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Spiritual practices and ideas often equate life-energy with the breath

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, sometimes supposed to be directly perceptible to some observers, who have usually undergone some form of training or initiation.[citation needed] This 'energy' is sometimes conceived of as a universal life force running within and between all things, and in other cases it is seen as a more localized phenomenon, such as in vitalism, subtle bodies, or somatic energies such as qi, prana, or kundalini.[3] 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'. It is also often seen as a continuum that unites body and mind.

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

The experience of spiritual energy is described differently depending on the tradition or practice in question. Sometimes it is described as a physical sensation similar to the movement of breathe in the body, sometimes as visible "auras", "rays", or "fields", sometimes as audible or tactile "vibrations".[4] As a rule, these experience are held to be available to anyone, but only after proper training or sensitization through practices which vary widely across different belief systems. Spiritual energy is also usually associated with feelings of bliss of contentment, as in the pleasurable sensations of kundalini, the ecstatic states of certain forms of meditation, and the 'oceanic feeling' discussed by western scholars such as Freud and Rolland. There is no scientific evidence of physical energies of this type.[5]

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 'breathe 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 through the body, producing physical, psychological, and in some cases spiritual benefits.

Energy in medicinal practices

Main article: Energy 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.[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]

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.[9] However, this theory fails to account for the specificity of the locus of successful intervention.[citation needed] 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

File:Electro-metabograph machine.jpg

Electro-metabograph machine

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.[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: 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.[9] 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".

  • Dowsing
  • Karl Spiesberger
  • J. Francis Hitching
  • Thomas Charles Lethbridge
  • Divining rod
  • Long range locator
  • Michel Moine
  • Ley lines
  • Crop circles
  • Earth radiation
  • Geoglyphs
  • Cursus monument
  • Songlines
  • Psychogeography
  • Earth mysteries
  • John Michell (writer)

Movies and entertainment

  • The Force (Star Wars)
  • The Lifestream (Final Fantasy VII)

Scientific references

Template:Importance-section 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.

  • Electric field and Magnetic field - their general nature.
  • Electrophysiology - the scientific study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues.
  • Radiobiology (radiation biology) - the interdisciplinary field of science that studies the biological effects of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation of the whole electromagnetic spectrum, including radioactivity (alpha, beta and gamma), x-rays, ultraviolet radiation, visible light, microwaves, radio wave, low-frequency radiation (such as alternating or pulsing fields or currents), ultrasound, thermal radiation (heat) and related modalities.
  • Biomagnetism - the magnetic properties of living systems (see, for example, the research of David Cohen using SQUID imaging) and Magnetobiology - the study of effect of magnets upon living systems. See also Electromagnetic radiation and health
  • Bioelectromagnetism - the electromagnetic properties of living systems and Bioelectromagnetics - the study of the effect of electromagnetic fields on living systems.
  • Electrotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Electroconvulsive therapy
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation - a powerful electrical current produces a transient, spatially focussed magnetic field that can penetrate the scalp and skull of a subject and induce electrical activity in the neurons on the surface of the brain.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging - a very powerful magnetic field is used to obtain a 3D image of the density of water molecules of the brain, revealing different anatomical structures. A related technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging, reveals the pattern of blood flow in the brain and can show which parts of the brain are involved in a particular task.
  • Embryogenesis, Ontogeny and Developmental biology - a discipline that has given rise to many scientific field theories.
  • Bioenergetics - the study of energy exchange on the molecular level of living systems.
  • Biological psychiatry, Neurology, Psychoneuroimmunology
  • Bioluminescence - a marked phosphoresecence found in fungi, deep-sea creatures etc., as against Biophoton - a much weaker electromagnetic radiation, thought by Alexander Gurwitsch, its discoverer, to be a form of signalling.

See also

  • Holy Spirit, Pneumatology, Spirituality
  • Egyptian soul
  • Unani
  • Mana in Oceanic cultures and in anthropology
  • Aether or the quintessence of classical physics
  • Holy Spirit in some branches of Christianity, similar ideas in Islam and Judaism
  • Qudra in Sufism
  • Magical energy in various systems
  • Silap Inua in Inuit mythology
  • Sex magic in various systems

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The 'National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Energy Medicine Overview.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kimball C. Atwood (2003). Ongoing Problem with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
  3. energy
  4. 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.
  5. Victor Stenger (2001). The Breath of God: Identifying Spiritual Energy. Skeptical Odysseys: 363–74..
  6. 6.0 6.1 Robert Todd Carroll. Skeptic's Dictionary: Energy. Skepdic.
  7. Stephen Barrett. Some Notes on Wilhelm Reich, M.D. Quackwatch.
  8. William T. Jarvis (1999). Reiki. The National Council Against Health Fraud.
  9. 9.0 9.1 (2006). Get the Facts, Acupuncture. National Institute of Health.. URL accessed on March 2, 2006. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "NCCAM2006-Acupuncture" defined multiple times with different content
  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. (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.
  14. Bruce Clarke. (November 8, 2001). Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics, University of Michigan Press.

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