I grew up living with my mother in my grandparents’ tastefully arranged household. It was a quiet space, where a glass-topped breakfront displayed delicate china, and polished surfaces were covered with lace tablecloths. The sense of stillness in the house allowed the usually unnoticed details of a room to come to the foreground of awareness.
When it’s clear that no ball playing, roughhousing, or running will be allowed, one has no choice but to sit quietly and listen—and in that silence, those rooms would whisper stories to me, all kinds of narratives that curved around the contours of a couch, surprised me at the corner of a cabinet, played with the light glinting off the bronze chandelier. Though I couldn’t yet fully grasp what these rooms were trying to say, I could sense them wordlessly conveying their spirit to me.
Having retained this attunement to the psychology of space into adulthood, I was jolted when, early in my clinical training, my therapist switched offices. I’d become used to meeting in a small, cozy, book-lined room, where a clock sat at eye level on a shelf. I felt safe and shared freely there, with a sense of being contained and cared for. The books, colors, natural light, and comfortable seating were all part of the room’s special poetry.
When she moved into a much larger space, the view from the couch changed. Rather than neatly shelved books, I now gazed upon a wall lined with gray metal file cabinets, a fax machine, and a computer. The books were piled on a table, and the clock was gone. I hated the room immediately.
I tried to dismiss my feelings as irrational, but my psyche wouldn’t be so easily mollified. Sessions began to feel subtly off balance and uncontained. The setting had a new story line—a business office, not a healing space—and I struggled to find my place in it. I endured a few months, and then decided to take a break. My leaving entirely would’ve been unimaginable before she moved, but I never went back.
My own therapeutic training had never addressed the impact of an office on either the therapist or the client, but I couldn’t shake the question: what if the therapy room, rather than being inert and ignored, played its own role in the therapy experience? The more I thought about that question, the more I was drawn to feng shui, the ancient Chinese study of how the placement of people and objects within a space can generate harmony and balance.
Feng shui, although regarded by some as a pseudoscience, has attracted many adherents, within both the design world and the therapy community. Its core concern is to put humans in harmony with their physical environment, to serve as a guide to flourishing by personalizing homes and offices. Its main operational tool is the bagua, an octagonal template that can be drawn over any space, large or small. It parses the space into eight sections, called “life situations,” which can best be understood as the key elements of a balanced, harmonious life:
Helpful People relates to people who assist you in your life, such as friends, employees, clients, business associates, neighbors. Objects to include in this section can be anything that reminds you of prosperity as well as your sense of gratitude for these people.
Career relates to your relationship to the world beyond your home and how you’re known or wish to be known in the world. This is often represented by images of water and sky, or maybe inspiring quotes.
Knowledge refers to personal insight, wisdom, cognitive ability, and capacity to learn. It can be represented by objects, such as books, that encourage personal insight, emotional growth, and absorbing information about the world.
Family/Community represents the welfare of your immediate and extended family, and of others who are a regular part of your community. In a professional setting, it would focus on relationships with employees, clients, and management.
Fortunate Blessings/Power/Wealth relates to the degree of prosperity one has in one’s life, which may manifest itself in material wealth or other types of fulfillment and good fortune.
Future Dreams relates to the goals, plans, and dreams that guide your life.
Relationship refers to significant connections beyond the family and other intimate relationships. As therapists, we all know how important these can be.
Children/Creativity relates to whatever reveals curiosity, imagination, inventiveness, and the pursuit of creative endeavors.
Derived from the I Ching, the bagua also symbolically maps the movement of chi in a space. Chi is the life force of all animate things, the energy that distinguishes between living and dead matter. We want good chi to flow easily through a room to achieve harmony, health, and prosperity. Blocked or stuck chi, as well as chi that’s moving too fast, has the opposite effect. Clutter is as an easy example of stuck chi, while a long, straight hallway will have fast chi. Given the predictable patterns in which chi is thought to move, we can often see a correspondence between a physical space and its inhabitant’s life situation.
Feng shui heightens awareness of many features of office design that can enhance a sense of well-being. Is there an even distribution of furniture on both sides of the room? Is there art on only one wall? Is the room too bright? Too minimalist? How balanced and even do you feel in the space? A key design principle is sitting in the “power” position, which is typically farthest from the entrance. Sitting too close to a door makes it likelier that you’ll be distracted by daily details. Similarly, clearing away clutter helps bring in vital energy and promotes clarity and focus.
Once I understood more about feng shui, I realized that the bagua helped explain the different ways I’d experienced my therapist’s two offices. In the first one—a small, square-shaped room with only a couch, a chair, a bookcase, a clock, and two windows—the chi had a slow, peaceful quality. There, I’d felt that my therapist, like a surrogate mother, was focused on my future well-being. In the second office, however, I’d felt disoriented and lost. I’d repeatedly asked for a clock I could see to pace myself, but my ignored request began to feel reminiscent of my neglectful childhood.
My therapist told me she was working on writing a book in her new office: hence the prominent computer, desk, and file cabinets. Indeed, the office was now clearly about her future as a writer, and the large, uncarpeted, rectangular room, with its office equipment and tall windows, gave rise to fast-moving chi. It wasn’t at all conducive to relaxed self-exploration. Rugs, window coverings, and a screen or cabinetry to hide the office equipment would’ve slowed down the chi and perhaps prevented my departure. But my therapist made no effort to warm up the room, and our relationship soon ended.
With this in mind and eager to try out my newfound understanding of feng shui, I began to study the furnishings and decorations in photos of Freud’s legendary consulting room. It turned out he most often sat in a position with a commanding view of the entire room, which included curio cabinets and a table occupied by statuary. His positioning was in line with the confidence and authority he needed to become the father of psychoanalysis.
