A Skeptic’s Foray into Feng Shui: What It’s Really All About

I’ve tossed the phrase “Feng Shui” around a lot over the years. I’ve heard about crystals and bamboo, red front doors and open toilet seat lids, and I know that the words “auspicious” and “energy” are used with great frequency.

But beyond the idea that our environment and space creates harmony and balance in our lives, I’d never given it much thought or consideration, until now.

Feng Shui (pronounced fung shway) is the study of the environment and how it affects people.

It originated in ancient China, approximately 4,000 years ago, in a time when people lived off the land and were at the mercy of Mother Nature. They created basic guidelines for where to position their homes and crops such that they were protected from – or aided by – the elements. 

Over time, the concept of feng shui developed into a full-fledged, highly nuanced art, covering a wide variety of circumstances that ultimately centered around the creation of a calm, harmonious environment that maximized “qi” or positive energy.

Today, the study and application of feng shui is very complex, and full of myths, misconceptions, scams, and gimmicks. But at it’s core, feng shui has nothing to do with luck or belief or magic (although I’m not fully convinced). Rather, it’s about promoting feelings of happiness and well being, which is something that I wanted to explore as I made my way through my clutter clearing, home organizing, environment optimizing project.

At the end of the day, I want my home to be a place that feels good. Welcoming. Positive. And I’d like to think of Feng Shui as a guide for how to make that happen.

To simplify the process, I’m focusing on the two most popular schools of feng shui.

Form School (aka the school of common sense)

Form School feng shui explores how various physical factors affect how people experience a space. According to Cathleen McCandless’ book Feng Shui that Makes Sense (which I reference a lot in this post) there are four basic principles for creating an optimal home environment:

  1. Protect your back: At restaurants, I always choose a seat that looks out into the room. It’s survival instinct 101 – nobody likes to be surprised or caught off guard, so protecting the back keeps us feeling more relaxed and in control. It’s why we prefer to sit with our backs to a wall and arrange our space so that we have a clear view of the door. Luckily, my furniture was already arranged favorably.
  2. Minimize sharp edges, points and corners: I’m replacing my bed frame (eventually) because I keep banging my shin against one of it’s corners. Sharp edges make us feel uncomfortable and bumping into them hurts – it actually makes a difference in how comfortable and safe we feel at home. 
  3. Incorporate images and materials from nature: We’re creatures of nature and are hard wired to respond favorably to being in and surrounded by different aspects of our natural environment. This includes fresh flowers and plants, images of nature, and objects made of natural material like ceramics or glass or wooden furniture, many of which I already have.
  4. Create balance between extremes: It’s having a balance between the Yin and Yang and not going too extreme on any one color, theme, or material. 

That’s the simplest and most practical version of feng shui.  The Compass School of feng shui, on the other hand, is much harder for me to wrap my head around because it involves compass directions, elements, and colors that pertain to different aspects of your life.

Compass School

The compass school of feng shui states that there are nine life areas that correspond to nine compass directions, which are then activated by the presence of one of the five elements.

For example, wooden objects (element) placed in the southeast section of your home (direction) “activate” the wealth area of your life (life area).

This graphic might make it easier to understand:

feng shui elements

It sounds more like folklore and superstition than science, doesn’t it?

The best analogy I’ve come across is to think of compass school feng shui as acupuncture for homes and buildings. Just as acupuncture stimulates and releases energy in certain points (or meridians) in the body, feng shui applies the same principles to spaces.

Then, if you think about how energy or “qi” works, where it can either flow or be blocked, the five elements can either be nurturing or destructive depending on where they are placed.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.04.47 PM

Still, I’m having trouble understanding how the placement of a wooden frame in the eastern part of my condo will make me healthier. I can’t seem to make sense of it.

But I’m an open minded person who believes in intention and energy and maybe even some magic, (see my posts on lucid dreaming and the law of attraction) which is why I’m giving my home a feng shui makeover.

My Feng Shui Experiment

I read a bunch of books and articles and consulted with a few folks to help me make a few strategic design decisions (as well as some of upgrades I’m making to the master bedroom and bathroom).

I got a copy of my floorpan and had someone create a bagua, or map that identifies the different compass points of the space.

Here’s an example of what a bagua might look like:

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Then, I got to work arranging my space, which is happening in tandem with the kon-mari clutter clearing project that continues to progress slowly but surely.

Here are a few of the feng shui upgrades I am making:

Painting an accent wall in my bedroom green

I had originally wanted a blue accent wall behind my bed, but apparently the master bedroom falls in the “fame/reputation” corner of my home which is activated by the fire element, something that blue, a water element would completely drown out. Because water extinguishes fire.

Had I fallen in love with (and agreed with my husband on) one of the four shades of blue brush out samples I had hanging on my wall, I would have ignored this particular piece of advice and stuck with blue. But my husband and I are both excited about the Bunker Hill green that we picked out, so green it is.

bunker hill green

Adding fountain to the dining room hutch

The dining room resides in the north corner of our condo. It corresponds to the “career” life area and is activated by water, so a small fountain (which I already had) make the perfect touch.


Removing dead plants and some of my fake plants and flowers

I’ll be adding more healthy, live plants and fresh cut flowers that I promise not to kill, and keeping the nicer artificial pieces (which represent dead and stale energy) as decor elements.

Rearranging my photo frames

Metal frames go better in certain spots than wood frames and vice versa. Same goes for photos of friends or family or vacations or kids. This task, surprisingly, took less than 30 minutes to complete.

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Aside from the master suite facelift (a paint job, some new towels, pillows and decor pieces), this project involves a lot of rearranging of things I already have. That and a compass, a map and some patience.

Do What Works for You

As much as I like science and data and research backed facts, I’m willing to try pretty much anything (as long as it’s safe, of course) to make life a little better. Who cares if the method is not validated by a double blind peer reviewed study? So what if people laugh? Or if the placebo effect and subsequent brain trickery is the reason for the change?

I find mind hacks so fascinating because we can so easily trick ourselves into thinking, feeling, and believing things that aren’t always true. Because more often than not, what we expect is what we get.

That’s why in my book, if it works, keep on doing it and if not, then move on.

Will my feng shui upgrades make a difference in my and my family’s life? That’s the beautiful thing about trying new things. We shall soon see.

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