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Jottings: talking “energies”

“Energy” is one of those words which has to do a great deal of work. It has become something of a generic term that gets used in multiple contexts, sometimes to the extent where any exercise/experience which gives rise to sensations or emotions is attributed to an impersonal ‘energy’ being present, moving, flowing, or being blocked, trapped, or stored.

When someone says “I’m really low on energy today” or “I feel drained of energy” we can easily recognise this as a metaphorical statement about their sense of wellbeing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they literally mean that their they believe their body works like an AA battery. Or does it? I have no problem with “energy” as a handy metaphor. What I do find difficult sometimes is that “energy” as a concept becomes treated as a transparently natural category – as an essence which is a property of people, places, objects – and, importantly – that same “energy” is shared by all other people, objects, places of the same class. A few years ago, I started irritating various pagan friends by asking them – whenever they used “energy” in conversation – what they “meant” by it. This was prompted by hearing people saying things like “Oh, you live in London. I could never live there. I don’t like it’s energy. Or, “Oh you’re friend of so-and-so. So-and-so’s really nice, but she has a weird energy that makes it difficult to be around her.” It struck me, fairly early on, that what is common to all these kinds of statements is the implication that energy is a kind of essential quality that people or places possess – and if we don’t get on with that person, place, or object – it’s because of this “energy” that they possess – and nothing to do with the wider context of that particular encounter, or for that matter, one’s own beliefs, prejudices, assumptions, etc.

Pagan & Occult explanations of energy often begin with the all-encompassing statement that energy is everywhere and all energy is the same. For example, I’ve been recently reading Kirk White’s chapter “Magical Manifestations of Energy Work” in Exploring the Pagan Path, Wisdom from the Elders which starts out pretty much in this fashion, and then segues into the familiar argument that “energy can appear with a variety of different qualities determined by the origin, source, and intention of the energy itself.” He then divides energy into two broad categories:

“In general, energy can be divided into two broad categories: Active/Positive/Yang and Receptive/Negative/Yin. The terms “positive” and “negative” are being used here to describe the opposite locations and directions of the energy, very much like the positive and negative poles of an electrical battery. The positive pole sends out the electrical signal, and the negative receives. So any energy that moves or changes things, that enlivens something, or adds heat to a system is active. Any energy that calms or slows things, that grounds and cools things is receptive.”

As the chapter expands, energy gets particularised because it acquires particular characteristics and qualities from a particular source, so that there is “Mars energy,” “Fire energy,” “Water Energy” etc., and energy also acquires characteristics from the Intent of the spellworker – hence “healing energy” etc.

One thing Kirk mentions is that for ritual tools, its generally thought to be a good idea to ritually cleanse them, which removes “any energetic charge left on them by all the people who handled them before you got them, including the manufacturer, distributor, store owner, and people who picked them up thinking about buying them”. This is rather strange – it seems to me that there’s a subtext about contamination by others here. I have a wand at home that one of my teachers made for me over thirty years ago. I’ve never thought it necessary to clean off any “energetic charge” from its maker. It seems disrespectful (particularly as he’s dead now). Just looking at it reminds me of him. It’s strange that this “cleansing” is applied to magical tools, but not “everyday” objects. Why do we need to “charge” a wand, but not a phone? I wrote a parody on Barbelith a few years ago:

(satire tag)Some interesting work has been done in this respect by Alan Sokal & associates at the European Institute of Energy Dynamics. Their research suggests that any item can retain energic-emotional ‘particles’ which can have a subtle effect on individuals, particularly those who are specially sensitive. Not only do cds, comics & records accrue energic-emotional condensations, but also clothes, money, and foodstuffs. However, the situation is rendered even more complex if one accepts Sokal’s argument that not only do items become imprinted with one’s own emotional energy discharges, but also the discharges of other people who come into close promixity with items, and those involved with the intial conceptualisation and production of said items. For example, a pair of three-years old secondhand Nike trainers brought by one subject bought from a thrift store on 5th Avenue were shown, through psychometric testing, to have retained not only strong impressions of despondency from people who had picked them up then decided not to buy them, but also retained powerful impressions of despair from the Korean sweatshop workers who had put them together, shot through with deeply troubling impressions of corporate cynicism from the egregore of Nike themselves. The subject in this case found the trainers had contributed significantly to her feelings of alienation and depression, due to the accumulated negativity which was most resistant to any kind of cleansing technique.

