As a Transformational Counselor/Ritualist, I support my clients in their spiritual goals. If appropriate for the clients’ goals, I ask them if they have an altar that may support them on their journey, and provide clarity in response to their questions and concerns. I've been struck that, more often than not, my clients will share that they do not have an altar. This has surprised me because most of my clients are transpersonally oriented, meaning thatthey have incorporated into their way of being, beliefs and practices which include non-ordinary states of consciousness, contemplative practices, self transcendence, and a connection or journey to the Divine or meaning-making.
Upon reflection, I've discerned several possible reasons why many of my clients may not think about creating an altar. They may have experienced spiritual wounding or negative references associated with the iconography of childhood spiritual or religious upbringing. Or they may carry negative societal or cultural associations which attribute to their conscious or unconscious decision not to incorporate altars into their spiritual or life journey. Additionally, altars are often held as strictly a religious or spiritual practice. Another simpler explanation is that the pace and commitments of life take hold. Some of my clients will simply say they have just never got around to it, although they desired to have one.
So, my purpose in sharing the practice of altar building is to demonstrate how it supports one’s spiritual or religious journey, how it has the potential to expand consciousness, as well as to broaden the application for those who do not have a spiritual or religious practice. An altar can be supportive while facing life’s challenges, and it can be used as a practice for manifestations, and psycho-emotional support along one's life journey.
Altars have been used for millennia, by nearly all peoples for prayer, ritual, meditation, contemplation, transformation, balance, connection to the Divine, to all living and in spirit, as well as to reinforce cultural and community ties and beliefs. There are many nuances woven within these intentions and purposes which can be very individualized. I will provide some examples of spiritual questions and challenges, and describe how my clients have utilized altars to assist them, as well as share some of my personal experiences with the use of altars.
Don was confused about what spiritual path to follow. He shared that he remained an empty vessel awaiting instruction though he'd read every spiritual guru’s book. He felt empty because what he was doing did not fulfill him spiritually (he defined himself as spiritual). He endeavored on this journey with a sense of fervor and frustration that was palpable in my body as I sat with him. After some conversation, and establishing rapport, I asked Don why fulfilling a spiritual connection was important to him. He explained that he believed in God, but desired a deeper connection, a way to connect to God since church was not an option nor did he have a community to share his way of spiritual being.
I then asked him to share more about those times when he has felt connected to something deeper. He mentioned prayer, certain passages from spiritual and religious texts, his family, roses and times of quiet and contemplation.
I invited Don to build an altar with either the books that held the text, or copies of the text, photos of his family, roses, and any other images or photos that resonated with him. All these items became sacred to him, and he created a space where his spiritual journey had movement, and a connection to that something greater where he could have a meaningful personal space for prayer. This was not the end of his journey; moreover, this new practice continued to open doors.
Doors to one’s own spiritual, religious or way of meaning may be closed because of cultural and familial conflicts. There can be potential for deep wounding and angst in this space. With another client, I invited him to connect with his body while he shared his story as a way to open a door. I often invite clients to pause when their body speaks through movement. I share an observation of a hand to the heart, a clenched fist, or the breath becoming thinner and higher in the chest as it elevates. I have found that the body has so much to say. I can even hear it in the breath and tone of the voice when I am working with someone on the phone. When someone connects with their body something interesting happens, the conversation shifts, and goes deeper, to a place where thoughts and feelings bubble up. Paying attention to those sensations, I invite clients to free associate with images, colors, sounds, and tastes as a way to identify meaningful items they may use to build an altar. After review, they make use of whatever feels right and comfortable within their being.
As you can see one’s connection to an altar is not a thoughtless task. It involves going deep within for connection and a creation of meaning. The physical construction may be based upon items other than those traditionally thought of, such as statues or candles. If you have a challenge with using any of the symbols or colors of your path, practice or beliefs, or want to expand on them, I invite you to think of sound, food, elements (fire, water, earth, and air), scent, movement, and calling upon helping spirits or guides. You may sing, chant, dance, play your own musical instrument or recorded music as you work with your altar. For example, I incorporate a scent and an element, by spraying myself with rosewater before I pray in front of my altar. I invite water spirit to cleanse and rejuvenate me, and the rose scent is calming for me as well as a beautiful aroma that aids in my connection to my heart chakra. Consequently, my intention to hold love, compassion and understanding for others is reinforced.
There are several other altar attributes which I have not addressed.These include color, element symbology, directional placement (north, south, east or west) and other options. I invite you to allow your spirit to guide you in discovering what provides meaning to you. Locate your altar in a place that has meaning and resonates with you. I have one altar in my bedroom, one in my living room, one outside, a portable altar in my purse, a medicine bag, which I consider to be an altar, and a tattoo, which is not only an altar symbol, but which I consider to be a portable altar. I am not suggesting to get a tattoo; it is just another example of how an altar may manifest. My tattoo is a Lakota symbol, which means “umane.” I also have the word tattooed above the symbol. Umane has several meanings including the four winds or directions, a holy altar made of dirt, and it also means the Mother Earth’s untapped energy force. Although I am Apache, Chol Maya, Mayan and Latina, this Lakota symbol connects me to my spiritual and cultural roots as an American Indian, my body and way of meaning-making through my holding of being connected to all things through this altar.
Now I invite you to make your way on your journey to your construction of meaning – - your altar.
Gentle winds, Yvonne B.
Copyrighted. Yvonne Brock. All Rights Reserved.