Colin Bisset – Optimising Our Living and Working Spaces

Colin Bisset joins me to discuss Feng Shui in the home and workspaces and how the energy of a space can impact how we feel, think and act. A very timely episode as we are spending an increased amount of time in our home space.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Welcome to the show, Colin.

Colin Bisset:

Well, thank you for having me.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Now, Colin, we are spending an awful lot of time in our homes recently, and I think we’ve become really conscious of the importance of our home. Now, I know you have had an interest in the way we use our home, the way we arrange our home. It’s a science of Feng Shui. But I wondered if, before we lobbed into that and got into a few specifics, you might give us a little bit of a background as to your journey to this point.

Colin Bisset:

Well yes, happy to. I was working as an interior designer. I wasn’t a trained interior designer. I was an interior decorator in London. I had been working for many years, decorating mainly people’s homes. I was in my 20s and I loved it. I simply loved it. But I began to go through a bit of a phase when I thought something was lacking, something was lacking. There were two things going on. I was feeling slightly unfulfilled. It wasn’t quite enough to be worrying about people’s sofas and curtains.

Colin Bisset:

But also, I found it very interesting going to quite a wide variety of homes and thinking, this looks lovely, but it doesn’t feel very good. What’s that about? Why doesn’t it feel good? Is it the energy of the owner? I’m not liking them? Or what’s wrong with this?

Colin Bisset:

And then I was on a business trip. I was flying up on British Airways. I was flying up to Aberdeen and, in the British Airways Magazine of all things, there was this article about Feng Shui in Hong Kong. I didn’t know what it was. It was really the first time I’d ever heard about it. I was just immediately … Something rang a bell, and I thought, what is this? They talked about Feng Shui priests and this, so it wasn’t really my scene.

Colin Bisset:

But they talked about the principles: the ideas of setting outbuildings and how buildings reacted within the landscape, and how that could bring perhaps good fortune. They talked a lot about fortune and harmony and all of these words that we’re very used to now and can sound a bit corny. So, I became very interested in it.

Colin Bisset:

And after that, really anytime I saw anything about Feng Shui, I would read about it. Then I started going to courses, and I left my interior design job and I started working within Feng Shui, doing little bits of Feng Shui for people, having done courses. Because I was a very sort of cynical person, but I put … sceptical, not cynical. Well, I’m cynical as well, actually.

Colin Bisset:

I started putting some of these principles into action in my own home, just to see if it worked. I found it did. It really sort of changed things for me. I thought, well, there’s something in this. So I just kept taking it further and further studying more, until I got to a level where I felt I could start perhaps doing it for other people, which I then began to do probably 10 years after reading that magazine.

Colin Bisset:

It was a long process. I still … Even though I don’t practice now with clients, I carry it in me. I just look at it all the time. I see it. I judge people’s homes and look at people’s homes and think, that’s not going to work for them and whatever. So yeah, so that’s basically how I started.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Well, I can actually attest to the fact that your judgment of spaces has had a very positive impact on my own home, and particularly over many years. You’ve had a look at two of our places that we’ve lived in over the last 20 or 10 or 15 years. I know you said that. But over the last 10 years you’ve looked at two of our houses that we’ve lived in, and I can attest to the fact that it does make a difference. You’ve taken this interest of design into media. Tell us a little bit about what you do on those programs that I mentioned in the introduction.

Colin Bisset:

Well, basically, my degree is in History of Art, and my specialism was in modern architecture from the 1880s. That’s a real love for me. So, I started doing some little radio pieces about my thoughts around architecture, and that developed into a fairly regular gig on ABC Radio National, just talking about specific buildings or iconic designs, just the backstory around them, and putting out a few thoughts about why they’re important, and trying to put things in context. Somebody in America called me a “serial clarifier,” and I thought, oh, I love that. I’m a serial clarifier.

Colin Bisset:

But I think the idea of that was also in my Feng Shui practice, that I would try and put it into context. Because Feng Shui is Chinese, it wasn’t the Chinese part of it that interested me. I didn’t really know much about the Chinese side. But it was the idea of having these principles and being able to put it into a context so that I wasn’t going in and saying, “Oh, we’re going to hang wind chimes here and we’re going to have three metal fish here,” and do that whole sort of Chinese number.

