Those who decide to install a shrine or altar in their private space meet the important decision in placing it. The point of a meditation altar is that the arrangement itself creates sacred space, and radiates that out to the larger spaces around. Altars therefore need a kind of dedicated area, though this need not be large. It should be a place where the feeling of sacredness can land, root, breath, and blossom. Possibly even procreate.
Those assembling a altar within an established spiritual tradition will find direction and often specific instruction from the tradition about placement, as well as the subsequent decisions: scale, materials, offerings, frequency of attendance and so on.
People who feel inspired generally, but are as yet uncommitted to a specific lineage, still often enjoy creating a kind of "free-style" altar to uplift their space, to accompany a meditation habit, or simply as an addition of elegance to home or office. A clear, unobstructed location having been chosen, it is useful next to contemplate what sort of altar it will be – what will be enshrined there? Is it a altar to compassion? To wisdom and learning? To potency and accomplishment in spiritual endeavor? Is it a shrine to one's ancestors, familial or spiritual? Simple answers may not appear, but since all altars express aspects of mind to one degree or another, the question bears asking. Clarity about the nature of an altar helps determine what the representations should be, and how offerings, such as incense or candles, might best be made.
A free-style shrine is by definition unbound, though knowledge of tradition and current altar practice can be helpful. Traditional – nearly universal – offerings to a shrine include light from a burning lamp or candle, fragrance from incense, water, tea, sweets (very often fresh fruit), flowers, elegant cloth (including brocade), crystal or other jewels. The colors of these things also communicate.These fundamental offerings reflect a view of the world as composed of the four (or five) elements, as well as the needs and desires of human beings in that world.
Containers holding the offerings are themselves part of the shrine arrangement, and have their own effect. Experience here argues for elegant receptacles if possible - well-made things, constructed from quality materials. Such objects, such as incense bowls or burners, prove more durable, more mobile (should mobility be required) and more suitable as blessing magnets. The materials of a shrine express and encourage its purpose.
Creating and caring for shrines or altars give the practitioner a place - should they lack one - to be generous, mindful, elegant, respectful and creative. Even a non-theistic altar from the Buddhist tradition can serve as a place to express gratitude to the wisdom ancestors – the transmission lineage – as well as to take further inspiration from them. In a meditation centre, office or private household these altars radiate back out to the space and inhabitants the very energy and care that have been put into them.