A few weeks ago, I went to get fingerprinted for TSA pre-check (so excited to leave my shoes on), and they basically told me I don’t have any fingerprints.
No, really, they couldn’t get anything useful out of me. And it’s not the first time this has happened: whenever I have to get background checked for volunteer teaching, its ends up being a whole affair where we try everything we can to get a useable print out of me. Washing hands, doing each one individually, cleaning the machine...and it ends up being a smudge every time. This time, the poor government employee dealing with my messed up fingers said, “You must clean a lot and just wore them down!” My dad had a good chuckle over that one. Truth be told, I wasn’t always the most orderly person. Why make the bed if you’re just gonna get back in it tonight, you know what I mean?
But this has changed over the past few years, drastically. When I worked front desk at Just Be in high school, I learned the value of caring for sacred space. While sanitizing and sweeping and dusting are important just for health reasons, it’s also an opportunity to infuse a space with intention and love.
Turns out, if you care for the spaces you occupy, you learn the value of caring for yourself along the way. The same way a space needs to be cleared of old dust and grime, we need to be cleared of old, self-limiting beliefs and emotional gunk we’ve let hang around for too long.
Whether it’s just sweeping the floors or it’s tending to an altar, there’s something to be said for caring about the energy we surround ourselves with. As they say, who and what we spend the most time around becomes a part of us, and I want to be filled with as much love as possible.
So what is "sacred space," exactly?
I think everyone has a slightly different definition of "sacred space." To me, sacred space is anywhere that we intentionally care for with love, attention, and gratitude. It's somewhere we commit to keeping clear and clutter-free, knowing that if we do, we will feel refreshed after spending time there. Creating sacred space is creating somewhere for you to retreat to, without even having to leave your home, to inspire creativity and calm.
Sacred spaces are can be found in all forms across many different cultures: for example, I like to look to my own heritage. In Mexico, altars, or ofrendas, are maintained during the annual Día de los Muertos celebration in memory of those who have passed. They include trinkets and objects that were favorites of the person being remembered, food specially prepared as offerings for the souls, flowers, candles, and images symbolic of the Catholic religion such as crucifixes and saints.
Although the word "altar" can sometimes connotate it, depending on the context and location of the altar itself, Mexican ofrendas are not a form of worship, per se. The word itself literally means "offering," and it is a way to honor those who have left this lifetime with offerings of things that were meaningful to them in life and beyond.
The beauty of this example is that it shows the diversity and flexibility in creating your own sacred space. You can certainly involve the memory of important people from your life who have passed in creating your own form of an altar, or it could be completely separate from that tradition. It all comes down to your unique intention for the space, as long as it is meaningful and inspirational to you.
What are tools to create sacred space?
It's entirely up to you what will make your space feel clear and personal. I first learned how to create sacred space when I began tending to Just Be Yoga in high school, so my tools of choice are highly inspired by the ones used in yoga studios and yogic tradition.
"Smudging:" Sage, Incense, and Palo Santo
The burning of plants, woods, and botanicals can be found in various forms through many cultures. We can trace the earliest recorded burning of palo back to the ancient Incas, and sage has many roots in Native American/Indigenous American culture. Across Asia, incense has been burned ceremonially and as a part of everyday life for thousands of years.
The term "smudging" has been used as somewhat of a catch-all word for describing ceremonial burning, but it has historically been referred to in indigenous American culture as "Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing." The symbology of "smudging" may come from smoke and the way it rises towards the heavens, or from the particular medicinal properties of different plants being burned. It's also possible that these burnings had practical benefits as well, such as keeping bugs and insects out of the home.
What's important to keep in mind is that (if we are not a part of a particular culture/religion) when we practice "smudging," we are mindfully not imitating or making light of ancient traditions and rituals that have powerful meanings to certain peoples. How it is practiced in Westernized communities is remarkably different much of the time: most of us aren't engaging in the ceremonial harvesting of certain plants and herbs, for example. Instead, we're drawing inspiration from these practices and acknowledging that we're not claiming them as our own.