Sokal & co make the following observations & recommendations. As clothes can easily accumulate other peoples’ emotional energy over time (just by promixity), they recommend avoiding public transport (particularly air travel) and, just to be on the safe side, burning your entire wardrobe every two years. All coinage should be periodically immersed in magnetically-charged water in order to remove the negative energy and karmic resonances that accumulate as they are passed around. Paper money should be ironed. Where possible, logos should be removed from items, as it is well-known that whenever one emits strong emotions, or just stares at a logo for any period of time, one will tap into the energy of the company egregore and unwittingly ‘feed’ it. Avoid heavily logo-intensive environments like television and the internet (or use a text-only browser). Some energy researchers advocate wearing dark glasses when out on the street in order to reduce the effect of advertising. Somewhat contraversially, the Institue also recommends that people with items associated with mass production practices involving cheap labour in third-world countries should dispose of them immediately, as the accumulated negative residue may lead to ill-health. Similarly, in cases where an artist or producer has committed suicide or been murdered, the wave of negatitivity resulting from such incidents can be transmitted to all items associated with those producers. Sokal & co. demonstrate this trend with a survey of how many owners of Versace garments have committed suicide or themselves been murdered, in the years following Versace’s own murder in 1997. Finally, the institute recommends wearing hand-made clothes, home-growing as much food as you can, and where possible, ensuring that purchased goods have been handled by as few people as possible.(/satire tag)

Being contaminated by other people’s energies, vibrations, or thoughts seems to be a pervasive theme within occult energy talk. The idea that people who are “psychically sensitive” shouldn’t live in cities can be found in occult writings from the nineteenth century onwards. But why is it that personal “magical” objects have to guarded from contamination but that this does not apply to other belongings? Clothes are particularly interesting in this respect – private, personal, and subject to a complex & subtle set of mores about who can and can’t touch them and when it is and isn’t appropriate. Take underpants for example. I happily hand mine over to strangers to be washed – but if a friend popped round and casually asked to browse through my underpants drawer (in the same manner as they might ask to look at my bookshelves or audio cds) I think I’d be faintly surprised. Do underpants have energy? Mine do tend to acquire a ‘personality’ over time…

Energy Politics?
It seems to me that there is a “politics of energy” which is often left unexamined and treated as self-evident according to our own beliefs and assumptions, which are often assumed to be universal (i.e. “occult laws”) rather than products of a historical process. In my series of posts entitled “Occult Gender Regimes” I have been examining the development of what Erik Davis terms “the western electromagnetic imaginary” – the conception of the human body in terms of an energy economy from the eighteenth century onwards, paying particular attention to how the idea of the human being as an energetic system was related to ideas about gender essentialism and their wider cultural implications. For example, in this post there is some discussion of the nineteenth century argument that “since the human body had a finite supply of energy which had to be carefully regulated, educating women would place them under undue “mental strain” which would be injurious to their health.”

There was also a widespread notion that different races had different energies – and there was frequently asserted that “advanced races” (i.e. Europeans) had more energy than “lower races”. Here’s Francis Galton, founder of eugenics: “Energy is the capacity for labour. It is consistent with all the robust virtues, and makes a large practice of them possible. It is the measure of fulness of life; the more energy the more abundance of it; no energy at all is death; idiots are feeble and listless. … Energy is an attribute of higher races, being favoured beyond all other qualities by natural selection.” This idea also seeped into the occultism of the period. Here’s Charles Leadbeater, from The Mystic Chord (italics mine).

