The Basic Principles of Feng Shui: The Philosophy Much, Much Deeper Than Interior Design
Feng shui has risen in popularity but is still misunderstood. Learn about the deeper meaning to this philosophy, and how it relates to the nature of reality.
I made a big decision yesterday — I moved my desk by 45 degrees. My visual field has changed. What was once a window, looking over a man-made valley between the residential buildings where I live, is now my living area. Rather than my back facing the rest of the room, it is now against a solid wall. Why all the excitement and change, you might ask? The simple answer is I felt something wasn’t quite right with the previous setup.
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That subtle feeling is hard to describe. It’s intuitive. And yet, we are blessed to have access to ancient wisdom that puts words to these subtleties. One branch of such wisdom, feng shui, is the philosophy of energizing environments. Rather than purely aesthetic, this practice is based on the belief in subtle energies that have a significant impact on our psychology and well-being.
What Is Feng Shui?
Feng shui is a Chinese philosophy stretching all the way back to 4,000 BC. Although you may be familiar with the term due to its Western use, which focuses on the superficial elements of interior design, feng shui has sacred roots. It links to Eastern philosophies including Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and more, and is deeply connected to the principle of Ch’i, the vital life force that permeates all things. Chinese scholar Yang Yun Song has been called the Father of Feng Shui, and is credited with writing one of the first books presenting its philosophy.
Feng shui translates to “wind and water,” which gives some sense of its application. Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee famously said “be like water,” pointing to the nature of Ch’i, and how it aligns with the energetic flow of the universe. Ch’i is an energetic product of opposing forces of positive and negative energy, or yin and yang. Ch’i isn’t to be forced or controlled, but surrendered to, in order to flow with the natural order of things.
Riding the wave of this energy flow, feng shui harmonizes people with their environments. Its early applications ranged from choosing land to settle and develop crops, to governmental buildings, sacred sites, and tombs. Anyone who has looked into ancient architecture will know how important the positioning and structure of physical buildings were. Like many ancient approaches, feng shui also considers astrology and the position of the stars.
Feng Shui and Electromagnetic Fields
Although labeled as pseudo-scientific by certain, let’s say, more skeptical communities, the principles of feng shui have interesting parallels with modern understanding of the Earth’s magnetic fields. A study from 2019 discovered that some people sense changes in these fields, similar to many animals that rely on them to navigate — think salmon traveling 1,000s of miles through the sea, or birds migrating through the sky.
Other studies led by HeartMath Institute have shown that people respond to coherence to the frequency of the Earth. When brainwaves and heart rate match that of the Earth’s natural frequency, people feel calmer, more compassionate, and more at ease. There’s also little doubt about the interconnection of nature, and how humans are intertwined with their environment.
All of which to say, there’s a plausible amount of science to back up the wisdom of this ancient Chinese art.
Applying Feng Shui to Your Home
Keep in mind this is largely an intuitive process. As you make changes, pay close attention to how you feel. Most of us have “a vibe” of a room, or felt comfortable or uncomfortable sitting in a specific place in a cafe or similar, without knowing why. Perhaps, like magnetic fields, we have an intuitive connection to the principles of feng shui.
While it might not be possible to enter a trance-like state, tune into the Earth’s electromagnetic field, and position your furniture in a way that will astrologically transform your entire life, there are certain principles of feng shui that can be adopted at home.
1. Consider the Elements
A cornerstone of the philosophy of feng shui is related to the five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Nature is the product of construct flux and interaction between these elements. In feng shui, harmony in an environment requires a balance of these elements. As objects, elements represent rock or ceramics, candles or fireplaces, electronics or metal furniture, fountains or aquariums, or plants. Each element is represented by a color, too: red, yellow, white/beige/silver, dark blue or black, blue or green.
An excess of certain elements can cause things to be out of balance. If that’s the case, other elements have to be introduced to neutralize the environment, depending on their relationship. Wood weakens water and strengthens fire. Fire weakens wood and strengthens Earth. Earth weakens fire and strengthens metal. Metal weakens Earth and strengthens water. Water weakens metal and strengthens wood.
