Energy (esotericism)

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Spiritual practices and ideas often equate life-energy with the breath
Energy medicine - edit
NCCAM classifications
  1. Alternative Medical Systems
  2. Mind-Body Intervention
  3. Biologically Based Therapy
  4. Manipulative Methods
  5. Energy Therapy
See also

The term energy has been widely used by writers and practitioners of various esoteric forms of spirituality and alternative medicine[1][2] to refer to a variety of phenomena.

Such "energy" is often seen as a continuum that unites body and mind. It is sometimes conceived of as a universal life force running within and between all things, (as in some forms of vitalism), as a subtle body, in Chinese medicine as qi, and in Indian yoga as prana or kundalini.[3] Sometimes it is equated with the movement of breath in the body, sometimes described as visible "auras", "rays", or "fields" or as audible or tactile "vibrations".[4] These are often held to be perceptible to anyone, though this may be held to require training or sensitization through various practices.

The term "energy" also has a scientific context and the scientific foundations of physical energy are often confused or misused to suggest a scientific basis for physical manifestations, properties, detectability, or sensing of psychic energy and other physical phenomena where no presently known scientific basis exists.[5]

History and metaphysics[edit]

Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight.

William Blake (1793), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Various distinct cultural and religious traditions postulate the existence of esoteric energies, usually as a type of élan vital – an essence which differentiates living from non-living objects.[citation needed] Older sources usually associate this kind of energy with breath: for example qi in Taoist philosophy, prana in Hindu belief, or the "breath of life" given by God to Adam in the Abrahamic creation story.[citation needed] Thus energy became closely associated with concepts of animating spirits or of the human soul. Some spiritual practices, such as Qigong or traditional yoga open or increase this innate energy, and the philosophy behind certain martial arts implies that these energies can be developed and focused.

A number of New Age spiritual practices and alternative medicine modalities rely upon such ideas, without the more spiritual or mystical elements of traditional beliefs. Instead, they focus on the perception and manipulation of subtle experiences in the body, usually in the belief that conscious attention to the body's state will draw vital energy to the body, producing physical, psychological, and in some cases spiritual benefits.

Helena Blavatsky wrote that everything (living and non living) radiates, and can reflect an influence upon its surroundings. Everything is vibration, she said, and everything expresses itself in varying degrees of vibration.[6] Physicist, Dr Nikola Tesla has been quoted: "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration". Writer, Nick Smith equates the vibrating energy of atoms known in quantum theory, with vibrations produced by thought which can be felt in a person's aura.[7]

Energy in alternative medicine [edit]

The approaches known collectively as "energy therapies" vary widely in philosophy, approach, and origin. The ways in which this energy is attested to be used, modified, or manipulated to effect healing also vary. For example, acupressure involves manual stimulation of pressure-points, while some forms of yoga rely on breathing exercises. Many therapies, in regards to the given explanation for their supposed efficacy, are predicated on some form of energy unknown to current science. In this case, the given energy is sometimes referred to as putative energy.[1] Some energetic modalities require moderate to extensive lifestyle changes, including diet, waking hours and how to hug and make love, which has led to allegations of cult-like communities in some cases.[8]

However "subtle energy" is often equated with empirically understood forces, for example, some equate the aura with electromagnetism. Such energies are termed "veritable" as opposed to "putative", albeit that they remain unverified by any empirical measurement. Some alternative therapies, such as electromagnetic therapy, use veritable energy, though they may still make claims that are not supported by evidence. Many claims have been made by associating "spirit" with forms of energy poorly understood at the time. In the 1800s, electricity and magnetism were in the "borderlands" of science and electrical quackery was rife. In the 2000s, quantum mechanics and grand unification theory provide similar opportunities. There is growing evidence of injury and even death[9] caused by supposed manipulation of the energy field, though not without systematic evidence collection has been done.

