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Study Feng Shui: The Power of Place

October 1st, 2009

feng-shui-study.jpgThis article on the study of feng shui by a currently unknown author (I obtained it under private label rights and have been unable to track down the original source) deals with the influence that the appearance of things in our environment have on us and how this may affect one’s future. I do not agree with most of it personally; for me, the degree of power and control I have over the immediate environment is far more important than its appearance, at least when it comes to my overall sense of well being. The idea that the color of the walls or the arrangement of objects in my room could have any significant effect on my health, wealth, or anything else of real importance seems quite ridiculous. Nevertheless, it may be useful to study feng shui to gain a better understanding of how its practitioners view the world and how we interact with it.


I can recall how places felt to me as a child. On my way to studies at school each morning my girlfriends and I walked past our neighborhood’s “haunted house.” The early morning sun peeping up from behind this home’s conical roof created an ominous shadow on the cracked cement sidewalk.

We studied and brooded about the folks who lived there, mainly because no one ever saw them except for brief glimpses at dusk, when they returned from parts unknown. Hot summer weekends would come and go, but the haunted-house family was never like other folks, relaxing on backyard plastic-slatted lounge chairs. In winter a local plow service would clear the driveway after an abundant snowfall, but this reclusive family left the front steps unshoveled. When they finally moved away, the strangest thing happened. The family that replaced them was also odd. I remember wondering then if it was perhaps the house that caused these families to be strange.

Looking back after learning about the study of feng shui, I realize this house had terrible factors that may have contributed to the strangeness. It was at the end of a T-juncture in a roadway and had an enormous dead tree stump stationed like a wounded sentinel by the front door. Buildings at the end of a T-juncture can suffer the negative effect of racing energy as cars, people, or wind drives straight down the unencumbered roadway toward them. Not removing a dead tree stump signals a family’s lack of sensitivity to its surroundings. If we don’t take care of that which once radiated life, there is a great likelihood that we will be careless with our own well-being.

Much more recently, I lectured at a popular holistic health center. The founder had stepped down and the organizational glue was dissipating. As soon as I arrived, my previous study of feng shui kicked in as I identified the stench of decline by observing the physical plant. Formerly a pristine environment, it was fraught with tiny enclaves of clutter, litter, and disrepair.

A family, person, or institution’s health can be detected by interpreting conditions in an environment. Our relationship with our surroundings is interactive, and the health of one is reflected in the other. According to the study of feng shui, even small changes can consume vitality like a rotten apple in a barrel of healthy ones.

As contemporary Westerners, however, we must relearn that biology, social structure, and psychology flavor the soup of human individuality. We ignore how our ancestors lived for thousands of generations. No longer do we time our waking and sleeping patterns with the rising and setting of the sun. We create uniformly lit spaces with no regard for the normal changes in daylight. This requires our bodies to keep a steady pace all day long rather than rise and ebb with the passage of light. We are both blessed and cursed with the power to interact with our environment unlike any other species. Sensitivity to our internal condition is weakened when we allow technology to overwhelm biology.

To study in depth and understand the philosophy behind feng shui, a knowledge of how we are tied biologically to our environment is imperative. Just as we are molded by the people who rear us, we are shaped by the sensory interactions between us and our setting.

In a trailblazing experiment during the 1960s, social scientist Roger Barker recorded the actions of children in different venues over an extended period of time. The results were astonishing. In a line at a movie theater, an aggressive child would wait submissively, for example, while at a football game a normally subdued child would shout with abandon. Barker concluded that the places children occupied influenced their behavior more than any other factor, including their own personalities.

We see similar patterns in our own lives. Just think about how you shift your persona depending on whether you’re in a doctor’s office, buying a car, or acting as host to guests in your home. Such interactions are inescapable, so it’s no surprise that from Barker’s groundbreaking work evolved a new field of study called psychological ecology, a field in which feng shui has much to offer.

We can consider ourselves addicted to our environment in the same way as a drug addict is addicted to drugs. When studying addicts’ recidivism rate, Shepard, Siegel, a professor of psychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, found that even those with great resolve to quit after having successfully completed a drying-out program would resume their habit upon returning to the setting in which it began. In the same way as Pavlov’s dogs salivated after hearing a bell ring, an alcoholic’s craving could be triggered just by driving by a favorite bar. Most of us have experienced a surge in appetite when we were not hungry, just because food is placed before us.

On a very deep level our environment triggers automatic responses. These involuntary actions emerge from the part of the brain that handles routine things like running down a flight of stairs without thinking “Now I bend my knee, now I straighten my knee,” etc. We are not aware of the specifics that propel a response. All of us have, at one time or another, experienced extreme elation or anxiety when entering a particular place, and more often than not we are unaware of the particular factors that precipitate these feelings. The part of our brain responding to these stimuli is the brain stem, which houses our ancient memory, the collective programming embedded in our response system, like fight-or-flight response.

We breathe, feel, smell, see, and respond to our environment through the responses of our psychological/biological selves; we depend on these predictable sets of responses to our surroundings to live collectively. It’s not by chance that neighborhoods tend to resemble each other or that buildings have many design elements in common. Before literacy was widespread, cities and buildings needed to be constructed in ways that could be recalled from house to house and from city to city. Quintilian, a Roman architect, wrote that “a building is to be remembered.” He suggested standardizing positioning of courtyards, living rooms, bedrooms, and parlors so that people could navigate without having to discover the layout every time they entered a different building. By complying to the dictates of a culture’s norms, we create a tolerable, predictable world in which to live.

