I used to hike in the woods with a good friend who loved to create little altars. We’d stop for a rest break and she would stack up several stones into a small castle, then add a tiny feather that she’d found. Or we’d sit on the beach by the lake and write words on rocks: love, joy, passion, determination. Then we’d place them all together like a magnet fridge display and leave them there, hoping the next beachgoer would find inspiration.
That is, after all, the point and joy of an altar: inspiration. We can so easily get lost in the mundaneness of daily events. The days stream by in a whirlwind of work, eat, clean, prep, sleep, repeat. We look forward to our days off, when we can follow a more natural rhythm and follow our own desires instead of the dictates of life. We want to be pulled out of this routine flow into something more exciting, more rewarding, more exalted.
But you don’t have to wait until your two-week vacation or a hiking trip in Nepal to feel a deeper connection to something divine within you.
The art of “puja,” or ritual, is an ancient Hindu tradition to honor different gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. It is a way to enter into an exalted state in service to the attributes of the gods you’re working with to honor them and to fill you with those very attributes. It is the act of tending, cleaning, preparing and caring for these altars, which is, in essence, caring for the gods themselves.
You can make an altar to almost anything. It is a powerful and simple act to create a sacred space in your own home, no matter how small.
Remember your locker in junior high or high school? You had pictures of Michael Jackson or Sting. You cut out that cool Escher drawing and pasted it up next to the one you made in art class. You put up a picture of you and your best friends at the field hockey party, and you secretly tucked in one corner that no one else could see the logo for Brown University, hoping your secret prayers would work on the admission committee. You created an altar, in a tiny little space that was only yours for a year at a time.
In your home, an altar is a beautiful place you create that can help you remember what is important in your life.
It can be on a tabletop or a bookshelf; you can turn a corner of a room, or the corner of a counter, into your altar. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, what matters is your intention. And like meditation, the more time you spend with your altar, doing puja, creating and tending to it, the more empowered it becomes.
Any objects can be used in a home altar, as long as they have meaning for you.
Some people meditate and do yoga in front of their altars. Some people sit and pray there; some people journal or daydream. The space becomes empowered with your presence.
Create your altar with the things that make you feel special. Small objects that are your “touchstones.” Find a pretty scarf and lay that down first, and then add special rocks, shells, feathers, pictures of your loved ones.
If you pray to certain gods, bring them to your altar. Jesus, Ganesh, or if your gods don’t have pictures, you can bring sacred books, like the Talmud or the Quran. You can bring your runes or tarot cards, special paintings or drawings.
Your altar is like an art project: You can make it as magical and full as you like. Add candles and incense. Bring your “desire board” to the altar, maybe as the backdrop.
I have a cousin who has a very simple altar on the empty top of a bookshelf. It has very few things, just three or four sacred objects. She keeps it clean, often moving the objects into different configurations. And under one of the stones, she puts a piece of paper with her wishes written on it. Time and time again, whatever she wishes for comes true remarkably fast. Her altar is empowered with her prayers and her heartfelt belief in powers greater than her own.
This is the beauty of an altar. It reflects your own inner beauty. Maybe simple and open, like my cousin’s, or maybe full of colors and objects so that every space is occupied, like my own. Take care of your altar: Clean it, honor it, add to it. In this way, it becomes a living expression of your own inner beauty and divinity.
If you spend a few minutes every day at this sacred place that you built yourself, you have a few minutes a day of exalted being. But those minutes don’t just end when you snuff out the candle and go to work. Those minutes come with you. They hover over you, like a waft of perfume. And when you lift your tired head up from your desk at the end of the workday, the scent of your prayers can wash over you, reminding you again that you are here on this planet as an expression of divinity. And when you get home that night and glance at your altar on your way to bed, you’ll remember again the joy of your life, the possibilities life holds and the perfection that your life already is.