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Raising Energy: Do Something Weird

We use words like “energy”, “power”, and “force” a lot in talking about magic.

In healing magic, there’s “energy work”. Wiccans talk about “raising the cone of power” in ritual. Crowley said that “Every force in the Universe is capable of being transformed into any other kind of force by using suitable means. There is thus an inexhaustible supply of any particular kind of force that we may need.”

But we have to be careful not to confuse our use of these terms with a physicist’s use.

In the context of physics, there is a very precise, mathematical definition of “energy” as the ability to do “work” – another word defined in a very specialized manner. According to a physicist, a weightlifter who returns the weight to the rack at the end of their set has done no “work” on it with respect to gravity. (Friction is another matter; but in a closed path, there is no net change in gravitational potential.)

Imagine getting up in the morning and saying “I feel full of energy today!”, only to have a skeptical reductionist say “No no, you have the same amount of gravitational, electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces you did yesterday, and your mass has hardly changed. Within a small margin of error, you have the same energy you did yesterday.”

Or imagine watching a play, and talking about how one actor gave a powerful performance, and having someone reply “I measured carefully and that person’s metabolism was only consuming 90 watts, not much power at all!”

So if that physicist tells us that our spell or ritual does not actually involve “energy”, we have to put their protest into context.

When we talk about energy, power, or force in magic, we’re not using these physical definitions. Our “energy” is an experiential, psycho-socio-emotional phenomenon. It’s not measured in kilowatt-hours or Newton-meters.

If physical energy is defined as the ability to do work upon a physical system, then maybe we can think of magical energy as the ability to do work upon a magical system -- “the mind and...all that resembles it” as a Surrealist manifesto once put it.

And just as the mind escapes easy measurement or definition, so does the energy of magical workings. So we are indicating broadly here, with the intention of not getting tripped up by specifics. All experiential phenomena are like this: how do you define the taste of water, or the smell of peppermint?

What we mean is along the lines of “feeling full of energy”, or an artist being filled with a “creative force”. It’s about “vital powers”, in the sense that Edith Hamilton spoke of when she summarized the ancient Greek’s definition of happiness as “The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.” It’s about possessing the capability for effective action in every dimension – physical, yes, but also mental, social, and spiritual.

Different cultures have different models of the thing we’re talking about. We call it “energy”, and our thoughts about it are colored by connotations of the “energy” of physics. Qi, ki, prana, mana, telesma, the Force, animal magnetism, the grace of the Holy Spirit, libido, are other ways of talking about it, each colored by culture and context.

In the theories of Chinese Medicine, qi can be defined clinically by its effects. If qi is balanced and flowing freely, there is no pain; if there is pain, qi is not balanced or not flowing freely. If there is strength in the body, qi is present; if strength is absent, qi is lacking.

Similarly we talk about ki, the Japanese pronunciation of that same character, in the martial arts: the art of aikido, the way of harmonizing with energy; the idea of ki haku, projecting energy; the kiai shout. (Which means every kid who’s taken a karate class has worked with ki!) It’s there in reiki, the healing practice of laying on of hands, and also in the standard Japanese greeting “O genki desu ka?” – “How is your ‘original ki’?” It’s not mysterious or hidden.

Qi/ki is known by what is does, not by a reductionist explanation of what it is.

The “mana” of Melanesian and Polynesian cultures is another perspective on the thing we’re talking about here. As the English missionary-anthropologist Robert H. Codrington wrote, mana “works to effect everything which is beyond the ordinary power of men, outside the common processes of nature; it is present in the atmosphere of life, attaches itself to persons and to things, and is manifested by results which can only be ascribed to its operation.”

Now, an anthropologist might complain that we are smearing together a bunch of concepts from different cultures which should be kept distinct. Qi, the anthropologist objects, is completely different from mana. They shouldn’t even be mentioned together!

And if you’re doing anthropology, perhaps that is the correct take.

But we’re doing magic here. We’re in the liminal spaces between, and our mission is to find general principals behind these different perspectives. We shall quite certainly be crossing boundaries and coloring outside the lines.

Also, within each of these cultures there is a lot of vagueness about just what qi, mana, and so on mean…anthropologists might be insisting on more firm and rigid boundaries than the societies in question actually have about these things!

We’ll mostly use the term “energy” to talk about this thing, because it is most familiar to us in the modern West. But all these other culture’s models of this thing will be hanging around, informing our discussion.

The important point is that magicians can have all sorts different cultural or philosophical beliefs about how magic works – philosophical materialism or idealism, naturalism or supernaturalism, centered in society or centered in nature.

What matters about magic isn’t what we think about it but what it does: the change it produces in the world.

With that in mind, we can ask, how do you generate this energy?

A diagram that has become a common internet meme puts it well:

To do magic is to do something non-ordinary. It’s about getting out of old ways of thinking, getting out of ruts, creating a new state of mind, generating excitement.

To do that you have to do something new. Something weird. You speak in a special manner, you chant special words or phrases, you wear special clothes (or get naked!), you use weird accouterments like candles or incense or wands or ceremonial knifes, you dance.

Anything that takes us out of ordinary consciousness, out of that comfort zone, that sets up some excitement or tension, can be used.

Part of the idea is, “If I can do this weird thing outside my comfort zone — if I can dance naked around this fire in the moonlight while my friends play drums — then I can do this other difficult thing to which I have set my intention.”

So an energy-raising practice has to stay weird. Otherwise it becomes a rote repetition with no ability to excite us. We’re always going to need rituals that are new to us — newly invented ones, ancient ones re-discovered, or ones brought to us from other cultures.

But whatever it is, you can’t do it half-assed. If you’re just going through the motions, there’s no energy.