The focus of this article will be creating an altar to serve as the centerpiece of your home meditation space. At the end, I will suggest other kinds of altars that can make your home or apartment a more sacred space. There are no hard and fast rules about this, so please take these ideas as friendly suggestions and feel free to ‘color outside the line.’ By ‘altar’ I mean any surface used as a sacred space. It is up to you to decide what is sacred.
Once you have established the space you intend to use for meditation, [link to Creating a Sacred Space for Meditation in Your Home] the placement of your altar may be obvious. Still, there are a few things to consider. Remember, the altar is the centerpiece of your meditation area. Apart from its inspirational role, it has the pragmatic function of focusing your attention and holding it. You will want to minimize distractions, so placing your altar against a wall is usually better than in front of a window, or in a place where your gaze can go past the altar into an open area. Direct sunlight will create glare and may fade or damage items on your altar. Beneath a heater duct or near an open window, your altar will collect dirt and dust faster than in other locations.
If you use candles on your altar, be especially careful and vigilant. At some point you will absent-mindedly walk away and leave them burning, so make sure your altar is well away from curtains, drapery, or any flammable display. The potential actions of pets and small children must also be considered. Incense, candles, or any hot item should sit on a ceramic or glass surface. Check the candle holders to see if they get very hot during use. Tea lights are safer than stick candles, electric candles are safer than tea light. Safety should be taken seriously. I know of more than one person who has set their house on fire with a candle.
Altar Height and Dimension
This will depend on whether you sit on the floor or in a chair. If on the floor, a low altar is best. You don’t want to be staring up at your altar, as this will cause neck pain. I began sitting on the floor and my first altars were cardboard boxes covered with a cloth. Now, I sit in a chair and use a small cabinet as an altar. This allows me to sit comfortably with my gaze slightly downward. It also has a drawer for incense and candles and an enclosed space for books and other items. In most case, a small end table will do nicely. Large surface areas tend to attract frivolous and unnecessary stuff.
Icons, Photos and Personal Mementos
You will want your altar should to reflect best aspirations. These need not be religious or overtly ‘spiritual.’ To become a better person is a very high and noble aspiration. The objects you choose for your altar should inspire your meditation and strengthen your intentions. Photos and statues of gurus, saints and savants are appropriate altar icons, but so are photos of mentors and family members, if they truly inspire you. Inspiration and aspiration should be your guide. Don’t be afraid to let your imagination assist you, aspiration can be expressed in many ways.
The Altar Center Piece
A photo, statue, relic, icon or mandala, can serve as the center piece of your altar. The center piece you choose is important. It will be the focus your attention and should reinforce your resolve to advance your aspirations. A strong center piece can inspire good concentration and help keep the mind from mind from wandering.
Your altar will reflect the sincerity you bring to your meditation effort. Rather than clutter your altar with many objects, I would suggest keep things simple, intimate and sacred in the beginning. Later, you will add mementos that truly have meaning for you. One never knows what will turn out to be meaningful. I have a friend with ninja action figures on his altar. These remind him to actually act on his inspirations, not just think about them. My altar includes a few small rocks taken from monasteries and retreats where I’ve had significant practice experiences. They remind me of the steps I’ve taken in my life journey and the need to take yet more steps. Over five decades, I’ve collected many ‘sacred’ things in my life, and then disposed of most. Objects come, inspire and go. One cannot be too attached to anything and still keep moving forward. Life is fleeting, but in every present moment, there is always a sacred object and a spiritual action to be discovered. Your altar will change as you change but it should always be a source of renewal and inspiration.
In my family, the fireplace mantel was a kind of ‘family altar.’ Some families still keep an ‘ancestral altar’ that have not only photos but perhaps an urn with the ashes of a beloved ancestor. The practice is an act of mindfulness that reminds the present generation to honor and be grateful for those who came before. I once knew a woman who had a shelf with pictures of all her past pets. Her ‘shrine to love’ she called it. If we open ourselves to the essence of what an altar is, we see that in all its various manifestations, it is always a shine to love, an aspiration for hope and a wish for happiness. A doll house can be seen as a child’s shrine to his or her hope for future happiness. Even a bobble-head doll on a dashboard, the gnomes in a garden are also objects that humanize our world and invoke in us a longing, be it frivolous or sacred, for happiness. We needn’t restrict our home altar to what is usually considered spiritual or religious. Feathers and leaves, flowers and seeds, seashells and seaweed all offer their prayer to the heavens from this altar that is Earth. Everything sings its song of hope, its faith in life. Your home altar should join in this chorus and inspire you to sing as well.