Insofar as the proposed properties of "subtle energy" are not those of physical energy, there can be no physical scientific evidence for the existence of such "energy".[2][10] Therapies that purport to use, modify, or manipulate unknown energies are therefore among the most controversial of all complementary and alternative medicines.[1]

Theories of spiritual energy not validated by the scientific method are usually termed non-empirical beliefs by the scientific community. Claims related to energy therapies are most often anecdotal, rather than being based on repeatable empirical evidence.[10][11][12]

Acupuncturists say that acupuncture's mode of action is by virtue of manipulating the natural flow of energy through meridians. Scientists argue that any palliative effects are obtained physiologically by blocking or stimulating nerve cells and causing changes in the perception of pain in the brain.[13] The gap between the empirically proven efficacy of some therapies and the lack of empirical physical evidence for the belief-systems that surround them is at present a battleground between skeptics and believers.

Vitalism and spirituality in the age of electricity[edit]

Electro-metabograph machine

The successes of the era of the Enlightenment in the treatment of energy in natural science were intimately bound up with attempts to study the energies of life, as when Luigi Galvani's neurological investigations led to the development of the Voltaic cell. Many scientists continued to think that living organisms must be constituted of special materials subject to special forces, a view which became known as vitalism. Mesmer, for example, sought an animal magnetism that was unique to life.

As microbiologists studied embryology and developmental biology, particularly before the discovery of genes, a variety of organisational forces were posited to account for the observations. From the time of Driesch, however, the importance of "energy fields" began to wane and the proposed forces became more mind-like.[14]

The attempt to associate additional energetic properties with life has been all but abandoned in modern research science.[15] But despite this, spiritual writers and thinkers have maintained connections to these ideas and continue to promote them either as useful allegories or as fact.[16]

Some early advocates of these ideas were particularly attracted to the history of the unification of electromagnetism and its implications for the storage, transference, and conversion of physical energy through electric and magnetic fields. Potentials and fields were viewed after the work of James Clerk Maxwell as physical phenomena rather than mathematical abstractions. Aware of this history, spiritual writers positivistically adopted much of the language of physical science, speaking of "force fields" and "biological energy". Concepts such as the "life force", "physiological gradient", and "élan vital" that emerged from the spiritualist movement would inspire later thinkers in the modern New Age movement.[17]

Modern western psychotherapies[edit]

These are therapeutic approaches that depend on the idea of "energy". The following are mostly neo-Reichian therapies that aim to release emotional tension from the body:


Early psychical researchers who had investigated mediumship and spiritualism proposed that the phenomena observed in séances could be explained by a mysterious energy or force. The idea of ectoplasm was merged into the theory of an "ectenic force" by some early psychical researchers who were seeking a physical explanation for reports of psychokinesis in séances.[19] Its existence was initially hypothesized by Count Agenor de Gasparin, to explain the phenomena of table turning and tapping during séances. Ectenic force was named by de Gasparin's colleague M. Thury, a professor of Natural History at the Academy of Geneva. Between them, de Gasparin and Thury conducted a number of experiments in ectenic force, and claimed some success. Their work was not independently verified.[20][21]

Other researchers who studied mediumship speculated that within the human body an unidentified fluid termed the "psychode", "psychic force" or "ecteneic force" existed and was capable of being released to influence matter.[22][23] This view was held by Camille Flammarion[24] Edward William Cox and William Crookes. Cox wrote that mediumship occurs due to the action of a "psychic force" from the medium. Cox described his theory in his book Spiritualism Answered by Science (1872). Gracis Gerry Fairfield in his book Ten Years with Spiritual Mediums (1875) proposed that the psychic force originates from the human nervous system. Similar views were also supported by Asa Mahan in The Phenomena of Spiritualism Scientifically Explained and Exposed (1875); most of these authors had rejected the spirit hypothesis of the spiritualists as they claimed the phenomenon associated with mediumship was caused by a force from the medium's body.[25] A later psychical researcher, Hereward Carrington, pointed out these forces and fluids were hypothetical and have never been discovered.[26]

The idea that some kind of "negative energy" is responsible for creating or attracting ghosts or demons appears in contemporary paranormal culture and beliefs as exemplified in the TV shows Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters.[27]

Chinese vitalism[edit]

The traditional explanation of acupuncture states that it works by manipulating the circulation of qi (energy) through a network of meridians. To the extent that acupuncture is regarded as efficacious in western medicine, its effects are usually described as palliative and obtained physiologically by blocking or stimulating nerve cells and causing changes in the perception of pain in the brain.[13] However the idea of qi is not confined to medicine, as it appears throughout traditional East Asian culture, for example, in the art of feng shui, in Chinese martial arts and spiritual tracts.[citation needed]