In a positive way this conformity of place or environmental addiction keeps people rooted. The recent trend that catapults more than one million families a year to new locations is perhaps a factor compelling us to homogenize America. Perhaps we feel comfortable moving so often only because we have created such a uniform world.

But the pressure to conform to the status quo of place has a downside as well. Habituation makes it difficult for us to adapt to a new environment when we must. During my childhood, when my family drove to Florida from New Jersey, the foods, sights, and sounds in the southern towns along the way seemed as exotic to me as in any foreign country. The route we traveled was diverse, visually and culturally as well as climatically. I realized that being transplanted could be as tough as learning a new language. Even those who love to travel return home with a “Wow, I’m glad to be home” feeling.

The very instinct that helps us establish strong roots also keeps us rooted when that’s the last thing we need. So entrenched are we in the status quo that we are loath to change our environment when our needs change. People who linger in a large home after the children leave or stay near a job site after retirement often experience a nagging depression or feeling of loss. The act of changing environments can be the single most important cure for this condition. My home state of Florida is deluged with people who have made such a transition.

We often fail to recognize how a change in lifestyle or life stage is affecting our experience in our surroundings. We may be even less aware of the subtle influences our physical world has on us. Be it electromagnetic fields, geophysical energies, or other properties, the contents of an environment exert power to alter any experience. For example, the negative ions created by water infuse us and the air around us with an exhilarating positive energy. On some level we apparently know this because real estate close to water tends to command the highest price. But we don’t always consciously take it into account in manipulating our environments to suit us.

Robert Becker, author of The Body Electric, tells us how living creatures can be affected by small changes in electrical currents or magnetic fields. Alarmingly, “When our species evolved, the earth’s natural magnetic field had a frequency of one to twenty hertz. Today, America’s electrical power delivery system, for example, has a sixty-hertz frequency. How can we sustain a three-fold increase?” Becker continues, “Electromagnetic fields have become the environmental health problem of the nineties.” Feng shui can help us understand how to control the power of such environmental forces.

The sights we see, sounds we hear, smells we experience, and sensations of touch all mesh to comprise our experience with a physical space. In addition to our biological responses, we are creatures of culture and social conditions. The quality of experience is determined by a culture’s spin. For example, the Eskimo sees hundreds of variations in snow, while native Floridians might view snow simplistically.

When I was fifteen, my family sent me to visit my uncle Willie, who lived in Madrid, Spain. He and my aunt Minnie treated me like royalty. One evening while supping in their sprawling dining room overlooking one of Madrid’s splendid grand boulevards, I heard the sounds of music, generated I was told, by Los Tunas, a traditional mariachi-type band of male university students dressed in long flowing black capes who serenaded up and down the streets hoping to entice young ladies onto their balconies. When I stepped out on my aunt’s balcony, I noticed other young women on other terraces waving long colorful streamers. My aunt Minnie told me that if a young woman fancied one of the troubadours, she would toss a ribbon to her favorite and he would pin this colorful silk strip onto his long black cape. Whoever collected the most ribbons was deemed the most popular. “Come with me,” she said, and we both dashed inside to search for ribbons.

The next thing I knew, troubadours were pounding on my uncle’s front door. All of a sudden I was closely surrounded by eight or so high-spirited university students. And the operative word was close! No one stood more than three inches from my nose while talking to me. As I stepped back to give myself space, they stepped forward, eating up the distance I tried to put between their faces and mine. I felt their collective breath, smelled what they had eaten for dinner, and felt more and more uncomfortable as the evening wore on. I should have been in heaven, a single female surrounded by so many dashing young men. Instead I spent all my time trying to maintain what I felt was an appropriate distance from them.

Only years later did I realize that what I had experienced was a cultural disparity. An appropriate social distance in the United States is from twelve inches to eighteen inches. The three to five-inch Spanish cultural distance was much smaller than what I was accustomed to. My personal space had been invaded, and it did not feel comfortable!

Similarly, each culture has the kinds of memory clues advocated by Quintilian in ancient Rome that provide unique details to its cities and living spaces. Although the words feng shui are used to describe an ancient Chinese discipline, they are only a banner under which a multilayered information system is organized. An understanding of a person’s relationship to place is too broad to be confined to one culture or time frame. For six thousand years, the Chinese have enriched their lives by understanding how space affects experience. Because of their historical connection, it is fitting to salute the Chinese for their pioneering efforts by retaining the name feng shui as the rubric under which myriad disciplines can find a home. But only when we separate the cultural anomalies from feng shui can we apply its truths universally. The subtleties of feng shui experienced through a Chinese perspective may seem delicate and finite. Like poets and monks, feng shui in its original form is both useless and indispensable. The values woven into its teachings must be extracted to reveal the central truths. Better to transform feng shui into a flexible system to ensure its survival.

Our experience of place is as integral to life as flesh is to bones. Neither can exist without being buttressed by the other. All things should be considered in determining how to have satisfying relationships, maintaining our health, and reaching maximum personal potential. With a knowledge of feng shui we are able to adjust our surroundings to drive our lives toward exquisite completeness.

Place envelops and influences all experiences. It is as silent and as vital as the air we breathe.



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