Self Empowerment Through Altar Building

Self Empowerment Through Altar Building

In my years of discovering how to heal injuries and recover from hard blows, the only effective methods I’ve ever found to establish lasting wellness always involved some aspect of shamanic study and practice. Shamanism is a field of study that recognizes that life is a mystery and that mystery is governed by profound love and light. Every physical problem we ever face is always a conversation that navigates the journey from the temporary physical world to the eternal metaphysical world. There are methods to bridge the visible and the invisible dimensions. One of the most creative and fun is that of Altar Building. This ancient practice is found in every human culture throughout the ages, and can even be recognized in some of the animal nations.

It is in our nature to organize nature. To put a rock and a flower and a feather together as an expression of beauty is a creative way to connect with and honor the profound but simple awe we hold towards everyday objects. An altar is usually found in every religious tradition because of how effective it is in defining a space with specific beliefs. Because of how religions often use altars, it is often believed that all altars are religious in nature. But altars are not inherently religious structures. They are intentional, self-defined structures. Building an altar can be a simple, elegant and deeply personal journey towards self-reflection which leads to self-empowerment which need not have anything to do with any religious tratition. We can build an altar to honor a relative, an animal companion, a place in the world, an idea, or anything you can think of you’d like to learn more about.

An altar is an invitation and a request for new energy and information to flow into your life about anything you want to learn more about. All learning involves receiving new information from a higher dimension. Sometimes this can be a litteral elder who mentors us. And sometimes the source of information can come from a mysterious, non-physical dimension. In truth, even our beloved mentors are receiving their wisdom from a higher source. An altar in our home or in any space we spend time in is a creative, visual request for guidance from a higher source of wisdom.

The Essence and Purpose of Altar Building

An altar is a focal point where the physical meets the spiritual, enabling our physical mind to approach the abstract, non-physical dimension of creative potential. For anyone on a journey of self-discovery and expansion, building altars can serve as a tangible reflection of your inner world. When we take up the activity of creating an altar to some aspect of our interests, we are immediately met with how we feel. The whole process reflects back to us if we are nervous, insecure, in a hurry, feeling discouraged, or any other emotional weather condition we might encounter within our hearts around a given topic. By externalizing the aspects of the issue we want to learn more about, we are able to place our quest into a larger web of context and open our minds to being surprised by the unseen forces all around us that are willing to guide and support us.

Building Your Personal Altar: A Step-by-Step Guide

Creating an altar need not be complicated or require special items. You can use twigs, flowers, dirt, pebbles, and things you have around the house like keys, buttons, and any other objects that call to you. Altar building is a bit like collage work, and infact, making collages is a 2-D form of altar building. The process of building an altar is deeply personal and intuitive. You make up the rules and you set the pace.

Here’s a simple guide to get you started:

Choosing a Location: Find a space that feels quiet and private. Clear it out so that it is empty. This could be a corner of your bedroom, a small table, or even a shelf. It could also be somewhere in your back yard or in nature near by. Let the space be empty for a while and notice your responses to that empty potential space.

Selecting Items: There are four objects that are very important to include in any altar dedicated to hearing true guidance. Those four objects hold the energy and properties of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. These four elements are the foundations of all physical life. Everything in your world comes from these four natural states. This is why the four elements are the most basic reality check and why getting into nature is so clarifying. So bring a bit of nature into your home by placing into your empty clearing: a stone, a bowl of water, a candle, and a piece of incense to burn. When we light the candle we activate the altar with our intentions to receive guidance. When we burn sage, incence, cedar, or palo Santo we are able to see the element of air more clearly as well as witness the transition of something physical into the non-physical dimension.

After these four basic items are on your altar it is time to add any images, fabrics, or other objects that hold the energy of the issue you are investigating. This can be pictures that inspire such as an animal or mentor or historical heroic figure. It can be an heirloom, or even a new item you have decided to dedicate to the issue you are learning about.
When you dedicate an object to an issue on an altar you are begining the art of Medicine Making! More on this later!

Activating and Interacting with your altar: Your altar is a living space. It is a living sculpture of expression regarding the topic you are investigating. You will find that the objects want to be rearranged somedays and other days they feel very grounded in their place but a new object wants to come in or an old object wants to be removed. This type of conversation with the energy of objects is also called Grid Work. It is the ability to sense the aliveness (or lack thereof) in a given object and to follow where it wants to be moved. Grid work is also the foundation of Family Constellations which is the group process of following energy as it seeks resolution.

To engage your altar, light the candle and burn a simple fragrance like sage, cedar, or incense. Hold your mind in silence for a brief moment as you observe the fire flame and the silky smoke. This simple activity connects you with the Great Mystery!

There are no rules when working with an altar and there is no dogmatic behavior required. Interact only when it feels relaxing or helpful. Never work with an altar or any personal growth tool out of a sense of obligation. It could be days, weeks or months before you find your way back to the space and decide to dust it off and rearrange it. Part of working with a healing tool is to release the idea that we are not doing something “the right way.” Let your relationship with this simple creative activity be a source of relaxation and curiosity.

