Philosopher Tim van Gelder argues that metaphors for the mind reflect popular technological paradigms. During the latter 20th century, computing metaphors dominate philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Functionalist explanations of the mental states mirror the binary logic of Alan Turing’s machines. Sigmund Freud’s analysis of subconscious influence on speech and action resembles the need to relieve excess pressure in a steam engine. While technological models assist in reasoning about more abstract phenomena, the phenomenon remains logically prior to the model. One should be careful when drawing conclusions from the framing metaphor since the metaphor need not conform perfectly to serve as an explanatory device.

Modern witchcraft and New Age lore often focus on an undefined “energy” that can be gathered, directed, and released in service of operational magic. Descriptions of energy work often recall the dynamics of electric current. For instance, excess energy requires “grounding” when a ritual is complete or else the discharge may be dangerous. Beyond these phenomenological descriptions, the energy remains undefined.

In Yoga traditions control over breathing assists with directing focus and developing meditative concentration. The word for breath, “prana,” indicates both the physical breath and a more subtle current that carries vitality through the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes a similar concept designated with the word for breath, “qi.” The similarity should be unsurprising since the Silk Road connects these traditions, and they compare well with New Age “energy” due to its appropriation from those cultures. These concepts reference an observable phenomenon to anchor imagination of a subtle phenomenon.

While metaphors are useful for making the abstract concrete, conclusions cannot reliably follow from the metaphor alone. Breath and electricity behave according to observable physical principles, but one cannot infer the behavior of a more subtle “energy” from the behavior of electricity. Imagining the breath as a flow of electric current can stabilize and focus awareness, but these metaphors describe an experience using imagery. They are not sensory descriptions of a magical power.

Setting aside the metaphors, all of these models do seem to refer to the same phenomenon. During meditation one can settle into a feeling of expanded awareness where the immediate sensory environment transforms into something “inside” the mind rather than “outside” the body. The expanded awareness can be focused on specific sensations to unpack the arising, presenting, and passing of sense experience. The flow of breath or electricity can be used to describe intentional direction and focus of the expanded awareness. Chaos magicians describe reaching a state like this one when directing intention toward a sigil, training one’s awareness to the sigil and the outcome it encodes.

While one should not rely on this technique to spin straw into gold, expanded awareness is foundational for the cultivation of mindfulness in both Buddhism and Yoga. Being able to release passing tensions and focus on the task at hand can make a mundane task soothing. Gathering resolve through expanded awareness shines light on habits we want to break. The metaphors should help us achieve the state of consciousness by giving us a mental map, a technique for cultivating it. They do not need to convey metaphysical or ontological facts about the world to serve this function, so inference from the model should be limited to practical application.