Making Peace with “Energy”

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.

 

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10 thoughts on “Making Peace with “Energy”

  1. Cool. But I still use the word energy inappropriately a lot and I’m a pretty “devout” atheopagan. I will say, “I am out of energy” when I am tired. But obviously, my body has a lot of chemical potential energy in it still. I’m just feeling the pain of sore muscles or a strong desire to sleep completely unrelated to the energy content of my body. So I feel I can be forgiving when others use the E-word to describe the atmosphere in a room. When you think about it “atmosphere” is also the wrong term. They are talking about the mix of gases (unless someone is flatulent maybe!) But I get where you are coming from because at some point a line is crossed. When people start talking about the energy as if they can control or channel it, or when they give the different “energies” and talk about countering one energy with another, then they have crossed into either very specialized jargon about psychological interactions or magical thinking and because it is really hard to tell the two apart it would be better to avoid it. For sure.

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  2. Opening disclosure – I’m not an Atheist; I’m reading this blog to expand and challenge my worldview. I respect your beliefs, and I tend to agree with you that the term “energy” is problematic, but I’d like to open this for discussion. You seem to be making the case that the “energy model” of spirituality doesn’t square with what we know about the universe, and that this is problematic for the ongoing discussion about people’s spiritual practices.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s a practice called Tummo which involves breath work, the activation of muscle locks, and the visualization of a non-physical substance flowing through the body. In Yoga, there are similar practice of visualizing a substance flowing through the body. In fact, in many spiritual traditions there is a well-established tradition of visualizing a “substance” moving through the body, which manifests with physically measurable results. In the case of Tummo, the body can generate substantial amounts of heat. In other instances, the manipulation of this “substance” can be perceived by others remotely, without suggestion, with their eyes closed.

    So my challenge to your position is this: if Tummo is a practice that involves moving a substance we label “energy,” and this substance has concrete measurable effects on the human body, how does that affect your position against “energy” as a model (or metaphor) for discussing this phenomenon? In other words – if I perform an action that involves the visualization of a non-physical substance passing through my body, and another person perceives it without me saying anything about it, and my body responds in a way that can be measured with medical equipment – does that present enough support for you to reconsider the use of the term “energy” as a metaphor for discussing the phenomenon?

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    • The answer is pretty simple: the brain is a self-programming entity. Visualization can and does accomplish a great deal within the body. My point is that the “energy” isn’t **outside** the body–it’s a feeling, an imagined presence, an emotion, a visualized quality.

      As you say, as used in the context I discuss, “energy” is a METAPHOR. It’s not real in the sense of physical reality.

      I am an absolute believer in the “magic” of psychological and physiological change through ritual and contemplative practices. I just see no evidence that these extend beyond the bodies of participants.

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  3. I have the same pet peeve about “vibration,” as in raise your vibration. I don’t have a dislike for the use of the word “vibes” to describe the energy of a room or event, though. To me, vibes is another word for energy.

    You certainly got me thinking about the origin of the word, though, and how it was first used. Miriam-Webster and Dictionary.com both supplied the same answer, that energy is a “force of expression” with it’s use dating back to 1590 (Thesaurus.com) and further to Aristotle. They say that the scientific meaning of energy came into use around 1807. I was surprised to read that and sort of assumed that the metaphysical meaning of energy was modern.

    Being able to sense the energy from a person, a place, or a thing can elicit a physical response, though. We might need to run away. 🙂 Or, we might be drawn in, feeling that we are safe.

    Great article! Once again, you made me put on my thinking cap.

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  4. There are energetic forces that are not visible to the human eyes that can have a physical effect on us. I think of static electricity, magnetism, heat, cold, electro-magnetic energy, radiation such as ultra violet, infrared, microwaves, radio waves, xrays, thermo-nuclear radiation, chemical energy such as pheremones…
    These all involve molecules, their movements and chemical properties, and how they are perceived by our nervous systems/brains on a physical interactive level.
    There’s a lot of stuff going on beyond the visually perceivable level that is real and energetic.
    It could be, and this is speculation, that breathing techniques can change chemical properties in our cells that metabolize, or change energy levels in our bodies, release hormones, or pheremones, and these can be perceived by the nervous systems of nearby people, because there are actual molecules interacting, and those interactions trigger chemically induced emotions, impulses, urges, etc.
    Just some ideas to think about.
    I am currently pondering my own perceptions of minerals and crystals which seem to have a physical effect on me, and sometimes an emotional effect.
    Even on an emotional level, neurotransmitters could be triggered that cause our feeling state to change (hence anti-depressants, psychiatric meds, etc.).
    These all involve interactions on a chemical/molecular level that we cannot see but can have a dramatic effect on us.

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    • Yes, but all such physical forces can be measured. The description of the emotional impact or climate of a place or event as “energy” is inapt because it cannot be so measured (at least, not easily), as it is an internal phenomenon. “Energy” in that context isn’t in a room or an event–it’s in the one “perceiving” it.

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  5. I agree with this view of energy and it matches what I’ve felt and thought for some time. One of the problems though, is that it can be such an appropriate term to use, if one means it metaphorically rather than literally. But then, too many folks will take what you say to mean a literal thing like electricity or heat or atomic. Speaking metaphorically is wonderful and is sometimes the only way one can approximate the territory when we are trying to map it. Ahh. If language only had a “metaphorical case” with its own special word forms. It could help clear up some miscommunications.

    Myself, I am dalliancing with the term “vibe” to use in its place. I intend the meaning : “Vibe: (Noun) A distinctive emotional atmosphere; sensed intuitively.” (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Vibe&defid=665279) or as the Freedictionary puts it: “A distinctive emotional quality or atmosphere that is sensed or experienced by someone.” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/vibe).

    Example: “The positive vibe of the ritual felt really strong tonight.”

    I am not sure if the dalliance will turn into something long term or permanent. Right now, I just want to see how good and appropriate the match is and how others will interpret it (literally or figuratively).

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