Plants and Flowers
Fresh flowers and live plants are great ways to bring life (literally) into a space. Not only are they pleasing to the eye, they evoke a sense of lightness in a room. Tending to living plants also helps us establish a sense of ritual as we care for them with watering and access to sunshine. As we practice caring for our plants, we practice establishing our own self-care routines and tending to our own needs for nourishment.
Candles have been used in many different ways in various cultures to establish sacred space. It's common to see candles ceremonially lit in weddings, churches, funerals, and on altars of all forms. To some, a lit candle symbolizes the light of God. To others, it might symbolize honoring a saint that is meaningful to them. In some of our lives, lighting a candle might just be a sweet way to tend to a space and fill it with (literal and symbolic) light.
Personally, when I light my own candles, I think of one of my favorite quotes of Buddha: "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."
On my altar are mostly gifts that have been given to me from people I love. Some of the objects on my altar include a wooden Buddha statue from my teacher, Oracle cards from one of my most beloved friends, a tiny carving of an elephant a friend brought me back from their travels, and an amethyst given to me by a fellow eating disorder survivor who found inspiration in the stone's symbolism. Each object reminds me of something different and powerful that brings a loving energy into my space. When I look at my altar, I'm reminded of the things that are most meaningful to me: the connections I've made with others throughout my journey.
The power of "settling in."
I used to be really resistant to “settling in” when I’d move somewhere new. When I first moved into the dorms two years ago I didn’t want to bring anything but the necessities because I didn’t want to fully commit to being present. I was resistant to creating my own sacred space and tending to it.
"Settling in" felt like admitting that change was happening in my life, and I really didn't want to face change. For someone like myself who is very rooted in habit and clings easily to perfectionism, change can be incredibly scary. The idea of taking the time to set up my dorm and bring things that felt "frivolous" or "silly" actually overwhelmed me, truth be told. As someone who really struggled with the decision to go away to college, I went in wishing I could run through the next four years on "fast forward," just gritting my teeth and racing through to the finish line so I could check it off on the to-do list.
But settling in symbolizes presence. As I begin to find my way in college and find a community I felt welcomed in, I felt more comfortable becoming settled in my space. What I found is that by fully committing to my presence, everything became softer and more meaningful. I stopped racing through to the end and tried to soak up what was happening in this moment, fully aware of the power of enjoying the ride and not just the destination.
My dorm also became a sanctuary, somewhere I could retreat to and leave feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world. As an introvert who needs their alone time to "reset," it made all the difference to be able to go back home to somewhere I was excited about spending time in. And those I invited into my space felt the difference, too. They'd often comment on the "vibe" or "energy" of my room and how it left them feeling calmer and recharged.
What I also found was that by caring for my spaces with love and intention, what I was actually practicing doing was caring for myself. I now light candles in the morning as a way of waking up gently and intentionally. I sage to practice the ritual of letting go of the old and unwanted. I set up crystals and stones that are beautiful and remind me of the precious beauty all around me.
Creating sacred space does wonders for well-being.
If we live in clutter and disarray, our mental state will reflect that. We can view our living spaces as reflections of our mind: when our minds are cluttered with thoughts, to-do lists, and worries, our spaces are likely to become cluttered, too. And when we create clutter in our spaces, our minds will begin to clutter and struggle to focus.
I’ve found it extremely helpful to mindfully decorate, clear, and keep my spaces clean. Not only does it help my productivity, it improves my mood, calms me down, and makes my room a space I want to spend time in to recharge when I need it instead of draining me energetically.
Take some time out of your day to create your own sacred space. It could just mean clearing out a tiny corner of your room and committing to keeping that corner clear and clean. It could be establishing a little altar with crystals, malas, flowers, or sentimental trinkets from over the years. Or maybe you light some candles and burn some sage. Or maybe you go full Marie Kondo and get rid of the things you no longer need or use.
You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes, I promise.