Zen in the den

Is a closed toilet the path to spiritual harmony? Dallas’ feng shui followers think so.

Then there was the owner of the restaurant Anzu, who used feng shui to remove a hex from her business' location, where more than a half-dozen restaurants had crashed and burned in the 10 years before she opened there. Anzu has been a rousing success almost from the day it opened its doors--doors that had to be specially built on a rakish angle, as per the feng shui master's directions.

Coincidences maybe, but even a cynical, skeptical journalist finds it hard to argue with results like these. So I, too, decided to try feng shui on for size. I discovered, among other things, that all my cozy clutter at home and in the office was causing the equivalent of ch'i gridlock. And the marriage corner in my house was utterly bereft, not to mention the fact that our bed was in a precarious alignment.

Of course, by the time I was done researching feng shui, my husband thought the only thing that needed alignment was my mental state.

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Falling somewhere between the daily horoscopes and acupuncture on the scale of believability, feng shui--which literally means "wind and water"--began in China more than 3,000 years ago as a way to harness cosmic energy in order to live in harmony with nature and to effect one's destiny. It was employed in a multitude of ways, from choosing the best day for a wedding to picking an auspicious location to bury a loved one.

Though philosophically rooted in range of thought from Taoism--a philosophical concept of unity--to Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners will tell you that they also rely on a good helping of intuition and common sense when they set out to harmonize and change a person's environment. You don't need a mystic to tell you that too much clutter can interfere with your productivity. But perhaps hearing it from someone you're paying will get you to clean up the place.

There are several different schools of feng shui, from the heavily mystical Black Hat school to traditional feng shui, whose practitioners used a special compass called a lou pan and astrological charts to divine proper magnetic fields for object placement. But all the schools rely on balancing the Tao duality of yin and yang and employ the eight-sided schematic known as a bagua (pronounced bag-wah) when analyzing and re-designing a room. Each side of the bagua corresponds to specific colors and life situations, which include marriage, fame, wealth, family, wisdom, career, children, and helpful people. The center of the octagon signifies health.

"You've got earth and the heavens, and your home is the link midway between the two," explains Nancy Cohen, a certified feng shui practitioner in Dallas. "It's not just about designing spaces in your home laterally, but vertically as well."

Cohen was my feng shui tour guide during my short but intensive exploration. A pleasant, petite brunette who resonates a decided peacefulness, the 31-year-old Cohen does not exactly resemble a wizened Chinese sage. Apparently there are no Chinese practitioners locally, though several masters come to town on a regular basis to do consultations and hold workshops.

Cohen, who has a master's in fine arts from George Washington University, had spent the majority of her professional life in the art world, working in the education department at the Dallas Museum of Art, followed by four years as the director of the Edith Baker Gallery.

Several years ago, she read a magazine article on feng shui and was fascinated. She read everything she could on the subject and tried it out on her own home and those of family and friends. "It worked," she says. "My family and friends all had good stuff happen to them." One friend, who was in sales, was having trouble closing deals. When Cohen saw his office, she thought she knew what the problem was. He had floor-to-ceiling windows behind his desk, and symbolically he felt unsupported. She moved some low filing cabinets in front of the windows. A few weeks later, he was offered a better job. Since Cohen loaded up her own home's marriage corner--the southwest corner of the apartment--with a Chagall picture called "The Wedding", a pink vase with flowers, and pairs of smooth rocks, she has had two suitors propose marriage, although neither man was right for her.

Cohen's new-found passion eventually led her to the Feng Shui Institute of America, founded in Vero Beach, Florida, by Nancilee Wydra. The Feng Shui Institute, which offers a certification and a masters program, teaches the pyramid school of feng shui, which is a fusion of other schools adapted, says Cohen, "to a more contemporary paradigm."

In other words, the one-from-column-A-and-two-from-column-B approach. "It's like asking 20 people for their chicken soup recipe," Cohen says of the different schools. "They're all good, but all different."

To become certified, Cohen first was sent a list of reading to complete, which took about a year. Then she participated in a three-day intensive workshop the institute held at a bookstore in Richardson. For eight hours, an instructor went over the principles of feng shui and gave them problems to solve. Then they went to a classmate's house to do a group consultation. Each student had to write a report about how they would change the residence according to feng shui principles. The students also had to submit two other reports analyzing other spaces, plus take an 80-page exam. After three years of practice, students are given another exam and are considered masters if they pass. When Cohen took the course several years ago it cost $400--not bad for a masters, so to speak.

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