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Home & Garden

How I Holistically Designed My Home With Sustainability and Spirit in Mind

By following the process of Matthew Tenzin, an interior designer, shamanic practitioner, and former Buddhist monk, I was able to co-create the home of my dreams.

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When I imagined decorating my dream home, I assumed I would pour over websites, Pinterest, magazines, and swatches, looking for inspiration and items that excited me. What I didn’t expect was undertaking a holistic interior design approach, which involved clearing the home’s energy, asking permission from the spirits of the land, and visualizing the space as my power place. But perhaps I should have.

I was 52 years old, with two children ages 10 and 13, when I moved out of my marital home. After about six months of renting, I was able to finally purchase a new home: A three-story, gray stucco house on one acre that backed up to open space, with gorgeous views all around. I called it the House of Dawn for the spectacular sunrises. The house felt holy to me: How the light came in and moved through the space, dawn until dusk; the deer grazing on the mountain slopes just beyond my balcony; the perma-hum of quiet.

But as beautiful as its exteriors were, inside, I had no idea where to start. I had no furniture, having left it all at the marital home. Besides, we furnished the house with a mix of hand-me-downs and home goods from a variety of stores. I didn’t have any idea what my style was or what I actually liked. Daunted, I knew I needed to consult an expert.

Wanting to combine interior design with a bias toward sustainability, I found Matthew Tenzin of True Home Design in Boulder, Colorado. An interior designer, shamanic practitioner, and former Buddhist monk, Tenzin practices holistic interior design (otherwise known as wellbeing design)—a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on supporting the wellness of the inhabitants’ body, mind, and spirit.

Tenzin thinks of the home as a vessel for supporting spiritual evolution. To raise the vibration of your home is to raise the vibration of yourself. “Whether we like it or not, our home reflects who we are. And who we are is a result of what we focus upon,” he says. “Our living spaces can greatly support us in stepping into a more aligned and empowered expression in the world.”

After eight months of working with Tenzin, I now see home design as an act of co-creation—with your soul, the space, the spirits that have come before you, and even the people who will visit. Through his holistic process, Tenzin helps his clients clarify the aesthetic vision for their home. Here’s how his four steps unfolded for me.

See also: Take a look inside the author’s sustainable home 

The outside of a home in Colorado

The exterior of the author’s home in Colorado. (Photo: Sarah Bocculucci)

Step 1: Clearing

Asking permission

The first time Tenzin came to my house, he carried a rattle, singing bowl, candle, and sage. He had a bright face, with a lively yet composed energy, and seemed equally comfortable wielding a feather as he did a tape measure. Before he even entered the house, we walked the perimeter of the land my home sits on, mostly in silence. Circumambulating was not new to me. I had once lived in Tiruvannamalai, India, home to the sacred hill Arunachala, where it was customary to walk the nine-mile circumference as a form of prayer. I had not thought of doing this with my new home. We walked slowly, weaving between pine trees. Each step seemed to bring me closer to belonging here.

Tenzin explained that the first step in his process is to ask permission from the spirits of the land. He says he has rarely met someone who has done this ritual before purchasing a home. On reflection, it seems like a natural thing to do. Legally, I was taking possession of the property, but in accordance with the shamanic way, I was being asking to become its steward.

Although his energetic read on the land was that it seemed tranquil and welcoming, Tenzin encouraged me to ask the land what it needed, and to listen closely. He suggested I walk the perimeter with some corn, grain, wildflower seed mix, or dried lavender to be sprinkled around the trees and in the yard. To be in reciprocity with the land, he said, I needed to make offerings and continually ask for guidance.

Smudge, purify, bless

Since the house was built in 1985 and had been through two previous owners, there was certainly stuck energy to clear. Emotional imprints of former occupants, agitated spirits, and disincarnate beings are just a few types of energy that can impact the way spaces feel, Tenzin says. We did an energetic walk through the home in silence, me holding a sage bundle, him some lit cedar. We concurred where the energy seemed to become denser (the master bedroom) and where it felt brighter (the sunken living room). I asked the sage to work through me, to clear and release any energy that no longer served. I sensed my daughter’s upbeat energy in her room, my son’s reflective presence in his. I envisioned this home as one that could hold us all, where we could grow, both together and individually, finding wholeness in the family constellation, as well as inside ourselves.

Tenzin asked me to name some intentions I had for the house, to tap into my connection to the space and its potential. Then he used his rattle, helping to shake up—and out—the old and invite in the new. We opened all the windows, doors, cabinets, closets, and aired out the dark corners. Finally, using a singing bowl and a spritzer that blended rose (feminine) and sandalwood (masculine) essences, the ceremony concluded with a blessing: the spirits of the land, the four directions, the ancestors, the children, the new life unfolding in this space, the beloved in all its forms.

Step 2: Visioning

Although nothing outwardly had changed, after the clearing ritual, I felt more at home. The space seemed to settle—and me along with it. A couple of weeks later, Tenzin visited again to envision how my home could serve as my power place. I wanted to talk about color palettes, themes, and types of wood, but I was jumping the gun, getting granular instead of going big.

Tenzin had me lay down on a yoga mat, as he played a recording of shamanic drumming. He asked me to picture the landscape where I felt the sacred most clearly. Afterward, Tenzin and I discussed the qualities of that environment: ancient, timeless, serene, red rock canyons with verdant life; spacious, striking sight lines, stillness, light, a solitude at once both wild and tender. This, it turned out, would be the template of my home.

