There’s a small Buddha on an altar in my bedroom.
About three years ago I came across his plastic incarnation at a yard sale for a quarter. His shape was lovely though, so I brought him home, painted him gold and placed him on my bureau.
I later came across an incense holder in the shape of an elongated woman lying down, with a small hole at her throat for the sharp end of a stick of incense. The potter’s notes explained that the mysterious face with the closed eyes belonged to the goddess of compassion, Quanyin, the embodiment of yin in Chinese philosophy.
I added her and an amethyst crystal to the altar where Buddha happily merged his yang with her yin. Then a woman I met in Baja California gave me some flowers made from local seashells. The moment I unpacked them, I knew the flowers were meant to encircle the Buddha, now seated on a silver-rimmed plate my husband and I had been given as a wedding present.
Sometime later, I came across two oyster shells, which became the Buddha’s iridescent wings.
My husband and I fell into the habit of burning incense in front of this shrine almost every evening, and in sleep, the smoky fragrance seeped into our dreams. We felt as if we were re-creating the perfumed beauty of temples we’d visited in Japan.
The scented air carried peacefulness deep into our lungs. Raindrops sliding down skylights showered us with silent refreshment.
At full moon, we bathed in the moon’s light. Blessings flew in the open windows on the breeze.
Without conscious intent, the sacred space Jack and I had created in our bedroom changed the quality of the time we spend there.
My friend Sarah also created an altar with her husband.
On the wall above the fireplace across from their bed they hung a framed picture of a Madonna and Child, taken from a Russian calendar. On the mantel below sits a small sculpture of an angel titled “Encounter with the Self,” along with five candles and a painting of the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, done in red calligraphy by a friend.
“The altar is both reassuring and centering,” Sarah says. “How can I explain?
“It helps me to recall who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing on this earth. And it reminds me, at the beginning and at the end of each day, that I’m loved and that I have love to give to the universe.”
Another friend has placed her precious objects on a small rattan table in her bedroom. She’s surrounded a clay sculpture of a goddess with natural objects collected on her travels, each one connected to a significant spiritual moment - shells and stones from Hawaii and Esalen, a twisted stick from a Vision Quest in Utah’s Canyonlands. She’s also placed on the table a photograph of herself as a young girl.
“It’s my way of keeping that 6-year-old alive in me,” she explains. “The picture is a reminder that her spontaneity, playfulness and knowledge of her own feelings are still here within me.”
In meditation, these objects reconnect my friend with her essential self, with spirit, and with the fullness of her life.
My friend Diana, an acupuncturist, has the five elements of Chinese medicine present on her altar: fire, earth, metal, water and wood. When she meditates, she lights the white candle in its metal holder, feeling as if the time she spends in this sacred corner of her art studio helps her to creatively integrate all the scattered parts of herself.
Many of my friends didn’t wish to be named, for worship in these times seems an intensely private activity. Still, they described altars created from all sorts of natural materials: stones, feathers, leaves, beach glass, seashells, children’s art, twigs, speckled eggs, dried flowers, old perfume bottles, dead birds, dried insects.
“Sacred objects,” explained the lady of bottles, birds and bugs.
And then I understood. These discarded, overlooked and sometimes unlikely items are sacred because they have been imbued with meaning.
Someone caught sight of them, saw their inner beauty and felt the awe in them, and in awe of them. Someone then set them in a place of honor so that the power they radiate, which until then had been invisible, dazzles anyone with the eyes to see.
This is how my new friend Nancy put it: “My altar represents the sacredness within myself, the altar within myself, the holiness within myself, the divine within myself, the higher self within myself, and seeing it and reflecting on it brings serenity and peace.”