Reiki therapy is unquestionably one of the most popular of all contemporary New Age healing techniques. The Dublin Golden Pages alone, for example, feature more than a dozen centres offering the treatment. Over the past number of years I have received many enquiries concerning Reiki. What is it? How does it work? Is it merely a healing technique or does it have religious ramifications? Is it appropriate for a Christian to practise Reiki? Is it safe from the medical and psychological standpoints?
Reiki is a hands-on therapeutic practice of Japanese origin. It aims at physical and mental well being. The term itself means “Universal (rei) Life Energy (ki)”. This energy is believed to act within every living creature, and is considered to be a fundamental principle of the universe. When it flows normally in an individual it leads to the correct balance between body, mind and spirit.
Reiki was discovered by a Japanese healer Mikao Usui (1865 – 1926). Considerable exaggeration concerning Usui’s biodata is to be found in the abundant Reiki literature of recent decades. There are, for example, assertions that Usui studied at the University of Chicago; that he was Dean of a small Christian University in Japan; that he was Pastor in a Protestant church; that he was a Catholic priest. It is also claimed that he travelled to Tibet where he gained an understanding and mastery of the same healing powers that Jesus in his lifetime had learnt – also in Tibet! Some authors maintain that Reiki originated in Tibet several thousand years ago. In reality, Usui was never a Christian. Furthermore there is no record of his having attended the University of Chicago. A very brief sketch of his actual life and work is as follows.
Born in a small village in Japan, Usui frequented a tendai Buddhist school from his earliest years. Little is known about any further studies. He did however, travel in Europe and China and became a successful businessman. He also became involved in an esoteric group called Rei Jyutu Ka, which engaged in parapsychological and spiritualist practices. Following the collapse of his business in 1914, he turned to religion and did a twenty-one day meditation retreat on Mount Kurama. There he had an enlightenment experience, which was characterized by a powerful flow of healing energy. Subsequently he devoted his life to using this energy to heal others, first in Kyoto and then in Tokyo. There he founded his Society for the Usui Principal of Reiki Healing, within which he began the training of Reiki Masters to extend the practice of healing. At the time of his death in 1926 he had taught about 2000 students but had initiated only sixteen Masters. One of these was Chujiro Hayashi, who was to be a crucial link in bringing Reiki to the West.
Reiki was brought to the West in 1938 by Ms. Hawayo Takata (1900-1980), a Hawaian of Japanese origin and a pupil of Hayashi who invited her Master to come and teach Reiki in the United States. The practice spread slowly at first, but since the 1980s has been growing exponentially. It is estimated that over a million people worldwide receive regular Reiki treatments. One reason for the accelerated growth has been the fact that Reiki has become more accessible by being progressively adapted to western needs. Fewer demands are made on those who wish to become teachers. The movement (if it can be called such) has fragmented into thousands of different schools, often in competition with one another. While schools typically insist on an apprenticeship of one to two years, a few are known to have taken novice students to Master’s grade in a weekend. This quick initiation seems ill advised. Some who received it have spoken to me of how the process left them disturbed psychologically and spiritually. There are now more than two hundred thousand Reiki Masters in western countries, not all recognized by the others. Many are engaged in initiating still more Masters – so this chain reaction of growth looks set to continue. Meanwhile, back in Japan there has been no similar development in the original Society set up by Usui. There the explosion of interest in the West is viewed with scepticism.
With the multiplication of teachers and schools has come a wide diversity of approaches. Some combine Reiki techniques with a variety of spiritual philosophies: New Age, Hindu, Buddhist and very occasionally, Christian. Others ally Reiki therapy with esoteric practices such as: the use of crystals, dowsing, scents, pendulums, tarot cards, runes and oracles. There are those who use Reiki on animals and plants. At least one uses James Redfield’s book The Celestine Prophecy as part of her Reiki teaching.
A Reiki treatment involves the teacher’s placing his/her hands on different areas of the body of the person being treated. The client usually lies down during treatment. As the healer rests her hands on each part of the client’s body, the latter is encouraged to relax, thus allowing the healing energy to flow. Therapists believe themselves to act as energy channels between the persons being treated and God/Goddess, the Higher Self, the First Source or the Universe – the term used depends on the healer’s belief system. The areas on which the hands are laid usually include the chakras or psychic centres such as the lower abdomen; solar plexus; heart, throat and eye centres; and the crown of the head. The receiver usually becomes relaxed, or may experience strong sensations of heat at one of more of the centres and indeed throughout the body. This is understood to indicate a re-balancing of energies and healing. My own experience in receiving Reiki was as if my body were on fire. Afterwards I felt deeply relaxed. Reiki treatments can also be carried out on absent persons, who consent to it and are made aware that the distance treatment is to take place at a particular time. However, for any type of Reiki treatment to be effective, the recipient must be open to it. A “positive thinking” attitude can help here.
