Design for Life: What's Feng Shui Got to Do With It?

Feng shui—the heart of which is about caring for the life energy within and around us—is also a set of principles for good design, based on the laws of nature.


Feng shui—the heart of which is about caring for the life energy within and around us—is also a set of principles for good design, based on the laws of nature.


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The phrase feng shui is increasingly familiar to Westerners, but do we really know what it means? On the surface, feng shui can seem like an esoteric bag of tricks: Hang a wind chime here or a crystal there, and watch the love or money flow in. But if you scratch the surface…well, it gets confusing. Some feng shui “cures” are incomprehensible to Westerners or difficult to apply, and recommendations from different feng shui schools often conflict. Is it worth trying to sort it out? Can an ancient foreign practice be relevant to us here and now?

I’ve come to believe that, at its heart, feng shui offers something central to the natural home. If this isn’t intuitively obvious, maybe it’s because feng shui is rooted in perceptions that have been expunged from Western culture. Then again, that might be why it’s so popular.

The core of feng shui—what we’re missing and longing for—is awareness that all things are interrelated and everything has life energy. Virtually every culture but ours has a respected word for this life energy; the Chinese call it chi, the Japanese ki, and the East Indians prana.

Feng shui basics

The heart of feng shui is about caring for that life energy within and around us. “It’s basically an ecological consciousness,” says feng shui practitioner and teacher Richard Feather Anderson. “Feng shui is a set of principles for good design, based on the laws of nature.”

Feng shui has its roots in agrarian China. It represents thousands of years of accumulated wisdom about how to site homes and activities in relation to landforms, circulation, and climate. It also addresses the design of buildings in relation to sun, wind, water, and vegetation.

But how do we bridge from the Chinese farm to the American home? “The way to make feng shui relevant is to operate at the level of underlying universal principles,” offers Anderson. “I look for the concepts that are common to many traditions; almost every culture has a similar body of wisdom about how to live in right relationship with the earth. If the rules from two traditions disagree, I suspect that one of them is based on culturally specific folklore. So I weed out these rules to arrive at cross-cultural, universal principles of good design. Then I adapt these principles to make them useful in our lives.”

Feng shui faux pas

This perspective clarifies how feng shui snafus happen. When specific prescriptions are transplanted from China without regard to their origins, confusion and ineffectiveness can result. “In feng shui, there’s a rule against having four steps up to the house,” says Anderson. “But why? Well, the Chinese character that represents ‘four’ is similar to the character for death. But a Native American might say ‘I’m grounding my life with the four directions!’”

Applying single feng shui guidelines without regard to context can also create problems. “Maybe you’ve heard that feng shui says you’ve got to put the bed in a certain position,” says Anderson. “And you do that, but then you don’t sleep well. That’s not really following feng shui. There is no one criterion for locating a bed. You need to look at the energies of the spot, what you see from the bed, whether there’s a drafty window nearby, or even whether you can get into and around the bed easily. Don’t lose your common sense just because you’re availing yourself of the wisdom of feng shui!”

Sidling up to chi

Common sense sounds good, but what about this chi stuff? Is it possible for Westerners to get our heads around chi? Tom Bender, architect and author of Building with the Breath of Life (Fire River Press, 2000), sees our time coming. “Our culture is on the brink of a quiet yet fundamental change,” he says. “Acknowledgment of the existence and importance of chi—the foundation of the arts, sciences, healing, and spiritual practices of virtually all other cultures throughout history—is beginning to occur in our own culture.”

We don’t have an adequate word for chi in English, so it sounds esoteric. Yet what could be more familiar to us than the breath of life? We know the difference between a living being and a corpse. We know the difference between feeling truly alive and feeling like we’ve been hit by a truck. And we know the difference between a place where we love to be and a place we’re eager to escape. We know chi intimately.

Perhaps the real problem is that we’ve been asked for centuries to ignore what we know in every cell of our bodies. Our culture is about speed and excess; we’re too busy to notice how we feel or how profoundly we’re affected by our surroundings.

“Chi awareness changes how we perceive, design, and use places,” says Bender. “First, it requires that designing the chi of a place becomes primary. It demands integrity of materials, design, and uses. It stresses the importance of paying attention to how we feel about a place, the psychology of place, and the role of our minds, fears, and dreams. It requires that we design in relation to the needs and aspirations of all creation, not just ourselves.”

Bringing it home

Feng shui tells us about the interrelationships among things—including ourselves—within the whole. It tells us that there’s much more to natural living than using the right products. The measure of our success—and the predictor of our ability to thrive on Earth—is in the vitality of the whole. No checklist can get us there, but love can; a sense of the sacred can; spaciousness, stillness, and a sense of spontaneity can.

How well do we need to understand feng shui? If we can perceive chi and understand how chi and landforms affect our lives, that’s the essence of what we need to know; learning about feng shui can help us get there. But if we don’t perceive, value, and work with chi and the earth, no rules, traditions, or wind chimes will do the trick. The breath of life is present and available to us all. Observing the world within and around us, trusting our gut feelings, and caring about the continuum of life are our most important tools.

Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature newsletter.