Contemporary Feng Shui

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The popularity of Feng Shui in recent years has led to a plethora of books on the subject, representing a vast array of different approaches to the ancient mystical science. The Compass School, Landform School, the Western School, the Black Hat School: each has been represented in various publications, yet to the uninitiated, a great deal of confusion remains (likely due to the wealth of information available) about what Feng Shui is and how it works.

The basic belief about Feng Shui is that it can bring to the home a nourishing relationship to life-force energy, thus procuring benefits for those that live there. Just how this energy (referred to as “Chi”) is harnessed, however, depends very much upon what book you read or to whom you speak.

Since my own introduction to Feng Shui in London in 1996, there have been moments of uncertainty. I was introduced at the same time to both the Black Hat approach and the Compass School. The two differ in their placement of the bagua map (a chart of thematic life aspirations inspired by the oracle the I Ching): more traditional schools orient the map according to cardinal directions, with the Career area being in the North, whereas Black Hat practitioners reorient the map for each room, with the wall along which the door is located indicating the location of the aspirations on the Northern sector of the bagua map. (The Western school follows the same system as the Black Hat practice.)

I vacillated between the two approaches for a while, eventually opting for the compass approach as I preferred the concept of aligning with higher energies. After all, in using Feng Shui we are said to be tapping into a higher power, and so I felt that this system most supported my vision. The London workshops I took with Lillian Too focused on this method, and so I stuck with it. For four years I carried my compass with me, focusing on which of my four optimal directions I was facing while eating, working, sleeping.

I found that as I focused on compass directions, there was a degree of negativity that crept into my thinking. My astrological makeup means that, as an “East” person, my best directions are North, East, South-East, and South. But what was I to do if, for example, I had to give a presentation on a stage built facing the West? My mind would be focused on the fact that I was facing my “Six Killings” direction. I could not readily face my good directions, as I would be facing either the sides of the stage, or have my back to the audience!

Following the compass school led, for me and for many others who I know, to a degree of fear and invalidation. It led me to doubt the fact that I have the power to accomplish anything I wish, whatever direction I face, as I am myself an embodiment of universal energy. What had been intended to be a support mechanism became a prison. Despite some doubts, I staunchly resisted the concept of aligning the arrangement of the bagua map with the door. However, one telephone conversation with Rhea Peake, founder of Enviromancy™, changed my mind (something that is at times no easy feat).

I was considering having Rhea come to work on my apartment, which despite my diligence was not bringing me the results I desired. I had been uncomfortable with the concept of Western Feng Shui, as I felt it would just be a diluted version of the potent original formulas. I was, however, very much impressed with the clarity of Rhea’s views and the degree to which they matched my own. We were discussing the two approaches to room layout, and she alluded to the fact that Chinese homes were built along cardinal grids and that while it made sense to use this method of Feng Shui in such situations, given the fact that our own homes pay no attention to these directions, it was working against the architecture to give them priority today. Clearly their importance was more significant if the homes were built with them in mind, as was the case when the ancient texts were written.

This reasoning immediately brought about an epiphany and a total reworking of how I viewed Feng Shui, as there were direct parallels in this view of cultural relevance to two other areas of my life. In my work as a classical piano historian, I was aware that composers in the 19th Century did not make markings in the text for pianists to highlight certain voices because it was common practice at the time; pianists today who follow the letter of the score, however, do not pay attention to these vital musical details because instructions on how to do so were not written down. Historical recordings by pianists of this period reveal that these voices were indeed emphasized and are vital to an accurate representation of the work. (There are those today, of course, whose instincts allow them to pick up on what had been intended.) Clearly, working by what is written alone is not enough. One has to recognize that some things were not written because they were understood at the time, and that what is written is not all that is required.

Similarly, my own spiritual experiences have led me to believe that those who vehemently follow the letter of ancient religious texts often fail to read between the lines and, in following rules that are culturally rather than universally relevant, end up acting against the very intentions of the teachings. Indeed, we have seen in recent times the dangers of fundamental adherence to words pronounced thousands of years ago.

And so I realized that in trying to work compass alignments into a space that was not aligned with them to begin with was, in the words of the brilliant pianist Dinu Lipatti, like “dressing up an adult in children’s clothes. This may appear charming when thinking of a revival, but it can only be of interest to those searching through the dead leaves of the past.” He further advised that one “never study…with the eyes of the past or of the dead: you may end up with no more than Yorrick’s skull.”

