The most valuable piece of real estate we might ever possess is not a co-op in a trendy neighborhood or a beach house. It is a personal shrine. This can engulf an entire room, as exemplified by The Rubin Museum of Art’s newly reopened Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, or be as small as an amulet around a neck. It may not even exist in material form. What gives a shrine its worth is simple, yet complex: intention.
Intention commands a commitment of focus, a quiet resolve, and a repetitive practice that leads to ritual. As diverse and unique as the person behind it, a shrine is a self-designed template to help us feel spiritually grounded as we live our lives.
Tashi Chodron, coordinator of Himalayan culture adult outreach programs at The Rubin, grew up in a home with a spiritual shrine, and would not even think of greeting the day without performing her morning ritual, the traditional seven-bowl offering. This symbolically honors and simulates ancient times when devout Buddhist households would share water, flowers, incense, light, fragrances, and music with traveling monks and nuns.
“First thing in the morning, I recite The Verses of Prayer to the Eight Noble Auspicious Ones. If these verses are recited just once before beginning any kind of activity, whatever noble wish is wished for will be acknowledged in accordance with one’s needs. Regardless of whether one prays for five seconds or five hours, it’s very important to dedicate all merit to benefit all sentient beings. If you cannot help others, at least, do no harm. By contemplating on Bodichitta—compassion—we are more tolerant, which leads to happiness.”
Chodron admits to streamlining her ritual just a bit at times, as an adaptation to living in a place that has its very own take on time—often measured in a "New York minute”—but hangs on to the Tibetan belief and wisdom that is her heritage. No matter what kind of rush we are in, time spent contemplating impermanence is just what a sacred personal shrine is for.
My own first personal shrine was spontaneously created when I was a little girl. I discovered a perfectly intact, but very dead, bumblebee. Placing it in a cardboard jewelry box, I gently touched its furry body, then said a prayer. I kept it for months in my dresser drawer—a secret—and pulled it out daily, spritzing some perfume on it while contemplating the mysteries of life’s cycles that my child’s mind was starting to grasp.
Ten-year old Carl Jung had a secret shrine as well, hidden in his family attic, that started with a schoolboy pencil box. In it was a ruler on whose end he had carved a small mannequin, then dressed in a tiny frock coat and top hat. He found and painted a stone and added it to the box, along with minuscule scrolls of letters in a secret language “shared” with the figurine. Periodic visits would heighten the power and meaning of his secret, and eventually help to formulate his theory of collective unconscious. Sacred
shrines were not just in Swiss attics, they were in totems, cairns, caves—anywhere there is a creative impulse and need to reflect. And making them was, it seems, an organic, universal component of being a child.
The key similarity between my little bumblebee box and Jung’s elaborate pencil case is that they each offered a focus—a private place to acknowledge our inner thoughts and fears—while providing a sense of security, imbued with our singular intentions.
I still maintain a small shrine, put together after 9/11, the keystone of which is a zen meditation bench that belonged to my friend who died in the towers. “You should meditate more,” he would admonish, back in 1999. I now move the bench to the floor to do just that. But lately it seems as if my shrine has receded into being a part of my room decor (and in need of a dusting), rather than an active, meaningful part of my life. Or maybe it is I who have drifted. How can we keep a personal shrine valid and alive? Again, the answer is “intention.”
“Reconnecting with a personal shrine is a reminder and opportunity to ground. Create a sacred routine, and practice daily with blessings and gratitude,” Laura Lombard, the head of adult and academic programs at The Rubin, advises. “A personal shrine can be as elaborate or as simple as you want. Let go of any sense of judgment.”
Lombard has led shrine-making workshops for teens at the museum and encourages them to use whatever has meaning for them. Found objects, photos, artwork, and mementos are tangible suggestions. Intangible components include the joy of offering positive energy and thoughts, as well as personal dedication. All of this provides an open-ended, self-defined touchstone of security in a changing, often chaotic world.
The beauty of creating a personal shrine is that there is no right or wrong way. Beliefs can be passed down through cultural and family ties, or spring out of life’s open-ended experiences. All we need to do is fuel them with intention.