2. Respect the Doorway
Doorways are a big deal in feng shui. They’re viewed as portals of Ch’i, the thresholds between the individual building (or home, or office) and the outside world. Seen as an individual organism, this is the home’s defense against negative energy. Each separate room has a portal-within-a-portal, which has to be equally respected. With the main door of your home, make sure the hallway is free from clutter — set the intention to frame the entry point in a positive way. Clean, purposeful, tidy.
Equally, make sure all doors can open freely. It’s tempting to place things behind doors, such as an umbrella stand in the hallway, or a piece of furniture in the living room. But for optimal energy flow, doors have to be free to open as wide as possible.
3. Set Up the Commanding Position
Linked to the power of doorways, the commanding position is the optimal set-up for key items, including your bed, stove, and desk. Like my intuitive decision to move my desk, the feng shui principles suggest avoiding having your back to a doorway, at any given moment. Symbolically, this represents being ready for what life has ahead of you, and not being caught off-guard.
The recommended commanding position is facing a door, but not directly in front of it; so perhaps diagonally or at an angle. For your desk, a bonus point is to have your back facing a solid wall, which represents being supported and strong in your career decisions.
4. Declutter and Keep Things Tidy
More common sense than anything, decluttering and tidying is key factor in creating a harmonious and productive environment. The principle of feng shui is that environments are “alive,” in some sense, and they are symbolic of our inner world. While you may not have full control over shared spaces, you are in command of your home. Clutter represents a busy mind. Old or broken objects represent holding onto things that no longer have value.
In recent years, there’s been a rise in the use of minimalism. That doesn’t have to be the case with feng shui, but pay close attention to the objects in your home. If your environment was an extension of you, how could you best care for it? What does it represent currently, and what would you like it to represent? Some TLC in this direction can create a positive feedback loop.
5. Invest in Plants
Plants are the embodiment of the element of wood. In terms of feng shui, and the interconnection between people and their environment, it doesn’t get much stronger than plants that play a role in recycling the oxygen you breathe. Unsurprisingly, research has found a whole host of benefits of having plants on display, from reduced stress and improved focus.
The same principle from above applies — make sure you care for them! Water them regularly, and trim them whenever they become overgrown (it is said that an overgrown branch becomes imbalanced in its yang energy, sucking up too much light and demanding extra nutrients to survive). If the unfortunate happens and plants start to die, it’s time to get rid of them. In feng shui, dead plants are a big no in terms of negative energy.
6. Consider Movement Patterns
Feng shui is all about maximizing the power of the Earth’s life force, so energy can flow freely. This is symbolized in your home, or office, by how freely you can move through the environment. Pay attention to the layout of the furniture, and the regular ways you have to move. Are there obstacles? Do you have to awkwardly squeeze past tables or chairs as you walk to the kitchen or the bathroom?
Being able to move easily requires a healthy dose of space, the overlooked element in many interiors. Space is the “glue” that invisibly connects all the items in your home or office. Use it wisely.
7. Work With Light
When it comes to energy, there’s no source more powerful and life-sustaining than the sun. A supportive and nourishing environment will make the best use of natural light during daytime, which means keeping windows unobstructed and clean, and positioning key areas with the dance of light in mind. Consider using mirrors to add the extra illusion of light and space in certain areas, if necessary.
When it comes to artificial light, make sure your home or office is lit well. Be purposeful with your lighting — brighter light works better for productivity, whereas dull, warm light might be better for when you’re relaxing in the evening. Make sure to include the fire element and add a number of candles around your home, too.
Piecing It Together
There’s a lot of mystical wisdom to feng shui. If you feel the pull, feel free to immerse yourself in learning more about the flow of energy fields, and how to harness the power of working with the natural ebb and flow of nature. Feng shui is much more than home layouts, and its philosophy can be widely applied to many areas of life. If that’s too much to ask, though, at the very least it’s a philosophy that can inspire you to think differently about the relationship you have with your environment.
Become more deliberate about the quality of your living or workspace. Keeping things clean and tidy, and positioning things in a way that feels intuitively “right,” can only have positive results. Don’t stress too much about doing everything perfectly, as there are often contradictions or impossibilities (for example, in my home, it’s impossible for my bed to face the door), but do your best to sprinkle a little magic. Who knows, maybe it’s the small adjustment that can take your life to the next level.