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Feng Shui Basics

Physics is finally catching up with spirituality. Since scientists announced that there really is no such thing as solid matter and everything material is actually made up of energy, practices like water-witching and feng shui have gained credibility for even the most skeptical of us. 

Feng shui (pronounced fung schway) translates literally as “wind water.” It is an art that originated in China more than 3,500 years ago and is used to orient buildings and arrange interiors for optimum flow of energy, or ch’i (chee). According to its proponents, applying feng shui principles to a space is beneficial for health, wealth, relationships and other aspects of life.

The key feng shui tool, the bagua, is a diagram of an octagon divided into nine parts. It has eight side sections and a central section, called guas, each representing an area of life: career, health, fame, love, prosperity, family, wisdom, creativity and helpful people (which is combined with travel in one gua).

 In Eastern-style feng shui, the alignment of the bagua is determined by a compass and the direction the front door is facing. In Western-style feng shui, the bottom of the bagua is simply aligned with the entry to the space.

Although Eastern-style feng shui purists might never agree, in my experience the Western-style, without-a-compass feng shui works wonders, and you don’t have to rebuild your house to orient your front door to your most auspicious direction. In other words, you don’t have to drain your savings account to pump up your prosperity gua.

Clutter clearing is step one in Western-style feng shui. Mirrors are often used as feng shui “cures” for a problematic space, but if you hang a mirror before you clear the clutter, you are just “doubling” your clutter problem in the mirror’s reflection.

Clutter — from the word “to clot”, is a perfect image for stuck energy. But on the other hand, an all-white minimalist home feels sterile and uninviting. According to feng shui, balance must be struck between stagnate ch’i and ch’i in hyperdrive.

Think about retail stores. Have you ever walked into one of those monochromatic, airy boutiques that have a few precious items for sale and no price tags (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it)? The ch’i runs right through these places and so do most of the potential customers.  

In contrast, there’s variety stores like Wal-Mart, where the ch’i gets stuck trying to decide if it wants to sit down for a snack, rent a video, buy a lawnmower or try on a bikini. Blurred vision and shortness of breath are common side-effects.

Like Goldilock’s porridge and the Buddha’s Middle Way, some stores get it just right, and that’s where the customer and her credit card make it all the way to the counter, which is any well-designed store’s goal. 

In a private home, the goal would be to create a stress-free environment that is aesthetically pleasing but also comfortable. You want your guests to feel welcome and have fun, but you also want them to go home when you start yawning. There’s a feng shui app for that.

Although I’ve read quite a bit on the subject and feel comfortable offering general advice to my clients, feng shui is complex and can be intimidating. I called on expert Seann Xenja to give me some backup for this article. Xenja resides in Marin but has dozens of clients in the Napa Valley. He became a feng shui professional in the late 1980s after only six months of book study. “At that time there were no classes you could take or any kind of training in the Bay Area,” he said.

Xenja’s first client was a friend who owned a hair salon in San Francisco. She had been having numerous problems with staff and finances. 

“I had her move around the work stations and we added plants in strategic places,” he said. In a few weeks, the friend called him with the news that she’d hired five great stylists and was in the black financially for the first time. 

“It’s miraculous, it’s a transformation,” she told him. In addition to a haircut he received a fat check for his services. 

Just a few weeks later, the book “Interior Design with Feng Shui,” by Sarah Rossbach, led Xenja to Lin Yun, a Chinese grand master. As luck would have it, Lin Yun had left China and its restrictive approach to feng shui to settle in Berkeley. Xenja signed up for study with the master in 1990. 

Xenja said, “I had the benefit of a lot of one-on-one time with Lin Yun because feng shui was not yet the craze it has become.”

According to Xenja, “A lot of feng shui is based on what is healthy and natural to us. The position of the bed or a desk is very basic. You want a solid wall behind you and a wide view of the room and a view of the door. When you seat most men in restaurants, they want a view of the door. It’s a power position and an old survival instinct. You want to see who’s coming at you.”

In the two decades he has been practicing feng shui, Xenja has a deep reservoir of client success stories to illustrate how feng shui works. 

“If you want to hear about clutter,“ he offered, “my worst case was a client whose husband was a collector and went to yard sales a couple times a week. The house was cluttered top-to-bottom, back-to-front, and had outbuildings stuffed full and a Jaguar broken down in the driveway. Even the stove in the kitchen was piled with stuff.”

Xenja continued, “In a case like that, you have to be strategic. I had them clear three key areas: the entry, the stove and the bed. The entry is important because that is where energy enters the home. The stove is a symbol of prosperity no matter where it is located in the house. It is where you nourish your family. And the bed needs to be clear for restful sleep.

“We also did a purification ceremony with fresh orange peel — the smell permeates the space and gives a sense of well-being.”

Xenja ran into the couple a few years later in Nevada City. They were excited to update him on their activities. Since his consultation they had continued to clear their clutter. All the collectibles had been sold, as was the Jaguar, which had been repaired. They moved house, and made a completely fresh start, he reported.

Another client called Xenja wanting to pump up the marriage gua in her home. Her intention was for clarity in communication with her husband and an improved romantic life. A day after the adjustments were made, her husband came clean about a three-year affair he’d been having and they soon divorced. She then met the love of her life and remarried. The client got what she asked for, but in a different form than she had envisioned.

During the drop in housing prices over the last few years, Xenja has been called upon many times to offer “cures” for a house that is not selling. 

“Often the problem is the entry,” he said. “If the landscaping leading to the entry is overgrown or if you have to duck under a tree limb to get to the front door, it is problematic. The owner may use a side door for convenience, but in the case of an expensive home, a potential buyer wants a grand, spacious entry, not a little side hallway.” 

A few weeks ago I was organizing the desk and files of a stock broker who was worried that the company might close his local branch office. The staff and other brokers were not connecting well and the feeling in the office was somewhat depressed.

When I went into the staff break room, I couldn’t help but notice two large, dark posters. One was of James Dean in a winter coat, hands jammed in his pocket, walking alone down a road. I think of James Dean and I think “crash.” Not a good word to associate with the stock market, even subconsciously.

The other poster was Edward Hopper’s lonely diner scene “Nighthawks,” the famously gloomy painting that Hopper created after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Neither the name of the painting nor the subject evoke a bullish, vibrant feeling. 

Not having been hired to offer feng shui consultation, I didn’t say anything about the posters. But I had such a strong gut feeling about them that I ended up e-mailing the broker a few days later. Not only did the office agree to take down the posters, but they ended up doing a mini-makeover of the break room, which happens to be in the building’s fame and reputation energy gua.

Will the office be closed? Will the brokers bring in new clients? Will the staff feel united as part of a successful team? It may take months to find out, but in the way of these intention-setting practices, taking an active role in your surroundings and adjusting them to symbolically represent what you want can’t help but create positive change.