When I was eleven, I made my first altar on a little shelf in my closet. I didn’t really know what an altar was; my family wasn’t religious, I had never been in any kind of spiritual building, but my heart felt a yearning to touch the magic of the sacred. So I took a white rabbit skin I’d gotten somewhere, and put some special things on it: a crystal that had come to me in a magical way, some rocks I’d found, incense I’d bought at a fair, and a little candle. I’d close myself into the secret little world of my closet, light the candle, and sit in the dark with the flickering flame reflecting rainbows in the clear quartz, feeling the breath of the Mysterious all around me. To this day, twenty-five years later, I still use white rabbit fur on my altars, and that crystal is one of my shamanic working tools.
People often ask me, “What’s the first thing I can do to get started in this work?” And my answer is usually this: make an altar, and use it. An altar is simply a physical space, that is set aside for spiritual work, that invites and honors the connection between humans and Spirit/s. Oftentimes, it may contain a selection of items that act as a touchstone to remind us of that connection or honoring, but it could just be a place to sit. There is no right or wrong way to make an altar, and it’s up to your own guidance and intuition.
Why An Altar?
There are a number of reasons why altars are crucial for spiritual work, that range from working with our own psychology, to communicating with spirit/s, to honoring the Great Mystery. On the most basic level, it’s just there to help us focus on our practice. Making an altar may require us to move or get rid of some things in our home, purchase a small table or rug, or just reorganize our space in a new way. When we take the time and energy to carve out a physical space for Spirit in our homes, we are also demonstrating our commitment to carving out a deeper place for Spirit in our lives. This signals to our deepest selves, the Universe, and our guides that we are prioritizing this work, are ready to be in deeper alignment with our path, and are willing to make the necessary changes or sacrifices for it. This is, in itself, a powerful ritual act that opens us to new possibilities.
The Psychology of Ritual
In terms of the psychology of human beings, a lot of the benefits of ritual (i.e. physical actions tied to energetic or spiritual movement/s), are in helping us relax into our subconscious minds. In scientific terms, what we’re talking about is helping shift our brainwaves from the busy thinking beta state, to the slower levels of alpha and theta, which happens when we deepen into meditation, spiritwork, dream, or trance. The subconscious mind is the part of us that imagines, that wanders magical pathways, that experiences a sense of timewarp when we’re deeply entranced with making a beautiful piece of art, or are fully present in a dance, or even computer programming, if it absorbs us. The subconscious mind simply doesn’t respond to normal thoughts or talking from our beta-brain like, “Cool, I think I’d like to be more spiritual and stuff.” What it does respond to are symbols and actions that entice it so come out of hiding and play, and in making an altar, we are setting aside a space that is specifically conducive to doing just that. Even in the moment of making the altar we are, as mentioned, engaging in a symbolic act.
Ritual is also tied to repeated actions, so every time we sit down at our altar to intentionally shift our consciousness, we are strengthening the tie in our subconscious minds between the altar and dropping into that deep, vast place of Spirit. Human psyches are not really that different than Pavlov’s dogs. Regularly sitting at your altar is like ringing the bell, and if you do it often enough, pretty soon your soul will start salivating for Spirit the minute you sit down. If you always do other things after you sit down, like lighting a candle, this too will get tied to that deep place, and you’ll be able to use that as a signal to your subconscious mind when you’re not around your altar. This is how we begin to work with ourselves to exercise our spiritual muscles, and gain some tools to help us swiftly and smoothly shift our consciousness at will. The capacity to do this is the foundation of really all spiritual or energetic work.
Signaling the Spirits
The other thing about creating an altar is that its use also signals the spirits that we’re ready to work. The second thing people often ask me is, “How do I begin connecting with my guides?”, and the answer is the same: make an altar, and use it. When we set aside a time and space to drop into the sacred, we create an open channel to our guides. And believe me, they know the exact moment you do that, just as clearly as if you’d shot a flare into the sky that turns into giant sky-writing that says, ‘Dude, I’m ready to talk’. Most of the time, our guides are present in our daily lives and trying desperately to reach us, it’s just that we’re not really listening in between working, hanging with friends, watching Netflix, and having our beta-brains full of busy chatter they can’t get through.
In working with states of consciousness, I often use the metaphor of the radio: 95% of our waking time, our minds are generally set to static, and though beings on the other side are broadcasting, we’re not tuned in to their stations. When we sit at our altar, and engage with our spiritual practice, we begin tuning higher. We practice turning the dial, and listening for something in the static to change. In the beginning, we might get close to a station, but it still comes in kind of fuzzy, or we might overshoot the signal and miss it entirely. With practice, though, we get better at carefully tuning in to the messages that are within us and being sent to us. So if you make an altar, and ask your guides to communicate with you, I guarantee you they’ll be there, every time, excitedly trying to tune down to you, too.
Honoring the Mystery
One of the other reasons to make an altar is not about you at all, it’s about being in relationship with and honoring the spirits that want to work with you, and honoring the power of the Great Mystery. It doesn’t matter what deities you honor (or not, agnostics) or whether you call your guides angels, totems, etc. What does matter is that you allow yourself to open to the possibility (some might say reality) that you are one tiny, perfect piece held in all the exquisite workings of the Universe, in an unknowable vastness that flows within and around you. In other words, you are invited to open to awe.
