August 31, 2011

Hamlet and Energy Work

On Facebook I wrote:

There's a long overdue conversation starting up, I hope, about whether you have to believe in "energy" in order to take "energy work" seriously. (Hint: do you have believe in Prometheus in order to take "Prometheus Unbound" seriously?)

When I first read Hamlet, as a teenager, there was a lot that I didn't understand, but only one thing that really bothered me: that no one seemed to care about who Hamlet really was. Was there really a Danish prince? Did he really kill his uncle? Nobody seemed to know. Nobody seemed to care.

After a lifetime spent with literature, this seems natural and ordinary to me: I remember my young distress with some amusement. Of course no one cares about the "real" Hamlet, or the "real" Macbeth, or the "real" King Lear. What matters is what Shakespeare did with them. What matters is the poetry.

But actually, it's a more complicated than that. Shakespeare, I've always suspected, cared more about it than his 21st Century readers do. Did Shakespeare believe Hamlet was historical? Almost certainly. Did he know he was making things up, too? Probably. He must have known he was making up words for him to speak. Did Shakespeare believe in Hamlet? That's probably the wrong question. It's more, How did Shakespeare believe in Hamlet?

As a (very minor) poet myself, I know the way that a character from a chance-read history can invade your consciousness. For me it was the confederate general, John Bell Hood. A few details about him from Shelby Foote's history of the American Civil War took root in my mind, and would not get out. There was a poem that needed to be written, and it was crystallizing around the figure of the young, blond-bearded, impetuous, not-quite-smart-enough Hood. There was something I knew about Hood that nobody else knew. Something I understood, and that needed to be said.

I knew well enough that my Hood was not the real Hood. I knew that I'd never seen the eight-year-old John Hood lose a playground fight, and refuse to cry uncle, even when his face was pushed into the mud. But I also knew that didn't matter. I had to write about it anyway. There was a connection that I had to honor, a story that I had to tell.

All of this is second-nature to anyone trained, as I was, in the hot-bed of postmodernism that was the Yale English Department in the 1980s. I had the further advantage of Buddhist meditative training -- a long, if somewhat haphazard course of it -- designed to shake the conviction that the world as we perceive it is the world as it is. It's one thing to think that's true: quite a number of people pay lip-service to the idea. But it's quite another to practice seeing, hearing, tasting the "real" collapse in front of you.

If you don't have that kind of training, and few people do, your response to being told something is not real is almost certainly going to be that someone is denying your experience: and there are few things that make people angrier, especially if the experience is important to them.

If you tell an energy worker that energy is "not real," you can expect some pretty fierce responses: especially if you smugly think that the electricity in your own mind, for instance, is "real." In fact, if you watch carefully how your mind actually handles the concept of "electricity," you'll find that it uses a bunch of silly and downright false images and concepts to manipulate it. When it comes down to it, most of us picture electricity as a stream of warm light running through wires like water through a hose: some of us may have a slightly more sophisticated picture of electrons, like tiny BBs, crowding and bumping their way through a tunnel. But nobody honest is going to be able to tell you that the "electricity" in their mind really corresponds to what science can tell us about electricity, and you won't do yourself and favors by trying to banish the hose or the BBs from your mind. You need to think about it somehow.

So, what is the "energy" that a massage therapist who "does energy work" works with? To me, it's the exact equivalent of the John Bell Hood whose eight-year-old face got pushed in the mud. There was, in fact, a real John Bell Hood: but nobody can know him directly. There is also the John Bell Hood that Shelby and I have in common: a set of characteristics compounded of all kinds of people we have known: a kid I knew from the deep South who had more courage than sense, a shading in of Custer with his long blond hair, antique glimpses of military gallantry. And then there's the poem that I write later, when I reach out through, and with, this phantom "Hood" to try to communicate with other people, to move them, to make them stop and think about the suffering and beauty of a sort of person they might ordinarily hold in contempt. Just so, there's the "energy" in the practitioner's mind, largely bogus; the "energy" as a possibly shared understanding of chakras with their emotional charges and all the images and metaphors gathered around them through a couple millenia's hard use; and finally there's the massage, the interaction informed by all this, which can be as profound and important as any play of Shakespeare's.

So it's not adequate to say that the "energy" is unreal. Pretty much everything that our minds manipulate is unreal, in that sense. The Hamlet in Shakespeare's mind was not just something made-up. It was something he recognized as of desperate importance, something that needed to be said, something he needed to say and that other people needed to hear.

On the other hand, insisting that "energy" is real is the quickest way to destroy the massage traditions that have grown up around it, particularly if you make false medical claims on the strength of it. When you make a medical claim, you step into the arena of science, and you're subject to all of science's laws and procedures. If you say you can improve someone's immune system by balancing their chakras, you'd better be able to do it, in a reasonably consistent, measurable, verifiable fashion. But there's no need to make this sort of claim. There's a certain sort of fundamentalism that equates spiritual health with bodily health, but the two things have little to do with each other. The Dalai Lama is going to get sick and die, just as Mother Theresa did, just as Ghandi did, just as you and I are. Until we get clear on this we're going to be muddying the water on both sides.

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