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  • Writer's pictureJamie Bass

How to Interpret Feng Shui Rules for Today

I recently spoke at a few different networking meetings around town. During everyone’s introduction of themselves and their businesses, the organizers asked if the participants would also answer the question, “What does feng shui mean to you?” in preparation for my talk. Although I felt this was a challenging question for non-feng shui practitioners to have to answer, I was very impressed with how they responded. There was talk of being mindful of how energy flows in a space; feeling comfortable and happy with how the space is laid out, even if it’s not the most beautiful or design-oriented; and several people mentioned various feng shui “rules” that they had read about in books over the years.

And these “rules,” such as your bed should be facing East, it’s not good to sit or lie down under a beam, and you don’t want to sit in a chair with your back facing a door, are by and large what most people mention to me when they’re relaying what they know about feng shui. But (and here’s the interesting part), they often don’t know how these rules came about in the first place or why they’re important – they just know that this is what you’re “supposed to do.”

Context Matters in Feng Shui

But there really aren’t many “shoulds” or “supposed tos” in feng shui. Feng shui is thousands of years old and was originally developed in ancient China to help humans live more harmoniously with nature and its (often harsh) conditions. And don’t get me wrong: many of the principles and original theories that were valued so long ago still apply today, but what has evolved is the context. None of us live in ancient China anymore. Many of us are living in contemporary, Western societies, so using the old and specific remedies in prescribed ways won’t really help us or relate much to the way in which we live today.

Although some ideas concerning space apply to almost all humans, we’re actually more impacted when the ideas are tailored to our specific cultures, time period, personal histories, and generation. A feng shui recommendation that works for me (a young woman in Denver, Colorado) may not work for an older man living in Costa Rica, even if we're having a similar problem. What this means is that the underlying feng shui principle (the “why”) needs to be tailored and expressed on an individual basis within the context of that person’s culture (the “how”) in order to have any relevance and make a difference.

So How Does This Play Out?

There is a traditional feng shui rule that states that a gathering room should never have more than three windows in it. Now before you go counting the number of windows in your living room and determining that your house is “all wrong,” let’s consider why this rule might have come about. Think of a student who is frequently reprimanded for passing notes in class and so, to try and ignore the admonishment, he becomes fixated on something he sees outside of the window. Or a parent that wants to have a serious conversation with their child, but instead of focusing on their parent, the child keeps diverting her eyes to see what games her friends are playing across the street. With this rule, feng shui is expressing the idea that windows should be limited because they encourage distractions.

But in this country, we love windows. We love their light and the fact that they bring us closer to nature and the outside world. Without them, we actually become more distracted and even depressed, especially because most of us spend the majority of our days indoors. Additionally, windows are now more energy-efficient and affordable than they’ve ever been, and certainly more so than they were in ancient China. So how can we apply the original feng shui rule (a gathering room should have no more than three windows) to today? We can face people away from the windows because we understand that the rule was less about the actual number of windows in a room and more about avoiding distractions. We can still pay service to the underlying principle by adjusting where people sit based on their need to avoid distraction instead of limiting our use of windows.

Here's another example: an ancient feng shui rule states that the best position for a house is nestled behind a group of trees or a hill that faces north. This made perfect sense in China because most of the severe weather comes from the north, so protecting the home from this direction meant that the occupants were more sheltered throughout the year and life was easier and better. But in a place like Iowa, for example, where the severe weather comes mostly from the west, protecting a home from the north isn’t so helpful. And let’s also not forget that in this country, we often do not have control over the orientation of our homes because of building codes, city planning, roads, and nearby structures. When you start looking into it, it becomes clear that this rule about the direction that a house must face has to be individualized and not just taken at face value.

Feng Shui is a Powerful Tool When Applied in the Right Way for Your Situation

These examples help to illustrate that place can be a powerful tool for shaping change. But we have to understand the context in which place exists as well as how place is perceived by the people occupying it before we can even begin to consider applying any hard and fast rules. And, as evidenced above, feng shui doesn’t really lend itself well to hard and fast rules – it’s more about determining whether an underlying message resonates with you and how to make changes that honor your way of life, perceptions, and goals. That's when the magic happens.


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