What is Energywork?
(And what can it do for you?)
Energywork and it’s sub-disciplines make up a controversial but old branch of the healing arts. As a contemporary system, it’s collectively poorly defined, and as such it goes under many guises and names. Like all things we have yet to clearly define and put into a presently accepted cultural context, opinions abound: such work is to be feared or it’s to be explored, it’s new age bullshit or it’s our greatest work.
Concerning our ability to interface with “energy,” perspectives often reflect an individual’s current level of enculturation, dogma around organized systems (ie: science, religion, or both), and perception of human potential (or limitation, as the case may be). Yet, interfacing with energy is an experience we all have and often report. We say a place has “good vibes,” we say that dude gave us the “creeps.” We all feel it in small moments: the calm sense of stillness upon waking up in a sunny room, the phone call from home just after we’ve thought of mom. We also feel it in collective cultural moments we can’t seem to avoid: the frenzy of an election cycle, the breakneck speed of the winter holidays.
For better or for worse, at this moment, energywork is inextricably associated (by turns) with new age ideology, ancient or eastern esotericism, and other forms of mystical or spiritual engagement. These connotation-rich fields of knowledge make the idea of energy or energywork unapproachable for many: particularly those of us who 1) have been hurt by dogma, 2) have little comfort or exposure/access to the philosophical and spiritual aspects experience, and 3) have yet to explore the expanse of our minds and bodies. Not to mention inward forms of growth are not very “vogue” in a world largely focused on externalization and materialism.
And there’s the plot twist! Externalization is good and fun, but it is only one half of the whole. We cannot get “there” simply by going outward, by acquiring things. Because those things we’re all looking for aren’t just or maybe ever “things” in the material sense. They’re abilities, competencies. So we must go inward as well. We must internalize too.
If we follow the thread of mindfulness energywork offers, the indelible outcome is greater engagement in the subtler, more internal aspects of experiental control or response patterning. Greater moment-by-moment fluidity brings balance to all our external endeavours. It brings a refinement and an artistry to everyday living.
Think of it this way: the more you know about the parts of your car and how to keep those parts in good repair, the more ownership and ability you have to keep that car going. The more you know about how your car functions, what systems manipulate its output, the more ownership and ability you have to direct the car’s present and future use. The more you drive the car, and get to know the feel of it, the better it performs.
Likewise, as you become aware of and learn to use the deeper mechanisms for control in your mind and body, you naturally gain more mastery over your experience, within and without. Put another way, as you become more aware, you gain more tools for your problem-solving toolbox. These tools come in handy when you need to contextualize, fix, or create something in your experience. To people who don’t even know there are tools to be used, it looks like magic: an easy and effortless manifestation of desire. But this “magic” is in no way easy or effortless, it takes training and work to discover the tools and learn to use them.
I define energywork as therapist assisted harnessing and directing of the inner conscious experience in an individual’s body and mind. I define “energy” as the collected potential of the nonphysical, nonsensory components of our experience: our thoughts, our belief systems, our creative visions, and our feelings. In this regard, what physical therapy and personal training are to movement in the physical body, energywork is to mindfulness in the mental body. It’s a system for teaching the whole and healthful utilization of your facilities. Above all, energywork is about learning to focus or direct your mind. It’s about cultivating mind-strength.
When we look at a heavy box, we may think, “I am not strong enough to lift that without hurting myself, but I want or need to be able to lift that box!” With support, with guidance, with time, we can learn the prerequisite movements that get us there. (And if we’re committed we eventually ramp up our strength until we can lift boxes twice as heavy as the first!)
It is the same with energywork or mental training. Everyone is capable of heavy mental lifting! It only requires interest, attention, and commitment. The gifts that follow from a dedicated mental workout regimen are not secrets, but they are highly unique to each recipient. What is common among practitioners and recipients of energywork is this: training the brain allows you greater ease and less pain in life both mentally and physically (just as physical exercise does).
