May 25, 2011

Energy in Bodywork

On Facebook recently, there was a discussion of the notion that one ought to sleep oriented north-south, to align oneself with the Earth's magnetic fields. Someone asked if there was any evidence for this, or if it was just woo, and a lively discussion ensued. I always know when I'm overstressed because I get drawn into arguments about this sort of thing, as if it mattered. I don't care if people sleep north-south – what skin is it off my nose?

Of course it's silly. How does one “align” a non-magnetized thing like a human body with the earth's magnetic fields in the first place? Who says the magnetic poles of the human body are in the head and the feet, and how do they propose to prove it? Has anyone ever noticed that these planetary magnetic fields curve? And can anyone come up with a plausible – let alone verifiable – way in which the incredibly weak influence of the Earth's electromagnetic fields would have any influence on my well-being? Of all the forces acting on me daily, I can think of few less likely candidates than those fields. My laptop, not to mention my next door neighbor's refrigerator-magnets, are blasting those fields all to hell anyway, as far as local influence goes.

But of course it's not really about the facts: it hardly ever is. The emotional investment is actually in much different things. For me it's the question of: do you believe things because they're tidy and convenient and comfy, or because they're true? I wrote in that thread: “this has 'woo' written all over it.” Not just because it strung together a whole series of absurdities and indefensible assumptions, but, much more tellingly, because it arrived at an improbably tidy conclusion: one should sleep oriented, out of all conceivable choices – “right side up.” North is up, and your head is up, so your head should go to the north. It's the childlike insistence on neatness, on the world obediently lining up with our ideas about it, that irks me. It makes me want to insist on these people moving the foot of their beds six inches away from the adjoining north-south wall, if in Maine, or three inches away in the other direction, if in Texas, to account for the magnetic declination. If you invite science to your party, you're going to have to let it play with your toys.

And on the other side, the emotional investment is in not letting schoolbook-learning quash the questing spirit, not letting your native language – which is one of correspondences, microcosms and macrocosms, the language of poetry, in short – be taken away. The people who are doing polarity therapy may be exploring something terribly important, something that has far more to do with people's well-being than correcting for magnetic declination will ever be. And there is a horrible real-world component here which most scientific people I know poo-poo or just refuse to entertain at all. The question is whether people who can't do math or memorize tables or learn Latin nomenclature get to participate. The people who are all gung-ho on a more rigorous science-based training for massage therapists often seem not to get this. There are people who can't do that stuff, and some of them are marvelously gifted bodyworkers. If you raise the academic bar on these people you really are going to cut them off from work they love, and are good at. Possibly even their vocation, the only work they would ever be really good at.

In any case, and more fundamentally, every one has to take their own journey, and will, whether we like it or not. It's one thing for us to tell people: you're not qualified to make medical recommendations based on your own outlandish misunderstanding of electromagnetics. It's another to tell them, your spiritual explorations and emotional discoveries are invalid. We must say the first, and we must not say the second. The fact that we know that Reiki practitioners are talking nonsense when they talk about “working with someone's energy,” as if they were electricians doing a bit of rewiring, doesn't mean we know anything about what happens in a Reiki session that is a decisive turning point in someone's emotional life.

What will make this easier, all round, is if people who don't really understand science stop trying to pretend they do, and stop mixing up their own terminology with scientific terminology. Don't call the damn stuff “energy.” Call it “chi.” Or make up a new word for it. Don't drag in magnetism and electricity. These are things with precise definitions. They can be measured accurately. They behave predictably. You're only going to make yourself look silly, and aid in your own disempowerment, if you try to make them fit with your meridians or sen lines or polarities.

And if you are going to work with the dream world, bear in mind what any genuine shaman will tell you: the crossing is arduous, and the translation is difficult. It's easy to think you know what things in the dream world will mean in this one, but more often than not you don't. Does it intersect with things that scientists talk about? Of course it does, but you don't know how.

To me, the bottom line – and what scientists and shamans are, ideally, in complete agreement about – is don't pretend to understand things, if you don't. Things are confusing enough already.


  1. (On the chance that it's an amusing segue--- "On maps, why is north always up?":

  2. P.S. Love much about this article, but especially, "In any case, and more fundamentally, every one has to take their own journey, and will, whether we like it or not."

  3. I like the word 'forces'. Energy with a job to do. Energy on a mission. Implies energy interacting with something less labile in order to create movement.

    I know that forces inhabit my body. I can feel them. Energy...? Not so sure. Not until it runs into something.

    In someone else's body, I can be sure when forces are meeting excess resistance, as their body will densify in both texture and movement.

  4. It's interesting, Phil. I know exactly what bodyworkers mean when they talk about feeling energy circulating -- it's like putting your fingers on a pipe and feeling water rush through it. And I can even see it in colors, if I try. I'm reasonably sure I'm perceiving something, but I'm also reasonably sure it's neither electrical nor magnetic: I suspect it's my own tactile and visual representation of something -- a neural mapping of what I perceive to be somebody else's neural mapping of what I'm touching. Or something like that.

  5. Dale, I am deeply into both worlds, poetry and science. I cannot agree with you more. Assuming you know science when you don't is just foolish. It is equally foolish to dismiss poetry / shamanism / mythology / dream / mystical experience / et al. because it is not purely objective in nature.

    Construction workers use welding rod to dowse for underground pipe. I have had that experience of watching the rod swing on its own.

  6. Crikey! Your version sounds more mysterious than anything else I've heard! :o)

    It's true that a perception is a perception, not an hallucination. Mine might be different to yours. If you can use your perception to build a satisfying personal model of effectiveness that's lovely. If I can use my perception to build a satisfying personal model of effectiveness that's lovely also. If someone else can use their perception and match it with others' experience and teach a method to them that helps them build a satisfying personal model of effectiveness then that's lovely too. I can't imagine a concensus will appear anytime soon regarding such matters as 'energy', nor do I care.

    As for the hosepipe feeling, perhaps more value should be placed on the feeling than the 'what it is that's causing the feeling'. And then if I do this or that, does that feeling change (smoother, less turbulent) and does that correspond with an increase in contentment for the client. Interesting that authoratitave texts on Chinese Medicine discourage a navel-gazing approach to the understanding of Chi - jut take the pulses, do the needling and then re-evaluate. That's what I like about ZB. Just a map of how to work - a protocol - re-evaluation with the hands and feedback from the client - and much juicy curiousness about how to work with that in the body which is unseen, but which can certainly be felt by sensitive hands.

  7. @Phil, just poorly expressed, I hope. As experienced, it's not mysterious at all.

    What I like most about the "energetic modalities" is that almost all of them place a very high value on "listening with the hands" -- paying attention. The worst massages I've gotten have been from people who set out to fix me on some preconceived plan, rather than responding to what their hands find. Which is why, if I go looking for massage, I'm likely to go to an "energy" practitioner, rather than to someone who has a model in their head of what a healthy body is supposed to be, and will spend the session trying to make mine more like the model. I plead total ignorance of ZB! Hope to change that soon.

  8. Dr Fritz Smith summed it up when he said to me... "Phil, you know you have more intelligence in your hands than you'll ever have between your ears."

    I hope he was talking generically, but now I'm not so sure.... ;o)

    I think you'd get a real hit from ZB Dale. Having taught ZB to practitioners from many modalities, to a (wo)man they all say that even if they never go on to practice or study ZB further, that the touch training and concepts presented changed the way they worked for ever! I'd highly recommend David Lauterstein to you. He knows the path over the bone/soft tissue bridge so well.