Altar Your Life With Feng Shui

Do you never seem to get a good night's rest in your bedroom? Does your kitchen feel somehow depressing, or your bathroom never quite light enough? Your home may be in desperate need of a little feng shui. Feng shui (pronounced "fung shway") is the ancient Chinese system of geomancy. Its aim is to situate a home (or place of business), its rooms, and every item in it, in a way that allows chi-life energy-to flow harmoniously throughout. The propitious flow of chi helps those who live or work in a space realize their deepest desires--money, success, romance, travel, children, honor. Perhaps because so many Westerners now work at home--or maybe just because, in the chaotic, underfunded '90s, people are willing to try anything to make their lives more prosperous--feng shui has become The Topic for books and workshops today; a recent issue of The New Yorker (a dyed-in-the-wool bastion of anti-woowooness) even had a cartoon in which a realtor assured a young couple "It's only got one bedroom, but it has the best feng shui in the building." It is also, at least initially, a dauntingly complex art. After reading several books, I realized there were things I just couldn't or wasn't willing to have control over--the numerological aspects of my address, the direction of the front door, whether or not underground rivers were flowing underfoot (making the household feel restless). It was within the confines of my rented rooms that I could get a handle--sort of--on the basic aspects of feng shui.Could the proper placement of furniture actually impact one's life on more than a merely aesthetic level? Well, here was the big test: I was out of work and my office, clogged with papers and books, certainly reflected the stagnated, disorganized state of my professional life. According to the principles of feng shui, a cluttered space must be cleaned and properly arranged so that chi can flow freely throughout. I spent one Sunday reaming out file drawers, moving bookshelves, and putting my desk in a "power" spot--facing the office door from a northeastern angle. I vacuumed, burned a little sage, and put some fresh flowers on the desk; at the very least, things looked cleaner, clearer, and more inviting. The next morning, I got a phone call from a client I hadn't heard from in months, asking me to do a couple of fast, lucrative writing projects. Hmm. Could the chi have started flowing? As further research, I put a small altar in the southeastern corner of my office. The southeast rules wealth, as part of a standard feng shui prescription for stirring up money. On the altar I placed three coins under a potted plant, added a purple vase (purple being the color of the southeast), a bell, and a small rubber goldfish. The next day I received a check a week before I expected to. And I had to admit that, whether I understood feng shui or not, on a strictly pragmatic level it seemed to be working."The concept is very simple," says Angel Thompson, author of Feng Shui: How to Achieve the Most Harmonious Arrangement of Your Home and Office, and a practitioner for 16 years. "It is that the environment is a metaphor for everything in your life. Although it is mystical and creative, feng shui is also consummately practical. The goal is to have our personal environments imitate the harmony and balance of the natural environment." The simplest description of feng shui is that it parallels the idea of acupuncture: a direct and harmonious flow of chi through our homes and offices creates a healthy situation; but due to some inherent lack in the way a building is designed, or rank untidiness, or even just a loud argument, chi can become blocked or diverted, causing a less-than-harmonious situation. In the same way an acupuncturist's needle can stimulate the balanced flow of life energy through the body, the solutions found in feng shui--which can be as simple as adding a mirror or plant to a room, or as complex as moving some huge boulder in the back yard-can help raise and maintain a proper flow of chi through our lives. While different sources variously date the beginnings of feng shui from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, the first written references using the title "feng shui" (which means "wind and water") occur in about 200 BC; before that, shamanic geomancers were consulted about the placement of imperial tombs and palaces. Today, feng shui experts trace their practice through three schools of thought. The earliest was the Land Form School, dating back to about AD 600, which dealt with the geographical influences of a place. It was highly pragmatic; by properly situating your house between the right type of mountains, for example, one could avoid floods and vicious winds. The Compass School, which evolved by the year 1000, is still used by most Chinese feng shui practitioners. As many people moved to urban centers, they lost topographical reference points; the compass therefore became a practical way of assigning meaning to the directions. The most recent school of feng shui--very recent--is the Black Hat Sect Tantric Tibetan Buddhist method of feng shui. Begun in 1976 in Berkeley by feng shui master Professor Lin Yun, Black Hat Sect feng shui is both more mystical and more practical than older forms, devised to be accessible to Westerners. The mystic part adds ritual, prayers, and chants to "clear the energy" of a space and create blessings; practically, however, Black Hat Sect feng shui depends not upon the absolute directions of the compass for orientation, but instead lines up the ba-gua with the front door of a building.Derived from the I Ching, the ba-gua is an eight-pointed compass that assigns certain characteristics and spheres of influence to each direction. Unlike the Western compass, which uses north as the "top" direction, the ba-gua puts south--the direction of fame, warmth, and festivity--at the top of the compass. Characteristics of the other directions are as follows: north, career; east, health; west, purity; southeast, wealth; southwest, marriage; northwest, travels and interests outside the home, and northeast, knowledge.The ba-gua is an essential part in creating the metaphor of a home, as is the use of the five elements. As Westerners, we're used to four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. But in feng shui, as in Chinese medicine, there are five elements: earth, metal, water, wood, and fire. In that order, considered the "creative cycle," the elements are positive (i.e., wood feeds fire, fire makes earth (ashes), etc.), while the "destructive cycle" of earth-water-fire-metal-wood has a negative effect; earth makes water muddy, water puts out fire, etc. "Mixing, separating, and arranging the five elements at appropriate compass points is one of the basic methods of adjusting the feng shui in your home," says Kirsten M. Lagatree in her book Feng Shui: Arranging Your Home to Change Your Life.  