice of numerology. In many cultures and spiritual traditions, the notion of sacred numbers provides a means for dealing with the great mysteries that confront us on a spiritual level.
When numbers are 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."5 Within an altar matrix, numbers serve as yantras—geometric diagrams for focusing the mind and accessing our numinous souls.
This is especially important during this manic time of year, when consumerism kicks into high gear and we rush frantically like hamsters on our materialistic treadmills bemoaning the fact that we are so busy. This is the perfect time to turn to our altars to reconnect with the meaning of the holiday season as well as with ourselves. However, with so much to do and so much on our minds, it may seem like an impossible task to sit and bring our chattering monkey brains to rest for even a few minutes. This is when using the altar itself as a tool can aid us. As a tool, we use it to guide a flow of thoughts that will allow us to step out of the everyday experience.
For a holiday meditation we use a three-part altar, which means that we divide the altar top into three sections. Since it is the holiday season, you can take a long strand of garland, cut two pieces as wide as your altar and then lay them across the altar top, creating three fairly equal-sized sections that run vertically to where you will sit. This does not have to be a difficult mathematical project where the sections need to be exact down to the millimeter. As long as the sections look fairly equal to you, that's all that matters.
Three is a number that was significant to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Celts. It is significant in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Paganism. Three, a triad, represents a new unity that does not discard the polarity of two but integrates it into a new wholeness. A three-part altar provides variety and complexity. This is a complex time of year when we look at the past as well ahead to the future. The component that is usually missing in these musings is the now—the purpose of this season and how we experience it.
With your altar top divided, it's time to set the intent. The section on the left represents you. Place things in this section that represent meaningful events and milestones that occurred in the past year that have played a part in who you are at this moment. For the center section think about what the season means to you. Is it a time when you feel most connected with your spirituality and feel a connection with the Divine? A figurine of baby Jesus, an angel, a goddess statue, or the word "Peace" on a slip of paper may be objects that are appropriate for you. In the right section, place a candle, and a picture of the sun or anything that is luminous or represents renewal.
Once you have set up your altar, sit comfortably in front of it and close your eyes for a couple of minutes so you can begin the shift from your everyday outer world to your interior space. Focus on your breathing and let each slow breath start from your belly. Become aware of your contact with the floor—feet or sits bones—and think of your energy reaching down to touch Mother Earth. Feel the solid foundation of the earth and then draw this energy up and into your body. As you continue to draw the energy up to your abdomen, your center, feel the energy lighten into water. Continue to draw this energy up to your chest, to your heart. Feel the spark of fire energy burn with the passion of life. As the energy continues upward, feel air energy, the power of the mind and wisdom, surround your head. Hold the sensation of all four elements for a moment and then allow the energy to return to Mother Earth, taking any negativity or tension from you as it recedes.
When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and with a soft gaze look at the object(s) in the left section of your altar. Instead of replaying events in your mind, try to capture the essence of the past year and come to a sense of self. This may be slightly more difficult than it sounds because our true selves are not about what we have or what we do for a living. Try to just be, and then feel what comes to you—without judgment—just be for a few minutes.
When you feel that you have reached that point, or at least gotten as close to it as you can for now, allow your gaze to gently shift to the center section of your altar. Underneath all the modern trappings, contemplate what this season means to you. Seek what is in your heart and know that the magic of this season lies within your soul.
Finally, shift your gaze to the right section of your altar. We celebrate the light: the sun beginning its journey back to us, the (re)birth of the divine, and the renewed light of spirit in our hearts. In your mind's eye, see light emanating from your heart center, surrounding you and then moving out into the world. Allow the image to fade of its own accord, and then slowly bring your focus back into the room where you are sitting. Hold any sensations for a moment or two and then let them go.
You may have a moving experience or you may simply feel more relaxed. It's not important to hear a choir of angelic voices. The most significant aspect of this particular meditation is to step out of the frantic whirl of activity that we force on ourselves and into the realm of spirit where we can catch our breath and put life into perspective. Altar experiences will vary, but each one will be its own unique journey.
After working with an altar setup, leave it in place for a day or two; the visual clues that guided the meditation will serve as reminders to keep ourselves grounded in the things that are important.
By using an altar we participate in an ancient act that is fundamental to humankind. The way that we interact with our altars is as diverse as we are as individuals. Using the altar as a tool for introspection serves to enrich our spiritual paths and deepen our sense of self. Repeat the meditation several times during the holidays and see if it makes a difference in your experience this year. The joy of the season resides in our hearts; we just need to pause for a while to find it.
1Elaine Pagals, The Gnostic Gospels, p. xix.
Sandra Kynes (Portland, ME) is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids and the author of seventeen books, including Star Magic, Llewellyn's Complete Book of Correspondences, Mixing Essential Oils for Magic, ...