Reiki can also be practised on oneself. One sits or lies down and rests the palms of the hands for several minutes on different parts of one’s body. Holding the hands in position for some time is necessary in order to allow the energy to gradually build up and then flow in that part. Areas covered can include: front of the face over the eyes, top of head, side of head covering the ears, throat area, centre of chest, lower rib cage, centre of stomach (particularly good if suffering from indigestion), lower abdomen, knees, ankles and feet. I find this routine deeply relaxing. When I have difficulty sleeping, I practise it lying on my back in bed. Sleep comes easily and more deeply as a result. One can also concentrate on particular parts of the body that need healing. Having suffered from a bad knee for many years I looked up one Reiki text to see what might be beneficial for knees. It informed me that a Reiki therapist could use two standard positions to help promote healing in a patient’s knee. Alternately, the patient himself/herself can hold both hands round the knee. I have been using the self-help version at spare moments. It creates a warm, comfortable flowing sensation in the injured area and seems to ease inflammation. Good! I have also tried a number of other practices. One involves holding the palms of both hands together at the chest (heart centre), After a few minutes I notice a strong flow of warm energy at this centre. Here perhaps is a reason for looking again at the traditional “hands joined in prayer” posture.
Initiation as a Reiki teacher has traditionally been in two stages or “degrees”, usually referred to as Reiki One and Reiki Two. This initiation can be received only from a Reiki Master. A Master is someone who has been initiated into the highest degree of Reiki, also known as Reiki Three. The core of initiation consists of a series of “attunements” which involve a combination of hand movements, breath control and a form of energy management, which seems to be similar to yogic kundalini arousal. Closely associated with the attunements are the Reiki symbols, which the Master traces carefully on or near the aspirant’s body. The initiation ceremony is said to open up a channel for cosmic energy which is then transmitted to the aspirant, thereby empowering her in turn to act as a Reiki healer. In recent years some teachers have broken rank on the traditional secrecy surrounding the symbols and these are now in the public domain.
Traditional Reiki makes use of four symbols, designed to focus and direct the Reiki energy in specific ways. Three symbols are given to initiates at Reiki Two. The Cho-Ku-Rei symbol is designed to increase Reiki power. The Se-He-Ki is used for emotional healing, or to clear negative energy. Hon-Sha-Ze-Sho-Nen is intended to work on the conscious mind – for distance healing and for resolving karmic debt. These three symbols correspond respectively to body, emotions and mind. The fourth symbol, Dai-Ko-Myo, communicated at Reiki Three initiation, works at the level of spirit. With the multiplication of schools, further symbols have been added. The most important of these, Raku, is used by most teachers today to ground the receiver of Reiki energy.
The origins of the symbols are mysterious. For one Reiki author, Diane Stein, the Reiki symbols are “Sanskrit-derived Japanese forms, at least 2500 years old.” She connects them to spiritual traditions in India and Tibet, which use sacred diagrams known as mandalas and yantras. She also sees parallels between the five Reiki symbols and the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, ether – and a further correspondence with the five geometrical forms of square, circle, triangle, half-circle and cintamani or pearl shape. When these forms are erected in ascending order they constitute the design for the Buddhist pillar of elements. Such pillars are found all over the Buddhist countries of Asia, though their significance is not widely understood. Indian tantric yoga connects each of the five lower chakras with a specific mantra and geometric shape. A further yogic schema sees the human body virtually as a living pillar with the elements linked to five sections of the body from the feet to the crown of the head.
Over all the Reiki initiation resembles the transmission of occult power from guru to disciple within Hinduism. At the same time it has elements in common with newer Japanese religious movements. These include links to a Buddhist temple, three grades of initiation and the belief that divine energy can be transmitted or awakened by means of the laying on of hands.
While many people appear to have benefited significantly from Reiki healing, the metaphysics that is sometimes associated with it may not sit easily with Christian spirituality. The main difficulties are:
- Reincarnation: many Reiki textbooks abound in references to encounters with people who had exotic past lives, for example: Constantine, Mayan priests, women who were burnt as witches. One author, herself a former Anne Boleyn, had a Catholic priest client who was (she writes) Henry VIII in a previous incarnation. Reiki healers speak of dealing with karmic burdens and guilt complexes carried over from past lives.
- Pantheism: Mikao Usui maintained that the ki is divine. Some recent Reiki authors identify the ki with the Holy Spirit or with God. Others assert that everyone is God and that we are all part of one universal spirit rather than individual beings created by God.
