Something I had a hard time getting used to when I first entered the Pagan community was constant bandying of the word “energy”. “The energy was strong,” a person might say after a ritual. Or, “she has really bright energy”. Or, “we’re going to ‘send healing energy’ to Bob”. Or, “there was a lot of sexual energy in the room”. Or, worst of all, that a ritual tool was “filled with energy”.
Many Pagans use the term as if it were physical: as if “energy” were a force or substance which can be generated and directed, with which “magical” objects may be imbued, and which inhabits persons, creatures, and inanimate objects. It is spoken of as if it is an invisible fluid, the presence of a field of…something…that has independent existence from people, objects and groups.
To me, energy has a specific meaning: it is a physical phenomenon, linked immortally to mass through Einstein’s famous formula. It’s measurable, and it doesn’t have an emotional nature. Maybe it’s just a personal peeve, but describing emotions as if they have physical existence doesn’t sit well with me: it is a part of the “magical thinking” aspect of mainstream Pagan practice that I cannot embrace.
Without any evidence to support such characterizations, I just don’t believe in them. In my book, they are the epitome of “woo”.
That said, the term is often used to describe feelings that are real…they just aren’t energy. They don’t exist outside of the perceiver; they well up from within the perceiver in response to particular stimuli.
“Energy”, as I understand it, describes several different phenomena.
The first is felt emotion. Do I sense anger among my fellows? Or warmth and openness? Humans broadcast a torrent of nonverbal cues about their mood, and as social animals, we pick up on these cues immediately. Whether or not pupils are dilated, body posture, the angle at which someone stands relative to us, facial microexpressions and even body odors (pheromones) can tell us vast amounts of information about how a group’s dynamic is working, or isn’t, and how individuals are feeling. That’s a real phenomenon, but it’s a perception, not an “energy”.
Similarly, the emotion which is provoked in us by our circumstances can sometimes be described as “energy”: the energy in the candlelit cathedral was fervent and holy. Again, that’s a felt sense—an emotion—rather than a force or presence.
The second is emotional intensity. When the emotional impact of a ritual or an event is powerful or profound, it is said to have a lot of “energy”…as opposed to one that is kind of boring, which has little “energy”. This is a description of the degree of passion the ritual or event inspired in the perceiver, and often, this is a shared experience, as people in groups tend to regulate their emotions to one another.
The last—and most problematic, to me—is when an object is described as having particular kinds or intensities of “energy”. That may be true…for the person who is saying so. She may have a long and emotionally powerful history of remembered associations with that object. But the object itself is just an object. What makes it special is how someone thinks about it, not anything intrinsic to the object itself. I have many such objects myself that I use in creating rituals and decorating my Focus.
I think it’s counterproductive to embrace a way of talking about our experience that doesn’t square with what we know about the Universe. There turned out to be no “aether” in space, and there is no emotional/spiritual/magical “energy”, either. At least, there’s no evidence for “energy” of this sort, and there are far simpler and more reasonable explanations for the experiences people have in relation to what they describe with that term. Experience is created by our nervous systems; just because someone feels something it does not necessarily follow that there is a phenomenon outside of his skin which he is perceiving. And the more subtle, subjective or emotional the experience, the less likely it is to stem from anything other than the internal operations of the nervous system.
What is real is that there are are feelings, perceptions, passions and associations, welling up in the nervous systems of each of us in response to the subtle clues we gather about the emotional states of our fellow humans. That happens. It’s not an external force or presence, but it’s absolutely real.
I still avoid using the E-word myself in relation to ritual or religious experience; I’ll say “felt sense” or “feeling” or “atmosphere” instead. But I’ve come to peace with usage of it; as with gods, if people want to believe in something invisible and for which there is only subjectively perceived and unverifiable evidence, there’s nothing I can do about it. And when someone talks about “the ritual energy”, I know what they mean.
Language, after all, is for communication.
Still, I hope that over time, my use of more accurate descriptors will spread.