Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Taking on Energy

One of our instructors at massage school gave out a short piece she'd written about how not to take on negative energy. I don't have it to hand, but among its suggestions as I remember them was a ritual hand-washing, and saying aloud "I will not take on anything that is not mine." It's not the first time I've met this view. The idea is that someone who works with energy, as bodyworkers inevitable do, whether they do energy work or not, are peculiarly vulnerable to being swamped with the negative energy -- the anger, resentment, or despair -- of their clients. And the solution is to affirm the boundary between us and them, and refuse to allow their energy entry.

I disagreed with this violently. To be ask a Mahayana Buddhist to reject someone else's energy is rather like asking a Fundamentalist to worship the Devil. One of my Buddhist teachers once told me that there is only one way to really break the Bodhisattva vow -- the vow to work in the suffering world until all beings are enlightened, which is really the heart of the Mahayana -- and that is to give up on someone, to deny our connection to him or her. And that is precisely what this little piece was advising us to do.

Now, the risk she's addressing is real. Absorbing negative energy is dangerous. I don't think it's more dangerous to energy workers than to anyone else, but energy workers are bound to be particularly aware of it, and need to be particularly skillful in dealing with it. So what should be done?

To answer that requires a little more precision than we usually use in talking about energy. What do we actually mean by "negative energy," and what happens when we "take it on?"

In a misguided attempt to please people who pride themselves on rationalism, we have tended to talk about "energy" as if it were a kind of electricity, or something like heat: and we have gotten tangled up in our own metaphors. Electricity and heat are actually tranferrable. They can leave one place and go to another. The process of warming up one thing cools off another -- the warmth going into the ice cubes actually leaves the lemonade; that's why the lemonade gets cooler, and why the ice cubes melt. The ice cubes are taking on the lemonade's thermal energy, in a quite concrete and measurable fashion.

But this is not what happens when I take on negative energy from a client. And there's no need to get abstruse and mystical about it, here; we can take commonplace examples. When someone gets angry at me, and I "take it on" -- get angry back -- their anger does not ordinarily go away. It hasn't left them in order to enter me; ordinarily it escalates in both of us. Likewise, if someone is expressing their despair and hopelessness to me, and I become despairing and hopeless too, that doesn't ordinarily cheer them up. Ordinarily it makes them even more depressed. So negative energy is not exactly transferrable, like heat. It's more contagious, like a disease.

Now, what is the medium of the contagion? How does it spread? It spreads by perception. As soon as I perceive it, I resonate with it.

Here's the heart of the problem. As an energy worker -- or as a compassionate human being, for that matter -- I have to resonate with it. I can't just avoid it, because to work with it, I have to perceive it. And once I've perceived it, it's too late. The transfer, or the contagion, is already done. It's not their energy anymore; it's mine. I can try to reject it, sure. But any experienced meditator knows that attempting to reject an experience is actually a way of holding on to it. The harder I try to make it go away, the more stubbornly it will stay.

Stating the problem this way makes its solution obvious. We already know, as a meditators, how to deal with "negative energy." We just let it come, and let it go. It doesn't matter whose energy it is. And after all, wherever did this idea of energy belonging to people, of its being mine or yours, come from? Energy isn't monogrammed. It's no more mine or yours than the sky is mine or yours. The problem is not that we might pick up foreign, alien energy. The problem is the same problem we have, every day, with everything: we clutch at our experience or we try to escape it. If the problem were that the energy is not ours, then we ought to view alien joy or contentment with just as much apprehension; but somehow you don't see people ritually washing their hands of other people's joy and contentment and worrying about it invading their soul.

Milarepa found that the only way to get rid of the demons infesting his cave was to welcome them, and invite them to stay as long as they liked. The only way to avoid taking on negative energy is to welcome it. It's just passing through. We need not, and we must not, try to shove it out the door.

The sort of rituals my instructor proposed can still be useful. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that we are resonating with negativity and need to release it, and there's nothing wrong with using a ritual and reciting a formula to do so -- they're age-old and effective techniques: I imagine that healing traditions of all stripes use something of the sort. But an affirmation of our impermeable, inviolable self, and a rejection of other people, is the last thing we need to include in them.

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