(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)
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[Trigger/Squick/Too-Much-Information Warning: penises, ejaculation, orgasms, blood]
I was wondering if you would consider writing another post about “energy work.” If for no other reason than the fact that Googling for concrete explanations or even hypotheses about what these phenomena are and what their actual benefits are yields nothing but mysticism. I’m also just curious as to whether this is something I should pursue. [*]
Is “energy work” worth pursuing? My answer is, “only under certain circumstances,” to be detailed below. Picture me in my electrical engineering, physics, and bioengineering classes, hearing about “energy” in those contexts and then reading about “energy” in the contexts below. And picture me trying to reconcile that signifier with those referents. Here we go.
What it feels like and what it is
“Energy” (ki, qi, chi, prana, ruach, etc., etc.) is phlogiston. There’s no “there”, there. The experience of “energy” is real, to a point. But “energy” doesn’t exist, as such.
So, what “energy” feels like is similar to “pins and needles,” like if your foot went to sleep, and you shift positions, and your foot starts waking up. But, whereas the “pins and needles” sensation is slightly negatively valenced (unpleasant, uncomfortable), the “energy” sensation has a neutral valence.
I’m going to try and ultimately fail to leave off the quotes around “energy,” now.
Energy is the conscious representation of autonomic nervous system activity. It’s usually an almost subliminal, background hum. When you do “energy work” you 1) sensitize yourself to that hum, and you 2) do practices that turn up the volume of that hum, in limited ways. When you get more experienced with energy work, you might have a sense that, “Oh, nothing new, here; this has sort of been going on, all the time, since forever, just outside of awareness.”
The phenomenological (and semantic) edges between “energy,” “emotion,” (and proprioception and interoception) are blurry. Global autonomic arousals (angry, scared, sexually aroused, etc.) have an “energetic note” amongst all the different sensations that comprise them, once you’re sensitized to that aspect of experience.
The “major energy centers” the so-called “chakras,” are mostly coincident with major glands in the body, e.g. the endocrine glands. (You can google “chakras glands,” without the quotes; I totally independently called this.) “Energy centers” are major hubs and end-points of autonomic nervous system activity. With practice, you can evoke/find a qualitatively different “energy experience” of these locations in the body than in, say, your bicep.
When “activated,” to me it feels like fizzing sparklers are lit in these “chakra” locations, a shimmering sensation and a sense of “inner light.” (But all sorts of proprioceptive and interoceptive experiences are accompanied by faint experiential “echoes,” fleeting quasi-imagery.) There can also be a sense of strong pressure, especially in the brow (“third eye”) and the crown of the head.
Paying attention to parts of your body heightens the “energy sensation.” When you move attention repetitively, among other “inner behaviors,” you can amp up the energy sensation in the parts of the body that you’re paying attention to. Robert Bruce is wrong about almost everything, but he nailed this, how to reliably evoke the energy sensation. Genius. There’s some kind of feedback loop going on, there. That part of the body gets primed in your neural body map, heightened sensation in that area, increased blood flow. Probably structural neural changes over time, if repeated, like in the “homunculus,” etc. Anyway, overlapping, interacting neural body maps are really cool, but, again, there’s nothing magical going on, here.
(By the way, to further increase effects, you can combine attention with emphasis on inhalation or exhalation [to differentially increase global sympathetic or parasympathetic tone] and through mechanical vibration of glandular and nervous tissue, via vocalization at various resonant frequencies. See the books below.)
(A note about “energy flow”: It’s exceedingly rare that I have any sort of sense that energy is “flowing.” If you pay close attention, it’s more like you’re sweeping a spotlight of attention rather than anything flowing past the spotlight of attention. Nothing is “flowing,” at least for me. This was really annoying to me, in every “energy” book ever. Authors, get past the dogma and pay attention to the actual experience!)
What you can do with it
By the way, some people make a distinction between “hot” and “cool” energy. This might be the distinction between sympathetic and parasympathetic sensation. Personally, I have never managed to experience this distinction or exploit this distinction.
