Zen in the den

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

Last week my husband had an important business meeting. I wanted to make sure it went well, so before leaving for work, I walked through our house and closed the lids to all the toilets.

This wasn't some family tradition handed down through the generations. Nor was I indulging some new superstition to prevent business opportunities from going down the crapper.

No, what I was doing as I walked from bathroom to bathroom was partaking in something as time-honored and ethereal as praying toward Mecca and as grounded as the study of architecture and design. I was dabbling in feng shui (pronounced fung shway), the ancient Chinese practice of properly aligning one's environment to maximize the flow of the vital force known as ch'i (pronounced chee) or energy. The purpose of feng shui--a hybrid of art, science, and mysticism--is to create a sense of harmony in one's life that will lead to enriched personal relationships, optimal professional performance, and a general sense of well-being.

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As you go about rearranging furniture, adding octagonally shaped mirrors in unlikely places to ward off bad ch'i, putting a fountain in your wealth corner to symbolize flowing riches, and cleaning out clutter like a Heloise on amphetamines, don't be surprised if your friends think you are one egg roll shy of a pu pu platter.

That's exactly what I thought when I first heard about feng shui. Several years ago, a recent transplant from California--where else?--mentioned feng shui to me. As she prattled on about balance and harmony, baguas, and ch'i, my eyes glazed over. It sounded like so much New Age balderdash.

I didn't hear much about the subject again until early this year. Then it seemed like feng shui was everywhere. Respectable magazines were writing about it. My neighborhood bookstore suddenly sprouted a section of books devoted to the subject. In January, The New York Times carried a 1,000-word article about how the new Chinese leader of Hong Kong consulted a feng shui master before choosing the precise location to house his governmental headquarters. In fact, according to The Times, feng shui is as central to Hong Kong's culture as making money. Maybe that's why the country is so damn rich.

When a bright, level-headed woman I know in Dallas decided to leave her job at an art gallery to become a feng shui consultant, my curiosity had been fully piqued. I wanted to know more about this hard-to-pronounce practice that was sweeping the country like a tsunami. How could you tell the feng shui masters from the feng phonies? Who was using this, and who should be?

God knows there are an awful lot of power mongers in Dallas who could use a little harmonizing with their environments. I thought it would be fun to take a feng shui consultant to assess the offices of some of the local rich and famous. Maybe Jerry Jones needed to realign his office instead of hiring a morals squad to bring his Cowboys into line. Perhaps the woman in his press office didn't understand what I was asking, or thought I was with the foreign press corps. In any event, she never got back to me.

Neither did Kristie Sherill, the aide de camp to our esteemed mayor. I called several times to ask for an appointment. If the city couldn't land a new downtown sports arena with the help of secret studies, illegal closed-door meetings, high-priced lobbyists, and attempts at passing state legislation, maybe it was time for a ch'i check.

I figured Dallas school superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez would welcome someone asking questions about her remodeled office space that involved something other than how much it really cost. After all, about the only thing the $90,000 renovation didn't include was the price of hiring a feng shui consultant. Well, I figured wrong. She wasn't interested.

In fact, the only luck I had was with the Dallas Mavericks. I guess they're so desperate, they'll try anything. Their spokesman thought that coach Jim Cleamons would be interested in meeting with us. Cleamons, I learned, is a pretty mystical man who doesn't wear a watch and has a fondness for aquariums, which is very feng shui. Unfortunately, Cleamons wouldn't be back from vacation in time.

Pity.
I had to resort to plan B instead, watching a feng shui consultant in action as she analyzed the proper placement of office furniture in a Turtle Creek travel agency that was relocating. I also interviewed people who had employed feng shui in their homes or places of business. These were otherwise down-to-earth folks who told astonishing stories about how their personal and professional lives flourished shortly after they had their homes realigned.

There was the mechanical engineer who met the woman he eventually married just weeks after his consultation, during which he was told to remove the war-themed photographs that were hanging in his loft's marriage corner. Months after an art consultant I interviewed brought feng shui into her home, she picked up a client with a private collection who sent her on a three-week all-expense-paid trip through Europe to visit the hottest art shows.