With awe generally flows a sense of gratitude, at being able to be vibrantly alive in a beautiful interdepen-dance with all that is. It’s recognizing that your life is held, assisted, guided, and supported by countless beings, and that you are never alone. It’s useful to figure out how to be thankful for this, and to bow in humility for all that we are given. Making offerings with gratitude, of prayers, food, sacred substances, or anything you do at your altar is a way to honor how much you owe the Universe and various beings, for the opportunity to be alive and in kinship them.
So these are some of the primary reasons to have an altar that you use regularly: to signal your psyche to shift consciousness, to signal the spirits you’re ready to listen, to practice your capacity to tune up, and to honor the Mystery of life, and those who assist you, with awe and gratitude.
How To Make an Altar
Now that it’s clear why we create altars and what some of their purposes are, how do we make one? I generally have people start by finding an area that is private, quiet, and can be energetically contained, like a bedroom—especially if you live with other people. Find a small table, shelf, or something like a piece of fabric that can delineate a specific space where you can put a few things. You’ll also need some room to either sit or lay in front of it, and it’s helpful to set these areas aside to use only for spirit work. Maybe you might want a small cushion, or a chair, or a little rug to encourage you to feel comfortable spending some time there. Whatever you need to do, create a space that feels warm, safe, and inviting to you.
Start by putting at least one candle on the altar, and then see what else you might be drawn to. You might be called to collect natural objects, such as stones or shells that seems special to you; parts of animals, like teeth, claws, or feathers that resonate; images, statues, or other items that represent guides, ancestors, or god-forms; pieces of art or symbolic items that hold meaning for your heart; or touchstones of the elements, like water, flowers, incense or smudge, etc. Again these are just some ideas, as there are no right or wrong ways to make an altar. Your altar can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. Enjoy its creation as an exercise in listening to your guidance and intuition, and tune in regularly to see if you need to add or change anything to keep it living.
How to Care for an Altar
Altars are energetic creations that need care and attention to remain potent; like all living things, they must be fed. You feed them with your time, attention, energy, and ritual actions, and they respond by growing strong and beautiful, as a reflection of your spiritual practice. Perhaps you’ve experienced being in a temple, church, monastery, ancient ruin, or other spiritual place that resonates a calm, deep peace, and a sense of awe, where you can feel the power of spirit present. These are places that have been energetically ‘fed’ by many humans over a long period of time. Every moment of focused attention or ritual builds up in such places, the way layers and layers of beautiful pearlescent sheen create a pearl in an oyster shell. So, too, is it with your altar.
If you already have an ‘altar’, check in with it, and yourself, to see if it is a living altar that is energetically powerful and being fed. Altars need to have a moving flow of energy. Places that are physically cluttered or dirty will have energy that is stagnant and dark. Have you ever seen one of those areas where a creek has changed course, leaving a swampy, mosquito-infested, mud-stinking, algae-covered pool behind, cut off from its flow? That’s how I experience areas, in people and in places, that are cut off from moving energy.
One of the hardest things to get some of my hippy friends to understand is that cleanliness is next to godliness when it comes to energetic flow. So, if your ‘altar’ crystals are covered in dust, there’s some old dried up flowers in the corners and oops, a dead wasp on it, and things haven’t been moved or changed in a year…it’s probably time for an overhaul. Clean things off, weed out anything that’s not relevant anymore, perhaps relocate the entire thing to a place that is more user-friendly, or attend to any issues that may have discouraged your regular use in the past. Whatever is on your altar, keep it clean, lovely, and full of life.
When and How to Use an Altar
The best way for most people to keep their altar and their spiritual practice alive is to find a regular time, every day, that works for them, and then stick to it. For most folks, this will be in the morning, which is a good time for us to get clear and grounded before we leap into our busy day. For night owls, though, right before bed might be the best time to practice, to calm our minds and spirits for sleep. As we humans are creatures of habit (i.e. ritual), it doesn’t really matter when you work with your altar, just that you do. And if you have trouble remembering, you can always set an alarm for yourself on a watch or phone, too.
If you live with a partner, roommate/s, or children, you may need to do a little more to carve out some time for yourself, especially if you (and they) aren’t used to you doing that. Have a conversation about this new element of your life, and how important it is that you have some space and quiet for it. You can also ask your loved one/s to help support you in sticking with it, and remember to hold your boundaries around it in a compassionate, but firm way.
If you have children, they can be taught not to interrupt you for awhile, unless the house is absolutely burning down. However, if you want or need to have them in the same room, you can also have them engage in the practice with you. If you think I’m crazy, I should mention that I have taught meditation to children of all ages, and have knocked out entire classrooms full of energetic preschoolers as they peacefully imagined themselves floating on colorful clouds.
Kids are naturally attuned to the sacred and get sucked into it easily because it’s just like play. So, if you’re home alone with a three-year-old, you can still meditate. However, it’s also important for parents (same goes for partners) to have some ‘me-time’, so don’t feel guilty about setting some boundaries to get the space and time you need for your practice. Whether you meditate with others or alone, communicating your needs and having a consistent time helps your loved ones adapt to it as a new part of your shared schedule.
There are an infinite number of ways to work with spirit, and none of them are better than any others, though some might be better for you. This is the place to begin experimenting to see what works best (for you). Most of my clients and students will be given a shielding or cord-work practice to begin with, and of course, if you have been, that’s what you’ll be doing every day. But you could smudge, pray, chant, make offerings, meditate silently, visualize yourself floating on pink clouds shaped like a pirate ship, or hop on one leg hooting like a crane for all I care. As long as you’re doing something regularly, and it gets you ‘there’, that’s all you need to keep the energy flowing. And of course, if the energy is flowing, it will keep the heart of your spiritual practice—and your altar—alive.