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Creating a Home Altar

Keen Category: Spiritual Advice

A small buddhist altar in a home

Many people keep their memories in a scrapbook or on a photo folder of their hard drive. You probably have more than one friend with boxes in the garage filled with small objects from the past that represent important and cherished moments in his or her life. Meanwhile, lots of these same folks have some sort of religious or symbolic totem on the walls of their house. Be it a cross or a small Buddha, one's domestic space is a safe place to be surrounded by the icons of your faith.

There are many times in our lives, though, where the totems of our world carry a power and meaning that borders on the spiritual. Creating a small altar in your home can keep memories alive and honor other aspects of your world that are important in that space. A home altar hosts your personal relics and reflections, unifying the disparate elements of who you are in one assemblage that hosts what you hold most dear and deem most important.

How to Build Your Home Altar

The best thing about a home altar is that there are no rules. It can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. It can be one important object on a bookshelf – as long as that object remains in the same place, it is an established presence in your world and substitutes for the real thing it represents. Consistency is the most critical element in your altar. Once you have established its fundamental appearance, adding and subtracting things on it should be done with the utmost seriousness. Your altar is a reflection of your core self-image and aspirations. Hairstyles or boyfriends may come and go, but an altar that maintains its appearance is a valuable touchstone of your deeper self that is fundamentally unchangeable beyond an evolution toward enlightenment.

Many home altars are consciously constructed out of durable building materials, but simply covering a small cabinet with a decorative cloth can serve just as well if you choose a good location for it. Home altar placement is a big consideration. Will you be entertaining guests who would not understand or respect what you have created? Is there something on your altar that is a symbol to you that might be misunderstood? The priority of your altar's appearance is not to communicate your beliefs to the rest of the world; it is to have a structured grouping of your values visible to you on a consistent basis.

If you are comfortable enough with whom you are and have no problem being seen in this way by anyone else in the world, location may not be an issue. But there are other considerations. You may think twice about having anything too valuable sitting on your altar. Suppose a departed relative has left you some gold jewelry and you want to honor this person's memory on your home altar. A photograph of this person or a picture of some of the jewelry serves as an homage to this person while offering nothing of value to a visitor looking to steal something.

Types of Altars

Since time immemorial, worshippers have gathered around an altar to form a common bond in a communal space. At the same time, it is natural for a person to want his or her own sacred space where, alone and unchallenged, this person can connect with the universe as he or she understands it. There are many types of home altars and they serve varied and distinct purposes…

  • Hopeful Altar
    When you are in need of positive reinforcement, a hopeful altar can be the place where you start and finish your day. If you take five seconds of seeing your own representation of hope every morning, your days will be aligned with an upbeat agenda. If you pause at your altar for five more seconds before you turn out the light, your dreams will help construct an inspired subconscious. A hopeful altar can contain images of nature to symbolize all the beauty that is possible in the physical world. Adding in a reminder of one of your heroes who overcame adversity can reinforce your own persistence to stay positive while moving through conflict. Cheerful colors can balance the temporary gloom in your world.

  • Identity Altar
    Do you need to assert who you are in a world that demands an ever-increasing and dehumanizing conformity from you? A home altar with a vision of your identity can keep you grounded in the values that you suppress in the workplace or classroom. Do you have a connection to your ethnic heritage that makes you feel more individualistic yet simultaneously part of a group that spans history? An altar can reinforce your connection with the arrangement of simple symbols of other places in the world and the people who made them great. These will become daily reminders of how you identify yourself as part of the world, and yet apart from the demands of the world.

  • Mourning Altar
    The loss of a loved one can be devastating. Despite numerous rituals designed centuries ago to provide comfort and closure, the permanence of death is something that cannot be overcome save for time distancing us from that terrible reality. Building a home altar of mourning is an ancient practice. The décor is inevitably centered on the deceased: a photograph of the person and some objects that symbolize who he or she was are often included. The purpose of an altar of mourning is to process what this person meant to you and to keep that meaning alive within you. The daily reminder of this person in the form of an altar should instill all that was good about him or her into you. As time goes on, many people want to move on with their lives but feel it would be disrespectful of the departed to take down their altar. It is important to make an altar of mourning a place of celebrating the life of this person. Always be open to changing and rearranging the objects and pictures on the altar in order to see a reflection of who you are becoming as you more thoroughly incorporate the lessons of the person you are honoring. As time goes on, the altar may be less about mourning and more about you moving on with your life.

  • Devotional Altar
    Have you found a belief that expresses who you are? Is there a rich vocabulary of images and symbols that encapsulate what it means to believe in these ideals? As you delve deeper into your studies, a home altar can symbolize the progress you are making in reaching a state of complete self-empowerment in service to this area of knowledge. There was a time when you lived in darkness. Now that the light of this new approach to life has filled your life, a home altar expresses this relationship and serves as an anchor of your belief.

No matter where you are in life, having a place to check in with who you are, where you come from and what you believe is of great assistance in making progress. Moving up in consciousness is easier when there is a foundation. A home altar can be the symbol of that base in your life. Your overall development will be stronger when there is a physical representation of your values and aspirations in your personal sacred space that you honor on a daily basis.