Speaking of exploiting, so, every system in your body is a delicate, opponent balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic activity. If you ramp up one of those opposing systems, one of two things is probably going to happen. First, in the short term, the opposing system is going to ramp up, too, to try to keep that organ or body system operating normally. Second, in the long term, that organ is just going to start desensitizing to that extra input (e.g. down-regulating receptors, de-ennervation, etc.) So, the body’s going to actively resist whatever autonomic activity you’re stirring up, probably in really smart ways.
If you get good at “energy work,” which I don’t particularly recommend, you can try differentially waking up different chakras. So, you’ll have a highly localized, super-intense shimmering sensation. You can cross-reference a few different texts for what that particular chakra is supposed to correspond to. And you can look up the jobs of all the glands and stuff in that particular part of the body. My experience and my prediction? Nothing will really happen; you won’t really experience anything different. Sometimes, sometimes, based on my reading, I do suspect you can “build up energy” (read “nervous system activity”) to eventually get a gland to physically, mechanically pulse in a punctate way. I never managed something like this. My guess is that, even then, you won’t really notice much difference, even if some extra hormones or neurotransmitters do get released into your bloodstream.
So, my conclusion is that there’s not much there that’s particularly interesting. I suppose that you could get really good at this. And if you paid really, really, really close attention, you could start noticing and orchestrating subtle changes in nervous system activity and hormone profile. That may or may not be what those yogis were up to. But we’re talking damn subtle, at least in my experience. I think better, more elegant, higher-level levers are things like Additive Meditation, Focus on Positive [pdf], and the Brahma Viharas.
Of note, and this is the clincher for me, when you diligently do energy work over a period of days to months, energy sensations fade quite a bit (with some exceptions to be discussed below). In other words, it’s difficult to repeat extreme experiences. Shimmering, prickly, even painful, intensity quiets down over weeks. Robert Bruce explicitly notes this, though he interprets it differently. For me, at this point, I can easily work up some sensation if I play with it for a few moments, or if I do attentional moves that I haven’t done in a while. But it’s mostly sort of a background shimmer, a background hum. (Your mileage may vary—maybe your experience would be different.) In other words, in my opinion, the body adapts to the non-useful weirdness you’re putting it through; you’re not, like, literally accumulating vast amounts of spiritual energy in your energy storage tanks, or something. Even non-literally, as a folk metaphor to make sense of what’s going on, I personally don’t think anything particularly healthy or useful is happening with these sorts of superstitious, attentional, experiential rituals.
(I will note that I am a fan of “channeling ever-greater experiential intensity,” of being able to handle more and more, brighter and brighter feeling and experience. But I don’t think straight-up “energy work” is the route to get there. Well, non-sexual energy work, anyway. More below.)
In any case, I prefer to mostly let my body take care of these autonomic systems. If I do intervene, I use different levers like diet and exercise.
Not Beneficial, not even benign
I want to make a point that, while it seems difficult to get something specific and useful out of energy work (for me), you can still screw up your nervous system in sort of a clumsy, generalized way. Maybe if you get really good you can sort of rebalance things with “hot” and “cool” energy, use attention and intention to differentially affect sympathetic and parasympathetic activity in physically localized ways. I’ve never been able to do that. Even Robert Bruce says, if you wake stuff up, you have to let it all quiet down on its own: go eat a lot, have sex, sleep, take a bath, etc.
One thing that I experienced, and two other people mentioned the same thing to me, is that we all became a particular flavor of anorgasmic: We could ejaculate just fine; sex was normal. Except, we didn’t experience an orgasm accompanying ejaculation. (This is not unique to doing energy work; this is a known medical thing that can be caused by other stuff, too.) They were using a separate energy work system than me. But we all experienced it. No me gusta.
Somewhere in there I stopped messing around with non-sexual energy work, and somewhere in there my orgasms came back. Whew. Anyway, erection, ejaculation, orgasm are orchestrated by differential activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Coincidence? I think not. So, be careful if you start playing around, though it took months of systematic, repetitive behaviors for this to happen to me.