Colin Bisset:

There’s some validity to that, but actually trying to make that work within our lives, if we’re not from that background. So, sort of clarifying those principles into a more general, Westernized, I suppose, environment.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

It’s interesting though, isn’t it? Because Chinese culture has been around for many thousands of years, and Chinese medicine, of course, talks about meridians that run through the body and connect different parts of the body. We’ve become very compartmentalized in our approach to Western medicine. Chinese medicine also talks about a balance between yin and yang. So, this Feng Shui approach, what are some of the guiding principles of Feng Shui?

Colin Bisset:

Well, it’s very connected. All of that is very connected. It’s about balance all the time, which comes a lot out of Taoism. Although Taoism was something, I think, that only really came relatively later. It’s the idea that everything has energy in it; that there’s energy coming from heaven, from above. There’s energy coming from the earth. There’s energy blowing in the wind.

Colin Bisset:

It’s about not just harnessing it, but placing ourselves in the optimum position, which can vary, because obviously a business wants a very different energy from our home. Well also, a lot of traditional Feng Shui was about finding the optimum burial sites so that your ancestors will enjoy the harmony of heaven and earth as they go on into the afterlife.

Colin Bisset:

So what you’ll see in China is you’ll see lots of these horseshoe-shaped tombs get set into a hillside, and that is actually what we use when we look at homes as well. It’s this idea, it’s often called the armchair configuration. It’s like, we look for a home, for a building, that has very good Feng Shui to actually just be sitting into a hillside. So it’s supported by a mountain, something solid and quiet behind it.

Colin Bisset:

It has openness in front of it, and it has side support, so it’s got the support of like arms in an armchair. Now this means that the energy that’s coming through the atmosphere, if you like, through the landscape is then … enters the front of the building and moves quietly, beautifully, around the building, and then exits. It’s constantly being refreshed. But it’s not just moving straight through it.

Colin Bisset:

If, for instance, you had a house built on top of a mountain, it would be being buffeted on all sides. And to live in a place like that, you would feel very scattered, I think. You’d feel very unearthed. Literally unearthed. I’ve certainly gone to people’s homes that have been actually on the top of hills. Not particularly mountains, but hills, and they’ve lived there. I have to say, they have been fairly ungrounded, fairly deranged sort of people. No, deranged is a bit bad.

Colin Bisset:

But they have been very scattered people and found it very unsettling to live in a site like that. So, you’re always looking at the building first. You’re always looking at the building, and then you’re looking at the rooms within. So it’s very important that you look to find a mouth of chi, a strong entrance, just like a Chinese restaurant. If you look at a Chinese restaurant, you always know where the entrance is because it’s usually got a pair of these temple lions on either side, or dogs, which represent heaven and earth. One has got a ball representing heaven under its paw. The other has a little cub, representing the nurturing quality of earth.

Colin Bisset:

So you’re balancing heaven and earth, just walking through the door, off the pavement. When you walk through the door, you don’t just walk straight into the whole place, into the restaurant. You have a little receiving area, and often you’ll actually change direction because that’ll slow everything down. Because if you’re coming from the street into a restaurant, a restaurant you want to be … You’re going to stay there a couple of hours, maybe. You’re going to nourish yourself. You want to enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the food, nourish through your earth, through your stomach. So, you want to slow the energy. You don’t want the frenetic energy of the street.

Colin Bisset:

You want exactly this thing in your home too, because nobody wants to just go straight into the home with the same energy of the street. So, those people who do in fact live right on the street … There are some Victorian terraces that are built right on the street. I’ve gone in, whenever I’ve gone into those homes, when you walk literally one step off the pavement into someone’s sitting room, okay, it can be quite exciting. When you’re a young person, I think that can be quite fun just living on the street.