- Spirit Guides: Communing with “spirit guides” is used by some teachers in their Reiki healing sessions. One author numbers Saints “Brede” and Teresa of Avila among her guides. Another received the names of hers, as well as some symbols, psychically from the Indian guru Sai Baba. The role of guides is crucial. In the words of Diane Stein: “The Reiki Spirit guides are a factor that manifests with Reiki 1, but for most people they first become conscious in the second degree of initiation. These are a group of discarnate (bodiless) healers that take part in every Reiki healing. The Reiki 1 practitioner is probably not aware of them but with Reiki 2 they begin to make themselves known. In Reiki 3 training they are running the whole show.” People thinking of availing of Reiki might be advised to ask a few questions of their practitioners, for example: do they use spirit guides? How can they know the identity of such guides? Do they see any conflict between using guides and being a Christian?
- Illness Self-inflicted: According to one Reiki author “nobody is condemned to any kind of illness unless he actually wants to be ill.” This extraordinary notion will be of little consolation to many thousands of seriously ill people – leaving them with a double burden: the illness itself and their responsibility for making themselves ill. It is a commonly held New Age view that the manner of rebirth and its consequences are a decision made by each person. This is quite different from the Hindu doctrine that reincarnation is shaped by the law of karma or past action.
- Simplistic Theology: Christian terminology such as “Christ” or “Christ energy” is coopted to express a non-Christian ideology. Reference is made to “initiation” through the “laying of hands” and the spirit “blowing” on us, but not with the traditional Christian understanding of these terms. Reiki is viewed by some of its advocates as a fire initiation, which updates or replaces the water initiation given through John the Baptist 2000 years ago.
- No right and wrong: In Reiki literature guilt is oftentimes seen as an illusion and morality guided by a thesis borrowed from Vedantic Hinduism: “there is no evil, only ignorance”.
Let me begin by inviting the reader to carry out a small experiment. Wearing loose comfortable clothing, sit or lie comfortably, preferably after removing footwear, watch and glasses. Rub the palms of both hands together to warm them and then place them on some part of your body. If you are suffering from an injury or disease, then the affected part is a particularly suitable target for this exercise. Rest the palms on the area chosen, relax and wait for several minutes… Did you notice a relaxing, warm, flowing, tingling or pulsing sensation in that part of your body? If you did, then you were experiencing the “universal life energy”. No initiation, no secret symbols, no esoteric New Age doctrine – just a purely natural gift, readily available to all and certainly not to be identified with God. I can see no fundamental difference between the energy thus experienced and what is widely referred to as “Reiki energy”. However, a formal Reiki treatment will almost certainly enhance the flow of energy. I would have a concern however. In receiving Reiki as currently on offer, one may with some teachers be getting more than one bargained for in terms of psychological conditioning and spiritual orientation. There may well be an agenda, hidden not only from the receiver, but also from the healer. One might well ask: why is this simple natural and wonderfully effective method of healing not widely offered without the initiation, the symbols and some esoteric spirituality or other? Or why cannot the healing be offered in spiritual contexts that harmonize better with the religious (including Christian) tradition of the client? Happily this is starting to happen. A growing number of Reiki healers and teachers are now offering the therapy in a spiritually neutral way.
In considering the relationship between Reiki and Christianity (as indeed between many contemporary therapies and Christianity) there tends to be two polar opposite positions. One holds that Reiki is simply wonderful and ought to be embraced enthusiastically and without qualification by all. The opposing position is that Reiki is an occult, even Satanic spiritual practice, with an ideology that is irreconcilable with Christian theology – to be avoided at all costs. Both of these positions demand little mental effort. The truth is more complex. Even at the level of ideology there are elements in Reiki that are quite in harmony with the Gospel, for example: The Five Spiritual Principles: “Just for today I will let go of anger, … of worry; I will count my many blessings; I will do my work honestly; I will be kind to every living creature.” However, it is the healing techniques that need to be focused on. Reiki healing is immensely popular and now has a big clientele in Ireland as elsewhere. For many people the benefits are so self-evident that for the Church to condemn the practice out of hand would merely invite ridicule. Besides, do we, as Christians really want to discount the natural healing energy that is part of creation and is God’s gift to us?
The practical techniques of Reiki and the ideology surrounding them need careful on-going assessment. This will mean facilitating mature Christians in a process of experimentation so that the experience can be discerned from within and not just analysed objectively from the outside – though that too is important. In addition, Reiki practitioners who are believing Christians might be invited to deepen their knowledge and experience of Christian spirituality and theology. There is also a need for research into the effects – whether physiological, psychological or spiritual – of Reiki initiation and practice on people who have been doing it intensively over a number of years.