Saturday, January 17, 2015

Spiritual Feng Shui

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 18, 2007

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of trouble throwing things away. Maybe it’s because I fancy myself something of an historian, and I can’t imagine future generations of scholars doing without these ten-year-old telephone bills of mine. Or maybe, much as I don’t want to admit it, I’m just a pack rat: The basement is full of articles I’ve clipped from magazines and newspapers over the years, each with its own little bit of information that I just know will make it into a sermon “some day”. My closet is jam-packed with shirts that I haven’t worn in (perhaps) ten years, and that I’ll probably never wear again (even if they still fit). I have files from when I was still in college—I’m talking undergraduate here--and that’s a longer and longer time ago with each passing year. And the refrigerator! Ugh. The shelves are lined with various jars of condiments—almost full; half full; a little scraping of chutney still at the bottom of the jar. Like I always say, you never know when you might need a tablespoon of two-year old mango chutney.
But there comes a time, even for an historian—ahem, a pack rat-- like me, when it’s time for a purge; time for some spring cleaning. There comes that time for all of us when we finally summon forth the determination we need to get into that closet, and toss (or recycle) a few of those old leisure suits (bring ‘em down to St. Vincent’s). It’s time, every once in a while, to clean out the fridge. Maybe that chutney can go after all… And the stuffed green olives, left over from Thanksgiving… And the tube of smoked salmon paste from IKEA, that seemed like a good idea at the time… Even the files get weeded out, every once in a while (so that there will be room for new files, of course!).
Maybe it’s a little early to start spring cleaning; but it’s not too early, certainly, to start thinking about it. Spring cleaning, as a matter of fact, is an ancient custom, that cuts across various cultures. The Jewish ritual of chametz takes place every year the week before Passover (which starts at sundown on April 2nd this year). In chametz, an observant Jewish family will toss out every bit of last year’s grain, in a ritual reenactment of the actions of their ancestors in Egypt, as they prepared to escape pharaoh. Every old crumb hanging around in the kitchen—every kernel in the corner—everything has to swept up and thrown out. Everything must go so that the whole kitchen or pantry is spotlessly cleaned; and the special Passover dishes are washed and scrubbed thoroughly; and the new season of spring can start with a fresh and clean start.
In the Christian tradition, there is Lent, which begins this Wednesday. The forty days of Lent symbolize the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, where he had gone off by himself to fast in preparation for his entry into Jerusalem. So, during Lent, in the Catholic tradition especially, Christians are asked to fast, or at least to give something up-- to cleanse themselves physically and spiritually, in order to prepare for the coming of the Easter season.
In our more secularized culture today, we more often, perhaps, clean before Easter to prepare for the Easter Bunny: so that someone won’t reach for an Easter egg at the hunt, and pull out a “dust bunny” instead! For a multitude of reasons, then, many cultures direct some kind of spring cleaning: to clean out space (whether inside or out) and make room for a new or renewed spirit.
Centuries ago, the Chinese developed a similar kind of process for preparing the way of the spirit—not just in the springtime, but as a continual process. They called this practice feng shui, which literally means “wind and water”. Feng shui concerns itself with the placement and arrangement of space in order to achieve harmony with the environment, and give the chi [qi], or life force, ample room to flow and bestow its blessings. The source of the term “feng shui” is said to go back to the Burial Book, written by Guo Pu during the Jin Dynasty (that would be somewhere around the third or fourth centuries). According to Guo Pu,chi rides on the wind, and stops when it meets the boundary of water. Then, it flows within the water. Wind and water—“feng” and “shui”-- are the two vehicles within which chi can flow. The practice of feng shui, as it developed over time, utilizes geography, psychology, philosophy, mathematics and numerology, aesthetics, and astrology in order to influence the chi so that it wouldn’t dissipate, and direct it so that it will be retained.