Colin Bisset:

But for most of us, we want to withdraw a little. We want that sense of retreat. The idea of the doorway being very clear so that we can get from wherever, from the street into the home easily, but it’s very easy for the chi to find the way into the home.

Colin Bisset:

I’ll just say that often, I have visited clients whose homes I have found difficult to find the entrance to. They might say, “Oh, I’m at number 23 at a certain street,” but actually, their front door is in the street at the side. There’s a corner. Or I’ve gone through a gate and there’s two paths. I think, well, I don’t know which one to go up. There’ll be some lack of clarity. And often, the case for the people living in that house is they feel very tired and that they feel there’s no opportunity in their life.

Colin Bisset:

To me, with my using Feng Shui principles, I would say, “Well, opportunity doesn’t know how to find you. So, make it very clear.” I always say to people, “Make the number of your home very clear and make it very easy to find your front door,” which sounds rather crazy. For most of it, it’s not a problem at all, but for some people it really is, and they just don’t seem to connect it with feeling a bit of adrift, feeling undernourished, I suppose, by life.

Colin Bisset:

So that’s a very important thing, the mouth of chi, we call it. Once you’re through the door, you then try and assess how the energy is moving through the home. What are the first things you see? Basically, you use yourself as representing how energy will feel. So if I walk into a home and the first thing I see is a window, and the big view beyond … So I, at the moment I’ve walked into your home and I see outside, the energy’s just going straight through the house. So we need to slow things down. We need to curb things down.

Colin Bisset:

Similarly, if I walk into a house and the first thing I see is a cloakroom the doors open and there’s a toilet. Well, that’s not the most nourishing, welcoming thing. It may be that in that house, everyone who walked through that door has an urgent need to go to the loo because it’s like a trigger. It’s often the case. It’s so true.

Colin Bisset:

But then you look to see, well, what am I looking at? What you want is to progress through the building. You want the building, the home, to reveal itself to you slowly, so that you would look at … There might be an artwork there, a door giving a glimpse into another room, you’re lead on. That’s usually a mark of the chi moving throughout your home quite well.

Colin Bisset:

Whereas with open plan living, that’s really changed things. Often again, I’ve had clients who have lived in a very open plan way. I’m not saying open plan is a bad thing, but if the majority of your home is open plan, where you have perhaps even bedrooms opening directly off just one big living area, and you also have big windows, and you might even have a big view outside. So, a flat, say, might have that.

Colin Bisset:

It’s very difficult to get a sense of calm in a place like that because your eye is just drawn everywhere. There’s no sense of containment. It’s very good to have rooms. I’m very pro having rooms with doors, because you’re sitting in a lovely room with your door closed, I’m sure. That gives you … You can concentrate properly in that room. Whereas if you were in a big open space, and perhaps there’s someone tiptoeing around in the distance, it’s sort of distracting.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

It’s interesting to consider this trend that we have seen in the last, I guess, 10, 15, 20 years to open plan living and coordinating that with our preoccupation with globalization, and looking to the outside world for our stimulation. I think that’s one of the interesting things about what we’ve just going through in this pandemic, where we are at home, and suddenly we’ve become more looking inwards at what we’re doing.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

I think that reflection of open plan living and globalization, and you talk about chi and energy. I think that it’s so interesting also to think that the Chinese have been aware of energy flow for thousands of years, and yet it was really the breakthrough moment of Einstein saying every atom in the universe … that means every atom in our house and in our bodies … is both matter and energy. So, this is what I love about the Chinese too.

Colin Bisset:

Oh, it’s incredible, isn’t it?

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

This recognition of energy going back thousands of years. But yes, getting into the house. Okay, if we are living on top of the hill, we may not be able to physically change our house position, but once we’re there, we can start doing things. And certainly, the entrance is a big thing, isn’t it? As you’ve outlined.

Colin Bisset:

It is. I would say to somebody who’s perhaps living in a flat or they have a quite an open plan house, if you walk straight into a room from outside, try and create some kind of just a little pausing space, even if that means putting up a screen or a bookcase or just something that stops you there. Even a change of … a big rug there or something that just anchors you for a moment and gives you pause.

