Stress! It's the scourge of our contemporary society. And the thought of retiring to a safe haven where you can banish stress, repair your nerves, and renew your life is a concept whose time has come. Creating a personal sanctuary, whether it be in a bedroom, bathroom, patio, garden, or the Great Outdoors, seems to be a cherished goal for many of us stressed-out people.
But how to go about fashioning such a retreat? What elements are required, and can you do it in a limited space and on a tight budget? These questions and many others form the contents of my book, A Sanctuary of Your Own. Perhaps you've read books, visited websites, and watched TV programs dedicated to this subject. With wild enthusiasm, you've started designing your space, and you're halfway there. But, somehow things aren't quite gelling. So in this short article, I'll distill some of the information from my book A Sanctuary of Your Own and offer tips that I hope help you complete your project with a minimum of fuss and stress. After all, stress is what we're trying to minimize.
First of all, you need to sit down and take the time to think, in depth, about the main purpose of your private space. Is it for relaxation, renewal, or creativity? A safe haven where you can leave behind the judgmental external world? Or, do you want to combine several intentions in one space?
Do you have the luxury of devoting an entire room to your refuge, or is it, like mine, multi-functional? My sacred space is a home office that doubles as a meditation spot and has tripled as a nursery and, lately, a comfy place for cats to snooze. Perhaps you share a room with someone else or there is not enough space to put together anything permanent. In such cases, you can create a mini, traveling haven in a box to keep in your closet or under the bed to bring out and set up when nobody is around, or even to take to the bathroom.
When I lived in Rio de Janeiro, I had no private space. So I put together a mini-sanctuary, which was more of an altar than anything else, and hid it away in the steamer trunk I'd brought to Brazil. Inside, I kept a pretty altar cloth, candles and candle holders, incense, quick-lighting coals, anda burner. I also had a book on meditation by the famous Ceremonial Magician, Israel Regardie, called The Middle Pillar. I especially like that book because on the back is a diagram of a human body with all the correct colors of the chakras positioned down the front of the torso. I would set it on top of the trunk-altar and use it as a meditation aid.
After identifying the location of your space and its main purpose, you might want to draw upon some of the concepts presented in Feng Shui, the Chinese art of harmonious living. Practitioners of this ancient art believe that adding representations of the elements of nature to one's surroundings helps harmonize and activate the area, in this case, your sanctuary. The Chinese recognize five basic elements, but in Western traditions, with which I am more familiar, we acknowledge four: air, fire, water, and earth.
Representations of the elements to incorporate into your sanctuary surroundings might be as simple as an open window for air, a mobile that moves with the room's air currents, or fragrant incense. For fire, you might want to light a candle or place a low-wattage lamp in the room to lend a cheery glow. A table-top fountain or a dish of water with a flower floating in it as a depiction of the water element is lovely, and it produces a calming sound. If you don't want to spend money on a small fountain, place an object in the room that reminds you of the sea, like a starfish or a small statue of a dolphin cut from a magazine. A favorite gemstone will suffice to symbolize earth (or, failing that, a dish of loam, sand, or even salt). If you don't have enough room, or don't wish to clutter your space with too many physical examples of the elements, find photos, drawings, or paintings that represent them and hang them on the walls. A wind-swept hilltop with clouds racing past could do for air; an erupting volcano or a campfire might symbolize fire; the ocean or a bucolic stream could indicate water; a picture of a cave or a verdant field might represent earth.
After you've integrated symbols of the four elements into your space, next pay attention to how to incorporate something to stimulate your five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
You can do a lot with color to enhance your visual experience. Paint the walls or decorate with one predominant color. Choose red for upliftment, orange for comfort, yellow for emotional strength, green for reflection, blue for spiritual awareness, purple for creativity, white for balance, brown for security, gray for contemplation, or black for deep concentration. Don't mix too many colors or the place will soon look like a circus.
You can also choose an object on which to visually focus. Place it in a prominent position, such as on an altar, where you can easily see it to meditate. The object could be a personal symbol or something universal, such as an ankh that stands for life or a star to represent inspiration. You might prefer to select a statue of a deity, or even a photo of a mentor. On my altar, I've set a small tree made of citrine to release depression, fears, and phobias and to encourage self-expression and strengthen my mind. Don't feel you need to keep the same object at your focal point permanently. Switch them out, along with your meditation themes, as your needs and desires change.
As to the sense of hearing, I'm reminded of an MRI technician friend of mine who always offers patients the option to listen to music to calm their nerves while having this noisy and claustrophobic procedure performed. He tells me patients have eclectic tastes: they choose anything from Celtic harp, folk, and classical music to jazz, Latino, musicals, and even hard rock, with Led Zeppelin being a favorite. Personally, I like listening to Gregorian chants. But that's just me! Don't forget the calming effect of a table-top fountain gurgling away in the background. And in the end, there's absolutely nothing wrong with silence to help quiet your mind so you can hear yourself think.
Some people say that burning incense or scented candles calms them and puts them in a spiritual frame of mind because the fragrance reminds them of religious experiences they've had. Others reject such scents for those very reasons or because they suffer from allergies. Still others enjoy festooning their retreats with flowers whose fragrances they enjoy. Then there are those prefer to open a window and let fresh, cleansing breezes waft through the room. Do whatever you like—this is your place, after all.
For the sense of touch, wall coverings like tapestries or prayer rugs can add a touch of texture, as can soft pillows, blankets, and furry rugs. Don't forget to bring something warm and cozy for your feet, such as luxurious house slippers. Many people do this not only for comfort, but also because they don't want to bring into their sacred space street shoes and the worries of daily life they represent. Others prefer to go barefoot so that they can connect with the earth's vibrations underfoot, even if the earth itself is six stories below.
Finally, there's the sense of taste, which is closely allied to the other senses. Colors are reminiscent of taste. If, for example, you paint your space banana yellow, you might be reminded of that fruity taste as well as of its symbolic meaning, which is fertility and male energy. Naturally, you may bring something into your retreat that not only reminds you of the sense of taste, but that you actually eat or drink. I'm reminded of a TV ad currently making the rounds of a close-up of a woman, kicking back and taking a private moment to relax and enjoy the sensuous taste of a chocolate covered caramel.
Other items you may want to take into your sanctuary to stimulate your sense of taste include a vast array of teas, coffees, cocoas, and herbal beverages, hot or iced. Not only will you fuel this sense, you can use the symbolic meaning of the particular beverage to help guide your meditations. Here are a few examples of beverages you might want to prepare and drink, depending on your taste. I've included a few keywords with each that relate to possible meditation themes.
For those not into caffeine in any form, here's a short list of six tasty botanicals that will appeal to almost anyone when consumed as herbal teas. These botanicals are also steeped—if you pardon the pun—in symbolic meaning and are appropriate to contemplate as meditation themes.
And to put you in touch with the four elements of nature, add ¼ teaspoon of these dried herbs to a cup of black, green, or white tea: lavender or lemongrass for air, calendula or orange peel for fire, jasmine or hibiscus flowers for water, and nettle leaf or alfalfa grass for earth.
My final tip for creating a successful sanctuary is to above all, have fun designing it, creating it, and filling it with love. This is your private place, and may you enjoy it to the fullest.
Caroline Dow (Boulder, CO) holds a PhD in Luso-Brazilian Studies and has taught at Brown, Pittsburgh, and Colorado universities. She has also worked for many years as an intercultural trainer and assessor. Additionally, ...