Everybody in our little coffee klatch knew that Suzy was going to leave her husband. It had been coming for years. So maybe that's why, on the day she finally broke the news, the conversation centered more around Lissa's claim that feng shui had changed her life for the better. Marital frustrations we all understood, but feng shui? Really? Best friend Bernice started bringing up snake oil and mystic hokum. I promised to call an expert and report back.Cathleen McCandless ( sandiegofengshui.com ) is an author, teacher, and feng shui expert with 17 years of experience in the field. We started with the basics. "The core of feng shui," she said, "is the study of the environment and how it affects people. It's like environmental psychology. It's not a superstition, and it's not a religion. When people say, 'I don't believe in feng shui,' I want to laugh, because it's not a choice. You either feel good in your environment or you don't. The primary goal of true feng shui is to create a space that feels as good as it looks -- to please not just the eye, but all the senses, and at a really core level. There's a misconception that you need all these gadgets -- talismans, Chinese symbols -- to make your life improve. That's just ridiculous."
What you need, said McCandless, is a little understanding of human history. "We went from an agrarian society to an industrial society within the past 100 years. If you look at postwar architecture, you can see they kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater. They just built boxes and stuck people in them. Then, in the early '60s, you had these weird situations occurring, people experiencing fatigue and having different physical and emotional responses. People attribute much of that to environment. Now, there's this swing back to, 'What is it that makes a human being comfortable in their space?'
"For instance, when offered a booth or a table at a restaurant, most people take a booth. This is because human beings are always scoping their environment for safety; we do it intuitively. There's an unspoken, egalitarian situation: in a booth, everybody has their back protected. And when you're protected, you feel safe, and you relax."
When it comes to applying feng shui to a house, McCandless starts by focusing on design elements. "A client will say to me, 'I've decorated; I've spent money, but it doesn't feel right.' Feng shui allows you to go into a space and change elements. Yesterday, I went into a house, and the person had no greenery, no plants of any kind. Scientific studies prove that people are soothed by images of nature. Why do we bring flowers to sick people? It's healing for them. We lived outdoors for much longer than we've lived indoors, and our experience in a manmade, artificial environment needs to have elements of nature in it. One of the reasons the generic, Dilbert-style office doesn't feel good is that they've stripped the environment of everything that could feel good to a human."
People don't like sharp, pointy things pointed at them, either. That's why, said McCandless, "Being pointed at is rude in every culture in the world. Remember how Sleeping Beauty's castle was surrounded by all those thorns? It's to keep people away. It's good to avoid architecture, furniture, plants, and even artwork that has a lot of sharp angles." Hard, shiny surfaces can also be unwelcoming. "Some people incorporate a lot of them into their homes: travertine or tile floors, leather couches, glass tables. The room isn't warm or cozy. I might suggest something to balance the room, something with texture, like a rug."
On a more general level, she said, "Feng shui uses five elements" -- wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. "They're the same five elements used in Chinese medicine. Each element corresponds to a color, a shape, and an attribute. When the elements are balanced -- through color, shape, or material -- then the room feels better. You need to take in textures, particular shapes, and actual materials such as wood or metal in order to balance things. The house I did yesterday had a lot of heavy wood -- flooring and furniture. The home felt dark and heavy. In feng shui, metal cuts wood, the way a saw would literally cut a piece of wood. The attributes of metal are white, silver, or gold. So for a house with a heavy wood element, we bring in those metal colors: cream or white. I try not to have my clients spend a lot of money, so I suggested just taking the brown pillows off the couch and putting on some cream pillows."
A more expensive but elemental furniture fix: the dining room table. "If people are considering buying one, and if their dining room can accommodate it, I suggest a round table. When people are at a long, rectangular table -- say, at Thanksgiving -- what happens is that you end up with party one and party two. The people who are on the same side of the table have no eye contact with each other, and people at one end can't talk to people at the other end. Plus, there's a hierarchy -- the 'head of the table' thing. But at a round table, everybody can see each other and talk to each other, and there is no hierarchy. I tell families with children, 'If you want your kids to talk to you and each other at the end of the day around a meal, put everyone at a round table. The family will relax and open up.' And my clients tell me it really works."
And as feng shui has permeated the culture, said McCandless, her work has moved outside the home to projects as large as master-planned communities -- "the way the streets are laid out. I've done dental offices, mom-and-pop stores, Fortune 500 companies -- all with an eye toward creating an environment that feels good."