The goal of feng shui is to locate and orient dwellings—as well as their interior rooms and possessions, and the landscaping which surround them—so that they are attuned with the proper flowing of chi. Fundamental to feng shui, too, is the Taoist idea that two basic principles—yin and yang—underlie all matter and energy in the universe. Yin and yang are opposites (like north and south; earth and heaven; female and male; dark and light; and so on) but they do not oppose each other. Rather, they exist in a complementary relationship with one another, and the constantly changing interactions of yin and yang—in nature, in history, within any of us—give rise to the infinite variety of patterns in life. The interaction of yin and yang is what keeps life interesting.
The bagua, of which you have a representation on this morning’s order of service, is the basic diagram used in feng shui analysis. Each direction on the octagon (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, and so on…) is associated with certain significant elements. North represents water; south is fire; east is wood; west is metal; there are corresponding elements for the intermittent directions, as well. The chi coming from each direction has its own quality; it also has its own symbols, colors, and attributes. The chi from one direction also has a complex set of relationships to that coming from other directions as well.
A feng shui practitioner will study the bagua of a particular dwelling or business carefully, and make the necessary adjustments so that the way the building is situated and organized will encourage the prosperous and healthy flow of chi within. It’s all very complicated—remember: feng shui has had around 17 centuries to develop, getting more and more involved all the time. (It has also become big business these days, as well. All kinds of people call in feng shui professionals to help them design their homes and businesses. For example, no less a spiritual titan than Brittany Spears recently hired a feng shui practitioner to help her build a prayer room for her new house in Malibu.)
Out of all these complicated interactions of chi, and traditions from geography, psychology, astrology, numerology, and so on, there come a number of basic guidelines, or general rules. Things like:
  • Don’t put your stove in the north part of the house because water extinguishes fire. (Remember: the guiding element of the north is water.) Better to put the kitchen in the south, then…
  • When sitting at a desk, the entrance door should be in the clear line of sight, and you should have a view of as much of the room as possible (so that you can greet the chi as it arrives in the room, I suppose, and not get blind-sided, or worse, stabbed in the back, by it);
  • When lying in bed, the entrance door should not be directly facing the soul’s of one’s feet; in other words, the end of the bed should not be in line with the door (that’s so the chi inside you won’t be drawn out the door through the bottom of your feet!);
  • your stairs should never face the front door (the chi from upstairs, apparently, will flow right out the door if it does);
  • certain objects can redirect or reflect or shift the energy in a place; that’s why feng shui makes wide use of mirrors and crystals, wind chimes, and pools of flowing water.
Then, there are a couple of other overriding principles for feng shui which I find interesting: One is that we should avoid straight lines and sharp corners. Remember: the chi has to flow. If you have too many straight lines, you’ll have too many hard corners, and the chi can become lodged, or blocked, in these. It will get stuck in the corner, rather than stay flowing around the whole room, and the whole building.
Secondly, we should avoid clutter. Too much clutter blocks the flow of energy. The chi can’t flow if it’s constantly bumping up against furniture, and stuff, and piles of papers, and more stuff…
That brings us back, of course, to spring cleaning. Sort of spiritual feng shui.
The psychologist Denise Linn describes the soul this way: “Soul is a word we use to describe the central or integral part of someone. It is the vital core. In its most profound sense, it also describes the essence of every human being.”
The soul of each of us is our vital center. It’s our core; our innermost sanctuary. Now, we might pile a lot of junk in the cellar or in the attic. But we wouldn’t think of cluttering up our sanctuary here at church that way, would we? Why should we keep the sanctuary of our souls cluttered up, then?
Do our souls get cluttered? Do they get dirty? Do they need some kind of rearranging, or spring cleaning, from time to time? A writer named Gaylah Balter thinks so. She writes: “Why, you ask, would the soul need any spring cleaning? [Because] as our daily lives unfold, we lose track of our souls’ needs. Why? Noise, clutter, stress, or life chaos seep into our lives and dim our ability to care-take our souls.”
Noise—clutter-- stress—life changes—those are things that we all get our fair share of certainly. If we don’t take time to sort through them—and measure and weigh them—and question whether they are a positive addition to our beings or not—and rid ourselves of their excess when possible—then before too long, they become a burden to our souls. They can cause great internal dis-ease-- and whatever the relationship between internal and external disease is (and that is open to question), we know that some kind of relationship is there. We know that a person who is more in balance on the inside will be happier and perhaps healthier on the outside.