(Sidebar: I also just want to a do a little sidebar here about like not ejaculating and stuff, to preserve inner energy. Like all the Daoist stuff about this? Sure, it seems like there’s a little bit of truth, there, like if you want to be amped up, testosteroney [sic; like “macaroni”], and a little crazy before the big game or whatever, don’t have sex the night before. And so on and so forth, extend to your personal situation. But, like, google “prostate priest,” without the quotes. Oh god, no. Clean the pipes. So, actually, I do think the body makes precise tradeoffs between reproduction, longevity, etc. Sperm—minerals, proteins, hormones—takes resources to produce. So, yeah, if I was malnourished or had a zinc deficiency in ancient China, I might well hold onto my sperm. And, yeah, if I were malnourished, not ejaculating might even kick my body into some preprogrammed evolutionary metabolic regime for recovering from injury noticeably faster. I wouldn’t discount that out of hand. But, anyway, we do not live in ancient China, and we have multivitamins for real vitamin deficiencies. Also, if you try some of the weirder tricks to not ejaculate, you might start ejaculating blood for a while. Ask me how I know.)
But, but energy healing!
Ok, so you’ve probably heard about those therapeutic touch studies, like the energy work that nurses sometimes learn? Sensing energy fields and stuff? Well, in those studies, trained practitioners couldn’t feel whether there was a human “energy field,” or not, on the other side of the curtain (or whatever it was) greater than chance. You can try this with a friend. I did. No greater than chance. Case closed. (If you do try it with a friend, be careful about body heat and air disturbance.)
(When I look at people doing Tai Chi fifty feet away, I do feel energy sensations. But, that’s like autosuggestion, proprioception, and mirror neurons, man.)
So what about all those tumors shrinking and stuff? I’m not going to bother seeing if I can dig up a meta-analysis. Thing is, we know that your body differentially protects against bacteria and viruses, depending on whether or not there are other humans or probably even an expectation of other humans around. It’s not far-fetched to believe that lots of human touch, humans being very nice to you, will potentially do extreme things to someone’s nervous system, genetic expression, “placebo effect,” and immune system. Like, huge, for some people, some cancers, some of the time. I would not be surprised at all if this was a real thing. No energy healing needed, just lots and lots of gentle physical contact and caring interaction, setting off a huge cascade of electrochemical machinery. Beautiful, wonderful, cheap, but not mysterious. So do that and get chemo (or, far better, some of the mindblowing new cancer treatments that are finally coming out of the pipeline).
By the way, I do have a very strong intuition that I can heal with my hands. Maybe evolution “put” that felt intuition in me because sometimes I can heal people with my hands. You, too. But, again, not because we’re emitting magical energy, but because of group selection and psychoendoneuroimmunology. That’s still very meaningful, to me.
But, but “energy blockages”!
So I suppose you could scan with your attention inside your body and look for “dead zones” (or “intuitive badness;” or prickly, or uncomfortable sensations). And you could gently intend and stroke with awareness to “wake up” or modulate those areas. If it feels good, if it feels right, I say go for it. Make friends with your body. But, be careful–I feel like that’s OCD (energyblockagecancer!) waiting to happen. You’d be imposing dubious value judgments and significance on difficult-to-interpret sensations. And, again, it’s hard to know whether the phenomenology you’re kicking up is really doing much in a helpful, lasting way. I actually had transient dysautonomia and vagal dysregulation in the later stages of mono. And, I experimented a bit with energy-work-style modulation, and it didn’t seem to do much, except perhaps in a vanishingly transient way.
Take, instead, something like high-intensity interval training, e.g. sprinting, which causes massive neurological changes. That’s a much bigger change than any attention exercise and probably a much “smarter” and “more precise,” intervention, in a certain sense. I feel like if you really tried diligent, direct autonomic modulation, you’d have like a 5/5/90 chance of making things better, worse, or no change. Probably better to find a different lever. There often is one.
But, but emotional energy blockages!