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.

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.

About a dozen people took the course with Cohen in Dallas. "About one-third were like me, who had an art or design background," says Cohen. "Another third were building homes and seeking advice. And the other third were your flakes of the year: They were into aromatherapy last year."

Shortly after she received her certification, Cohen decided to leave her job at the Edith Baker Gallery and strike out on her own--as both an art consultant and a feng shui practitioner. So far, she's had about 50 clients, whom she charges $50 an hour. To a one, she has gotten a call about a month later that something wonderful has happened in their lives.

"I would hate to come across as a feng shui witch doctor," Cohen demurs. "It's not a quick fix. But it can definitely help. I think a lot of it has to do with when you feel good about where you are, you feel good about who you are, and in turn that brings good things to you. I also think that when you invite someone like me into your home or office, you're looking for a change in your life. Feng shui allows you, empowers you, to think in a way that invites change."

Success through feng shui may be in the eye of the beholder. Jeanette Faurot, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Texas in Austin, can't begin to explain why people move from one superstition to another. Not that she thinks feng shui is just a superstition.

"It depends on who's doing it," she says. "There are fundamental aspects of feng shui that balance the landscape and lead to architectural beauty. Beauty is one thing. But when it gets into luck and evil spirits--that's where it loses me."

Faurot does believe in ch'i, however, and people's attempts to maximize it through feng shui. "I do think there is something to the flow of energy, to creating open spaces in homes and temples for the wind to blow, to not have stuffy rooms. But that it brings wealth and health--that's where I draw the line."

Patrick Greene lived and worked in a 1,400-square-foot loft just north of downtown, and it was a mess. The 32-year-old owner of a consulting company for manufacturing systems invited Cohen to make order out of chaos. "There was no sense of harmony," Greene says. "It was cluttered and unpleasant--for living or working."

Cohen recommended numerous adjustments and additions to Greene's loft, including adding a vase of eucalyptus branches--for its color and its pleasant odor--removing clutter, and moving the bed so it wasn't facing the living area.

"She tried to make things flow better, not from a mystical standpoint, but from an ergonomic standpoint," says Greene.

But the change that Greene believes had the most profound impact on his life was Cohen's admonishment to remove his collection of World War II fighter plane photos from his marriage corner--the southwest corner of his apartment. Within weeks, Greene met the woman he eventually married.

"That was pretty scary," Greene says. "I'm not a believer in the occult or numerology. But there is something to be said for making a place more harmonious and flow correctly. Maybe it changes your attitude in a way you hadn't anticipated."

While stories abound about people having to move out of their houses because feng shui consultants believed they were just too unlucky to be fixed, there is an arsenal of low-cost feng shui cures for most design problems.

Though it is a definite feng shui faux pas to situate your desk so that your back faces your office door, sometimes you just can't help it. For problems like this one, Cohen would recommend placing a small mirror in front of you, so you can see who is walking in your door. While columns are a prevalent architectural feature in home and office design, they are bad feng shui, because they block the flow of ch'i. A simpler, and less costly, solution than tearing them down is to place a plant with rounded leaves in front of them, which neutralizes the situation. The roundness of the leaves invites harmony.

All in all, Cohen says there are nine mystical cures in her feng shui bag of tricks. Besides mirrors and plants, they are crystals, sound (often wind chimes), color, texture, lighting, art, and water.

When Shel Kasmir, a local art consultant, hired Cohen to bring feng shui into her life a year ago, Kasmir told her she wanted to focus on three areas of her life--her business, her health, and relationships. In the year since Kasmir reorganized her home and home office, she has seen incredible changes in two out of three areas.

Among Cohen's recommendations was for Kasmir to move her couch, the back of which was facing the front door, to make the den more welcoming. Then Cohen had Kasmir move the television to another corner of her den, so she couldn't see it when she was working at her table. In its place, Kasmir hung art objects, to give her inspiration while she works. At Cohen's suggestion, Kasmir added a small fountain--to symbolize flowing prosperity--on her desk, which happens to be in her wealth corner. And she moved the exercise equipment out of her bedroom, which now feels more peaceful.