Qi philosophy also accepts a notion of "negative qi", typically understood as introducing negative moods like outright fear or just more moderate expressions like social anxiety or awkwardness.[28] Deflecting this negative qi through geomancy is a preoccupation in feng shui.[29]

Indian vitalism[edit]

Earth energy[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c The 'National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2006-10-13). "Energy Medicine Overview". 
  2. ^ a b Kimball C. Atwood (September 2003). "Ongoing Problem with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine". Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 
  3. ^ energy – (according to New Age thinking) – The Skeptic's Dictionary –
  4. ^ e.g. Playfair G.L. and Hill S., "The Cycles of Heaven", Pan Books 1978 p.12 "We discuss the fascinating new concept of man's "energy body" and its radiations, and how it may be interacting with its energetic surroundings." See also ibid. Ch12 passim.
  5. ^ Victor Stenger (2001). "The Breath of God: Identifying Spiritual Energy" (PDF). Skeptical Odysseys (Prometheus Books): 363–74. 
  6. ^ Smith, Nick. Spiritual Vibrations. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 0766149994. 
  7. ^ Smith, Nick. The One. Macmillan Publishers Aus. p. 65. ASIN B008S8EALG. 
  8. ^ "The Ross Institute Internet Archives for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements". Retrieved 23 March 2013. [specify]
  9. ^ "What's The Harm?". Retrieved 23 March 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Robert Todd Carroll. "Skeptic's Dictionary: Energy". Skepdic. 
  11. ^ Stephen Barrett (February 15, 2002). "Some Notes on Wilhelm Reich, M.D". Quackwatch. 
  12. ^ William T. Jarvis (1999). "Reiki". The National Council Against Health Fraud. 
  13. ^ a b "Get the Facts, Acupuncture". National Institute of Health. 2006. Retrieved March 2, 2006. 
  14. ^ Lois N. Magner, A history of the life sciences: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded, CRC Press, 2002
  15. ^ Vitalism. Bechtel W, Richardson RC (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E. Craig (Ed.), London: Routledge.
  16. ^ Jonas, WB; Crawford, CC (Mar–April 2003). "Science and spiritual healing: a critical review of spiritual healing, "energy" medicine, and intentionality.". Altern-Ther-Health-Med. 9 (2): 56–61. PMID 12652884. 
  17. ^ Bruce Clarke. (November 8, 2001). Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics. University of Michigan Press. p. Clarke, Bruce. ISBN 0-472-11174-4. 
  18. ^ Tiller, WA. "What are Subtle Energies?". Journal for Scientific Exploration 7 (3): 293–304. 
  19. ^ John L. Randall Psychokinesis: a study of paranormal forces through the ages Souvenir Press, 1982, p. 83
  20. ^ Blavatsky H. P. "ISIS UNVEILED: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology", Theosophical University Press
  21. ^ (Paperback) Randi, James. Clarke, Arthur C. (1997-03-15) "An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural", St. Martin's Griffin, ISBN 0-312-15119-5
  22. ^ Hamlin Garland Forty years of psychic research: a plain narrative of fact 1936, pp. 127–128
  23. ^ Lewis Spence An Encyclopaedia of Occultism 2003, p. 133
  24. ^ H. F. Prevost Battersby Psychic Certainties Kessinger Reprint Edition, 1988, pp. 125–126
  25. ^ Alvarado, C. S. (2006). Human radiations: Concepts of force in mesmerism, spiritualism and psychical research. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 70, 138–162.
  26. ^ Hereward Carrington Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena Kessinger Reprint Edition, 2003, p. 267
  27. ^ Thomas Richard Fahy (2010). The Philosophy of Horror. University Press of Kentucky. p. 77. ISBN 0-8131-2573-1. 
  28. ^ Bryan W. Van Norden (March 2011). Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Hackett Publishing. p. 98. ISBN 1-60384-615-8. 
  29. ^ George Leonard (1998). Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts. Taylor & Francis. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-203-34459-0. 

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