Man’s various forces and qualities, manifesting in his bodies as vibrations, send out for each vehicle what may be called a keynote. Take his astral body as an example. From the number of different vibrations which are habitual to that astral body there emerges a sort of average tone, which we may call the keynote of this man on the astral plane. It is obviously conceivable that there may be a considerable number of ordinary men whose astral keynote is practically the same, so that this alone would not suffice to distinguish them with certainty. But there is a similar average tone for each man’s mental body, for his causal body, and even for the etheric part of his physical body; and there have never yet been found two persons whose keynotes were identical at all these levels, so as to make exactly the same chord when struck simultaneously. Therefore the chord of each man is unique, and furnishes a means by which he can always be distinguished from the rest of the world. Among millions of primitive savages there may possibly be cases where development is as yet so slight that the chords are scarcely clear enough for the differences between them to be observed, but with any of the higher races there is never the least difficulty, nor is there any risk of confusion.”

Nowadays, of course the idea that there are “Higher and Lower races” and they can be distinguished (in evolutionary terms) by their “vibrations” has for the most part, fallen by the wayside (or has it?). A few years ago, i did overhear someone at a pagan moot say something along the lines of “Oh I couldn’t live in that borough. There’s too many ………. (racial slur denoting an entire ethnic group) – I just don’t like the energy they give off” I was somewhat taken aback, as were others present, and the speaker was quickly challenged and chastened. Clearly, this is not acceptable, yet making the same kind of assumptions about the “energy relationship” between sexuality and gender is acceptable, at least for some people:

take 1
So there I was, chatting to this dude at a pagan party and he says to me “I work with energy”. So I says “what, so you work for Powergen?” “Ah, no” says he “I sense people’s energies.” And then he dropped the big one – “I can tell, for example, from your energy that you’ve got a strong attachment to being the alpha male in any social situation.”
“That’s one hell of an assumption to make” says I (thinking ‘oh is that ‘cos I cracked a funny about energy work and Powergen’?) “Well,” says he, “straight men have a very distinctive energy signature – it’s very aggressive and forceful.”
“What?” says me “ALL of them?”
“Oh yes. It’s very distinctive. Women have a distinctive energy that’s different from men. And gay men’s energy is totally different from straight men’s too. I can tell just by the feel of a man’s energy whether he’s straight or gay.”
“Okay” says me “what about men who are bi?”
“Erm….”
“I mean, I’ve had relationships with men in the past. I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on that.”
“Well with bisexual people its a bit more tricky….”
“Okay, well I identified as being gay for about seven years or so. If you’d met me during that period, would you have said I had “gay energy”?
“I really can’t say”
(thinks: bet you would have)
“Okay, what about guys who don’t identify as gay or bi but have sex with men anyway?”
“Erm, I’ve never met anyone like that.”
“What, never?” (Gosh, you must live a very sheltered existence)
“Okay what about people who are transgendered then?”
“Ooh yes, transfolk have a really distinctive energy pattern – their auras are really wonderful.”
“So can you tell whether someone’s trans before they know they’re trans then?”
“Erm, I’m not sure what you mean…”
“Well you seem to be saying that – by “sensing” someone’s energy you can tell what their gender identification or sexual preference is, right?” So surely if you met someone who wasn’t aware that they were “trans” you’d be able to tell – even if that person wasn’t consciously aware of it. Like you seem to be saying that you can tell if someone’s gay from their “energy” but if they haven’t realised that themselves, you’d be able to help them out. Yes?”
“Erm, I think it’s a bit more complicated…”
“Okay, how about someone who’s undergoing gender-transition when you meet them but later decide that they don’t want to go through the transition and revert back to their “original” gender-identity? What happens there with their energy? I mean, does it stop being trans-energy at some point?”
“Erm …. I’ve never heard of that happening. You’re making that up, aren’t you?”
“Actually no. I can introduce you to a friend who made that journey if you like.”
(pause) “Sorry, I must go and find the loo.”

take 2
(In a bar, somewhere in London, after a magical conference at Conway Hall….)