How to use this information? Here's an example from my earlier experience with moving and rearranging my desk. I changed the direction of the desk so that I wouldn't have my back to the door--what Angel Thompson calls the "John Dillinger rule," i.e., you want to be able to see what's coming--not have things going on "behind your back." The surface of the desk is glass (part of the water element, good for communications) resting on two metal filing cabinets (which add mental clarity and is compatible with water in the creative cycle). To include all elements on the desk, I added a wooden box, an aloe with spear-shaped (fire-shaped) leaves, and a big hunk of jasper (earth). In terms of true direction, the desk is located in the northeast corner--good for studying, now that I'm back in school. The same idea can be used in any life area. "Let's say your relationship is not on stable ground; you can put some nice river rocks in a bowl in the relationship area of your home or room," says Denise Linn, a Seattle resident and the author of Sacred Space, which describes many methods, including feng shui, for making one's home a supportive and healing environment. "On the other hand, if you want more excitement, or to get rid of stagnancy, you could get a round crystal and place it in that area to sparkle things up." Linn admits the ba-gua is a curious thing. "It's one of those systems for which I can't see any scientific reason, but it works over and over again--shift things around in the proper compass area and life changes do occur." Knowledge of the ba-gua and five elements enables one to create "a home that can be a template for what you want in your life," she says.Knowing that one's home is a metaphor gives a whole new perspective on one's surroundings. They become almost embarrassingly telling, from the closet clogged with unused sports equipment to the ceaseless drip of the kitchen faucet. Bellevue-based feng shui practitioner Kate Poole recounts a story of a client who married an older man. Both families were totally against the marriage, and the disagreement seemed insoluble. "I went into their living room," says Poole, "and the whole wall was covered with family photos: his family on one side of the wall, hers on the other. They had actually created a physical barrier to their families getting together!" Poole has consulted on a number of businesses and is currently helping create a Bellevue health center with appropriate feng shui; unfortunately, she cannot name the places she's worked on because "most traditional, mainstream places still don't want anyone to know they're using feng shui. There's a fair amount of resistance to the idea." Not everywhere, however. Donald Trump, very pragmatically, has a feng shui consultant. In areas with large Asian populations, creating a building without feng shui is unthinkable; a residential development in Vancouver, BC, actually changed the orientation of its entrance because the address of the original entrance was "4444"--an unthinkably unfortunate address in feng shui terms, because the number 4 sounds like the Chinese word for "die." "Feng shui is way out of the closet," says Pamela Laurence of the Metropolitan Institute of Interior Design in Great Neck, Long Island, who consults on both commercial and residential spaces. Her commercial jobs often occur in contemporary buildings filled with beams and hard, sharp angles. "Architects don't get awards for designing square space--they want interesting angles, and it really pounds your senses when you have to spend eight hours in an environment like that." Interestingly, the Metropolitan Institute of Interior Design offers a certificate program in feng shui that is licensed by the state of New York . . . and taught by feng shui expert Nancy SantoPietro, who maintains a bicoastal feng shui consultation and educational business in Seattle and Brooklyn. Why is feng shui suddenly so hot? "I can't give you a complete answer--I only know that it's exploded in the past two years," says James Allyn Moser, president of the Feng Shui Warehouse in San Diego, California, and publisher of the quarterly magazine Feng Shui/the Journal. The Feng Shui Warehouse, started in 1994, stocks eight-sided mirrors (for reflecting chi), small fountains, crystals, and books (and bumper stickers stating "Feng Shui Does It in the Right Place"). Moser credits greater environmental awareness, and the desire to balance nature in one's home environment, with the sudden widespread interest in feng shui. "I think there's a whole renaissance of interest in spirituality and the inner life," says Denise Linn, who adds that feng shui brings a sense of sacredness to the home. "It's about making your home more healing and energizing."Finally, the surge of interest in feng shui may be as complex and inexplicable as the art itself. Says Moser, "Feng shui has an energy all its own. It moves things."SIDEBAR: Inner PeaceDenise Linn, author of Sacred Space: Clearing and Enhancing the Energy of Your Home, offers these 10 factors for a harmonious, healing home. Salt "It's really good for cleansing energy. Salt is used in many, many cultures. If there's been illness, stagnation, or disappointment in a room, salt will clear it away. Start in the east corner, throw a pinch of salt into each corner, then move toward the room's center." Vacuuming "I'm serious. Just the simple fact of cleaning your home lightens the energy."Plants "They have the advantage of generating negative ions, and they cleanse the air. I suggest ferns--they put out the most negative ions." An indoor waterfall "You can invest in one or make one yourself, inexpensively. Running water not only creates a healing negative-ion-rich environment, but the sound of water is universally soothing." Mirrors "Mirrors are excellent for bringing light and energy into a home. Any place that feels dark and depressing can be opened up with mirrors." Color "Color is of enormous importance in creating an environment. It's been proven that in a yellow environment, people think more clearly; orange is a 'happy-making' color, while red can be very grounding . . . or stimulate sexuality."Scent "You can moderate the feeling and energy in a room according to smell. Spraying lemon in a kitchen is very cleansing. Lavender is good for inducing sleep, and ylang ylang and neroli are sexy. You just need a water mister and a few drops of essential oil to really 'clear the air'." Lighting "You can take a dingy-looking room and turn it into a place that shines and sparkles. Halogen light is good--it's expensive, but it provides more full-spectrum lighting. Invest in expanded-spectrum or full-spectrum lighting--you'll almost instantly feel the difference." Sound "Our home is surrounded by chimes. It's a nice feeling--it gives a sense of surrounding the house with protection." An altar 'I'm heartened to see so many people with altars in their homes. It can just be a plant, a seashell, or a photo, but it's important to acknowledge a connection with Spirit. The altar is the heart of a home."

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