The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, April 13, 2012

New Age Energy vs. Anthropology and History

In a recent argument regarding Reiki, the person with whom I was arguing (who is fully convinced of the efficacy of Reiki*) made a number of supporting claims.  There were the usual citing of anecdotal claims and dubious readings of situations, and claims of big pharma cover-ups, of course, but in the middle of it there was the following claim (paraphrased by me, but close enough to the original that the claimant is unlikely to take any issue with it):

"All cultures have some form of energy healing, which makes the claims of Reiki practitioners credible!"

Really?  All cultures do, eh?

No.  Not really.

There are numerous problems with this claim - not the least of which is the notion that a commonly held belief is inherently true (AKA, the bandwagon fallacy).  Let's start with the first one - the imposition of the concept of energy onto the practices of cultures that would not have recognized the concept itself.  Most New Age beliefs tend to refer to mystical energies, but the problem here is that energy is well defined within physics (go here for a good explanation of what it is, or here for a good explanation coupled with how it is abused by New Agers), but not within the various New Age schools of thought.  In fact, my own experience has been that pursuing the New Age definitions of energy invariably results in either non-answer deflections ("well, you see, energy is vibrations!" "Huh?") or muddled nonsensical answers that collapse in upon their own weight. 

The problem, I suspect, is that because energy is not a physical object, but rather a potential for work/force, a property of physical objects (so, kinetic energy is the energy of an object in motion, electrical energy is the energy of electrons moving through an object, thermal energy is the heat generated by a chemical reaction within an object, etc.).  Because energy is physical in nature, but as a property does not manifest as an object itself, people tend to view it as a weird, ethereal thing, even though it is really a very simple concept that is quite clear once properly explained.  It is similar to quantum physics - a very real subject of scientific study the name of which is routinely employed by people who want to push their made-up crap.

So, the first problem with the claim that every culture has some form of energy healing is the fact that the term "energy healing" as used by New Agers reveals a deep ignorance of what the term energy means, and a replacement of its real definition with a hazy "mystical force" definition.

The next problem is that it's not at all clear that energy healing beliefs are all that common.  Many New Agers will refer to shamanic practices geared towards manipulating a person's energy to remove illness as a form of energy healing.  However, as described by ethnographers ranging from Claude Levi Strauss to Alfred Kroeber to J.P. Harrington and Franz Boas, these practices were geared towards removing illness-causing agents, not energies.  These agents might have been spirits, but they were at least as likely to be thought of as physical objects (for one example, Levi-Strauss documented cases where shamans claimed that bits of blood mixed with other objects were the causes of sickness).  Similarly, both anthropologists and journalists working in rural Asia have documented cases of local healers claiming to pull physical objects out of an individual in order to heal illness.  In other cases, shamans and healers fought to stave off illness caused by sorcery. 
So, many of the cases that get cited as "energy healing" are, in fact, viewed by the practitioners not as energy healing in the New Age sense, but as the removal of physical objects causing illness.  In those other cases, where spirits or sorcery are viewed as the cause, a reading of the actual anthropological literature demonstrates that the people who engage in these practices do not see spirits or magic as vague "bad vibes" in the way that so many New Age healers do, and that the claim of these being energy healing is a post-hoc rationalization and imposition to try to bring their beliefs into line with those of the New Age believers, and not an acceptance of the actual practice as viewed and experienced by the actual people doing it.

If we look into European history, we likewise see a mix of magic, spirit/demon beliefs, and physical causes for illness.  Folk beliefs often cited witchcraft as a cause of some illnesses, and depending on the tradition being examined, witchcraft might include anything from simple folk magic to attempted deals with spirits and demons, but, again, not some fuzzy, ill-defined "energy."  Early European medical doctors were often dependent on the concept of the "humors" - blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm.  While the concepts surrounding the humors often ranged into the mystical, they were, nonetheless, real physical things that could be manipulated by physical means (fr example, bleeding a patient), and not "energies." 

Even in east Asia, where so many New Agers get inspiration for claims about "healing energies", the notion that this was a common belief is a bit dubious.  Certainly, the notion of Chi (or ki, or qi) as currently used seems to meet it, but it is itself a term that has had many different definitions throughout history (read up on it here), and the notion that it was an "energy" as opposed to something else post-dates European contact, and historically it has even been thought of as a building-block of physical matter, rather like many similar concepts held by Greek philosophers.  Prana is a similar concept with a similar history.  So, even here, where we have the closest approximation to New Age energy, the history of the concept doesn't quite line up with what the Reiki practitioner with whom I was arguing claims. 