In energywork sessions, a therapist places hands on or near your body. These points of contact serve as a point of focus for you to center around while you experience the natural drift of your internal monologue or consciousness. Because of the therapist, you can do this without fear of “getting lost” or being alone. The therapist “holds the space” for you to explore, and emanates a secure, grounded, and calm atmosphere for you to reference should you become confused. They show you the target form, just as a personal trainer might demo an exercise. Sensitive practitioners can help ease you into comfort by indicating sensations that both recipient and practitioner are feeling or focusing your attention on specific areas of the body. For those who have practiced yoga, this can be likened to the practice of teachers providing adjustments or additional cues to get you further into the posture.
As in massage therapy, where over the course of sessions you learn to feel your body and how it is connected, in energywork, the therapist’s goal may be to teach you to feel your energy and how it integrates into your experience. In other sessions, the practice is to openly accept the calming influence and healing intentions the therapist is directing: simple, unconditional love and support from a fellow human. How often are you able to completely relax, trust, be still and silent with another human being? It’s a deeply rewarding experience for both practitioner and recipient to be vulnerable and safe in a predator-prey world, even if only for an hour. In this way, energywork becomes a lesson in advanced being-togetherness, an art well worth mastering.
In all energywork sessions you will likely find yourself able to expand outside of your normal states of consciousness. (Many times, early in energywork, recipients fall asleep, as sleep is the secondary conscious state we’re most accustomed to.) Changing your mind’s posture is as important as changing your body’s posture. We all know how tired and stuck our body feels when we sit for hours on end, whether at work, traveling, or even recovering from injury. But subsequent movement, even if uncomfortably sensational at first, frees up room in our bodies. The stretching of hips and relieving of pressure in the back. The tingle of nerves firing more fully. It feels good.
Some people’s conscious perspectives haven't changed in years, and like a body that’s been stuck in the same position, the mind will get stuck in a view point. Just as we’re meant to move our bodies in every direction and use our full range of motion, our minds need the opportunity to contract and expand, to flex and extend into altered states of experience from time to time.
Alternative perspective paves the way for understanding (via comparison) and the accompanying senses of safety and freedom allow the body and mind to rest and therefore heal. Altered states of consciousness allow many to learn and remember better, to process emotional rifts more easily, and to integrate experience purposefully. They give us a more complete picture of experience.
But it can be scary to be alone with your thoughts. We often resist this state actively by numbing ourselves with toys and technology. I believe this is not due to the contents of our thoughts themselves (though sometimes…), but because there is such a volume of thought. Additionally, the movement of thoughts is at first very disorienting. Our minds are startling and our senses capture way more information than we can consciously process! It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
With the support of someone who knows a map of the terrain, someone who has been there, someone who can answer questions about experiences and clarify sensations, the process becomes easier. When we still our bodies and find distance from our thoughts, we see the depth of our joy and our pain. Again, this can be overwhelming, and this is why energyworkers exist: to provide support as we wade into the rhythm of our thoughts and body patterns.
It’s important to note that healing that occurs during energywork is your healing: generated by you and for you. Therapists trained in energywork are simply tour guides and assistants. The lessons you take away are yours and yours alone. The sensations you feel physically or mentally during sessions are yours and yours alone. The dreams you may have or images you “see” are as meaningful or meaningless as you choose. You may share session insights or you may keep them to yourself. All is acceptable.
To even begin to consider this practice as a serious and useful tool requires a certain flexibility in mind and bravery in spirit. A nimble mind opened to creative possibility gives you the opportunity to see outside and challenge the many standard narratives we live by. In their place, you begin to create your own narrative. Like learning to ride a bicycle, as you become more proficient, more steady, you’ll go further and further on your own adventures. This may all sound very irrational to some - because it isn’t rational thinking. It’s conceptual thinking. It’s a larger, different overview.
If you have ever wondered if there is more to experience, energywork is one of many paths that can show you unexplored vistas. It is an opportunity to strengthen your ability to focus and execute procedures. It shows you what your mind can do and expands your ability to “be.” Aristotle wrote "the energy of the mind, is the essence of life." I encourage you to find out if that's true for you.