Colin Bisset:

It means, at some level I think, you sort of shed the exterior energy and you start bringing something of home. You go through a transformation. If you go into Chinese buildings if you go into traditional … through temples and whatever, to walk into the temple, you’ll always step over the threshold. The door is always set high so you have to step in. That’s to hold the outside, define yet the energy from outside, from that inside.

Colin Bisset:

And often, you’ll go through a series of little spaces before you get into the main space. It’s all a process of shedding the outside before you’re really in the inside. I think that’s exactly right, what you were saying about people really evaluating what sort of homes they actually live in and what is important to them. I’m sure for a lot of people who’ve had busy city lives, and home has just been somewhere to sleep in, not necessarily to eat in but that often.

Colin Bisset:

They’re now looking and thinking, actually, I need a space that I really love. There’s a professor of architecture at Berkeley, who I think you’d be very interested in, called Clare Cooper Marcus. She wrote a book quite a while back in the 90s, I think, called The House as Symbol of Self. I don’t know if you’d know it, but it-

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

I don’t know it by name, but it sounds exactly like why we’re having this conversation.

Colin Bisset:

It really rang a big bell with me. It was the idea of one of the things in that book. She talks about trying to look within your own home and see what is … If you share it with others, where is my area? And she found in her research that she would put a plan and ask people to say, “Well, which is your area? And a lot of women, a lot of married women, would actually just colour in half of the bed or half of the bedroom, and the kitchen. Really, that’s rather sad, isn’t it?

Colin Bisset:

So, it’s the idea of looking at what are the areas that, not necessarily belong to you, but in that sense of belonging, it’s about nourishing you. What are the areas that give back to you? I think for a lot of people … and I think someone commented in the media recently about everyone and their Zoom meetings. Some people just seem to be in plain white rooms. I’m sitting in a fairly plain in-room myself, actually. But they don’t have very much around them that seems to be nourishing them. With the Zoom things, we’re all getting sort of hung up on the background.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

We’re getting insights into people’s lives. It’s quite an interesting reflection, isn’t it?

Colin Bisset:

Some empty lives, I think, sometimes.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Well, you’ve mentioned two rooms there. Well, there are two things that we definitely spend a lot of time in, always have, and one of them is the bedroom.

Colin Bisset:

Yes.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

More recently, we’ve turned parts of our houses … and if we’re fortunate enough to have a specific room to call an office, that’s one thing. We’ll come back to that one. But let’s talk about the bedroom because we do spend a lot of time in the bedroom and it is very important. We talked in on this program about the fact that bedrooms could have mould in them or could have the house dust mite, or you could have your head next to electromagnetic radiation. But there’s something about the way the room is set up that’s important as well. What would you advise people on that one?

Colin Bisset:

Well, it goes back to this armchair configuration, of having the mountain to support you, looking for the mountain to support you, which means really having the head of your bed against a solid wall. That’s something that’s becoming more and more difficult. A lot of contemporary … Well, lots of all sorts of houses and flats have really quite small bedrooms, and often where people will put their bed under a window.

Colin Bisset:

I’ve had people say to me, well, I like lying there and I can look up and I can see the stars at night. And I say, well, you should be asleep. You shouldn’t be looking at the stars. What I have always suggested to people, and found generally with feedback that most people find this very good, is having the bed against the solid wall, having not necessarily … A headboard can give you a greater sense of, “This is the supporting part of the bed.”

Colin Bisset:

Having side tables. I think that’s important because that’s the armchair again. You’re sitting there, you’ve got a lamp on either side. You’ve got nothing behind you. I say to people, “Don’t really have pictures above the bed.” Have pictures, either side of the bed, fine. But if you go into a room and do you look at the picture across the bed, that’s where the energy is going, I always think.

Colin Bisset:

Whereas that means there’s a sort of flow of some sort across the bed, across your sleeping form, which can be slightly disturbing. It’s not that disturbing, but I think it’s much better to have it much quieter. The other thing is to think that, in Feng Shui, we look at the chi flow as moving from the door to the window. So if it’s possible for you, if your room’s big enough, if you can have your bed out of that line.

