The Mind-Body Problem - The Ways of the Life Force - The Foundations of Druid Magic

The Druid Magic Handbook: Ritual Magic Rooted in the Living Earth - John Michael Greer 2008

The Mind-Body Problem
The Ways of the Life Force
The Foundations of Druid Magic

For the past four hundred years, one of the major intellectual puzzles in the Western world has been what philosophers call “the mind-body problem.” Like most of the really tough conundrums of philosophy, the problem can be stated simply enough. In Western cultures, most people experience themselves as two very different things—a material body, on the one hand, and an apparently nonmaterial mind, self, personality, or soul on the other. The problem is how to explain the connection between them.

Theories about the relationship between mind and body nearly all fall into two camps. The first approach, called dualism, claims that there are two completely separate realms of existence, one mental, one material, that somehow come into contact inside each human being and nowhere else in the cosmos. The other, called reductionism, claims that only one of them is real, and then finds some way to explain away the other.

Arguments over the mind-body problem have swung like a pendulum from dualist to reductionist viewpoints and back again. Nowadays reductionist approaches are in vogue, and most scientists and many laypeople accept the reductionist claim that mind is a side effect of the physical body's nervous system. This latter notion is quite often presented these days as simple common sense. Like most things labeled “common sense,” however, it relies on a whole series of assumptions that may not bear close examination.

The pendulum keeps swinging because dualism and reductionism both have serious problems. Entire books have been written about these problems, and since they don't bear directly on the subject of magic, they can be left to students of the history of ideas. What makes the wild swings of this intellectual pendulum relevant here is that they started abruptly with the birth of materialist science in the seventeenth century.

Before then, people understood the relationship between mind and body in a very different way. They experienced themselves as three things, not two. A third factor—the life force—existed between mind and body and linked them together. In the magical traditions of the Renaissance, this force was called “spirit,” from the Latin word spiritus, “breath.” To this older way of thinking, spirit is the source of life, energy, and vitality, enlivening the dense matter of the body and connecting it with the mind. In the Renaissance view, spirit surrounds and penetrates all material things, uniting them and weaving the universe into a whole.

If this description sounds like something from a very famous movie, there's good reason for that. George Lucas borrowed the concept of “the Force,” the power used by the Jedi Knights of his Star Wars movies, from teachings about the life force in the Japanese martial arts, where it is called ki and has exactly the same properties Renaissance mages assigned to spirit.

The Druid name for the life force is nwyfre (pronounced “NOO-iv-ruh”). Nearly every other language on Earth has a word for it, too. The only languages that don't are the ones spoken in the industrial nations of the modern West.

The banishing of the life force from the worldview of industrial society is no accident. The founders of modern materialist science fought hard to keep their newborn ideology free of any trace of the life force, and you can still reduce most scientists to spluttering indignation by mentioning it. Anything that strays too close to vitalism, as modern philosophers call the idea of a life force, comes in for unrelenting criticism. A great part of the prejudice against alternative healing arts in the modern Western world comes from the fact that most of them, unlike the current medical mainstream, treat the life force as a reality and use it to heal.

Thus there's a deep irony in the past four centuries of debate over the mind-body problem. The relationship between mind and body poses no problem at all outside the modern industrial worldview, because anywhere people recognize the existence of the life force, its role in connecting mind and body is obvious. The relationship only became a problem in the Western world when materialist science threw out the connecting link. It's as though the first modern scientists decided that their chests didn't exist, and then spent four centuries arguing about what could possibly connect their heads with their bellies.

Table 1-1 Some Names for the Life Force


What makes this all the more fascinating is that the life force is not just a theory or a belief. It's something we experience in the same way that we experience our minds and bodies. Outside the industrial West, the life force is just as much a part of life as bodies and minds are. In modern Japan, for example, people still talk about the state of their ki on an everyday basis. The word for courage in Japanese is yuki, literally “active ki”; depression is fukeiki, “sluggish ki”; a strong personality is described by the words kisho ga tsuyoi, “the quality of his ki is strong”; and illness is byoki, “disturbed ki.” The same sort of talk was every bit as common in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and it's just as common in most other traditional societies.

This same way of experiencing the world also has intensely practical consequences. Asian martial arts, for example, treat the life force as an essential factor and use special training methods to strengthen and direct it. When a martial artist breaks a pine board with a punch or shatters a stack of bricks with a palm strike, the life force flowing into the striking hand does the job. A way of looking at the world that enables flesh and bone to shatter wood and brick is clearly something more than a primitive superstition.