“You know Phil, the Solar current and the Lunar current are very different”
“Yeah?” (thinks: what is he on about?)
“Up until now I’ve only worked with the lunar current….”
“Mmm?” (thinks: “Aha! lunar current = women, solar current = men)
(Some time later, following many vague but obviously meaningful allusions to currents, chakras, and so forth).
“But you know, I’ve always been intrigued by the magical potential of the (pause) Double Solar Current….”
“Huh?” (thinks: I think I’m being chatted up here, why doesn’t he just say what’s on his mind…)
“Oh yes, it must generate a lot of magical energy, it must be really powerful … I mean it was Crowley’s thing wasn’t it?”
“Well yes, Crowley liked it up the arse now and then.”
(He pulls a face like I’ve farted loudly in the middle of the Gnostic Mass) “Oh no, it’s not “sex” – “I’d only do it in the context of a ritual. It would have to be magical. There’d have to be an Intent..
“Okay, well good luck with that. I’m outta here.”

These two conversations (admittedly embellished) highlight some of the problems I have with “energy talk”. My main issue with the first guy was that I felt, at the time, that he was clearly making assumptions about me (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – we make assumptions about each other based on social behaviour all the time) and quickly slotted me into a schema into which I could be fitted into and explained away. He slotted me into his conceptual schema and it was only when I started probing and asking tricky questions that things started getting difficult. The second guy was clearly interested in a bit of mansex, but could only frame this within a conversation about “magical energies” (“currents”) which made the whole thing impersonal and “magical” – to the level where he started sounding to me like a Thelemic version of Monty Python’s “nudge nudge” sketch. As though mansex in a magical ritual isn’t actually mansex.

It does seem to me that there’s something quite paradoxical going on at times with “energy talk” – that despite the surface rhetoric of energy “connecting” us with the universe, it actually can serve work against that ideal – particularly if the conceptual framework within which energies are ordered is restrictive (as in the binary categorisation in the quote above – although to be fair, Kirk does say that not all energy sources can be neatly fitted into the categories he provides, and if you feel that “water is active” then of course that’s fine too).

I don’t see this discussion in terms of “what should be done about this?” I don’t after all, have a problem with people talking about “energies” per se. Admittedly some friends do give me sidelong glances when they catch themselves using the e-word in my company, but that’s only because I used to ask them – at length – what they meant by it.

But I will say that I no longer place much credence in the concept of “energies” (apart from the easy metaphorical “everyday” usage) or conceptualise my interactions with people or places or objects in terms of energies or vibrations. This means though, is that I have to work harder at explaining (to others and myself) my experiences and reflections on same, with varying degrees of success. So I no longer think in terms of male and female energies, nor would I say “I don’t like so-and-so – I don’t like their energy” as I’d prefer to try and explain why I don’t get on with said being in terms of my relationship with them and acknowledge at the same time that other people might well have a different experience.

8 comments

  1. Gyrus
    Posted February 24th 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    It seems clear, as you say, that the whole discourse on “energy” is bound up with modern scientific ideas (especially, in occult circles, with outdated modern scientific ideas!). Not a surprise or necessarily a problem – we all use the metaphors our environment supplies.

    I’m not sure there’s such a clear line between “handy metaphor” and “essentialism” though. On paper, of course – but in practice, I think apparently essentialist conceptions are used as a shorthand for things that are too complex to unpack in everyday conversation but too important to ignore. Makes me think of something McKenna said about “spirits”:

    The anthropological literature always presents shamans as embedded in a tradition, but once one gets to know them they are always very sophisticated about what they are doing. They are the true phenomenologists of this world; they know plant chemistry, yet they call these energy fields “spirits.” We hear the word “spirits” through a series of narrowing declensions of meaning that are worse almost than not understanding. Shamans speak of “spirit” the way a quantum physicist might speak of “charm”; it is a technical gloss for a very complicated concept. (Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness)

    But while some shaman talking about “spirits” might represent the handy tip of an unwieldy iceberg of social, ecological, psychological, mythical and botanical knowledge gained through arduous experience, the instances you give of people talking about energy seem to be handy flotsam bobbing about in an ocean of assumption and prejudice. As we drift between the kind of traditional knowledge McKenna talks about (largely wiped out now) and science’s erosion of sensitivity to the subtler textures of the world and the body (thanks, Galileo), there’s also going to be a lot of grey area between these two poles.