Isn’t it a wonderful feeling, when we’ve cleaned a room—or an attic—or even a cellar—and there’s room again, to move around? It feels like the room can breathe again, and then, so can we. It’s like there’s new energy flowing—in the place we’ve cleaned; but also inside us, too.
A little feng shui goes a long way—and as it is for our physical surroundings, so it can be for our souls.
There is something in our human spirits which reminds us, constantly, that even in the midst of winter, there is always the new life of spring, right around the corner. But it’s kind of hard to be born again into new life when we’re hanging onto all the old stuff that has accumulated in our hearts and minds and bodies. Now, it’s still only February, so it may be a little too soon to open up the windows in the living room, and give the house a good airing out. But it’s never too early to open the windows of your souls, for a little spiritual feng shui.
Have you taken the pulse of the energy around you lately? How do you feel? Maybe you’re like me: a little tired, a little rundown and stuffy, sort of stuck. I heard once about a dirt road in Vermont, which used to get awfully worn and rutted whenever it rained. During Mud Season, in March, when the snow finally melted and everything thawed out, it was all but impassable. So, the town fathers (and mothers) thought it might be helpful to post a sign by the road, warning of the poor conditions. “Choose your rut carefully,” the sign said, “you’ll be in it for the next ten miles.”
Often in life, we end up in ruts, which we may or may not have chosen for 10… or 20… or more years. We feel we’re stuck in them:
Ruts of addiction. Ruts of prejudice. Ruts of selfishness and egotism… Ruts of relationships that don’t work any more. Ruts of not being able to get out of our own way. Ruts of self-sufficiency, of having to do it all ourselves, of refusing to ask for help… Ruts of laziness… Ruts of perfectionism… Comfortably numb ruts which make us too slow to change anything about our lives, as limited and boring and unfulfilling as they may be…
We all get stuck in various ruts at different times in our lives. There’s a rut out there for everyone (for some of us, maybe two or three or a good half dozen). Sometimes, it seems like that muddy old road is going to go on forever.
But a little spiritual feng shui can clean out those inner passageways, and help us climb out of some of those ruts. One step at a time.
It doesn’t happen automatically. Perhaps the ever-cycling Earth resurrects naturally from the winter’s bond and pain, but for us human ones, it is not pre-ordained. Spring cleaning of our souls requires that we get up and do the cleaning. Otherwise, nothing will change.
Maybe the first step in our spiritual feng shui is to draw up a spiritual bagua for ourselves. Take a personal inventory. Discover what it is we want to change— decide whether it is something we have the power to change—and discern what tools the Spirit has given us for changing it. That means marking off the time for spiritual self-discovery. It means finding the time to step aside from the busy-ness of our lives, for just a little while, and trying to relax; to meditate on life; to listen for your inner voice; to luxuriate in the beauty of the natural world, and ask ourselves—“What is the Earth trying to tell me?”
You don’t have to change everything all at once. The worst thing when we attempt spring cleaning is to tackle too many unfinished projects at once. We start cleaning the closet in the den; then go on to the closet in the bedroom; then we go to the cellar; then we start the attic. Pretty soon, we have a half dozen half-done projects hanging around the house, only adding to the clutter.
The same thing happens if we try to change everything that needs changing in our lives too quickly. We may create more problems than we solve. Maybe it’s better to focus on that one thing, that cries out most desperately to you to change. You probably already know what it is. Our most critical needs are usually pretty obvious to all but the numbest among us. You don’t have to do it right away; take your time. Be gentle with yourselves. But resolve to begin. Right now. As Rumi reminds us, “Don’t fall back asleep!” The time for hibernation will soon be over.
We probably all grew up hearing that old saying that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Or, as it was put more poetically by the Shakers: “Clean your room well, for good spirits will not live where there is dirt.”
Likewise, when we seek to rearrange and clean and unclutter inside of ourselves, we make room for the spirit there, too. We create space for order, and beauty, and harmony to exist within us—so that we, in our own humble ways, may help bring these to our world, as well.
As above, so below,
As the universe, so the soul,
As without, so within…
So may it be.

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