Stripping down and homogenizing or syncretizing practices is certainly not new. The free exchange of cultural ideas, and the adaptation of those ideas into a pre-existing framework, is something humans have been doing from the beginning. We don’t like to abandon our own beliefs, practices, or magical frameworks – but we also don’t like to skip over things that work for someone else. For example, some Buddhists will still practice Ganesha, as the practice works. This despite that Ganesha is a distinctly Hindu deity. Buddhists will also practice protectors from one another’s sects, when appropriate, if those protectors are known to be particularly powerful or effective. In the West we see this most commonly not only in the imperialism of Christianity but in the development of magic under Christendom, where deities or practices are “Christianized” to make them palatable or acceptable to the Christian authorities.
Today it is still not uncommon for people to sanitize practices to correspond to their beliefs. Instead of adapting spiritual or religious practices to our own faiths, however, it has been very common to instead extract the mechanical aspects of practices or rituals and try to base them in the new religious fad – fundamentalist scientific materialism. Perhaps an obvious example of this in the mainstream is the adoption and promotion of meditation and mindfulness, sometimes taken wholesale from Buddhism (I have seen dialectic behavioralists using singing bowls in therapy), dressed in the clothes of modern science. “These ancient peoples, somehow,” the line goes, “stumbled upon this materialist truth that meditation is good for us.” The meditation itself is then what is promoted, and not the robust path for spiritual welfare the religion promotes. Similar approaches have come to Sufi practices, with scientists looking to discover how these seemingly superhuman altered states can be reached. The idea that the practitioner’s faith or devotion may somehow play a role is rejected from the beginning – there must be a scientific explanation!
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that there is an intersection between this kind of thinking and the esoteric. It is in fact a staple of thinking in some magical circles, particularly those that focus on “energy manipulation,” or the previously popular term “psionics.” Because it has been observed (in some cases) or postulated (in others) that there is an energy involved in the mechanical action of casting a spell or working magic generally, the middle-man is skipped. Ritual is eschewed, spiritual frameworks are rejected, and the practitioner focuses on directly manipulating this subtle energy (or psi, chi, ki, prana, bioplasma, whatever). I won’t say this is utterly ineffective; to do so would be to reject my own experiences as well as those of many others. Coming up as a kid and later young adult this kind of work was my bread and butter for a good long time. Not only is it accessible, as no tradition requires its methods be kept secret, no lineage confers the blessings or the benefits of practice; it is also attractive.
Without a spiritual or theoretical framework to analyze and accept, direct energy manipulation is enticing to everyone regardless of spiritual tradition. Because it often couches itself in the terminology of science, those of us who would be more cautious, despite our experiences, to make an assertion that cannot be rationally explained or excused for fear of quackery, as I once was, feel less resistance to it. Because there is no barrier to learning, no creed or oath or even regimented practice, it requires little commitment and promises us its fruits despite we never water the tree. It is, in essence, the perfect package: accessible, free, non-committal, with rapid, tangible results.
But perhaps it is then too good to be true. For one, stripping out the foundational or theoretical frameworks of magical practices does seem to dilute them or at the very least fundamentally change their goals. The practitioner of subtle energy work does not achieve the same fruits as the practitioner of internal martial arts, or yoga, or even theosophy. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; we all have different goals, but it is an important thing to note. It also poorly equips the practitioner to deal with theoretical questions, “why” and “how,” or to develop new methods or techniques. It’s not surprising that 18 years after I first stumbled onto the “online energy community,” essentially nothing has changed, improved, or been introduced. The scientific language betrays a vulnerability to scientific critique, but more critically it applies a rigid explanation for psychic or magical phenomena that simply does not address questions about why things do or do not work. Without, for example, a Hermetic framework, we cannot easily answer questions or develop techniques beyond the very basics. Even questions so simple as “what is this subtle energy” cannot be answered adequately by this materialist framework. “It is an energy that comes from the body, undetectable and immaterial” is a thoroughly unsatisfying answer: if we can’t explain where it comes from regarding the body, then it’s just as well we speculate it does not. Proposing a material origin does not make something scientifically acceptable unless it can be demonstrated.
I won’t go so far as to say that this kind of study of direct energy manipulation is useless. It can have value as a learning tool about subtle energy, astral or other planes, or as a practical tool for very quick and simple types of spells and results. More importantly it can serve as an introduction for learning about other systems, and as a jumping off point for seeing similarities and differences. Where I urge caution, however, is in the adherence to the kind of “dogma of adogmatism.” This idea that the full spiritual or religious or magical systems from which energy work has been extracted and divorced were somehow primitive, clothing their energy work in superstition. In many of these systems, the working of energy was secondary at best not because they didn’t understand it, but because it’s unimportant to their actual goals.
Rather than reject all of these traditions and attempt to distill energy working down to some kind of mechanistic system, I would suggest, even if your goal is exactly just energy work, to at least embrace some framework. For the purposes of energy working I personally find a Hermetic framework easiest to adapt, but it can be anything. If one has no introduction at all, this is easy: whatever magical or spiritual tradition you feel an affinity towards, try to learn from that system. It may take a long time or be difficult to find a teacher, as these systems do tend to have barriers to entry and do not tend to be as public with their teachings as lineage-less systems, but if nothing else that makes the ultimate accomplishment that much sweeter. If you have already been practicing this kind of energy work for some time, and hit the plateau beyond which any advancement seems unreasonable, then perhaps it’s time to find such a framework to guide or inform your development. Even if you’re trying to go it alone, to self teach, I would suggest familiarizing yourself with some path, and taking that approach.