Step 3: Co-creating

To translate this vision into interior design, we looked at the one piece of furniture in my house that wasn’t temporary—a large Turkish rug my stepmother had given me almost two decades ago. It had red, orange, yellow, and some black woven through. It fit both the space and the earthy qualities of my power place. Tenzin said that in interior design, you build from the ground up. It made me think of yoga—how standing poses begin with one’s feet rooted against the ground.

Beyond the shamanic rituals, Tenzin was equally dexterous in the practical. He could measure a space, determine the right proportions and scale, and tape it off like no one’s business. With his guidance, I was able to make decisions that would have otherwise overwhelmed me—what sofa shape, dimensions, and fabric would look best; what light fixtures would illuminate the room; which dining room table would appropriately fill the space. When I struggled to find the perfect coffee table, he proposed I make one—which felt radical to me, since I wasn’t adept with a drill. But what he meant was going to a woodshop and sawmill (I selected Colorado Wood and Metal) and choosing a slab that they could add steel legs to. I feel almost as proud of the table as if I had made it.

To keep it real, everything didn’t just fall in place. There were hours of browsing. Agonizingly hard choices. Asking friends’ advice. Talking to salespeople. Unfortunate returns. But as each light fixture or curtain or chair fell into place, my home inched closer to feeling whole. The process taught me so much about space, energetics, and style—but also about my own aesthetic.

Step 4: Caretaking—The care and feeding of your power place

According to Tenzin, homes are like energetic gardens. They aren’t meant to be static, and they need ongoing attention and care. This includes periodic “refreshing” of the space. “By smudging, decluttering, planting, adding seasonal touches, new textiles, updated art and symbols of intention, a home can evolve as we do—and support us in sharing our highest selves with the world,” he says.

Writer Elizabeth Marglin stands in her kitchen while speaking with her interior designer, Matthew Tenglin
The author with her interior designer, Matthew Tenzin, in her home. (Photo: Sarah Bocculucci)

10 holistic design tips from Matthew Tenzin

Lead with life force

Tenzin’s advice was to choose objects that had the most life force, pieces that exuded the energy of their materials, such as my beloved live-edge, parota wood coffee table. Even well-chosen plants add vitality to your space, integrating the outside world inside your home.

Stay on theme

Every so often the phrase “elegance is refusal,” an axiom of Coco Chanel’s, whispers inside my head. In my home design project, this showed up as foregoing an indigo blue bedspread when everything else in the room was a light neutral, or not selecting modern dining chairs when the general vibe was more craftsman. For a home to feel cohesive, I sometimes had to refuse whimsical preferences so the larger space could flourish.

Understand balance, symmetry, proportion, and scale

Create equilibrium by paying attention to the visual weight of objects around a room, and in relation to the focal point. In a bedroom, balance is particularly important, as it helps to calm the mind. For example, I was toying with the idea of asymmetrical nightstands, but Tenzin encouraged me to get two of the same in order to weight the room evenly. He also cautioned against getting nightstands that would be too small in scale with my king-size bed, and suggested they be roughly level with the top of the mattress for ease of use.

Layer, layer, layer

When layering, try to choose pairings that share the same color palette or have at least one shade in common to maintain harmony. In the living room, the color of the sofa and pillows echoed colors in the rug. The throws, made of wool, recycled cotton, or alpaca, were a chance to add texture and visual interest.

Love your curves

Although beds, desks, tables, and chairs often come with straight lines and boxy shapes, you can bring in a more feminine sensibility with curves. Curved shapes, such as the organic shape of a coffee table, or the plush rounded lines of a swivel chair, bring linear forms into balance.

Little altars everywhere

Small talismans and totems that carry meaning for you, artfully displayed in niches, shelves, or even window ledges, can amplify your home. Objects found in nature, such as rocks, interesting-shaped pieces of wood, antlers, or shells, can hugely contribute to your home’s ambiance.

Make the sustainable choice

Whether it’s investing in slow furniture—durable items designed to last your lifetime and beyond—or opting for furnishings made from eco-friendly materials, sustainable choices should always be top of mind. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), furniture and furnishings waste is one of the fastest-growing landfill categories—surpassing a staggering 12.2 million tons a year, with only 20 percent of it getting recycled. Consider investing in pieces that are built to last, prioritizing safe and healthy materials, or buying things second-hand.

Do your due diligence

Rather than eyeballing or guesstimating, effective, efficient design entails measuring, taping, ordering swatches, and visiting showrooms so you can be satisfied when your purchases arrive. Try BenchMade Modern, an online, customized furniture company that sends full-sized printouts with your custom dimensions, free of charge. When I put down my printout in my living room, I realized I could add several inches to my sofa, gaining additional seating, as well as making the space feel cozier.

Light fixtures make a huge difference

Since my home came with functional, unobtrusive light fixtures, it felt like an indulgence to order new ones. But as the spaces started to develop, I could see the critical the role that light fixtures play in creating mood and anchoring aesthetic. Upgrading your lighting in a few strategic spots can have a dazzling impact on your home.

Don’t do it all at once

Although it’s tempting to just get ‘er done, it’s far better to move slowly and build your interior incrementally. For example, I ordered a rug for the dining room before my chairs arrived, thinking it would help delineate the space, but once the chairs arrived, the rug seemed redundant. Ordering a few big pieces first, assessing how they impact the space, then choosing accents and other layers makes for fewer returns (and emissions) and a more unified feel.

Think outside the store

One of my favorite things about Tenzin was his encouragement to commission pieces that I knew I wanted. His inventive spirit inspired me to make curtains from my mother’s silk saris, pillow covers from her scarves, and put in floating shelves to add functionality to several spaces.

See also: 7 Expert Tips to Shift the Energy in Your Home