To her surprise and delight, in the ensuing months Kasmir picked up several corporate clients, including Blockbuster. A client with a private collection recently sent her to Europe for three weeks to attend the Art Fair in Basil, Switzerland, and the Venice Bienalle, among other art shows. "I've been getting to do more interesting and more successful projects," Kasmir says.

And shortly after she changed her environment, Kasmir finally got to the bottom of a medical malady that had been plaguing her for years. For the last eight years, Kasmir has suffered from chronic neck pain, the cause of which continued to elude doctors. Several months ago, she heard about a special MRI machine at UCLA and made an appointment for a consultation. She flew to California where tests showed she had an entrapped nerve. She is scheduled to return to UCLA this September for surgery. Though this may all be coincidence, Kasmir believes feng shui had something to do with it.

"I'm not really a crystal person," says Kasmir. "I'm not New Age, but I have an open attitude about things. Feng shui seems to have worked for me. My mood and life seem to be smoother and calmer."

Connie McMahon, a filmmaker and director of marketing at the Dallas Theater Center, isn't sure she buys into all the Chinese reasoning behind feng shui. But the idea of analyzing her living space and making sense of it appealed to her.

Among the changes she made in her home were installing two mirrors to ward off bad chi and adding some yellow objects in the den, which is in the center of her house. This area represents the earth, and it was a room that needed grounding.

Not long after she implemented the changes, McMahon says, some additional funding for a film project came through, some locations she was trying to get came through, and she had an opportunity to work in California.

"I can't prove that feng shui was responsible," McMahon says. "But it's like Shakespeare writes in Hamlet: 'There are more things in Heaven and Earth...than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"

It was hard not to argue that the restaurant space on McKinney Avenue just north of Knox Street was jinxed. Between the early 1980s and early 1990s, more than a half-dozen restaurants located there had failed. Maybe the food or service had something to do with a few of the failures, but one of those restaurants was run by the chef who would later go on to open the restaurant Fish to rave reviews and respectable success.

Phina Nakamoto knew all about the hex, but still she was drawn to the location and was determined to open her Pacific Rim restaurant Anzu there in 1992. After all, Nakamoto had a secret weapon. In addition to hiring premier Dallas restaurant designer Paul Draper, she was going to employ the services of the feng shui master who had helped her family for decades.

Nakamoto and her siblings were born in Japan to parents of Chinese descent who had always followed feng shui principles in their home and businesses. The family moved to Dallas in the early 1980s. A short while later, they opened Nakamoto, a Japanese restaurant in Plano. For that enterprise, they brought in feng shui master Pai Kuo, who was living in St. Louis at the time and had been a family friend and resource for decades.

The feng shui touches he added to Nakamoto were minimal compared with what had to be done at Anzu. Before the Nakamotos even signed a lease for the McKinney space, Pai Kuo arrived with his trusty compass to determine whether he could cure the location of its many ills. Kuo prescribed some initial cures. The shape of the restaurant had to be turned into a perfect rectangle, easily accomplished by adding a small patio. And the previous restaurant's bar had to go. It was sitting at an angle, with a pointy end facing the restaurant's front door. Kuo said it was as if the bar were stabbing everyone who entered.

Once renovations were under way, Kuo and Draper had to strike their own sense of balance and harmony first, which was not a problem, since Draper had worked in Asia and was familiar with feng shui. Kuo nixed Draper's plans to put in skylights throughout the ceiling, because they let energy escape a room. Draper was gracious about Kuo nixing his color scheme in favor of using oxblood and gold leaf, which is supposed to bring good luck. And together they came up with a way to rid the restaurant of its pesky exposed metal truss problem.

"The exposed beams are like ribs poking through skin," explains Nakamoto. "It is a sign of poverty and vulnerability."

Putting in another ceiling was cost prohibitive, so Draper devised a simpler, but more profound solution. Recalling that gifts of 1,000 origami (folded paper) cranes portend prosperity and good health, he decided to cover the ceiling in paper birds--almost 5,000 in all.

