Introduction and Overview
The Pueblo Indians told me that all Americans are crazy, and of course I was somewhat astonished and asked them why. They said, “Well, they say they think in their heads. No sound man thinks in the head. We think in the heart.” C. G. Jung (1976)
Figure 1: The chakra symbols, petals and elements, illustrated by Pieter Weltevrede 1
Across history and cultures, people have assigned thinking to the head, love to the heart, and raw emotion to the gut. Although we know that these functions all transact in the brain, the brain has a body and organizes our consciousness according to the demands of living as physical, social beings.
The healing traditions of the world have described the psychological aspects of these bodily zones. And their observations closely match each other (Seeman, 2001). I believe that what we know about the human biofield, the “aura” or “subtle body” can further our understanding of psychology. (“Subtle body” is the preferred term of depth psychologists, “aura” that of western intuitives, and “biofield” the scientific term denoting measurable energies, moisture and other substances surrounding the body.) Such knowledge is not isolated to ancient healing traditions. Modern investigators measure the properties of that biofield (Motoyama, 1981), including effects of psychological changes (Hunt, 1996). And one of the experts I have consulted maps those energetic properties to brain activity (Chandrasekharanand, 2003). But in today’s scientific culture, there is still widespread skepticism that the aura or subtle energies even exist. One typical response is like this:
“People talk about an ‘aura,’ but I don’t feel or see anything. Is this some New Age thing, a figment of your imagination?”
It’s a common complaint of people who find any discussion of the aura delusional. People who say they “see” auras experience this in different ways. Most experience an inner vision, in their mind’s eye, of the other person’s energies as fields of color. To get a sense of what this looks like to someone with this ability, see the beautiful illustrations by Joseph A. Smith in Hands of Light by Barbara Brennan (1988). Some say they see the aura through their physical eyes, whether it’s a glow around the body of a spiritual person or a detailed view of energy centers and energy channels. One of my classmates in graduate school had been meditating at least six hours per day for several years. He said he could see all of the acupuncture meridians and acupoints as channels and vortices of energy. He saw the energy itself as moving dots of white light, and he said he could see the chakras as larger energy vortices. It’s common for intuitives who say they can see the aura to compare notes and see other persons similarly (Hunt, 1996), not unlike anyone with eyesight noticing similar physical characteristics of specific people who are tall, short, and so on.
Before my twenties, I’d had a few experiences to suggest such a thing as subtle energy but hadn’t thought of them that way. But that changed when I participated in an experiential exercise where dozens of us, working in pairs, were able to accurately know personality characteristics of people we had never met. A skeptic would suspect shills, people who are planted in the group to validate such perceptions; or they might reason that the questioner’s body language and facial expressions guided the respondent. We all performed both parts in the exercise, where one recorded the personality characteristics of someone they knew on an index card. The card was then placed under one of our chairs, and the other tried to intuit those characteristics, checking the card for feedback. Our intuitions were more detailed than could be easily hinted by the facial response to a simple question. After seeing my intuitions and those of most others confirmed, I felt this was the most important thing I could know about – that somehow I seemed to be able to perceive beyond the reach of my physical senses. This is an anecdotal experience, of course, not a controlled experiment, although carefully designed experiments of this sort have been conducted (Radin, 1997). I don’t discount personal experience outside of experimental conditions, believing it can provide valuable clues for further exploration.
Later I learned that one of the difficulties in recognizing subtle energy experiences is that of differentiating thought from perception. Thoughts are brief, dreamlike representations of experiences constructed from memories. One thought triggers another in a succession of such dreamlike images. Associations to the contents of each thought or to an external perception can set off more thoughts in very rapid succession. Through learning to quiet my thoughts in meditation, I became more able to observe that process and to recognize which inner images might be perceptions. But for those who don’t have that interest and haven’t tried to discern the difference between subtle perception and thought, the lack of any apparent personal experience understandably biases one toward skepticism about parapsychology, the study of subtle energy phenomena.