When Rhea came to work on my space, I was introduced to a living form of Feng Shui, one which worked with the elements and aspirations on a personal level, using symbols which are relevant to us in the West (and to each of us as individuals), seeking to separate the universal from the cultural, working with the underlying principles upon which this science is based rather than with the rules exactly as they were written.

As I was preparing for the first of my teaching and consulting trips to Japan in 2003, I was aware that it would be highly inappropriate to call my practice ‘Western Feng Shui’ when I was going to an Asian country using a historically Asian practice. I realized that pitting East versus West kept the practice dichotomized, whereas Feng Shui needed a more neutral term that spoke to the transcendent, timeless energy of the essential truths it espouses. And so I began using the term Contemporary Feng Shui, which speaks to applying the principles in present time, regardless of geographical location. This also raises the reality that things always change – that one must adapt and evolve. And while there are those that would say that only by following the external rules first communicated thousands of years ago can we truly do Feng Shui, I would say that a lack of freshness and evolution goes against the very results that the practice aims to cultivate. Indeed, Tao Te Ching 76 speaks volumes:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
Dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

I do not wish to imply that compass directions are irrelevant. The Sun does rise in the East and set in the West, and the directions are clearly of great importance to us on a number of levels. However, the orientations of our rooms as structures in and of themselves cannot be ignored, and ought to take precedence if compass directions have not been taken into account from the word go. And it should be noted that when compass directions first came into use, there was not the high volume of electromagnetic interference coming our way from telephone wires and electrical equipment. A compass can be thrown off as one walks by a stereo or a television, clearly showing that what is in your space must be taken into consideration.

The position of one’s bed or desk vis-à-vis the door would seem, in this case, more important to one’s well-being and sense of support than facing an astrologically-derived beneficial direction without a clear view of the door. Sitting in the “seat of power” is a completely different feeling for most of us – once experienced, there is no going back, and you will recognize how in other positions you are energetically setting yourself up for weakness and instability. You will never see successful executives sitting with their backs to the door – regardless of what direction they are facing. Being in a position to assess what energy is entering your personal space is what is truly empowering.

Although I am now sleeping towards the North-East – my very worst direction according to the Compass School – my life is going extremely well, as I have activated the principles of Feng Shui by, among other things, sleeping in the command position. I initially resisted the change, but feel far more rested with my bed in this location, and my quality of life has improved dramatically. Were I to build my own house, I would take compass directions into account – for the time being, however, they cannot take precedence over my orientation within my space.

I do not believe that rebuilding one’s door at 45 degrees to harness an auspicious direction (a change often advocated by practitioners using ‘traditional’ methods) would be beneficial – it creates angles that trap energy, causes confusion as you approach and go through the door (entering at 45 degrees), and limits the in-flow of energy to one side; indeed, the result would be completely inconsistent with the philosophy of home layout at the time the ancient texts were written. This is an example of “dressing up an adult in children’s clothes” – it is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, bending over backwards to accommodate the letter of the text, yet ignoring the energetic principles that were the inspiration of the text itself. One must recognize that when you change just one factor in an equation, the entire equation has changed. We are not living in China thousands of years ago – we are living in a world with electricity, cell phones, computers, central heating, and airplanes.

The true purpose of Feng Shui, in my estimation, is to create balance between people and their environment, thereby helping them to experience a joyful life. I therefore believe that an approach to Feng Shui that not only brings about solutions to people’s problems, but also increases their awareness of what modes of thinking have led to these blockages, is vital. Practitioners must communicate to clients in a way that they can understand; acting as a medium between the celestial and the terrestrial, they must translate their terms into plain language so that clients can learn from a consultation as well as benefit from it. It is armed with understanding that lasting change can be made in the world.

The late Zen philosopher Alan Watts wrote that “the fundamental, ultimate mystery, the only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets is this: for every outside there is an inside, and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together. There is, in other words, a secret conspiracy between all insides and outsides, and the conspiracy is this: to look as different as possible and yet underneath to be identical, because you do not find one without the other.” To me, this is the essence of Feng Shui. The highest possible role of the practitioner is to help people recognize how the outside reflects the inside, and to teach them how they can enter into a life of greater joy by working on both the outside and its counterpart…their expansive consciousness.

However you choose to apply Feng Shui, may it always be with the highest good to all, with harm to none.