‘To Shrine, Or Not To Shrine…

…that is the question.’

Or rather, do you need an altar to be a good Yogi, or not?

shrine

I’ve seen many an altar in my day, some of them all gold and sparkly, like the ones at the Samye Ling Buddhist Monestary in Scotland.

shrine

Whilst others were more modest, down to earth and homely, like in the meditation cabins at Vajrapani Institute in California.

sunlight on the shrine

But I’ve never had an altar of my own, partly because I’ve never had anywhere to put one, but mostly because I couldn’t see the point?

My path to yoga came via Buddhism, most of which was self taught, and though I visited the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick a few times, I never took part in any of their ceremonies or pujas. I’m not a big believer in ritual for ritual’s sake, preferring to concentrate on my own personal experience and inner growth.

It was only once I started studying with the Sivananda Organisation in London that I gained some experience in such things, and from that started to see some value in them.

both of us in front of the altar

Having an altar, or shrine, can be useful in that it gives you a focal point, somewhere physical you can concentrate your mental efforts. You place there items of significance, and pictures of your gurus, and they can help remind you of what you are trying to achieve and how best to go about it.

You shouldn’t blindly prostrate yourself before the altar because that’s what you’ve been told to do, Buddha was dead set against that sort of thing, but if it can help you further along your spiritual path then why not?

And that’s the thing you see, only you can say if having a shrine or altar will make you a better Yogi or not, because only you know if it will be an aid to you in your studies, or a hindrance?

And the same goes for having a guru:

“If, though, by the conjunction of conditions, someone understands what the Buddha meant, that person doesn’t need a teacher. Such a person has a natural awareness superior to anything taught. But unless you’re so blessed, study hard, and by means of instruction you’ll understand.”
– Bodhidharma

 
Or in other words, if you think you need a Guru, get a Guru. And if you think you need a shrine, have a shrine.

When I moved into the last place I was staying I decided I’d like to have a wee altar to help concentrate my spiritual efforts. There was an old fireplace that seemed to be the perfect place for something like that, so I just picked up some bits and pieces from the local shops (vase, candle holders, etc.), bought an incense burner and some postcards of the swamis, wrapped a cardboard box in wrapping paper, et voila! One altar.

fireplace shrine

Y’see, these things don’t have to be all fancy. As long as you like them, and they have meaning for you, that’s all that matters.

And you can’t be too precious about these things either. I had to move house a few weeks ago, and so when my circumstances changed, so did my altar.

shelf shrine

Not as nice as the one I had before maybe, but so what if it’s just a wee bit of space on a shelf? It’s a bit of space set aside in my life for spiritual pursuits; a reminder for me to do my sadhana, to keep in mind the values of my teachers, and to remember what I am trying to achieve and how best to go about it.

And if it can do all that, then it’s done it’s job admirably, and no mistake; which at the end of the day is all that matters really, isn’t it?

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Mountain Meditations

I don’t like a lot of talk. Oh I can do it well enough, both the listening and the yapping away, but by nature I tend toward silence and solitude. That’s why I was really looking forward to my one week retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After 3 months Karma Yoga, and a few weeks traveling (in one of which I visited 3 major cities!), I was in need of a recharge.

vajrapani institute

I found the Vajrapani Institute just by doing a quick Google search. There were, unsurprisingly, quite a few places to do meditation in California, but it was their pictures of the cabins, and the surrounding hills, that sold me on going there.

ommm...

Getting there proved to be reasonably straight forward, but at the same time a bit of a mission. I took the Amtrak down from Oakland (near San Francisco) to San Jose, where I had to jump on a coach for an hour to Scotts Valley (near Santa Cruz). From there I could have taken the local bus to Boulder Creek, then hiked the 5 miles into the woods up to the retreat (like that was going to happen, lol), or, as I decided to do, I could call a cab.

I gave the number they recommend a call, and ended up speaking to a lovely chap called Gary. Turns out it wasn’t so much a full cab service as just Gary, semi-retired, just doing stuff as best he could to get people from A to B.

When I asked about a cab from Boulder Creek he was somewhat reticent. He was nowhere nearby, and it would be a long hike out there for him for such a short trip. but he was near Scotts Valley. How about he pick me up from there and take me up to Vajrapani? At the bargain price of $35 (down from the $50 he’d normally charge) how could I say no?

atop the lama ridge

The trip didn’t take long, and after checking in and getting my ridge top orientation from the lovely Betty I was left to my own devices.

my cabin in the woods

My cabin was very sweet. Small, secluded, it was exactly what I was after. And nicely decked out too. Ok, so there was just a small burner for making tea, and you had to go out onto the back porch to wash your dishes (toilets and showers were in a communal block on top of the ridge), but the bed was comfy and the heating worked (with a little persuasion), in the end what more could you ask for?

inside my cabin

I didn’t do much for the first few days. I just settled into a regular practice of yoga and meditation, with a lot of reading in between, some tea drinking, and a few naps here and there. The meditation came easier than I’d expected, which was a relief, and by the end I was up to a sitting of 45 minutes. That was about enough for me to start getting antsy. Think I’ll stick with that for now, increasing the frequency rather than the time as I progress. Apparently, as with so many things, little and often is the key.

castle rock state park 1

Middle of the week I went for a walk into Castle Rock State Park. There are a few wee hikes you can go on, but this was the big one. There’s just a road into the park and you just hike until you get bored and then turn round and come back.

castle rock state park 2

I’m not massive on hiking so I just walked until I got some decent views, and then headed back for supper.

meal bag combo

The food was excellent. Vegetarian rather than vegan, though in fact most of it did turn out to be vegan, so I didn’t mind eating round the cheesy bits.

It got delivered at noon(ish) each day (you cooked your own breakfast in your cabin, from supplied ingredients), with a hot main for lunch, and a jar of soup and some salad for your evening meal. There was facilities in the cabin for reheating the soup, and let me tell you, when the temperature drops as the sun goes down you’re glad of a warm meal in your belly.

a nice place to sit and think

All in all I can’t fault them on anything about their retreat (except maybe the fact that the granola you had for breakfast was a little burnt). You got exactly what they advertised, a quiet, safe, supportive environment for you to practice your meditation and take a rest from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. I’d recommend it to anyone, and at $80 a night I’d say it was a real bargain to boot.

sunlight on the shrine

I was very relaxed after my week in the woods. It was just what I needed. Unfortunately it was followed by a 13 hour trip down to LA, and all the shenangians that entails, but there’s nothing you can do about that. And indeed, isn’t that the point of meditation? To give us the tools to deal with such things in a calm and magnanimous spirit. I think so (I hope so! lol).

Either way, it was a great retreat and I’d go back there any time (if only I lived in California *sigh*). 🙂