There’s this other idea that you can “clear energy blockages” to “release trauma” and do emotional healing, etc. Same as above, my informal experimenting didn’t yield much. I do think there’s a link between “energy” and emotion, of course. But it’s not precise and not precisely hooked into cognition, episodic memory, etc. Anything I did was very hit-or-miss, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything. Your mileage may vary, though.
I think tools like Internal Family Systems Therapy, Focusing, etc., are much more effective, much more precise, than messing around with “energy” and expecting deep emotional catharsis and healing. 
But, again, as always, of course, if energy-emotional stuff calls out to you, please don’t hesitate to explore. To backpedal a little bit, I’m sure some people, some of the time, do experience intense catharsis through different kinds of body awareness. Do body awareness alone or combine body awareness with other stuff. We’ve all got slightly different nature and nurture. And, there are slightly more indirect, intwining synergies which I’ll go into more below.
An Important Point
I think it’s very important to make the point that I’m not devaluing subtle (or intense) inner experiences, subtle intentional changes in inner posture, subtle, intuitive internal corrections and stance shifts, and delicate sensitivity and response to what’s going on inside you, with those inner muscles you didn’t know you had. I highly recommend all this. What I’m saying is that it’s not helpful (to me) to conceptualize this stuff in terms of “energy” that flows around in the body. If a “chakra” spontaneously lights up, which they sometimes do, great. Don’t shove that away, but, like, perhaps don’t give it more attention than it deserves or attribute deep significance to the experience. How will you relate to that and everything? How will you interpret or conceptualize that experience, embedded in the rest of your experience? But, don’t take my word for it–I don’t mean to impose values; I mean, please form a relationship with yourself on your own terms. I personally think the “energy” concepts just get in the way of that: It’s fair to say that, when you collide much of “energy work” with meditation, you get… meditation. Or, meditation can be a much broader practice, inclusive of, or obviating, “energy work” qua “energy work.” (How big can your practice become?)
More Reliable Synergies and Feedback Loops
So I’m going to back off a little bit from one of my positions above. I sort of made the point above that the experience of “energy,” while sometimes phenomenologically intense, wasn’t necessarily doing anything particularly unsubtle or interesting in the brain and body. It’s almost like this autonomic activity is somewhat orthogonal to everything else going on in conscious experience. That wouldn’t be that surprising.
But I will qualify the above and say that energy work, emotion, sexuality, and more (detailed below) do seem to variably interact. I say variably because sometimes it’s a tiny, tiny interaction and sometimes it’s a lot. I don’t fully understand why these experiences seem orthogonal, at some times, and interacting at others. (Something, something, psychological gating, hormonal gating, arousal gating, autonomic gating, something, something.) Maybe people out there have this totally figured out, intuitively or explicitly. In any case, this variability means that these interactions aren’t something I regularly reach for and tap into.
But, when you and your body are in the mood, you can deliberately intervene on these interacting systems using different levers:
- Different types of breathing, probably through many different pathways (direct neural, blood gas concentration) do affect emotions and energy sensations.
- Global arousal, e.g. from a roller coaster ride, does interact with sexual arousal (and has overlapping machinery)
- “Energy center activation” sometimes seems to interact with sexual arousal and emotional arousal
- There are additional attentional, postural, facial, and breathing-cycle components and feedback loops, too. (Especially see Alba Emoting for these.)
The books linked below have things you can try. Also see Additive Meditation and, again, Alba Emoting.
(Peak experience sidebar: If you look at, like, David Deida’s stuff or Stephen Russell’s stuff, you can sometimes, somehow, combine “energy moves” with sex and orgasm to sort of blow your head off with peak experiences, including like sort of interesting, trippy, transient, spiritual-ish insights about self and humanity. [If you’re going to experiment with that stuff, do it on a weekend. And probably alone or with informed consent. From one of these, I was screwed up for a couple days; I should not have been driving the next day; Freaked out my girlfriend at the time with, uh, long-winded, repetitive rambling about humanity, crying, and creepy laughter. And that time was a total accident: You can sort of prime yourself, it seems; Be careful.] Again, I was never able to replicate these consistently. Some people apparently can. Hit-or-miss, not particularly recommended, YMMV.)