    I think you’re right to be tolerant of talk of “energies” per se. I guess the trick is to see that for us it has to be a starting point, the only handy term that our scientific culture leaves us for a huge range of phenomena that this culture’s occluded, and ideally a way into describing these things in more detail. Rather than an end-point, a way of avoiding the hard work of attention to detail that we’re left with, being cut off from shared traditional awareness of… er… “energy” ;-)

    BTW, you should definitely get a Thelemic “nudge, nudge” sketch up on YouTube.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted February 27th 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Gyrus

      I hear what you’re saying – that “energy” can be used as a kind of conversational shorthand, covering a whole range of phenomena that are just too complex to go into at any one moment, yet, when I read (or hear) “occult” explanations of “energy” it doesn’t really come across that this is what’s going on – quite the reverse, in fact. The article I was quoting from, for example, in moving from the concept of energy as unitive, to binary, then multiple particularisations, made it all seem quite simple and self-evident. Also, I’m not really comfortable with this highly polarised notion that there’s a kind of “traditional knowledge” (“that we all shared”) that’s been eroded by science. I think there’s a tension expressed in a lot of contemporary occult narratives between a nostalgic desire to find a kind of collective “participation mystique” and the privileging of personal experience – and I think this tension is readily apparent in McKenna’s essay – particularly when he asserts that The only intellectual or noetic or spiritual path worth following is one that builds on personal experience.

      • Gyrus
        Posted February 27th 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

        I’d take the polarization of “traditional knowledge” vs. modernity as another handy but distorting shorthand – inevitable that it’s wielded clumsily in a blog comment!

        I’m in the middle of the rather excellent Science and the Secrets of Nature by William Eamon, which is basically about how “books of secrets” in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance fed into the transition between medieval scholasticism and modern science. I’d absorbed from various places the ironic fact that “empiricism” used to be a term of dismissal, and it’s fascinating to read a take on how it changed value. Modern science, from Eamon’s angle, seems to be a combination of the abstract theoretical zeal of scholasticism, combined with the hands-on experimentalism that was previously the province of craftsmen and peasants. Eamon emphasizes a “negotiation” between “elite” and “popular” cultures, in the way early science spread as printing took off. Still, it’s clear that empiricism only really made it into the “elite” culture via an increasingly controlled and controlling concept of experimental practice that cut it off from the body and everyday life. Arguing for a return to some pre-modern idyll is foolish, but so is ignoring the magnitude of what’s actually happened here.

        The onset of modernity represents such a tremendous shift that it’s very easy to simplify into a categorical turn for the better or for the worse. When I’m not feeling patient enough to go into all the pros and cons, I err on the side of “worse” – although sometimes I’m more chipper. McKenna was a bit all over the place on this, being nostalgic for the archaic and cynical about modernity, but wide-eyed about where science might be taking us (sometimes terror and sometimes excitement). All seem to be sensible reactions to where we are. As for personal experience, I’m pretty much with him on that. I think statements like the one you quoted weren’t ill-considered, but a result of studying phenomenology and sympathizing with anarchism. There’s the proviso that he was always the first to decry “personal experience” being foisted on others in any way.

        • Phil Hine
          Posted February 28th 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          Gyrus

          Oh I agree with you – my intention in highlighting the “traditional knowledge v. modernity” dichotomy was because its a common theme in a lot of occult narratives – including “energy talk”. I see it as an example of what Sumathi Ramaswamy (The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories) terms a “labour of loss” – those interpretive acts and narrative moves through which something is declared lost, and then recovered through the knowledge practices of modernity, the very act of recovery and naming constituting the original loss”. Occult energy narratives can be thought of this way – using the electromagnetic imaginaire (which is of course a product of modernity) in order to reach beyond its perceived confines.