Another problem arises from measurement difficulties. This is because the effects of subtle energies aren’t detected directly through instrumentation but instead through their effects on phenomena that are measurable (signal effects), such as the pH of water (Tiller & Dibble, 2009) or galvanic skin response (Hunt, 1996). According to Tiller and Dibble (2009), when we are observing the effects of subtle energy, we are sensing a different kind of magnetic information-wave form of energy that we have not yet learned to detect directly, but which can become coupled with our usual physical reality. It is also possible that for some phenomena we are perceiving small amounts of measurable energies and have not discovered how to separate these from background noise.
The theoretical physics of subtle energies are explored in sophisticated fashion by researchers like William Tiller, a professor emeritus from Stanford University. Although further discussion is beyond the scope of this initial paper, I will take it up in Part 4 of this series of articles (see below). I simply want to indicate here that there are experiences, experiments and theories that support the existence of an aura or subtle body. A consideration of the possible energetic properties of that subtle body may help us better understand how subtle energy field effects are reflected in psychological experience.
Consider an example from the prologue to this series, where I portray the emotional effect some people seem to have on those around them.
You know someone who seems to suck the air out of the room and others who lift the spirits of everyone around them by their mere presence.
Such experiences may be triggered by sensory cues such as vision. But they could also indicate being affected by strong, subtle energies with an emotional coloring, or by both visual and subtle sensing. I’ve created a model that suggests how the subtle energetic aspects may work within and between us and will explore that model throughout this series.
Overview of the Model
As physical beings, I believe we are also energy beings. In addition to electrochemical brain activity stimulated by sensory perceptions, energy fields mediate psychological experience. These energy fields influence and are influenced by the known physical processes in our brains, bodies, personalities and social interactions. Energy fields can have properties of frequency, wavelength, polarity and resonance, and their effects can be combined.
Frequency. Major centers of subtle energy are vertically aligned along the spine. In India these are known as the chakras (“wheels” in Sanskrit) and by different names in other cultures (Dale, 2009). This vertical alignment locates chakras along a continuum of slower oscillations (vibrations) lower in the body and faster oscillations higher up. Slower oscillations create longer energy waves whose greater length holds more energetic charge. To get a sense of this, consider the metaphor of a jump rope. If the people at both ends lift it slowly enough, the weight of the entire rope rises at once. If they lift it more frequently, the rope is divided into a series of smaller undulations. Each such undulation is a wavelength that comprises only part of the total weight of the rope, corresponding to less charge for each wave. Conversely, the entire weight of the rope – the longer wavelength – is lifted by the slower oscillation.
How might wavelength correspond to intensity of human experience? I infer by the characteristics traditionally assigned to the chakras (see the next paper in this series for more on this) that psychologically we grow up the chakras. In other words, childhood mental development proceeds from the lower chakras upward. For instance, we first have strong, basic emotions. These characterize the earlier, more primitive behavioral scripts that are located lower in the body. Later behavioral milestones are successively arrayed higher up the body by their increasing vibrational frequency. This could explain why categories of experience are universally ascribed and subjectively experienced in vertical bodily zones, with passions in the gut, love and empathy in the heart, and thinking in the head. We may revisit those embodied templates of experience later in life when we face the challenges of adulthood or the intensity of personal growth and transformation. xxx
Polarity. When we begin to think, we think in terms of opposites, making yes/no choices that reflect attraction and aversion. Those yes/no choices remembered bias our perceptions of situations, influencing our satisfaction or discomfort. Our responses to these situations, our choices and their results, are remembered and thus become behavioral scripts. Energetically the yes/no choices may be encoded in energy fields as positive and negative poles. The existence of this polarity suggests how opposite choices may be separated in consciousness. And the attraction or repulsion of opposite (positive to negative) or similar poles may explain some experiences that elicit our attraction or resistance.
