Jay Michaelson


"But I don't really know if I believe in energy," I told my meditation teacher during a private interview last winter.

"Bull-shit!" she answered (she is a new-school meditation teacher). "You do so. There's just a great big ball of doubt sitting right here, and you need to see it, acknowledge it, and deal with it."

So began my effort to undo years of aversion to the notion of, and word, 'energy.' My teacher was right - and so was I. I still don't know what I believe, and yet I recognize my skepticism to be just what my teacher said it was: doubt. I perceive energy and charisma in people; like most everyone else, I know what it's like to be "on" and "off". Yet I struggle now, after a summer of what the same teacher called "playing with energy," to determine how much of what I perceive is really 'out there,' and how much I and millions of other weirdos around the globe are deluded.

"Energy," when used in the non- or quasi-scientific way, has always struck me as the weirdos' weakest link. It's a catch-all, like the word "spiritual," for anything that doesn't withstand logical analysis. No evidence of ch'i flowing through the body? Well, it must be spiritual energy. Don't like the way a person talks? He must have bad energy. The concept is so nebulous that it can accommodate just about any psychological, physiological, or physical state.

When used scientifically, the word is confusing. Everybody knows the symbols "e=mc2," but few understand what it really means: that energy, which is nothing, equals mass, which is something. I know that for many years I thought of energy as a beam of light, or an explosion of fire, or some other physical evidence of energy. But that's not what energy actually is. Energy is the force that causes the ignition - the non-material push in my arm as I swing it, or in the object as it falls to earth. Einstein was revolutionary because he showed that the object, too, is nothing but energy - there's no there there inside of any of us.

So, whether the word is used unscientifically or scientifically, it carries with it a great deal of uncertainty and confusion. Let me suggest a provision, probably inaccurate, definition that can help me tell the story of my recently-concluded "Summer of Energy." Here is what I think the New Agers mean: some power or property, which may or may not be physical, that is associated with certain beings or places or times, which is perceptible in some way and which may positively or negatively affect us. Energy is distinct from ordinary physical properties. For example, if we see a man cursing at himself while he walks down the street, we can identify his various physical traits - height, weight, clothing, walking speed, tone of voice, etc. - but there is also something about him, that he seems to radiate, that escapes ordinary classification. The fact that he is angry does not reduce to the physical, and does not explain all of what we perceive. If we are sensitive, and not too absorbed in our own minds to notice, we can sense an "energy" that he is giving off - in this case, a hostile, negative energy.

Or, when we are with someone we love, we can perceive in the closeness of his or her presence something which does not reduce to sight, smell, touch, and sound. There is something palpable in the air in moments of intimacy: a knowledge and a closeness that only the most cynical of us would dismiss. Even if we reduce it to material causes (hormones, etc.), there is something in the totality of the experience, in the radiation of the Other in our closeness to him or her, that we can at least label as - "energy." Possibly 'energy' is just the inarticulable whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, or, more precisely, the way that whole, in its totality, is perceptible by our various non- and trans-rational faculties. Yet even if so, it is an emergent property that does not reduce to this or that single material cause.

So much for definition. Let me tell my story.

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Image: Jay Michaelson

November 2003

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France and Antisemitism
Michael Shurkin

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From previous issues:

The Queer Guy at the Strip Club
Jay Michaelson
or, The Opposite of Sex

Yom Kippur
Sara Seinberg

What the World is...
Jay Michaelson
and what to do about it.

Meditation and Sensuality
Jay Michaelson
Sex, drugs, and God in all