          However, there’s another issue here – which is this notion of modernity’s “disenchantment from the world” (pace Weber and Schiller) regarding which I am increasingly of the opinion that it’s not as totalising as its often made out to be. Many aspects of Max Weber’s presentation of modernity’s “disenchantment” can be questioned – the inevitability of the “decline of magic” for example. But I don’t really want to zoom into a lengthy critique of Weber right now. So I’m coming round to the hopeful idea that we moderns are probably not necessarily as disenchanted as we tell ourselves we are.

  2. Joel Biroco
    Posted February 25th 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Surely if someone says that they can tell from your energy that you’ve got a strong attachment to being the alpha male in social situations what they’re actually saying is that they’d like to keep open a space whereby coming off as second best is in their eyes the new alpha male and if you were open and receptive enough you’d see that too. But I tend to tell such people to just fuck off.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted February 27th 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Joel

      Often, in “energy talk” I feel that there’s an “occult” variant of Stephen Potter’s one-upmanship game going on, a claiming of a particular (superior) status due to a person’s “sensitivity” to energy, vibrations, psychic phenomena etc., which is privileged over mundane behaviours such as making inferences about another person based on social cues, which of course anyone can do, but isn’t nearly as impressive as making a bold claim about someone’s essential nature. One can of course collude with this game (which is often the expectancy) – or question it, or, as you say, “just tell them to fuck off.”

  3. Sky Serpent
    Posted February 27th 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Interesting blog post.

    I am a professional physicist, former chaos magician and nowadays a practitioner of Buddhist Vajrayana. I find the use of word “energy” rather problematic, because people are not usually precise enough of the term, and how they use it. I think it is intellectual laziness and lack of discriminating awareness.

    In physics, energy is a quite well defined quality. It is a quality that can describe such properties in a physical system as velocities, temperatures, quantum states, gravitational potential, electrical charge and mass. Technically speaking, it is not possible to observe energy directly. I.e. go look at the sea. You can see its waves and, if you touch the water, feel its temperature. The intensity and frequency of the waves can be *described* with kinetic energy, and temperature in the water can be described in the form of thermal energy. However, you do not see the energy of the waves or feel the energy of the temperature – you just see the waves and feel the temperature.

    In Buddhist Vajrayana, world “energy” is sometimes used. However, that does not feel like such a problem, and I think the reason is that, in that particular context, using such a word refers to a definite type of phenomena. Then, to talk about “energy” is to use arbitrary set of words to talk about a very specific phenomenon. However, I avoid using the world “energy” outside Vajrayana context, like with pagans and chaos magicians – as then the above convention does not work anymore.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted February 28th 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Sky Serpent

      Thanks for those comments. In a way, my problem with “energy talk” is not so much that it is “imprecise”, but rather that it strives for “precision” in the first place.

      When William Blake wrote “Energy is eternal delight” he wasn’t making a statement about thermodynamics. The term Energy prior to the arrival of thermodynamics was a poetic term denoting vigorousness of verbal expression. A usage which goes back to Aristotle’s usage of energia to indicate a type of metaphor which provokes the mental image of something acting or moving. I have no problems with talking about “energies” as a poetic metaphor, but often, when I read occult accounts of energy, I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s famous definition of truth: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and now are considered as metal and no longer coins…”.

      What strikes me as the root problem of occult energy discourse is the desire to appear to be “scientific” (whilst at the same time claiming to be superior to mere – shudder – “mundane” science). This discourse favours a neat, orderly world of actualities (which can be easily displayed in a table or fitted onto the Tree of Life) and doesn’t appear to cope very well with metaphor, indeterminancy, and ambiguities. It was your comments regarding Vajrayana Buddhism which set me thinking along these lines, as, often, when I’m reading Indian tantric texts, I often find myself thinking that the language is more akin to poieses than the techne which it is often interpreted as. I’m thinking here of Leabdeater’s famous assertion that he’d counted the number of petals in the Sahasrasa Chakra and found that there was only 960 rather than a thousand – because he was understanding “thousand-petalled” as a literal number, rather than a poetic denotation of magnitude.