Regardless of gender, if you want to increase your capacity for sort of languid, lush, sensual, intense, high sensation, throbbing, full body, effervescent, breathy, vibrating, rippling, weightless, headrush, loss-of-vision, highly emotional sexuality, then “energy work” does seem useful to have in the mix. (“Braingasms,” full-body rushes, frisson, and ASMR are overlapping and synergetic with all of this, by the way)
It really does seem like there are these sexual, emotional, global arousal, “energetic” feedback loops that do synergize and play really nice with each other. So, if you do feel like there’s something more you want out of your personal, felt experience of sexuality, or you’re trying to evoke or cultivate a more “feminine” or balanced or intense or powerful embodied expression of something, there probably is something here to be had, for you.
Like, with my cis-dude body and hormones, I was pretty jealous of my perception of what is was like to experience female sexuality. Now, still, even after the time I’ve put in, less than 1% of the sex that I have is like that superlative description up there, because I have to want it, be in the mood for it, and reach for it. But, when I do want it, when I am in the mood for it, when I do reach for it, I can have it. And, I have a positive altered “ground state” that subtly threads through day-to-day emotions, relationshipping, and “normal” sex. And, in addition, it’s just so sort of subliminally reassuring to know I have relatively secure access to the emotionally-laden, self-caring, other-caring, super-intense mindblowing stuff when I want or need it. And, I also now have relatively secure access to soft, cosy, whispery, feathery, sensuous, warm, comforting inner self care. Definitely increased baseline quality of life, if you feel a call in that direction. (Though, for completeness, it may still be possible to get some or all of that with [additive] “meditation” alone.) Resources below.
Below are the books that I have found most useful. There’s very little “theory” in these books, and, of course, all the theory is pretty much ignorable. But these are practical books, they are filled with stuff to do, stuff to try. That’s why I originally started playing with them, so many years ago.
Also, there’s no tai chi or qigong, here. Nothing wrong with those sorts of traditional practices, meditation in motion, etc. (I’ve done maybe 50-100 hours of one form of qigong.) Tai chi and qigong are a much gentler, more indirect route. You’ll eventually start getting tingly if you do one of those for long enough. (Maybe those practices really do give you full body autonomic training, cumulative over decades. Opportunity cost, perhaps? High intensity interval training seems more efficient, to me. YMMV!) Anyway, the books below (and DVD) are much more direct, if you want to feel something now-ish (minutes to weeks as opposed to months to years).
As I mentioned above, conceptualizing these inner sensations as “energy” mostly just gets in the way for me. The books below are basically stuck in the “energy” framework. So what that means is that they are sometimes clunky, inefficient, “cross-purposed,” ill-conceived, or sometimes they’ll work great, for you. It’s hit or miss. But the authors did their own experimenting and teaching, and got feedback, and assembled their ideas and toolkits as best they had time for. These practices are things to try, to home in on what’s actually going on, what you can actually do with intention and will and subtle inner moves within yourself. But don’t get caught up in “shoulds” and authorial interpretations. Feel into what you’re actually doing, how your interpretation of the instructions interacts with what you’re actually experiencing, how what you think you should be experiencing interacts with what you’re actually experiencing, whether you could or would or might interpret the bare sensations differently, etc.
I guess my annoyance with the “energy” framework is that, while probably a useful, psychoactive-connotation-laden metaphor for some people, it may obscure far more effective, more reliable routes to the same (or better) gains, those routes being illuminated by more modern maps of the same territory.