Resonance. When experiencing major life changes, our felt sense is more intense than usual. The unusually strong intensity of our experience and its emotional signature may resonate with and thus energetically reawaken the intense emotionality stored in early behavioral scripts. Such scripts otherwise may reside outside our awareness, because they are usually not activated. In other words, similar intensity of charge of a particular waveform – and each emotion may have a different energetic “shape” (Clynes, 1977) – may selectively activate memories with similar properties of intensity, frequency and waveform. Once activated, the behavioral scripts of our early development govern us by strong feelings and action tendencies that can over-ride patience and reason because the lower chakras carry greater energetic charge than higher ones and thus flood our awareness. This is when we become passionate in our attractions and aversions. We identify with our feelings, and if we feel threatened we may become emotionally defensive or activate emergency responses and freeze, fight or flee. The neurological mechanisms differentiating emergency responses from calmer thinking and choosing are increasingly known (van der Kolk, 2006). This model fully affirms that understanding and proposes a threshold effect that may also trigger such neurological responses energetically within the brain and throughout the body.
Integration. Through the crucible of relationships and the difficult choices of our lives, we can reconsider our passions and gain their cooperation, integrating thinking, feeling and action to build wisdom, or we can remain split and conflicted. With the courage to know ourselves, we can focus our thinking downward to acknowledge emotions and choose when to act on them. Gaining respect for the strong feeling responses of our innocent, early selves helps us achieve authenticity and personality integration. 2
Relational resonance. This process is not just internal. We also interact with others as energy beings when our subtle fields influence each other. We recognize this interaction in instinctive attractions and aversions and the infective quality of strong emotion. The neurology of such interactions is increasingly known here, as well. Employing our physical senses, we subliminally notice small, rapid changes in facial expression (Ekman, 2007), and some brain cells, known as mirror neurons, may automatically imitate what we observe externally, generating empathy (Rizzolati & Craighero, 2004). I believe we also sense energetic interactions. We see these intuitive, relational interactions in the attunement of intimate relationship, even at a distance. It is common, for instance, for close family members to sense that something significant has happened to one another far away, without physical knowledge. Some believe that such perceptions are more elegantly explained through quantum physics and its recognition of remote interaction and time freedom, instead of the “mere chance” ascribed by skeptics.
Implications. This model of subjectivity mapped by frequency and intensity may help us better understand our psychological selves. It suggests additional and complementary ways to observe the biological impact of psychological change than those already being studied in neuroscience, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans that show which areas of the brain are activated by various experiences. This model suggests that the brain is not just a wet computer in a box but instead that brain and body together are a transceiver of lived experience. It also implies that there is much wisdom to be gained through revisiting the subtle energy teachings of ancient healing traditions and letting them inform psychology, neuroscience, and parapsychology, which can refine that ancient wisdom as well.
The context of model building is especially important when attempting to conceptualize mysteries that were previously the subject of spiritual traditions and relate them to psychology. How do we know what we know? And on what basis can one suggest that there are “subtle” energies?
Do We Know These Energies Exist?
The term energy, itself, is defined as a quantity of work that can be done by a force. Researchers interested in subtle energy phenomena distinguish between types of energies that are measurable, (mechanical, thermal, chemical, electric, magnetic, gravitational, strong and weak nuclear forces) and subtle energies detectable through their signal effects on measurable phenomena. These are called “putative” energies (Dale, 2009; Wikipedia Contributors; 2010), or energies that are thought to exist. If these energies cannot be directly detected, what evidence do we have for their existence?
Earlier I noted that for thousands of years, intuitives and mystics from different cultures have described similar characteristics of bodily zones, suggesting an underlying reality. Many say they can detect these energies and the subtle centers through inner senses of feeling, vision and sound. Traditions that foster spiritual development through meditation and similar practices teach about siddhis (special powers) or gifts that emerge from doing these practices. Western culture has seen over 100 years of parapsychological research, where the scientific method has been applied to detecting these putative energies and related paranormal abilities, such as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition (Radin, 1997; Tart, 2009). And modern practitioners of some of these traditions are increasingly developing instrumentation to measure the signal effects of their practices on health via subtle energy systems (Motoyama, 1981).
