Friday, October 30, 2009

How to set up an altar

For many people, the word altar is fraught with associations. Maybe you have memories of being an altar boy as a kid — or you recall altars you’ve seen on special occasions like weddings or funerals or memorial services. For the purposes of this book, I use altar to refer to a collection of objects with special meaning and resonance for you that you assemble in one place and use to inspire your meditations. If you’re a Christian, for example, your altar may include a crucifix or a picture of Jesus; if you’re a Jew, you may have a holy book or a Star of David; or, if you’re a Buddhist, you may choose to contemplate a statue of Buddha or a photo of your teacher. And if you have no particular religious inclinations, you may be quite content with a few stones, a candle, and a potted plant.
Although an altar is not essential to meditation, it can be a creative and constantly evolving expression of your inner life, a reflection of your deepest aspirations, values, and beliefs. Gazing at your altar before you sit can evoke your connection to a spiritual dimension of being — or it can merely remind you of why you’re here: to develop concentration, relax, open your heart, heal your body. Here are some of the main ingredients that appear on many altars; feel free to improvise and add or subtract as you see fit:

_ Bells
_ Candles
_ Flowers
_ Incense
_ Natural objects
_ Pictures (of nature or inspirational figures)
_ Sacred texts
_ Statues (of inspirational figures)

Some traditions recommend that altars appeal to all the senses — hence, the incense, bells, flowers, and candles, which are mainstays on many home altars. In particular, the fragrance of your favorite incense can quickly become hyperlinked in your brain with meditation, causing you to relax just a little whenever you smell it.
As with your meditation, it’s best to keep your altar simple at first. Use a small, low table or cabinet (if you meditate on the floor) covered with a special piece of cloth. If you want, you can enrich and expand it over time, or you may prefer to keep a stash of objects and rotate them as the spirit moves you. For example, you can adapt your altar to the seasons, with flowers in spring, seashells in summer, dried leaves in autumn, pine boughs in winter, and so on. One cautionary note about pictures: You may want to devote your altar to mentors, teachers, and other figures whose presence fills you with unadulterated inspiration — and consign to your desk or bureau those loved ones for whom your feelings may be more complex, like children, parents, spouses, and friends.

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