An excess of expectations

I'm sitting in the waiting room at the doctors', idly leafing through the pile of much-thumbed magazines. And I notice, with wry amusement, that there's a new item amongst the usual drama-filled content of the women's magazines: the feng-shui column. How to fix every aspect of your life - money, sex, glamour, your waist-size, your mother-in-law, and everything else - just by moving your stuff around a bit. Hmm... I have my doubts about this...

But perhaps not for the usual reasons. I don't doubt at all that 'moving your stuff around' can help create real and constructive changes: I've seen it happen too often to have any doubts about that. What I do doubt is whether it will work in the way it's usually described - or whether many of the methods espoused will actually work at all. Most of the myriad of 'feng shui manuals' to be found in the 'self-help' section are no more than copies of copies of copies of someone else's work, with little or no understanding of what's actually going on beneath the surface. And many American books are based on a supposedly 'traditional' system that was in fact invented from scratch by a wry Chinese eccentric in Hong Kong in the 1970s: he freely admits these days that most of his model has no historical basis, but no-one seems to want to hear this. Another much-published author and self-styled 'master' is simply a skilful self-publicist: she's never actually done any feng shui consultancy at any time, in any country, and has almost no understanding of what happens in practice rather than in theory.

There's also an extraordinary excess of expectations about what can be achieved even with the crudest of feng shui 'cures'. "That's right: this dragon goes on the right-hand side of your fireplace, and brings safety and security; the money-toad goes just inside the front door, facing in, with the coin in its mouth, and the three coins go underneath the door-mat - these both bring money into the household; and we're selling all three today for the special price of $20." It's true that Chinese tradition asserts that these can help bring health, wealth and happiness (or 'ha-penis', as the salesman asserts to the giggling girls at this 'new age' show!): but some practitioners claim, and certainly many people seem to want to believe, that two lumps of plastic resin, three crudely-stamped bits of brass and a short piece of red string will do all of this all by themselves. At the other extreme, I've seem some people go into a full panic state on reading that their supposed 'relationship sector' is occupied entirely by the bathroom. At some point it becomes interesting to wonder why all this emotion and inertia should arise from such an ill-thought-through set of ideas...

Overall, in practice, the practice of feng shui - especially in the West - can only be described as a mess: so it's not surprising that many people dismiss the whole field out of hand. Yet behind all the hype and hysteria, the cynicism and stupidity, is something that certainly is real - though often 'real' only in a very weird way...

The real feng shui is much more complex than those glib generalisations about 'moving your stuff around'. And it's by no means unique, though it's certainly presented as such in the publishing field: so much so that one respected author, for example, was forced to title her book "Feng Shui For The Soul", even though feng shui as such was mentioned on only three pages, and her basic model was derived from Native American traditions rather than Chinese ones. As that book indicates, feng shui is actually only one local form of a generic practice known as geomancy, which can be found in one form or another in every culture worldwide, at every period in history. Geomancy literally means 'divining the land', and is concerned with creating an understanding of our relationship with the spaces in which we live, at every scale from a bedroom or an office desk right up to the landscape as a whole. (There's also a specific practice in the Western magical tradition called 'geomancy', which derives meaning from markings scratched in a tray of sand or earth: whilst that's valid in itself, it's not what I'm describing here.) In effect, geomancy is about understanding, and working with, the fact that there's a definite interaction between people and place - and that the place has choices too.

I've been actively involved in geomancy in various forms, on three different continents, for more than thirty years now; and as a writer, I'm probably best known as a researcher in that field, with half a dozen books to my name on various aspects of the subject, in a dozen different languages. Even so, I still wouldn't consider myself a geomancer. Instead, it'd be more accurate to describe myself as a toolmaker for geomancers: someone whose job it is to prepare and hone and polish theoretical tools and mental models which are actually of use in the practice of geomancy, in any of its forms. The aim of my work is to help others explore the weird realms of reality behind or beyond feng shui and the like, in a way which can change geomancy itself from a maze of misunderstood strangeness and superstition to a real technology of real use in the real world - a magical technology, in an entirely literal sense. A technology which acknowledges the feelings and fears behind those excessive expectations, and shows how those fears themselves can become the fuel to help create constructive change in people's lives. That's what this book is about.

Information overload

Once we accept that there is some reality behind feng shui, we can start to put it into practice, with real results. But it doesn't take long before we discover that there's a bit more to geomancy than just 'moving your stuff around': and that's where things start to get complicated...