I became interested in these phenomena because of the workshop experience described earlier and after encountering several spiritually accomplished teachers. I had enough apparently paranormal experiences to want to learn more and to put them in perspective. I came to agree with the teaching of eastern spirituality that overvaluation of siddhis is an obstacle to spiritual development. I am interested in these issues because I want to know more about the nature of the world in which we live and the ways we sense that world and are influenced by it. These personal experiences and my pursuit of understanding them better has led to an increasing interest in integrating personal experience and book knowledge. My aim is to better understand what appears to be an underlying subtle energy system that helps explain many psychological phenomena, making them easier to predict and helping me and others more objectively understand our inner struggles and achievements.
The First in a Series of Articles
This article is the first in a series where I will explore different aspects of the model as part of this ongoing quest, which extends my dissertation research (Seeman, 2001). My next installments will:
Part 2. Explore how human development encodes in the subtle body, whose energetic steering functions can serve as a foundation for health, fulfillment and spiritual maturity.
Part 3. Consider subtle bodies in relationship, how our energies affect each other. These explorations of individual development and relationship will serve as a foundation for looking at how psychological health or difficulties are reflected in the subtle energy substrate and have implications for healing.
Part 4. Look at how subtle energy may reflect states of psychological wellbeing or pathology.
Part 5. Will take up the scientific perspectives and controversies about this subject, considering alternative explanations that have been advanced (such as subliminal perception, personal bias or contextual analysis), reviewing experiments that seem to confirm subtle energies and a human biofield, and the necessary balance between skepticism and openness. I’ve written Part 5A to explore the research method for this series.
Part 6. Briefly survey the commonalities among religious traditions.
Part 7. Discuss the implications for self-knowledge, science and psychology.
Work in Progress
This is a work in progress. I invite readers with additional information or sources to contact me with your comments and suggestions. For the next article in this series, please select this link.
To schedule a first appointment please select this link. Although experienced with emergencies, that is not my practice focus. I work with people who can reliably cope, are not at risk or in crisis, do not have thoughts of self-harm, and are seeking to grow.
1. This beautiful chakra illustration by Pieter Weltevrede was downloaded from Wikipedia on 2/6/10 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siete_chakras.jpg . The artist is associated with www.sanatanansociety.org. “Sanatan” is the Sanskrit word for “eternal” and is used when describing the ancient wisdom teachings of Indian culture, Sanatana Dharma.
2. Some may achieve more than personality integration when their subtle bodies undergo changes to build an energetic substrate for spiritual transformation.
Brennan, B. (1988). Hands of light: A guide to healing through the human energy field. New York: Bantam Books.
Chandrasekharanand Saraswati, personal communication, October 2003, Knoxville, TN.
Clynes, M. (1977). Sentics: The touch of the emotions. New York: Anchor Books.
Dale, C. (2009). The subtle body: An encyclopedia of your energetic anatomy. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Energy. (2010, February 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:10, February 16, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Energy&oldid=342716737
Hunt, V. V. (1996). Infinite mind: Science of the human vibrations of consciousness. Malibu, CA: Malibu Publishing Company.
Jung, C. G. (1976). The Tavistock lectures: Lecture I. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The symbolic life: Miscellaneous writings (pp. 5 – 35). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1970)
Motoyama, H. (1981). Theories of the chakras: Bridge to higher consciousness. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Radin, D. I. (1997). The conscious universe: The scientific truth of psychic phenomena. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004), “The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192.
Seeman, G. (2001). Individuation and subtle body: A commentary on Jung’s Kundalini Seminar. Doctoral dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.
Tart, C. T. (2009). The end of materialism: How evidence of the paranormal is bringing science and spirit together. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. A copublication of New Harbinger Publications and Noetic Books.
Tiller, W., & Dibble, W. (2009). “White paper I: A brief introduction to intention-host device research.” The William A. Tiller Foundation. Downloaded 2/7/10 from: http://tillerfoundation.com/White%20Paper%20I.pdf
van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). “Clinical implications of neuroscience research on PTSD.” Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. xxxx: 1–17 (2006). C _ 2006 New York Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1196/annals.1364.022. Downloaded 2/7/10 from: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/NYASF.pdf