Business has been steady ever since Anzu opened five years ago. But the Nakamotos fly Kuo in each year to inspect their restaurants and give them something akin to a ch'i checkup, which is particularly important for Anzu, where the surrounding terrain keeps changing because of demolition and new construction.

During his first checkup, Kuo discovered a huge problem with the restaurant's front doors. The restaurant faced the parking lot of a since-defunct Tom Thumb supermarket, and cars' headlights burned through Anzu's entrance. Kuo solved the problem by advising that a second door be built in front of the first, with the foyer--outfitted with plants and a small fountain--encased in a glass atrium with an angular roof. This was also done, in part, so the entrance would symbolically resemble the head of a dragon rising up, which is supposed to be reflected in the front of every building, according to feng shui principles. Finally, the front door was designed at an angle rather than parallel to the original front door. The result looks rather odd, but it was done to prevent headlight glare and to allow for optimal ch'i to enter the restaurant.

Nakamoto has to have the doors reset each year, because they fall out of alignment and don't close properly. "It's a small price to pay for good feng shui," she says with a shrug.

Kuo also suggested that Nakamoto install a rosewood carved statue of the Buddhist fire god, Kwang Ingo. Her parents got one from a Buddhist temple. Kuo placed Ingo, which Nakamoto calls the food and beverage god, on a ledge overlooking the bar. Employees give the god offerings of food and sake and fresh flowers each day. And woe unto the cynical staff person who makes fun of him.

The last staffer who was disrespectful to him learned the hard way. That night, his car was involved in a hit-and-run in the restaurant's parking lot. Nakamoto warned the staffer that he needed to apologize to the god. He did so, and a few days later, the woman who hit his car called the restaurant to confess her transgression.

Kuo also claims to have a gift of being able to read people's auras, the personal ch'i we each emanate in different ways. And he occasionally gives aura readings to Nakamoto's staff. "Some companies have drug testing. We have ch'i testing," she says with a laugh.

Nakamoto considers herself a "pretty modern person," and acknowledges that some people think feng shui is hokey. "But when you understand the reasoning behind it, it all makes sense really. Besides, why risk it?"

Why risk it indeed? That's the conclusion I eventually came to when I decided to bring feng shui into my home--much to the chagrin of my husband, who nonetheless decided to humor me.

With pad and pen in hand, Cohen walked slowly through our house, assessing our feng shui strengths and weaknesses. She implored us to shut the doors between our living room and kitchen, to keep our ch'i inside the kitchen where god knows we need it, and between the kitchen and utility room, where the ch'i of drudgery can be kept from infecting the rest of the house. She instructed us to keep the bathroom doors closed, to keep out negative energy, as well as the toilet lids, as a symbolic gesture to keep our wealth from being flushed away.

"While you're at it," my husband suggested, "why don't you put the Neiman's credit card down there before closing the lid. That would really help our financial situation enormously."

With cracks like this, it came as no surprise that the marriage sector of our house was in big trouble. It turns out, by Cohen's calculations, the marriage sector winds up being the garage.

"I told you we should do it in here," my husband quipped.
That wasn't what Cohen had in mind. She suggested we place something substantial in the corner of the driveway, such as two huge rocks we picked out together. Or perhaps a loving picture hung on the garage wall.

Cohen admonished us to remove assorted flotsam--toys, books, etc.--from the floors, because ch'i stagnates around it, and to remove anything stored beneath our beds for the same reason. I assured her there was nothing beneath the bed in the master bedroom except dust bunnies.

Cohen brightened at hearing that. "Dust bunnies are good luck in feng shui if you're trying to have a baby," she said. With two children already in our lives--and two college tuitions looming on the horizon--my husband looked slightly unnerved about the dust-bunny situation.

We had some other problem areas we needed to fix, but I won't bore you with the details. I do plan to implement Cohen's suggestions in the near future. As for my husband, despite his professed skepticism, he now closes the doors to all the bathrooms before retiring for the night. And I have a feeling he'll be vacuuming up the dust bunnies under our bed any day now.

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