Colin Bisset:

If you drew a line between the door and the window, that is the busiest part. Energetically, that’s the busiest part of the room. So, you don’t want to be sleeping there. Some rooms, you will go into and, and you’ll open the door and there’s the bed right in front of you. The person who sleeps on that side of the bed is often the one who suffers the most disturbed sleep because during the night they’re actually … all they’re doing is protecting the sleeping one on the other side, who’s probably sleeping quite well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

I think you’ve just described my bedroom there. I’m protecting my wife.

Colin Bisset:

You are.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

She sleeps incredibly. She’s an incredible sleeper. I’m a very light sleeper. We do have our bed away from that flow, but I’m closest to it. So, it’s a very interesting observation.

Colin Bisset:

Yes. But I would say, knowing your house, that you have a bedroom upstairs and that’s quite a nice, long way away from the front door. A lot of people have bedrooms beside a front door, at the front of the house often. I think there’s a lot more energy outside that’s more difficult to get away from. Now, you can’t change where your bedroom is. Well, some people can. They can choose … Often, people will choose the biggest room as their master bedroom because they think, well, it’s our house. We want space.

Colin Bisset:

But sometimes, I think the bedroom … This is something the modernist architect Le Corbusier also agreed with, was really to have as little as possible going on in the bedroom. If possible, not even your clothes in there. I’m sure you’d agree with this, the idea of bringing external substances into the bedroom. But it’s almost like the Chinese idea of keeping everything as simple as possible, as quiet as possible, and your bed in the premium place: supported, quiet, not with books on the floor and a pile of things that you’ve got to do, and an electric clock radio and all of that sort of thing.

Colin Bisset:

If you can quiet it down, if you can keep it dark at night, then I think you’re going to have the optimum potential for good sleep

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Mm-hmm (affirmative) Another issue, which you’ve just raised there, is one of clutter. Let’s face it, I think most people will have spent this last a few months in self-isolation, observing either how much clutter they have, and thinking about how they were going to reduce that in some way.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

What about clutter from a Feng shui perspective?

Colin Bisset:

Strictly speaking, I think from a very traditional point of view, the idea of clutter just wouldn’t have existed, because people just didn’t have it. So, you go into a lovely space that’s … People just have what they need nowadays. Something called space clearing has become so important.

Colin Bisset:

Something that I certainly … I was very sceptical about it. I’m still a bit wary of it. I think there’s … We go the Marie Kondo way of, everything must speak to us and must give us joy. That’s lovely, I think if that can happen. But I think what is more important is a sense of order, that we know, even if others might think we’re fairly cluttered, we know where everything is.

Colin Bisset:

My own home is pretty cluttered, I must say. But I know where … If I need something, I know where it is. So often, it’s a matter of compromise. I think if you’re with a partner who is … I’m not saying, but I’m just saying, some partners are more messy than others. So, you work with that.

Colin Bisset:

The other thing is, of course, space clearing, which is not clutter, but actually clearing the energy of a space. This is something I was very sceptical about until I learned about it through a Balinese space clearer, an English woman who lived in Bali. She talked about getting … The walls, our furniture, hold onto the energy, especially where there’s been a shock, there’s been very strong energy. So, there’s been arguments, there’s been severe sickness.

Colin Bisset:

So, you try and get rid of that energy because it can keep coming back and affecting the people within that space. Now, I thought that was a bit too fancy for my liking. But I remember starting to do it, trying it out. Someone asked me to do it in a conference room in London. They gave me no option, because the person who was going to do it didn’t come and, oh, come on, we’ve got to do the space clearing here, which basically was going around, making a lot of noise, ringing bells, and clapping up the walls, and then trying to dislodge the energy.

Colin Bisset:

We were putting a vibration into the room that would clear the stuck vibration. And then we were opening the windows and all of that. I just thought this is far too sort of head in the clouds sort of stuff.

