Energy (esotericism)

Energy (esotericism)
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. The term "energy" also has a scientific context, and the scientific foundations of "physical energy" are often confused or misused to justify a connection to a scientific basis for physical manifestations, properties, detectability or sensing of "psychic energy" and other physic phenomenon where no presently known scientific basis exists.[3] It is sometimes conceived of as a universal life force running within and between all things, as in some forms of vitalism, doctrines of subtle bodies or concepts such as qi, prana, or kundalini.[4]

Spiritual energy is often closely associated with the metaphor of life as breath - the words 'qi', 'prana', and 'spirit', for instance, are all related in their respective languages to the verb 'to breathe'. 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".[5] These are often held to be perceptible to anyone, though this may be held to require training or sensitization through various practices.


History and metaphysics

New Thought Beliefs


Omnipresent God ·
Ultimate Spirit · Divine Humanity · Higher consciousness ·


Universal law
Law of Attraction · Power of choice · Metaphysics · Life force


Affirmations · Affirmative prayer · Creative visualization · Healing · Huna · Personal magnetism · Positive thinking

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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. 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. 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.

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, 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]

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".[2][6] 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.[6][7][8]

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.[9] 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

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.[10] 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".[11]

The attempt to associate additional energetic properties with life has been all but abandoned in modern research science[12]. 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.[13]

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.[14]

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, so 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. 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.[9] 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.

Indian vitalism

Dowsing, "Earth energy", etc.

See also


  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. ^ Victor Stenger (2001). "The Breath of God: Identifying Spiritual Energy" (PDF). Skeptical Odysseys (Prometheus Books): 363–74.. 
  4. ^ energy
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b Robert Todd Carroll. "Skeptic's Dictionary: Energy". Skepdic. 
  7. ^ Stephen Barrett (February 15, 2002). "Some Notes on Wilhelm Reich, M.D". Quackwatch. 
  8. ^ William T. Jarvis (1999). "Reiki". The National Council Against Health Fraud. 
  9. ^ a b "Get the Facts, Acupuncture". National Institute of Health.. 2006. Retrieved March 2, 2006. 
  10. ^ Lois N. Magner, A history of the life sciences: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded, CRC Press, 2002
  11. ^ Blueprint for Immortality The Electric Patterns of Life, H.S.Burr, Neville Spearman, London, 1972. Foreword.
  12. ^ Vitalism. Bechtel W, Richardson RC (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E. Craig (Ed.), London: Routledge.
  13. ^ Jonas, WB; Crawford, CC (2003 Mar-April). "Science and spiritual healing: a critical review of spiritual healing, "energy" medicine, and intentionality.". Altern-Ther-Health-Med. 9 (2): 56–61. PMID 12652884. 
  14. ^ Bruce Clarke. (November 8, 2001). Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics. University of Michigan Press. p. Clarke, Bruce. ISBN 0472111744. 

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