This article was written in the 1990s and reprinted in Manual do Autentico Feng Shui by Raul de Soroa (Editora Gente, Sao Paulo 2000).
Back to School!
An Idaho boy took the honors at his local science fair for a unique experiment. He canvassed 50 people with a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide. Accompanying the petition was a list of facts about this substance, including its incorporation in acid rain, its ability to cause burns in its gaseous state, and the fact that it is found in tumors of cancer patients.
Out of 50 people there were 43 happy to sign the petition, six who were undecided, and only one who recognized the chemical as water. (Penn and Teller repeated this stunt with hilarious results. They also had a lot of fun with feng shui.)
Feng shui’s often-dubious associations with “energy” are very much in the same vein as the tale of dihydrogen monoxide. What are practitioners talking about when “Feng Shui” and “energy” are used in the same sentence?
Feng Shui derived in part from Daoist philosophy, which is primarily concerned with
- Understanding the nature of the universe.
- Harmonious integration of human activity and communities within nature and the cosmos.
Daoists who were involved with Feng Shui were the theoretical physicists of the ancient world — part mystics and part scientists, their keen observations of and hypotheses about nature are the closest thing the ancients had to modern scientific inquiry, surpassing the Greeks by a considerable margin. Part of Daoist belief is that everything is transmutable, which sounds pretty close to the Law of Conservation (that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transformed).
Paul Halpern, a physicist at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, says it’s true that energy persists forever. It’s neither created nor destroyed but is converted from one form to another. It’s also true that all people (and all things that are warmer than their surroundings for that matter) emit photons.Most of these photons are absorbed by air or other objects before they reach space.But Halpern adds, “these photons would not carry much information about us at all, except perhaps our temperature.”
Knowing that Feng Shui has a solid basis in observation and fact should render its practitioners capable of discussing “energy” within a modern scientific framework, right?
There are far too many discussions of Feng Shui and so-called aetheric energy, a gas supposedly pervading the universe. This concept was developed by the Greeks, who also believed that
- Celestial bodies were gigantic crystals made of a fifth incorruptible element (“quintessence”)
- Women’s reproductive organs wandered around their bodies (“hysteria”).
The ideas of “aether” and the wandering womb were hot topics in the Middle Ages and influenced early Western scientific thought.
The Aether Bunny Lives?
“Aetheric energy” was regarded as superfluous by Einstein in his famous 1905 paper, and eventually demolished as even a remote possibility in one scientific experiment after another. Nevertheless, repeated proofs of aether’s nonexistence never entirely stopped the most diehard dreamers (though these days believing in aether is like believing in the Tooth Fairy).
“The material aether does not exist,” says physicist and professor Arthur Zajonc in his wonderful book Catching the Light. “It was a hypothetical fiction born of a materialistic imagination.”
Then there are those Feng Shui practitioners who insist that Feng Shui deals entirely with metaphysics. They never learned about Feng Shui’s scientific roots, or they don’t know about the sometimes metaphysical nature of modern physics.Feng Shui isn’t “beyond physics,” to use the literal meaning of metaphysics. In some cases, quantum physics is far more mystical than authentic Feng Shui. Certainly Eugene Wigner’s ideas about universal cosmic consciousness, Bohm’s quantum potential and even the Casimir Effect offer a great deal of interesting metaphysics.
Energy was one thing to the Greeks and quite another to Daoists — and, as it turns out, the Daoists were right. Traditional Feng Shui “energy” is the same energy you studied in school, though few practitioners appear willing or able to talk about it that way.
There’s nothing aerie-faerie about energy unless we’re talking theoretical physics like hyperspace theory or superstring theory (the latter-day version of Kaluza-Klein theory), which sounds like Daoist philosophy and advanced Feng Shui formulas in the language of Star Trek. “Energy” is concerned with the way molecules are arranged, whether we’re talking about kinetic energy or chemical, heat, or electric energy; and work is just a transfer of energy.
As the old commercial says, “You’re soaking in it.”
Facts are facts, and will not disappear on account of your likes. — Jawaharlal Nehru
Theoretical physicist Fred Alan Wolf hypothesized in The Eagle’s Quest that shamans have an understanding of the universe akin to physicists’. Shamans know that the universe is one huge wave and particle dance — that everything is vibrations, like quantum wave functions or vibrations of probability. Shamans’ mental construct (paradigm) involves what is called “spirits” which is what physicists call “quantum physics.” Shamans even have their version of nonlocality (Edward Lorenz’ Butterfly Effect) that any scientist will immediately recognize.
However shamans are mystics, not scientists. They lack a physical and mathematical principle to explain their work.
Feng Shui, by contrast, does have physical and mathematical principles for its hypotheses. Yin Yang Theory, after all, is one of the oldest philosophical and mathematical systems on record, and continually astounds those who delve into its properties. Feng Shui relies on Yin Yang Theory and its corollary, the “Five Activities” or Five Element Theory, characterized by Professor Liu Yanchi as systems-level theory.
- Feng Shui’s methodologies work like Western scientific inquiry. Practitioners observe and record, formulate mathematical models of structures, and report findings in both technical and layman’s language. Any other sufficiently-skilled practitioner can access (and assess) the work — and replicating results is essential to any truly scientific system.
- A competent Feng Shui practitioner can track energy potentialities in a structure over great spans of time, if given basic reference points. The initial conditions are critical to calculations. In other words, tell a practitioner the construction date of a structure and its precise orientation, and he or she can calculate its energy potential at any point in the past or future.