Are there cultures which do have beliefs that have rough similarities ot New Age "energy healing" practices?  Yes, there are.  But, again, they line up roughly, not precisely, and the New Age tendency is to tend to force the "energy healing" concept onto these beliefs and practices rather than take them as they are.  Moreover, while these types of concepts are not unheard of, they are FAR from universal, and someone who claims that every culture has them is someone who has demonstrated that they are disinterested in the practices of other cultures.  

*For the uninitiated, you lucky bastards, Reiki is the practice of waving one's hands over someone to manipulate their "energies" [in keeping with it's Asian origin, this is usually referred to as "ki", "qi", or "chi", and heal them*, with some people doing actual massage, which does have limited but real therapeutic value, and claiming to be doing Reiki simultaneously.  Though often claimed to be an "ancient healing art, Reiki is, in fact, quite modern, dating to the 1920s.  However, its adherents are usually very clear that it comes from Asia, which, as with so many culture-porn related things, seems to give it an aura of mysticism in their minds.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your delving into the rhetoric that often surrounds Reiki, something that often is not investigated enough and taken for granted at face value. You are very adept at pointing out other cultures and the claim that they are in fact not energy based, correct. However I do have to comment on your statement that "Reiki is the practice of "waving" one's hands over someone..."

This is also very shortsighted on your part. There are as many practices and forms of Reiki as it seems there are those practicing it. Reiki is predominantly taught as a hands on practice, not a waving of the hands practice. And in some circles it is most commonly referred to all those historical religious practices of hands on healing, such us the obvious Jesus and of course the historical Royal Laying on of Hands by the Monarchy.

So, in total, while I do agree with your challenging the arguments, consider the complexity and the totality of a practice and other rhetorical claims... there might be more to it than meets the eye, I suppose as in all things Anthroplogical. Basing a critique on one person's comment does not accurately consider the whole cultural phenomenon of the Reiki practice.

Anthroslug said...

Yes, it is true that there are a variety of different approaches and that I chose to comment on the one that I have found most often (which, admittedly, may not be the most common form, but it is the one of which I have seen the most).

Nonetheless, this seems an odd point on which to quibble, as all of them are still reliant on notions of energy healing, and - as you note yourself - seek to justify this through mistaken (or flat-out false) reference to past cultures.

The fact remains that it is a therapy with no plausibility, with no actual mechanism, and lacking in the historical/cultural background that it's practitioners and advocates incorrectly claim.

Cathy Almerson said...

I see your point, Anthroslug, but as a cultural anthropologist, I want to stress that we might have a lot to learn from such discourses. The fact that "energy" is a central part of New Age ideology, is evoked with such conviction, so readily, and with little regard to historical or ethnological accuracy is incredibly fascinating, anthropologically.

The globalization of New Age through commodities, publications, seminars, and mass media point to something larger than just some wackos in California stealing and misrepresenting cultural traditions. It points to a profound secular movement that has been fashioned from many esoteric traditions from around the world, has endured multiple political regime changes over the past decades, and continues to the thrive in the face of several global economic crises.

As anthropologists, I think that we ought to say "how interesting that people say that, or do that" rather than immediate dismiss or devalue discourses because they do not align with dominant epistemologies. After all, think how much different Frazer's "Golden Bough" might have been if ethnographers had just told their informants that they were wrong. . . .

Anthroslug said...

Hello Cathy,

I agree that this is a phenomenon worth studying. But that does not change the fact that this phenomenon seems to be driven at least as much by consumerism and appropriation (or pseudo-appropriation) of other cultures as by sincere beliefs or values held by the people who are practitioners and/or users of these practices.

That is, in of itself interesting, and this sort of thing has clear historic precedents (the spread of mystery cults in the Roman empire likely bears some similarities, for example). But acknowledging the phenomenon as interesting, important, and worthy of study in no way excludes also acknowledging the logical inconsistencies and cultural insensitivities also inherent in many of these beliefs and practices. In fact, I would argue that such acknowledgement is necessary to understand them.