Even in feng shui itself, there are many different layers: the simplistic (or, more accurately, simplistic-seeming) Form School, the interactions of the five Chinese elements or 'directions', the role- or relationship-based structures of the Eight Houses or Eight Mansions model, the time-dependent Flying Stars model, or the (to Westerners) almost incomprehensible concepts of the Yin style, concerned more with places for the dead than those for the living. To fully understand feng shui, we do need to understand all of these, in all their increasing complexity. To make matters worse, most of the models are ambiguous, and contradict not only each other, but often themselves as well. And some are only usable in specific contexts: for example, the common method for identifying the effects of the elements in the wider landscape, by interpreting the 'elemental' shapes of hills, makes no sense at all in a landscape which is almost completely flat, as it is in Alberta or East Anglia or many parts of South Australia. Which is why anyone who actually does manage to make sense of it all, and put it into practice, genuinely deserves the title of 'Master'!

Yet even these are only the start. There's another long-established system of geomancy known as 'vastushastra', which is the Indian counterpart to feng shui, and almost exactly its equivalent in scope and complexity - though perhaps nothing could match the complexity of Islamic 'sacred geometry', a system of geomancy developed in a culture and context in which all forms of pictorial representation are abhorrent. Other ancient systems can now only be assessed by a kind of archaeology: for example, there's an entire academic discipline of 'archaeoastronomy', devoted to identifying astronomical alignments at sacred sites everywhere around the world.

In other cultures, the geomancy may be well-known, but so interwoven with the culture itself that it proves almost impossible for outsiders to unravel: the subtle layers of life and actions in Balinese or Hopi villages, for example, or the 'songlines' of Australian Aboriginal cultures, in which the same mythic 'Dreaming' is echoed exactly in the features of the local landscape at frequent intervals across hundreds or thousands of miles, and across real boundaries of space, of peoples and of languages.

Europe has its own longstanding traditions too, though often in a more secular sense: for example, the 'landscape gardens' of British designers such as Repton or Capability Brown; the literally 'self-centred' layout of the 'Sun-King' Louis XIV's Versailles; or the wide boulevards of post-revolutionary Paris - intended more for military control of the city than anything else, perhaps, but creating a sense of openness unknown in most cities of the time. In most societies ordinary villages evolved, and still evolve, in arbitrary fashion higgledy-piggledy around any appropriate centre; by contrast, the pre-planned grid-layouts of most modern cities, particularly in the Americas, make it difficult to create a sense of centre or focus for the community - and hence any sense of 'common-unity' at all.

The physical form and layout of homes, backyards, communities, shared spaces and the wider landscape have real effects on people living there: even the most ardent materialist would have little doubt of that. Others are willing to go well beyond the material realms: for example, dowsers and water-diviners have long since argued that in the layout of sites both ancient and modern there are consistent patterns of underground water and other 'energies' of various kinds - all of which have identifiable, and often adverse, effects on human health. Some researchers, especially in Germany, identify regular grids of apparent energies at many different scales, from the 'Curry grid' and 'Hartmann grid' with spacings measured in small numbers of metres, and on upward to a wide variety of supposed 'planetary grids'. Others again, particularly in Britain, have shown a close correlation between landscape features and all manner of strange phenomena, from ancient legends of hauntings, hangings and hobgoblins through to supposed 'UFO' incidents of the present day.

And there are new concerns of a geomantic kind, some of them created by the new technologies of the present day. Microwaves and mobile phones can cause real physiological problems; underground faults and underground water alike can create havoc with people's health, as can the 'sick building syndrome' which arises from inadequate architectural design. Even the success of technology can itself cause problems: the efficient insulation of modern houses can create a build-up of radon gas - a by-product of the natural radioactive decay of certain types of rock, such as the granites of southern Cornwall - which is clearly linked to an increase in certain types of cancer.

Yet all this is still only the start for an understanding of geomancy: the more we look, the more there is to find. There's so much of it... so much to learn... And half of it makes no sense at all... though people seem to spend most of their time arguing about which half it is that makes no sense...

It never stops: there's always more and more and more and more and MORE to learn... It never stops.

Until we eventually arrive at a point of absolute exhaustion. Information overload...

At which point we become aware that we've missed a fundamental secret of the trade: which is that although all of this information is real, and all of it is true, and all of it is important, none of this matters. None of it.

Which probably doesn't make sense either... though I promise that it will, before the end of this book. But to make sense of that statement, we need to go back to basics: back to the most basic understanding of what's going on in geomancy.