Energy (esotericism)  

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Energy in spirituality, refers to a widespread belief in an interpersonal, non-physical force or essence. Believers consider spiritual energy to be of a different type than those known to science, and therapies involved are often classed as alternative medicine. Various ideas pertaining to spiritual energy have been postulated in various cultures, prominent amongst them are:

This vital energy or life force is known under different names in different cultures, such as qi in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ki in the Japanese Kampo system, doshas in Ayurvedic medicine, and elsewhere as prana, etheric energy, fohat, orgone, odic force, mana, and homeopathic resonance.


History and metaphysics

Esoteric energies have been postulated in a broad range of cultural and religious beliefs, usually as a type of Élan vital, an essence the differentiates living from non-living objects. In its most ancient forms this kind of energy is usually associated with breath, such as qi in Taoist philosophy, prana in Hindu belief, the 'breath of life' given from God to Adam in the Abrahamic creation story, and to this extent it was closely associated with conceptions of animating spirits or the human soul. This is most evident in spiritual traditions that hold beliefs about reincarnation or an afterlife. Some spiritual practices, such as Qi Gong or traditional yoga are designed to open or increase this innate energy, and the philosophy behind certain martial arts implies that these energies can be developed and focused.

In modern usage, esoteric energy has been taken up by a number of New Age spiritual practices and alternative medicine modalities. These usages often lack 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.

Energy in alternative medicine

The approaches known collectively as "energy therapies" vary widely in philosophy, approach, and origin. The ways in which this energy is 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 are predicated, as regards the given explanation for their supposed efficacy, on some form of energy unknown to current science: in this case the given energy is sometimes referred to as putative energy.

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". 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.

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". Therapies that purport to use, modify, or manipulate unknown energies are therefore among the most controversial of all complementary and alternative medicines.

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.

Some acupuncturists say that acupuncture's mode of action is by virtue of manipulating the natural flow of energy through hypothesized 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. However, this theory fails to account for the specificity of the locus of successful intervention. 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

The successes of the era of the Enlightenment in the treatment of energy in natural science was 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 the 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. Sometimes, however, as in the work of Harold Saxton Burr, the electromagnetic fields of organisms have been studied precisely as the hypothetical medium of such organisational "forces".

The attempt to associate additional energetic properties with life has been all but abandoned in modern research science, 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.

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.

Modern western psychotherapies

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;


These pages do not cover all of parapsychology but only those that are concerned with some "energy". Some effects studied in that discipline, such as telepathy and dowsing at a distance, are by nature attempting to go beyond normal time-space: these are excluded.

Chinese vitalism

The traditional explanation of acupuncture states that it works by manipulating the circulation of qi energy through a network of meridians. There is no scientific evidence for these so, 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. However the idea of qi is not confined to medicine: it appears throughout traditional east Asian culture, for example, in the art of Feng Shui, in Chinese martial arts and spiritual tracts.

Indian vitalism

Other systems

Dowsing and "Earth energy"

Some dowsers talk about "earth rays".

Movies and entertainment

Scientific references

The activity of biological and astronomical systems inevitably generates magnetic and electrical fields, which can be measured with sensitive instruments and which have at times been suggested as a basis for "esoteric" ideas of energy, an idea already found, for example, in the use of the magnetic compass in Feng shui.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Energy (esotericism)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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