Feng Shui -― the ancient Chinese concept of space arrangement to harmonize the energies of your life ― is no longer a foreign concept. But what is it really about, and how did it surface after thousands of years into western culture?
Our world today is fast-paced with few boundaries. As limits to what we can do and where we can go are constantly reduced, the question is how to stay balanced. When Tokyo is your home away from home, maintaining a sense of perspective is not always easy. This land of many temples hint at a greater spiritual depth but the excitement and possibilities leave many of us feeling groundless.
How do we escape the pull of what Paul Devereux calls the spiritual vacuum? Devereux has pointed out that one’s rush towards progress is often accompanied by a nostalgic attraction to past wisdoms. During the 1990’s technology boom, the overwhelming response to Lillian Too’s glossy The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui confirms this. The bestseller was translated into 26 languages and in many countries, was considered the first, definitive guide to the philosophy. But what exactly is so captivating about Feng Shui? One explanation might be the idea of discovering a greater force or destiny.
According to Tokyo-based Feng Shui consultant, Mr.Tanaka, our lives are determined by three forms of luck. The easiest luck to alter is mankind luck: work hard, have integrity, and be kind. The most difficult luck to alter is heaven luck, the destiny we are born into. In between is earth luck, which is where Feng Shui comes in. Tanaka sees Feng Shui as a means to activate good energy and control bad energy. It’s hard to argue ancient wisdom, but I wondered how relevant it is in our lives today.
“Some people really do need to pay attention to Feng Shui,” Tanaka believes. These are people about to make big changes in their lives or who need to get unstuck. The most crucial of this latter group are people who, despite their best efforts, cannot escape a greater force working against them. Tanaka affirms that not everyone needs Feng Shui but all can benefit from its guidance or simply from a sense of faith.
Not everyone buys this, including Luigi Campanale who views Feng Shui with a skeptical eye. Campanale, an Italian architect, sees it as “a lot of superstition with a little bit of common sense.” In addition to standard architectural concerns, one has to deal with intangible considerations such as unlucky directions and bad energy angles. “Sticking Feng Shui into building plans makes consultation prices and structural limitations skyrocket.”
I called my mother, who grew up with Feng Shui in Hong Kong before immigrating to America. Her experience with the practice was in the form of gossipy old ladies, or ‘the local experts,’ who read too much into her messy home. “It’s too complex for me to talk about! You need textbooks, experts,” said my mother. Even over the phone, I could tell she was covering her eyes. “Be careful!” she concluded.
These are just two extremes of how Feng Shui is viewed today. But the philosophy as we know it is the result of a complex evolution tracing back to two complementary schools of thought.
Four thousand years ago in China, living in harmony with the forces of nature was essential to survival. The theories that came out of this belief were based on Taoism and came to be called Feng (which means wind) and Shui (water). In the 9th century, Master Yang Yun San was recognized as one of the founders of the Form School. He produced the first major texts on analyzing the shape of the land and flow of the elements.
Around one thousand years later, the Compass school emerged. Using the pa kua octagon (a diagram linking direction to the five elements) as a tool, it became possible to measure the values of Feng Shui with formulas that associated the wind’s directions with cosmic qualities.
Though the schools eventually merged, much of the theories remained incomprehensible to the general population. As they came to be viewed as superstitions, villagers relied on local symbols of good fortune for protection. By filtering these theories through a Western approach, author Lillian Too has found a way to promote Feng Shui in a range of fields, from finding love to running businesses.
When asked why companies request his services, Michiaki Tanaka put it bluntly; “They want to make money.” Big companies, which make up 80 percent of his clientele, have everything to gain in paying attention to market forces. Today, it even means paying attention to the energy in their physical surroundings.
Last year, the Weekender publisher employed Tanaka’s services as the company began its transitional phase into a bigger office. Along with layout advice, Caroline Pover wanted to make the most of her team members’ energies.
Pover admitted “I believed in a universal energy and the impact your environment can have on you, but my knowledge of Feng Shui was limited.” While the company didn’t incorporate all the suggestions, Tanaka’s analysis gave her ideas for desk positioning and the use of red for the color theme. “We also brought in a lot of plants for positive energy. Tanaka-san reaffirmed my belief that having my dog in the office was a good thing!”
Thirty percent of Tanaka’s clients are foreign companies based in Japan. He finds that compared to his Japanese clients, Westerners are more open-minded. “They are already aware of concepts such as yin and yang. In general, they are more sensitive and open.” Some of the greatest supporters of Feng Shui are architects from Germany, perhaps because the logic and symmetry are familiar. “The numbers speak to them,” says Tanaka, who understands this well. He was a software engineer before going into Feng Shui.
When asked for simple advice for Feng Shui beginners, Tanaka suggested locating the southwest corner of the home. This corner has been identified as the most auspicious sector during period eight (the period we’re in right now, between the years 2004 to 2024). Putting in an active, or yang, water element (a fountain with moving water, a fish bowl, or an aquatic plant for example) will strengthen your luck. “You’ll see an improvement in your prosperity right away,” he promised.
Unfortunately, the southwest corner of my apartment is the bedroom (where the water element is traditionally a no-no). Instead of telling me to knock down my walls or disrupt my living arrangement, he said I could default to the southwest corner of the living room. This and other compromises he suggested had me realizing that the system might not be so rigid or disruptive after all.
I considered the idea of bringing home a fish to care for, a new mouth to feed in the apartment. Maybe put a few good luck coins in the prosperity corner ― but only after dusting a bit first. The condensation puddles by the windows might as well be mopped up too. I could do something with those moldy boxes of ‘possible future projects’ that have been causing my energy to stagnate …
“Hey!” I said to Tanaka. “If I do make these changes in my home, well of course I’d feel better about life. Internal environment reflects external and all that. It’s all attitude and common sense.”
He smiled, “but that is Feng Shui.”
Modern Feng Shui may come a long way from its origins. It may have become glossy and marketable. But from its original landscaping roots, it has developed into a holistic approach to life, encompassing peace of mind, relationships, even wealth. With a share of rationality, a share of intuition, and a just a little bit of faith, the concept of strengthening the good energy and controlling the bad doesn’t seem so crazy after all.