1. What is the main purpose of an altar?
I believe there are two main purposes for an altar. First, altars are as old as human belief in divinity and represent the attempt to communicate with the Divine as well as provide a place to make offerings. The second purpose is to maintain contact with ancestors and other spirits with the altar providing a visible link between the living and dead.
The first purpose has a slight duality: The altar creates a place for communion with divinity (through worship/ritual) and a deepening of the soul (through meditation/contemplation). I say “slight duality” because these are intertwined. Meditating to find the true essence of who we are eventually leads us to the Divine and vice-versa. There is a divine spark in all of us and when we find it, we discover who we are and that we are part of a universal energy.
2. In your book Your Altar, you discuss ways to setup an altar. What is an altar setup/matrix?
I used the words setup and matrix interchangeably to indicate that the altar top is divided in some manner. Assigning areas of an altar for specific functions is not unique. On Christian altars the Paschal candle at Easter is placed on the right side, which is called the Epistle side. (The left side is called the Gospel side.) The traditional Buddhist altar consists of three tiers: the top one is for images or statues of Buddha, the second for symbolic elements such as a dharma wheel and the third for offerings. Often Pagan altars are divided into five parts with areas representing the cardinal directions and the center for spirit.
Traditionally, a meditation altar is used to focus the mind. I’ve gone a step further by using the altar not only to focus but also to guide the meditation. In the introduction to the book I refer to an altar matrix as a game board as way to convey the idea of dividing the altar into separate sections for specific purposes. If you want to play backgammon you wouldn’t use a chessboard, since each board game has its own physical layout, its own rules, and its own mindset. This also applies to an altar matrix because each one is configured with a certain intent that functions as a path to guide the meditation process.
Dividing the altar top can be done by putting a large piece of paper on the altar and simply drawing a grid for whichever altar layout you plan to use. For example, if you are using a nine-part altar matrix it would look like a tic-tac-toe grid. If you prefer to work simply, anything straight and thin can be used to demarcate the sectors. A simple or elaborate setup is a personal choice.
3. Do we have to belong to a certain religion to set up and use an altar?
No, altars are common to most religious paths; however, my intent is to provide an interfaith exploration of self and our personal relationship with the Divine. While the concepts and practices that I present come from a variety of spiritual traditions, they do not require you to leave your own beliefs behind. I also feel that it’s important to be open to other religious paths because there is so much we can learn from each other’s beliefs.
Some of the meditations that I suggest in the book are not connected with any religion. For example, one deals with the five senses: Because they connect us with the outer world as well as our inner world, tuning into our senses can help us become fully grounded in our physical being. Meditation brings us into self, which as mentioned, leads us to the Divine regardless of specific religious path.
4. In your book you mention that dividing the altar top into multiple sections allows the altar to function as a powerful tool; can you explain how this division makes a difference?
When we divide the altar top into sections, the power of numbers comes into play. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras believed that the essence of everything was expressible in numbers. On an altar, the number of sectors creates a form of yantra—a geometric diagram for focusing the mind and accessing the soul. When used symbolically, numbers can reveal underlying energy, purpose, pattern, and structure. As the ancient Indian sage Patanjali pointed out, symbols can be used to help us transcend them.
5. Can you give us examples of altar layouts and how they work for our benefit?
One meditation deals with the five principles of Reiki. You don’t have to be familiar with Reiki to do this meditation because the ideas are universal. They are: Just for today I will… live in the attitude of gratitude; not worry; not anger; do my work honestly; and show love and respect for all living things. In this meditation you create five sections on your altar, print these principles on paper, place one in each sector and then meditate on each one.
These are wonderful ideals to take to heart. I found that after contemplating them, I found them popping up in my mind as I went about my daily business. The more frequently I think about living with an attitude of gratitude I find my outlook on any given day changing as I think about what an amazing world we live in and how fortunate I am to be here in this place at this time. My life may not be perfect, but I am grateful.
Like other methods of using energy, altar matrices help us unlock emotions held within us that we may have no other way to access. In addition, an altar setup can help us access and process knowledge. For example, you may find it useful to set up an altar grid that coincides with things in your life or something you may be studying.
6. In your book you state that the process for using an altar matrix consists of three steps for opening self and accessing wisdom. What are these steps?
The three steps are the same ones used for deep meditation, journeying and vision quests: Symbol/Concentration, Trance/Tranquility and Vision/Insight.
The first step, Symbol/Concentration, is the altar itself, which serves as a point of focus. The way that it is divided and the things placed on it will serve as a pattern to access information and guidance.
The second step, Trance/Tranquility, doesn’t mean 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.
In the third step, Vision/Insight, meditation and contemplation begin with intention, but once we settle in front of the altar, all intention must be set aside because our minds can interpret intention as expectation. Whether from within or outside of self, wisdom comes softly into consciousness. The important thing is to be open to receive it.
7. What benefits do we obtain by following these steps?
Using these steps and meditating with specific altar setups acts as a gateway to deeper self because it provides a way to access and activate archetypal energies and to receive knowledge. It also provides methods for aligning physical, mental and spiritual energies, as well as alternative ways for viewing ourselves and the world around us. Because of our individuality, I think each of us can create very specific and unique altar setups that will have deep personal meaning.
8. How can an altar and meditation complement each other?
Meditation is used in many spiritual traditions to reduce the chaos of the mind and come to stillness. The Indian sage Yogananda called meditation the science of being actively calm. Although not all meditation techniques require an altar, it is frequently used as a point of focus for quieting the mind and getting to that point of being actively still.
Moreover, being able to sit in stillness; to be alone and quiet is increasingly important because our world is so busy and chaotic. So many things constantly compete for our attention, and at the end of the day we usually find that we have little or no time for ourselves. The result is that we suffer from spiritual poverty. We may have a lot of material things but we have no idea of who we truly are or our purpose on this earth. Because meditation may be a challenge, using an altar matrix to guide the mind can be an invaluable aid in getting to that active stillness.
9. Some of us are less experienced than others with meditation and altars. Do you have any recommendations for those of us just beginning our work with altars?
Meditation is not difficult, it only requires persistence and setting aside the time to do it—these are the biggest challenges. If we don’t hear a choir of angels, we may be disappointed and give up. This is a legacy of our modern world; we expect instant gratification.
Simply be present moment by moment as you focus on your altar. During meditation when other thoughts intrude, acknowledge them and then set them aside. Remind yourself that if it is important it will come back to you later. 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 onion skin layer toward our inner core, our real nature. After meditation, take time to ponder the experience. Take the knowledge into your soul so it becomes part of you.
While I make suggestions for what to put on your altar, ultimately it’s a deeply personal decision. When I was writing the book, I conducted a survey about altars and found that people keep a wide range of items on their altars which do not appear to be proscribed according to faith. If anything, there is an interfaith mix of symbols and objects. For example, Christians and eclectic Pagans are just as likely to have a statue of Buddha as Buddhists. Stay true to what you feel and use things that have meaning for you.