Energy

Kirlian  Photograph of a Coleus Leaf (1980)

Kirlian Photograph of a Coleus Leaf, by Mr X, 1980 (source:Wikipedia)

Pagans, occultists and magical folk often talk about energy in a really hand-wavy way which is doubtless very irritating to proper physicists. I have certainly done this myself, for example in my previous post on deities.

So what do we mean by this “energy”?

I think most Pagans are agreed that the divine and/or deities are immanent in the universe (the ones who don’t think that are mostly atheists). I know this because I did a survey for my MA dissertation, and the vast majority of respondents agreed that the divine and/or deities are immanent in the universe; the rest didn’t believe in deities at all. So whatever these energies are, they are inside the universe.

Many of my survey respondents also agreed that science will one day be able to describe all the phenomena experienced by Pagans and others. In my view, science describes the material aspect of the universe very well, but rather falls down when it comes to describing consciousness. Arthur C Clarke once wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic” (because we don’t know how it works); Doctor Who (in his incarnation as Sylvester McCoy) once said that “Any sufficiently advanced magic looks like technology ”.

People often have experiences which suggest that some kind of spiritual phenomenon has occurred (though Pagans usually draw a distinction between unsubstantiated personal gnosis, and confirmed gnosis). They certainly wouldn’t try to draw any broader conclusions about the world from their experience. They would come up with one or more hypotheses to explain the experience, but not insist on the truth of that interpretation of events. For instance, if I had a vision of a deity, it could be a projection from my unconscious mind; it could be a hallucination; or it could be the manifestation of an actual entity. I can choose any of those interpretations, but there’s no need to try to convince others of its truth, or to found a religion based on my vision. If the vision instructed me to act contrary to my conscience, then I wouldn’t obey it just because it claims to be a deity.

If there is any objective external reality to these manifestations, then how might it work? There is an electromagnetic field around the Earth, and around anything through which electric current flows, including anything that is alive. If the energy that many Pagans talk about is anything, then it must be something to do with electromagnetism.

Scientists tell us that consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems. Humans are one such complex system. What if the Earth and its ecosystem was another such system? That would explain spirits of place. It has also been suggested that the universe itself is complex enough to give rise to mind.

Of course, all this is highly speculative and subjective. Scientists who are studying consciousness and complex systems have not reached any firm conclusions, it seems, but it is a very interesting area.

The trouble with a lot of Western thinking is that (since Descartes) we divide everything between spirit and matter. In Eastern thought, there is no such distinction. Spirit is a subtler form of matter; matter is a denser form of spirit. Eastern philosophy affirms that matter is illusory – and once you get into subatomic physics, this insight is confirmed, as what seems solid actually contains a great deal of space.

The deities (if they exist as objective phenomena) might be made of energy, or of consciousness. Even if they do not exist as objective phenomena, they certainly exist as subjective phenomena, as experiences or as archetypes. If I invoke a particular deity, I will get a similar experience each time, which suggests that there is at least a symbol-complex or thought-form that answers to the name of that deity, even if it is not a conscious entity.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

  • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com Soliwo

    Yes, I agree that the deities have immanence. But I see no need to bring in the word ‘energy’. In my opinion the the use of that word has become popular exactly because it can mean everything and anything.

    • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

      Well yes, that’s what I mean – it gets used in a hand-wavy sort of way, so either we have to specify what we mean, or stop using it.

      When Wiccans talk about raising power in circle, something has definitely happened, because there’s a change in the atmosphere, but whether it is just a collective feeling, or an actual objective phenomenon, is hard to say.

  • Krissy

    I lifted this from wikipedia- In the words of Richard Feynman, “It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount.” So I think pagans are ahead of the game because some of us at least know what it feels like.

    • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

      That’s interesting, thanks. If such a distinguished physicist as Richard Feynman was prepared to admit that physicists also talk about energy in a hand-wavy way, that makes me feel a lot better about talking about it in a hand-wavy way :)

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  • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

    “If the energy that many Pagans talk about is anything, then it must be something to do with electromagnetism.”

    I disagree and I think this is where Pagans get muddled, confusing scientific terms for magical terms. “Energy” may also refer to libido or vitality, a kind of psycho-biological potentiality that we feel when we are “energized” or enthusiastic (which comes from the word for being possessed). This is the kind of “energy” that I think is “raised” in group ritual.


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