My first unambiguous encounter with life-force energy occurred in my teens. I'd taken a fairly high dose of LSD, and was watching my friend's cat, which was stalking peacefully about at the other end of the room. Then something moved me to point at the cat, with a lazy, flicking gesture. This stuff, like light but all bent and twisted like lightning, came out of the tip of my index finger and arced across the room, hitting the cat. It looked exactly like the stuff that came out of the hands of sorcerers in Doctor Strange comic, those kinked, glowing arcs of energy exchanged between battling wizards.
It would just have been a drug hallucination but for the effect it had on the cat. It jumped two feet in the air and leaped out of the window. I was concerned for it (I've always loved cats) and went over to look out; it was tearing off across the yard. Later I discovered it was fine. The movement I had made was slow and easy, not abrupt enough to startle the cat.
Those Doctor Strange panels were depictions of energy magic. Energy magic is one of the great paradigms of magic, one of the basic ways of thinking about so-called magical effects. Within that idea, wizards seek to project or block energy to heal or harm, to rearrange energy internally for health and strength, to use energy to carry enchantments.
A few years later, when I had started disciplined magical work, a friend and I were standing, discussing energy projection, which neither of us was sure he had experienced. He said something about using the voice. I said, 'What, like HUH?' The HUH was a rapid exhalation, a huff of breath; my friend fell over. He got up, said 'You bastard!' and we laughed about it. We'd both wanted an experience of projecting energy, and we'd got one!
This energy is a central part of many traditional systems of healing, martial arts and spiritual awakening.
From Chapter I-1: A brief history of magical energy
Looking at the great traditions, we see an intimate connection between life-force and breath, to the extent of finding words for breath which also double as words for life energy or spirit. In Greek, we have pneuma, in Chinese qi or chi, in Sanskrit prana, in Hebrew ruach, in Latin spiritus. The latter leaves a trace of this double-concept in modern English: it's not hard to see the connection between the Latin root of 'inspiration', both in its physical, objectively-observed sense of drawing in breath, and in its more commonly-used interior meaning, of a very special mental condition.
In the modern age, the most extensive systems of life-energy work survive in the Hindu teachings on pranayama, and in the Taoist disciplines of qigong / qi gong. In the word 'pranayama', the prana part refers to life-force and the -yama root means death or control; so pranayama means 'control of breath or life-force'. Qigong means 'breath/life-energy work'.
Teaching about prana or qi permeate many aspects of the esoteric teachings of those traditions. In the Hindu tradition the control of prana is central to Kriya Yoga, Tantric sexual alchemy and the healing knowledge of energy centres in Ayurveda, to mention just a few areas. In Taoism, consciousness of and control of qi is essential in Tu-na breathwork, esoteric martial arts, acupuncture, sexual alchemy and the energy magic of qigong.
So we can see that vitalism, the idea of a universal life-energy, forms an important feature of esoteric traditions. It is a consistent ingredient of what has been called the Perennial Philosophy, the teachings that form an intellectual underpinning to traditional worldviews. Further, we can see that vitalism has been deeply intellectually unfashionable since the rise of the scientific worldview. It is the radical reductionism of even healthy scientific thought (let alone fundamentalist scientism) that has rendered life-force a redundant hypothesis, sliced off by Occam's Razor because it seems we do not need to distinguish the activities of living things quite so sharply from the inorganic substrate of the world - DNA is, after all, 'just a chemical'.
This puts the sceptical practitioner of martial arts or energy healing in a strange position. When you have experienced real life-energy adventures, like the above, or like the ones you have no doubt had if you work esoteric martial arts or energy magic, you have no doubt that these techniques work to produce a sense of something which feels and behaves very much like life-energy. So the traditional notions of life-energy become the most obvious, the immediately-comprehensible articulation of what you are experiencing.
David Lee will be presenting a day-workshop on Energy Magic next month. Details at: https://www.facebook.com/events/427827944041507/