The patient’s chaise lounge in his office afforded a view of the back wall of his study, which displayed antiquities focused on death. In another part of the room was a glass cabinet with six statues of Eros, the god of love. I think the heavy rugs on the floor, wall, and chaise lounge, as well as the darkness of the room, would’ve slowed down the chi. And the visual feast of statuary, paintings, and ornate furniture would’ve sped up the chi, creating a balance.
But what was the actual effect of the feng shui of this room? Did Freud’s patients feel confined and restricted in his office, or were they warmed and secure, physically and psychologically? Was Freud distracted or supported by the invisible others represented in his art and sculptures? Did he get lost in reveries of their imagined conversations? Ultimately, feng shui is best determined by the occupant’s experience over time, but in a letter to a colleague, Freud once emphasized that his collection of statues was “a source of renewal and comfort.”
Helping Therapists Feel Their Space
My experience and study of feng shui led naturally to my becoming a consultant to therapists about their offices. Our visits always begin in the same way. I sit silently while clients draw their office and label the items within it. This allows them to enter a creative internal space. Then comes the storytelling. When they’re done drawing, I ask them to tell me in detail about each item in the room, including who gave it to them, how they feel about it, and what associations they have with it. Closets and drawers are opened and examined. Wall hangings, rugs, and fixtures are all added to the story.
We then review my notes to discover the themes present in the narrative as well as in the room. Time is a big one: not having enough of it, where the clocks are or aren’t, the age of things in the room. Invisible others is another prominent theme. Every therapist has items that are connected to other people: it’s a good reminder that no one works alone! Money and professional qualifications also come up a lot.
We end this initial consultation by considering the flow of the chi. Often, things like piles of files will create stagnant chi, while an almost empty room with two chairs and a side table has fast-moving chi. We talk about all of it, and when I come back a few weeks later, I find that most therapists have been inspired to make changes to their offices themselves. They’ve removed a ratty chair from the corner, added a plant to the coffee table, hung a curtain or a piece of meaningful art. Already, they often tell me, they feel better about themselves and their space.
Over the years, I’ve learned that opening the door to an office is like beginning a book and stepping into an unknown narrative. Take Harold, a psychiatrist I worked with a few years ago. When I first met him in his office, it was as if I was starting the exploration of a treasure trove of insights, feelings, stories, and fantasies that silently resided in the objects that surrounded him. As I took in the scene, I saw the room’s narrative encompassed pink walls, wide windows, an open area in the middle of the space, and an African mask with a bird that appeared to be eating a brain. I was intrigued and immediately handed him a pencil and paper to draw his office. As I waited silently, I took in the rest of the visual vignettes surrounding me. He had flyers pasted on his door and a tongue-in-cheek collection of mints that included Anti-EstablishMints, Oral Fixation Mints, and EnlightenMints. Among his collection of other curios was a bust of a scary-looking clown and a teddy bear leaning up against a bust of Hippocrates.
Next, Harold shared what each of these things meant for him. In the fortunate blessings/power/wealth area was the bust, which he said was a gift from his mother when he first started out in practice. He said he’d found the African mask on the street in New York one weekend on his way to a brunch. He’d brought it home and discovered that in some cultures, a bird picking the brain represented fertility. Another piece was a Venetian commedia dell’arte mask that he’d gotten on his honeymoon. “It’s il medico della peste, the plague doctor,” Harold told me. He has long birdlike extensions on his arms so he doesn’t have to touch his patients. I think it’s a perfect representation of a psychiatrist,” he added wryly.
Harold’s medical degrees and board certification sat on the floor in this same area. “I don’t know why I’ve never hung my diplomas,” he told me. “I guess I’ve always thought it was strange to walk into a doctor’s office and see a wall plastered with them. It must have something to do with my ambivalence about power,” he said.
Silently I agreed with him, but in a different kind of language: for me, the honors on the floor represented stuck chi.
A couple of weeks later, I returned to Harold’s office with no expectations, so it came as a welcome surprise when he shared that our work had shifted something important for him.
“The thing that struck me most after our conversation was that all my diplomas are hidden away on the floor,” he said. “After some hesitation, I decided it was time to reclaim my power, so I put them up on the wall. I immediately liked them there. Sure, I had to do a little emotional work to get to that point, but not much.”
He went on to tell me about a new print of a whale he’d added to the wall. “It’s a spirit whale from an Inuit woodcut,” he said. “And my association with it is the idea of something large and powerful mobilized in the unconscious.”
Hearing that, my intuition told me that our brief consultation had freed up more than its share of positive energy for him and, ultimately, his clients. There were certainly other changes that could’ve been made to Harold’s office, but my clinical training has taught me to let the client lead the way. The harmonizing of physical and emotional space is a journey, and some clients request annual consultations to make sure that their space continues to mirror where they want to be in their life. As one of my teachers once told me, feng shui is more about “evolution than revolution.”
Of course, accepting the somewhat esoteric language and spiritual underpinnings of feng shui isn’t a requirement for this evolution to take place. There’s really only one fundamental premise: like it or not, our personal spaces and physical surroundings reflect our inner world. If therapists ignore that connection, they may miss many opportunities for growth in their own lives and those of their clients.
If the six-year old me could already “hear” what rooms were saying, it’s quite possible that your clients of all ages can do the same, consciously or not. Tuning into that dimension of our daily experience can expand our awareness of the immediate ebb and flow of our lives and transform the ineffable to the effable, wherever we go.
Katherine Morris, PhD, is a depth psychologist and feng shui practitioner. She shows therapists and nontherapists how to craft settings that work for them psychologically and aesthetically. Her work has been featured in a TEDx talk and online. Contact: Fengshuipsychology.com.
PHOTO © ARCHIVIZ/ISTOCK