Below are the most practical books that I think currently exist (fyi, I’m putting affiliate links on some of these). All of them contain potentially obliquely interesting things to play around with, a little bit, as well as, at best, essentially useless, empty, superstitious rituals, and, at worst, stuff that will mess you up, at least a little bit. I’ve roughly (guesstimated; YMMV) ordered them from gentlest and safest (Henderson) to most likely to fuck something up (probably temporarily; e.g. your ability to experience orgasm; Deida, Bruce). In any case, if you see an instruction that reads like, “do this repetitively and blindly for many repetitions over long periods of time,” DON’T DO THAT. Dip in, play, sure, repeat yourself if you catch a faint, subtle, barely-there, not-even-there-yet hint of something you like, to see if you might evolve it or magnify it over time, etc. And feel for whether/if/when it’s time to stop or take a break. Don’t keep doing something just because they say so.
- The Lover Within: Opening to Energy in Sexual Practice by Julie Henderson
- Key Sound Multiple Orgasm Trigger by Jack Johnston (See here, too.)
- Quantum-Touch: The Power to Heal (Third Edition) by Richard Gordon
- The Enlightened Sex Manual: Sexual Skills for the Superior Lover by David Deida
- Energy Work: The Secret of Healing and Spiritual Development by Robert Bruce
(Sidebar for cis-dudes: Lasting longer during sex; because someone is definitely going to ask this, if I don’t put it in. I actually have no good tips, here. I will maybe think about this some more, and maybe someone out there has cracked this in a reliably teachable way. Of course, via genetics, lots of practice, and black magic, some people [e.g. cis-male porn stars, and other smug, random dudes] have cracked this. As for myself, if non-creative and non-stop, I usually last between like 30 seconds and 15 minutes, mostly depending on how often I’ve been ejaculating within the past seven days and past twenty-four hours. Infrequently, I can hit-or-miss get myself into “last forever” states, with no clear pattern or method. It’s easier to get into one of those states if I’m in the middle of an intermittent fast [haven’t eaten in X hours]. I’ve experimented with the Daoist stuff and done a lot of additional reading and thinking. There’s no silver bullet… that doesn’t risk ejaculating blood or doing something possibly stupid. I haven’t compiled or stacked tips and tricks: Like, some people find early, very-brief-but-intense stimulation desensitizes them a bit, making them last longer. And then there’s exercising and isolating pelvic floor muscles, which I don’t think does very much, if anything at all. There are probably other tricks of varying quality. I have gotten a lot of mileage and additional airtime, of course, out of paying exquisite attention to subtle sensations at all stages of the process, patiently, slowly exploring all that, etc., etc. But, in addition to refined body awareness of “how close you are,” (on a 100-point scale as opposed to a 5-point scale), and some feather-on-concrete, delicate muscle mindfulness and participation (which can buy you some time), I feel this issue is best managed with humor, communication, lots of breaks [e.g. oral sex], position changes, in-situ pauses and ear-whispering conversation breaks, rhythm changes, depth changes, angle changes, toys, more humor, yet more humor, kissing, more kissing, foreplay, etc., etc., etc.)
So, anyway, evolution (as adaptation or remnant) gave human beings a limited conscious representation of autonomic activity. That is so-called “energy.” Nothing mysterious; still kind of neat. And, anyway, after clearing away all the metaphysical baggage and dogma and useless frills, there can be some legitimate profundity, experience, self-expression, and transformative practice to be found in there (if properly mixed with lots of other stuff). The friction between “energy work” and my engineering coursework was basically my gateway to rationality. And energy work exercises were basically my precursor to meditation. Finally, they partially shaped my sexual response, sexual expression, and early understanding of my sexuality, in relatively healthy ways.
As one last thought, I’ll backtrack even more from a prior position: I have experienced, first-hand and second-hand, some weird, non-local-seeming effects of energy work, directed intention, etc. So, if I’m really being honest, I’m sort of low-key agnostic around some of the claimed non-local effects. I’m aware of the paradox that extremely unlikely things, e.g. coincidences and seeming causal connections, happen quite frequently; and I’m aware that evolution has built some weird tendencies into our intuitions. In any case, I’m a naturalist: If there do turn out to be some interesting, non-local things going on, for some subset of this stuff, those phenomena will have a “natural,” explainable mechanism. And that would be cool and possibly useful. Lots of other things are cool, too.