Colin Bisset:

But I noticed after doing that for about three-quarters of an hour, the place felt very different. I really felt it in my stomach, where we often feel our emotions. I started introducing it a little bit too with certain clients, because I noticed that, for instance, some people, I started seeing patterns where, say, there’d been a divorce in a house. The next people that moved in would also … It would end up in divorce, and they’d sell the house. Then the next people, the same thing. You’d start seeing the same thing. You see it in shops. One shop would keep … Every new person went broke for some reason.

Colin Bisset:

And you’re saying, “What’s going on here?” Is history repeating in certain places? So, I think space clearing clears out that energy. A lot of people have said that they feel the energy has completely changed. When they’ve done the space clearing, they feel fresh opportunity comes into their lives. That represents the fresh energy coming into their homes.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Yeah.

Colin Bisset:

It’s an interesting one.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Another one that we’ve all become more familiar with is working at home and in the office. I know, in our own home, just by rearranging our desks. Where I used to, where I’m sitting here now, I used to look into the corner of my room. My desk was faced into the corner. Ever since I have rotated my desk 90 degrees, and I’m now looking at a window, at my door, at the door itself, it’s changed. So, what are some of the things that people working at home, what are some of the things you would say to people if they’re arranging their workspace there?

Colin Bisset:

Well, I would say if possible, it’s back to that old support thing again. If you can possibly work with your back to a wall and facing outwards into a room, as you see the movie moguls sitting in that big office, sitting with a bank of power symbols, as the president does. It’s a powerful position to work at a desk with your back to a wall. You don’t want people behind you if possible. You want to be able to scan the room.

Colin Bisset:

Some people like the idea of working in a corner because they think it’s private and it’s concentrating. They can focus more. But I think at some level, they’re energetically aware of what’s going on behind them. They’re on alert. Whereas if you take that away, so you, for instance, now sitting in that position, if anyone comes through the door, it’s not a major shock. Whereas before, it might’ve been a shock if you’re concentrating on something or wearing headphones.

Colin Bisset:

So, that can be very important. Having a desk lamp, putting a lamp so you have cast light onto your work area, that can help focus. And not sitting necessarily under a window, so that your focus is always drawn out of the window, which means that a task can take twice as long. A high back chair, good chair, always is vital, I think. So, it’s fairly sort of simple, I think.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

But I must say, both my wife and I have observed this by just that simple rotation.

Colin Bisset:

So simple.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

So simple. It has made a profound difference. I’m working at home now a lot more. It’s really an important thing. Look, it’s been great to cover some of these issues and raise these issues from you. I just wondered if, before we finished … and I often ask my guests this one question, so I’m going to put you on the spot here, Colin, because where we’re all on this health journey together through life. What do you think the biggest challenge is for people in our modern world, on their health journey? How do you see it?

Colin Bisset:

Oh, that’s a very big question, isn’t it? I feel I’m going to come out with something a bit flip. I think the challenge is disconnection. I think it’s about being connected, even though we are …. I’m sure people say this to you all the time. We are so connected, that I think in many ways, we’re very disconnected. We present this sort of glossy facade image to the outside world.

Colin Bisset:

It’s becoming more and more difficult to really connect. For health, I think one of the most important things is … a Feng Shui thing actually … is keeping still, doing nothing. This is the trigram of mountain energy. I keep talking about mountains. But it’s the energy of being still, allowing your time stillness. That means your mind stillness, noticing things around you. It’s a sort of mindfulness thing.

Colin Bisset:

Because that makes you appreciate what’s really going on, and it gives you insight into how you connect and what’s important for you. I think, very important, and a good place to keep still doing nothing, is your home. So, getting that right is perfect.

Dr Ron Ehrlich:

Well, Colin, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your perspective. Thank you again.

Colin Bisset:

That was a great pleasure. Thanks, Ron.

Dr Ron Ehrlich
Dr Ron Ehrlich
Dr Ron Ehrlich, or ‘Dr Ron’ as he is affectionately known, is one of Australia’s leading holistic health advocates, educators and a holistic dentist. Dr Ron also hosts a free weekly podcast called "Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlich" and is the author of, "A Life Less Stressed: the 5 pillars of health and wellness".