July | The Importance of an Altar

Still Life, Artist Unknown

Still Life, Artist Unknown

An altar is an essential part of meditation practice that often occurs to Western minds as either too esoteric or as a vague totem of blind ritual. Altars are actually practical elements to train the mind and their use increases the effectiveness of the user’s meditation.

Numerous studies enumerate the synthesis of expectation and effect. What one anticipates or ruminates on, tends to be perceived or found in the future. This is commonly reported in terms of inner-city children, expectations of failure, and dropout rates, with expected aggression and incidences of violence, with sugar pills purported to mitigate symptoms of depression. Expectation effects are classic psychological phenomena— why not capitalize on them to expedite spiritual practice?

It is easy to use an altar to create a strong expectation of a chosen outcome. Practitioners are often instructed to use the altar as gilded bait to attract the highest wisdom. The process of building and thoughtfully adorning an altar (the way one would dress a bride, or set a place at the King’s table) causes the mind to assign importance to the task of meditation, the meat within the shell. A practitioner selects the most precious silk, dewy flowers, a photograph of deep importance and subtle cues bring the senses to rapt attention. Memories of time spent planning, the sheen and beauty of precious items, the way the altar sits undisturbed. It starts to seem that a heroic experience will occur while facing this altar. The mind begins to expect it.

A step further: interacting with the altar to set traditional water bowls cements the relationship. The practitioner lays out eight bowls, cleaning them with scrupulous intention, as though this cleaning could erase any cause for hurt in the endless future— as though it could erase death itself. The bowls are passed facedown over a plume of incense smoke, each passing to steep the mind with the wisdom and bliss of Buddhahood. Setting the bowls in place, the meditation practitioner visualizes all teachers they’ve ever had, each memory and vision setting off small shocks of admiration, which, with practice, evolve to adoration. The water is then used to make eight sets of offerings to the teachers. Each minute thought and action, each sensory experience, ignites a spark of emotion pulling the memory deeper into the core of the brain.

Finally, honing the emotion of this profound bricklaying like a scepter of attention, the practitioner sits, with the fuel of this dedicated practice to sustain the hum of effective meditation.

By: Rachel Webb

Three Jewels NYC