People who experience the life force as an everyday reality have no special “sixth sense” lacking in those of us who live in industrial societies. We dwell in the same world and have the same potentials for awareness that they do. The difference is that their vision of reality makes room for the life force, and ours does not. Children in traditional societies learn to pay attention to the life force in themselves and the world because the people around them notice it, talk about it, and treat it as a reality. Children in industrial societies learn not to pay attention to it in exactly the same way. Even so, when people in the modern industrial world talk about gut feelings and hunches, or the “vibes” or “feel” of a person or a place, most of the time they are talking about their own perceptions of flow and pattern in the life force.

The life force is close enough to the surface of awareness that various simple exercises can make most people conscious of it in a few minutes. Here is an example. Read through the following paragraph, and then do the exercise before you read any further.

Start by standing comfortably with your feet parallel or a little toed out, your heels a foot or so apart, and your knees slightly bent. Let your hands hang at your sides, and shake them for a full minute, making them as loose and floppy as possible. Then rub them together for another full minute, keeping them relaxed as you rub. Then hold them in front of you, palms facing one another, as if you were holding a basketball in front of your chest. Breathe slowly and deeply, keep your hands and arms relaxed, and concentrate on your palms. After a full minute of this, begin moving your hands toward and away from each other a short distance, no more than an inch. This is the final step. Keep doing it for a little while, and see what you notice.

What did you experience? Most people, when they do the exercise the first time, as they move their hands back and forth, feel a gentle pressure against their palms, as though their hands were magnets repelling each other. The longer the back-and-forth motion continues, the stronger the sensation of pressure becomes, and if you do the same exercise daily for a week or more, the sensation becomes as firm as if you held a physical object between your palms.

What you feel pressing against your hands, according to the magical view of the world, is the field of life force between energy centers in your palms. Shaking, rubbing, and relaxation, the basis of the exercise, release muscular tensions that block the flow of life force through your body, so that the fields around your hands become strong enough that you notice them. Those fields are always there, whether you notice them or not, and so are similar fields that radiate out from other centers in your body, filling a roughly egg-shaped space that extends a few feet out from you in all directions. Every living thing has a similar field, and so do many of the things people in the industrial world consider nonliving.

As the bridge between mind and matter, the life force can be influenced in many ways using mind, matter, or the two in combination. The exercise you just performed uses body movements to shape the flow of nwyfre. This is a traditional and powerful way of working with the life force. Martial arts and Eastern systems of spiritual practice such as yoga and qigong rely on this and also on breathing exercises, another classic method. Other spiritual and magical systems rely on physical substances that concentrate certain qualities in nwyfre, or on a knowledge of the times and places where nwyfre flows most strongly.

Ritual magic approaches the life force from a different way—the way of imagination. This is another aspect of reality that has come in for more than its fair share of neglect by modern thinkers; to call something “imaginary” nowadays, after all, is to say that it's unreal. Yet imagination is a potent reality.

Imagination, in fact, is the human mind's way of experiencing patterns in the life force. When you imagine something, that image takes shape in the life force around you. The more powerfully you imagine it, the more strongly the image shapes the life force. This equation works the other way as well. When an unexpected thought or feeling drifts into your mind, most of the time what has happened is that you picked up a pattern in the life force created by some other mind. The movement of patterns in life force from mind to mind explains most psychic phenomena, as well as less controversial experiences such as the spread of fads and fashions and the behavior of crowds. It also explains the workings of ritual magic.

You can begin to see how this works by repeating the same exercise you just did with a slight difference. When you move your hands to face each other, imagine that an actual ball appears between your palms. See it, but also imagine the feeling of it pressing against your palms, and notice the texture of the ball's surface. Concentrate on the imaginary ball as intensely as you can for a full minute, and then start moving your hands toward and away from each other slightly, as before. Do this now, before you read any further.

What did you experience when you started moving your hands back and forth? Most people find that the sensation of pressure becomes much more intense once mental imagery comes into play. If you do the same exercise daily for a week or more with the mental imagery, and then try just imagining the ball without any of the preliminary movements, you'll find that you can sense the fields of life force as soon as you bring your hands together.

This simple process contains the art of ritual magic in miniature. Visualizing the ball and bringing your hands together is a simple ritual. The more you practice it, the more readily the life force responds to it, and magical results follow.