Self Empowerment Through Altar Building

Three Common Hesitations in Altar Work and How to Overcome Them

Despite its benefits, many people hesitate to work with altars because they either don’t know how or don’t want to engage anything religious. Here are a few common reasons why people don’t take up working with altars:

1. Feeling Inexperienced
It’s common to doubt one’s “qualification” to engage in such a personal spiritual practice. Many official religious organizations and spiritual traditions present great authority in their field and it is easy to feel like an amature when it comes to studying shamanism, which is to say, natural healing movements. But altar building is for everyone. Your first attempts are some of the most touching and heart-felt efforts you ever make.
Solution: Let yourself be a learner. Let yourself begin somewhere. Remember, your altar is a reflection of your unique journey so you will do it your way and you never need to share your process with anyone. When I first began, my altar how I connected with animals in nature. I would put a single picture of an animal I wanted to spend time with (and send love to) and in this way, I would honor that animal and feel close to it while living in this urban isolation. To my surprise, squirels started pausing as I walked by, lizards stopped running away as I approached. Crows landed and peered down at me. It was truly otherworldly! And from then on, I never doubted the power of an altar to facilitate communion and connection with anything I sought to reach out for. Allow your altar to grow and change with you, and remember, you can not do it wrong.

2. Concern About Cultural Appropriation
In these sensitive, and explosive times of cultural inclusion as well as cultural remembering, there’s a valid concern about using elements that others feel we ought not use.

Solution: Know that whatever your cultural ethnicity may be, your ancestors built altars. Do a bit of research about those traditions and alwasy approach altar building with deep respect and positive intention. If you feel called to add an element into your altar that comes from a different culture, light the candle, burn the sage and hold the item in your hand. Ask the spirit of that culture if it would be okay if you included it in your studies. Locate the deep reason in your heart for wanting to include that item or traditon. It may be connected to a past life or a soul contract with that culture and it may begin a powerful journey of discovery.

Working with different cultural traditions shows reverence and respect for that culture, but it is important to learn how that culture recognizes gestures of respect. When I felt called to include Lakota traditions into my altar work, I first took several years to read every book published by Lakota elders. This included the well-known leaders like Black Elk, Archi Fire Lame Deer, and Rolling Thunder. I also joined a Lakota sweat lodge run by indiginous leaders. I brought items to their fireplaces and asked questions and listened.

Your personal effort to research and connect with the tradition you feel called to is the only way to feel grounded in working with another cultures tradition. While many individuals in a given culture are angry, hurt, and reactionary, the Spirit of the Culture is much larger than any one individual. Aim to connect with the Spirit of the Culture in a quiet, personal way. Do not ever present yourself as an authority of a different cultural tradition unless you have been initiated into that culture by a revered elder of that community.

But a good practice as you begin your studies is to thouroghly learn about your ancestral traditions first. There is where you will find the most stable and empowering support.

3. Lack of Physical Space
Altar can get quite elaborate and expressive, some have a dedicated room or even an entire building! This can be daunting to a new student of shamanic studies especially in urban living conditions.

Solution: The infinite universe does not register the size of something as equal to its power. The smallest pebble can hold the power of the sun. An altar can be as small as a windowsill or even a portable box. What matters is the intention behind it. I’ve seen beautiful altars set up on small bookshelves, each item charged with meaning and purpose, proving that space constraints need not limit your spiritual expression.

Begin your Altar Building Studies
Building and working with an altar is a deeply personal and empowering practice. It invites us into a space of reflection, connection, and growth, allowing us to manifest our spiritual and worldly aspirations. Whether you are drawn to this practice from a shamanic perspective or simply seeking a new way to deepen your spiritual journey, remember that your altar is a reflection of your unique path and can show you the blind spots in your current perspective.

I encourage you to begin gathering items that speak to your heart and setting aside a small space in your home as a sacred spot. Approach this practice with an open heart and curiosity, and see what unfolds. Like a living garden, let it grow and change with you. Weed away what doesn’t fit and sew new items in as the conversation shifts and grows. I wish you joy on your new adventure!

About the Author

Hi, I’m Jess. In my own experience when working through my own struggles in life, I found the process of traditional psychotherapy to be too formal and analytical.  I was frustrated with how talk therapy seemed to circle the airport and never land a solution or resolution.  When I found Constellations work I realized the importance of connecting to a greater mysterious power of Grace when searching for the healing movement. When I discovered IFS, (Internal Family Systems work) I realized the power of my imagination to heal and release buried pain. Resolutions to my struggles really began to land for me with Family Constellations and IFS work. Because I found real results in these alternative healing methods, I have dedicated my life to studying them and bringing these resources to others.

Learn more about me

Self Empowerment Through Altar Building

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