A sense of the sacred: create an altar and clear your space
Bringing the shamanic dimension into your daily life
Awakening The Shamanic Force Within
As already stated, shamanic work involves working with energies, particularly to develop a sense of the sacred and to strive to bring it actively into your life. As spirit underlies everything, you will find that the sacred is everywhere and that you can enhance it and bring it to the fore in your daily life. A good way to begin is to create an altar, a space which is sacred for you and which you can dedicate to your connection with spirit.
Another step, which for most people follows instinctively, is to develop a feeling for the space around you, to cleanse your space on a regular basis, to declutter it, to pay attention to the objects with which you surround yourself and to infuse it all with good intent — with the sacred.
Creating an altar
An altar is a physical home for spirit and a threshold between the worlds. It can be indoors or outdoors, permanent or portable. Your personal altar holds your spiritual intent and is a focal point for the sacred in your life. It assists you in your spiritual undertakings, be they meditation, rituals, ceremonies, quests or healing.
The objects on an altar are more than symbolic representations: they hold the very energy and power of that which they represent. For instance, when the shaman invites certain spirits to attend a ceremony, it is believed that their energies reside in the objects on the altar for the course of the ceremony.
An altar is not static, although a basic structure such as a wheel is often used and the main objects often stay the same. But generally speaking, a shamanic altar is alive. It will be adjusted according to the work you are doing and your own development, and it will, over time, take on a life of its own. You may, for example, want to represent your spirit helpers (see Chapter 6) or to craft an object with the intent of bringing something into your life (see below).
Lately I have become interested in the feminine, and a friend gave me a beautiful necklace signifying this. That necklace lies now on my altar. When I facilitate groups for women, I take it off the altar and wear it. I also have a black stone on my altar, which I hold in my hand when I do soul retrieval. It has been with me for about 15 years and was first energized by one of my teachers, a Brazilian shaman. I treat this stone with care and respect. I clean it and place it back on the altar when the soul-retrieval session is finished, so it can rest and re-energize.
Your altar should be personal and meaningful to you. Below are guidelines for a basic design:
· A cloth: use a piece of fabric that is beautiful and meaningful to you. I currently use a bright yellow cloth that I brought back from Mongolia.
· A centrepiece: most people use a candle, signifying ’that which always was and will always be’. I use a candle within a small circle of stone people.
· The four directions of the wheel: leaving a bit of distance around the centrepiece, build up the four directions. I use crystals and stones, one in each direction: in the east a red calcite, the south a blue crystal, the west an obsidian and the north a clear quartz. I chose these for their colours and because each holds a story significant to me.
· The four elements: I also include the four elements of earth, air, fire and water in my basic structure. Flowers or small branches represent earth. A beautiful feather represents air. A tea light in front of a small Buddha statue given to me by my daughter represents fire and a small shell represents water.
· Other power objects: besides a basic altar, you can add power objects (see below), as long as they have meaning for you and are put there with a spiritual intent.
My altar is, in my eyes, sacred, harmonious and beautiful, because spirit and I like beauty. Some altars I have come across are very powerful, but not what I would call ’beautiful’, and others are very beautiful, but feel like a piece of art rather than ’sacred’. As long as your altar engages the sacred, it is best that you find your own way.
Exercise: How to create your basic altar
Take some time to construct your altar. Be aware that you can change it, but don’t wait for ’all the right objects’ to show up before you start. If you can find a cloth you like, a candle for the centre and four stones to mark the four directions, you can get started. From there your altar will grow naturally.
· Collect and cleanse the objects you want to put on the altar. Either wash them and leave them in the air to dry or smudge them (see below).
· Sit for a while to still yourself. Call in spirit. State your intent — namely, creating an altar — and invite spirit to infuse your altar with beneficial energy.
· Next, take each object into your hands before putting it on the altar and ask spirit to ’accept this as [whatever it represents]’. Hold it for a while and energize it with your intent. Energizing the object is important because your objects will, over time, turn into power objects, which I will describe later in this chapter (see Exercise: Turning an existing object into a power object). Say the intent aloud when you place the object on the altar. For example, when you place the object that represents the east and fire on the altar you could say, ’This stone represents the east. It represents the illumination, spirit and creativity in my life’ or ’I ask spirit to bring illumination and creativity into my life.’ Do this with each object.
· Afterwards, drum or rattle around the altar space (or use whatever else feels right) to seal the energy into the space and then sit for a while meditating on your creation. You might find that you already get some ideas about putting more on the altar, or taking something away, or that an item on the altar begins to ’speak to you’. Be creative.
· Finally, thank spirit for their help and ask for their blessing on your altar.
Remember that the items on your altar are there to be containers of spirit. They hold the energy of what they represent and are there to be used and worked with. As Don Martin Pinedo, a shaman from Peru, says: ’The mesa is an altar that gives vision, power, and spiritual connection to everything … You must use and value your mesa or you will lose your power and your connections.’3
Clearing and infusing space with beauty and the sacred
Space, like everything else, has power. It either supports you or it doesn’t. Paying attention to the energies in the space that surrounds you is really beneficial to your wellbeing and your spiritual connection.
In shamanism, clearing/cleansing a space or a person’s energy body is usually done with smoke. The easiest way to do this is to use either sage or sweet grass. You light it in a bowl, blow out the flame and use a feather to distribute the smoke. If you don’t like the smell of sage or sweet grass, use incense or, if you dislike smoke altogether, use a sage spray.
Exercise: Cleansing your space
· Stand for a moment and sense what the space needs. Does it feel heavy, or too airy and ungrounded? Has it been contaminated by arguments or too much rushing around? Does it feel stale or unsettling? Trust whatever you sense or feel.
· Next, call in spirit. You can keep this really simple:
’I call spirit to help me to clear the space.’
· Then state your intent aloud:
’I am cleansing this space. I ask spirit to help me to infuse it with the energy beneficial to me and everybody who enters this house/space/room.’
· Then just walk around and smudge/spray the space. Pay attention to what you sense. Some corners need more than others; some rooms need a second round of cleansing. State your intent as often as it feels right, hold it in your mind as well as your heart and ask for spirit’s help as often as feels necessary.
Decluttering your space is also important in the long term. We live in a cluttered world full of unnecessary objects and also of information, consumption and entertainment. You can influence how clear and focused you are and how uncluttered you feel by clearing your space. William Morris’ statement offers a good guideline, now more than ever: ’Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Everything else takes you away from what is important: that which lies beneath.