- A practitioner can track bifurcation points or nodes in phase space, and offer potentialities. That is, a practitioner can take a building’s mathematical model and track energy shifts based upon remodeling or other outside interventions — such as one-, twenty- and sixty-year cycles.
It may not be couched in the same mathematical formulas and terms a physicist or complexity theorist would use, but it’s definitely a scientific explanation of what goes on in a structure over time.
So what’s the problem with Feng Shui practitioners’ use of the term “energy”? Do we rely too heavily on fuzzy logic — the shamans’ approach?
We’d certainly gain more credibility by siding with the scientists instead of the mystics. After all, to put it bluntly, the basis of Feng Shui is environmental science, physics, and mathematics — more the theoretical physicist’s outlook than the curandero’s.
Back to High School, Part 2
There are four forces at work in the universe:
- Strong nuclear force (the energy at an atomic level that fuels the stars)
- Weak nuclear force (an atomic-level force that governs certain forms of electromagnetic decay, from dental X-rays to isotopes in power plants)
- Gravity (what binds the galaxy, keeps planets in orbit, and enables them to hold an atmosphere)
- Electromagnetic force (electricity, magnetism, light — the main force at work at a planetary level, how our planet receives most of its energy from the sun).
We know these exist because we use them and are influenced by them throughout our lives.
Electromagnetic waves are produced by rhythmic variations in electrical and magnetic fields, and vibrate in a plane at right angles to the direction of flow. Within the electromagnetic spectrum is everything we take for granted in modern life — everything from generated electricity, television, visible and invisible light, energy that cooks food via radiant heat or microwaves, the power that gives us suntans (and sunburns), photosynthesis, photographs and air currents.
This is the “energy” used by authentic Feng Shui practitioners.
Our compasses are tuned to the planetary magnetic field, and our methodology enables us to determine other terrestrial lines of force, to use Faraday’s term for fields. Yin Yang Theory gives us the primary wave theory (the ancients’ version of S-matrix theory) and the Five Elements explain temporal and systems-level manifestations of electromagnetic wavelengths. Luoshu and Hetu provide us with nonary specifications for phase space/physical modeling with the various formulas. It’s a beautifully integrated system.
Of Potatoes and Kim Basinger
Potential energy is stored by an object, whether living or nonliving.
A potato works for you like a battery does for an iPod. A potato contains energy that can be converted by the system capable of unlocking the energy and using its calories — in this case, your digestive tract. Our systems can break down potatoes, etc., into usable energy, while another digestive system — say, that of Celeste in My Stepmother Is An Alien — may find the iPod’s battery far more nutritious and satisfying.
At first glance it seems that Feng Shui’s use of electromagnetic energy concerns itself with convection –after all, some practitioners talk at length about the ability of live plants to conduct qi around a room. What the plants are doing is called photosynthesis, and breathable air is a byproduct of this essential function. Without photosynthesis nothing would live on the planet. Universal qi would still exist, but planetary qi would not because it is the activity of life.
Practitioners say that plants in a house store qi, which is a reference to potential energy (remember the potato — or, if you prefer, Celeste), but the subject once again is convection when talk turns to windows and air flow. Cold air is denser and its molecules move more slowly. Warm air’s molecules move faster and carry heat around a room, moving more rapidly the hotter they get. Warm air molecules expand, rise, and occupy a larger volume; trapping denser, cooler air into a compact area. That cold spot people sometimes feel in houses is our bodies’ reaction to this function of convection.
Interestingly, modern Feng Shui case studies lend credence to the ancient texts’ theory that this phenomena occurs more frequently in homes determined to have a particular mathematical model and energy potential.
Winds are planet-sized convection currents set in movement by Earth’s spin. Ancient sources tell us that planetary qi rides the wind.
Electromagnetism and the “Big Five”
The “Five Activities” (as the ancients generally called them) or the Five Elements, as they are generally known today, offer explanations of temporal and systems-level manifestations of electromagnetic wavelengths. Because these are our basis for remedies to homes and environments, let’s look at how electromagnetism can be interpreted within Five Element Theory.
According to Hanshu and the Yijing, the Earth Element is a buffering agent — what we’d call an insulator. Everyone knows that the Earth is used as a ground in electricity.
The Earth Element’s associative color is yellow, which falls into the pure spectral range of 5770 to 5970 angstroms. If we include orange, the range jumps from 5770 to 6220 angstroms. (Remember, the lower the frequency, the longer the wavelength.)
Metals are great conductors of energy. Polished surfaces of metals make good reflective substances.
At once reflective and refractive, water is also involved in evaporation and condensation. This is hinted in the Yijing by Kan, which is also the Abysmal, the great depth of the unknown.
The Wood Element was associated with the Ministry of Agriculture in ancient China — a terrific mnemonic for vegetative life and potential energy (like the potato), photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration. Its associative color is green, and the pure spectral color falls into a range of 4920 to 5770 angstroms.
The color of the longest wavelength (6220 to 7700 angstroms) is associated with the Fire Element, which makes sense considering it is identified with noon, the sacred direction of south — where radiant heat originates in Chinese thinking. The next color on the spectrum lower than red is infrared, which has its own associations with heat.
Feng Shui practitioners employ the Five Elements to remedy model-based or self-evident problems. Systematic approaches based upon the old texts, teachings from masters, and our modern understanding in the framework of science will make it easier for us to make the right decisions on adjustments for the good of our clients and the planet.