Coloured portrait

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Reiki: Are Skeptics Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater?

Reiki: Are Skeptics Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater?

Studying the AQAL Integral map for the evolution of consciousness has been the most sobering reality check that I have ever encountered, causing me to question and re-assess everything that I knew to be true, and moreover, everything I teach in my classes.

One of the aspects learned is the subjective and objective lens to reality. Individual subjectivity is what makes our human interiors: the world of sensations, feelings, emotions, drives, impulses, urges, values, concepts and various states of being. The subject “I” can only be known from these interiors, and even though subjectivity is real, it cannot be proven, quantified, measured or observed.

That which can be observed, measured and quantified is objective reality, the ‘it’. Subjectivity and objectivity are correlated: they co-arise simultaneously, the subjective ‘Why’ (motive) and the objective ‘What’ (behaviour). Being and doing happen simultaneously. There is no causality, but correlation.

I have been practicing healing arts, and teaching Reiki, meditation and self awareness for fifteen years now, and my subjective, interior life has been extraordinarily enriched by my practice. Reiki, contemplation, and embodied mindfulness are practices which address the subjectivity of the individual practicing it. If you have a direct experience with such practices, you may have noticed a variety of changes and responses to these practices in your interiors - perhaps fluctuation in your body temperature, or pulsation and flow in your hands and feet, or a sense of emotional peace and calm, an increase in self confidence, a sense of joy, greater mental clarity, or inspired creativity, or a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that you lack words for.

And we do look for words to describe the suchness of our interior experience, to connect with others, and be witnessed, or to make sense of it, or to communicate it and ‘share the love’. This, verbal communication, is when healers get into trouble – trying to map uncharted territories and explain the correlated objectivity of their subjective experience with inappropriate validity claims. Objectivity is the domain of science: it is science’s business to measure, count, weigh and observe; any objectivity claim that isn’t measurable and observable by science, is wrong. Many talented healers, including myself, are and have been scoffed at because of their clumsy attempts to communicate their trade, explaining the subjectivity of their, and their clients’ experience through concepts that don’t stand up to scientific testing, resulting in the discrediting and dismissal of their work. When altered states of consciousness are interpreted by an individual with magical or mythical worldviews, their interpretation of those states may look like visitations of unicorns and flying fairies. Interpretation is function of stage of development, level of awakening, personality, gender, culture etc, and unless it is proven (somebody takes pictures of that unicorn), it is just an interpretation – aesthetically pleasing, pleasurable and attractive, but not more real from an objectivity point of view than Santa Claus and his reindeer.

When I teach the first level of Reiki to a group of students, I precede the attunement ceremony with a  guided meditation where I introduce them to a mysterious benevolent figure, without giving a shape, face or a name to that being. After the ceremony, students take turn in sharing their experience with the meditation, and it turns out that the mysterious being they meet is someone else for each one of them. Christian students often see a Jesus Christ like figure, with long hair, a bead and white robes. Jewish students often see a deceased loved one, such as a grandmother or a departed parent. Hindu students see Hindu gods – one particular student, DP, kept seeing the same Hindu god sitting on my shoulder throughout her entire training, from level I to Reiki Master. Students who meditate and don’t affiliate with a certain religion often have the vision of a bright light with no face or name to it.

This caused me to become mindful of what I teach my students that Reiki is and does. If Reiki is a transmission which facilitates altered states of consciousness that look, sound and feel differently for each student, how ridiculous it would be if, based on their, or their students’ visualisations, the teachers claimed that Reiki were a method to connect with Jesus Christ, or with your deceased Granny, or specifically with Lakshmi! And yet, most of the healing arts teachings are constructed upon some individual or group’s interpretation and belief, causing valuable transmissions and inspired methods to be missed, obstructed by faulty maps which make the laughing stock of skeptics.

This situation is a lose-lose for all: healing arts fail to gain mainstream approval, separating healers from clients who would greatly benefit from their service. Science fails to explore a rich field of personal well-being and transformation, lacking the vision, the courage and the funds to chart new territory and conduct research with healing arts.

My advice to my fellow healers: when you speak or write about your trade, communicate that which you observe: what you see, hear, and feel that takes place with yourself and your clients, and avoid objectivity claims that cannot be measured by science.

As an example: the Reiki student learns about chakras, the energy centers referred to by healers, shamans and practitioners of martial arts and Qi Gong. Science hasn’t measured or observed chakras, and even though a few sensitive men and women can see them, unless chakras are seen by a majority of individuals, or at least measured by instruments, their existence will be denied. In my Reiki classes, I introduce the students to embodied awareness where they practice noticing breath, posture, and sensations. After the attunement ceremony, when the palms of their hands become sensitive and perceptive, the students practice ‘scanning’ each other with their hands, and, with their eyes closed, they are able to feel and locate each other’s chakras.
One interesting fact that I noticed is that whenever I think, speak or write something inspired by a deep wisdom within myself, I have warm, vibrating sensations between my eyebrows, and a reddish spot appears exactly where the Third Eye chakra is said to be. I can’t demonstrate scientifically that the Third Eye chakra exists, is real and activated, so saying anything about it might get me into trouble. But I can demonstrate the red spot appearing on my forehead consistently, and that’s what is safe to communicate.

I advise the same caution in regards with the health and well being effects of the healing arts: we are healers and not prophets, so don’t make promises or assumptions about future outcomes of your healing work. I noticed many times acute pain disappearing only after one or two sessions of Reiki, and at the same time, I will not promise or claim that this is a consistent, expected outcome of my trade. I will speak about what I have noticed so far, and by extrapolation I point towards a possibility, and not prescience.
Some say that spiritual healing is just placebo, and I have no way to prove that it’s not. On one hand, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; on the other hand it is safer to use a language that agrees with the current state of scientific testing in our field, if our field is to avoid ridicule, and gain mainstream acceptance.

Reiki is known and taught as a type of spiritual healing, with the life force energy ‘Ki’ being guided by ‘Rei’, the Japanese word for Spirit. While there is consensus for this to be true within the world of healers, for as long as there is no objective evidence of either Ki or Spirit, I’ll play it safe by calling my art a ‘laying on of hands’, which no-one, no hard science skeptic, can argue with. 


  1. As a skeptic, I like this article. If I ever try to learn Reiki, which I hope to eventually, I'd want to learn it from a teacher who hasn't fallen for the "mythology" that usually seems to be associated with Reiki.

    Although I'm personally very open to the existence of "energy" and chakras, I remain somewhat skeptical without solid evidence. I can think of a few ways to scientifically provide evidence for some or Reiki's claims. Here's one experiment that I think would be enlightening:

    1 - Have a blind-folded reiki practitioner stand with her arms held out in front of her, palms down.
    2 - Set up a series of 40 hospital-style beds on wheels. Some of the beds would have people in them, and some would not.
    3 - Roll each bed one at a time under the reiki practitioner's hands and stop the bed there.
    4 - When each bed is under her hands, ask the reiki pactitioner to state whether someone is in the bed (she's blindfolded, but should be able to feel the energy & chakras of the person if there is really someone there)

    If the reiki practitioner can really feel chakras & energy, then she should get all 40 beds correct. If my math is correct, there's about a 1 in a trillion chance that she'd get them all correct if she were just guessing. So if she did get them all right, that would be pretty convincing.

    If a reiki practitioner can really do this, it might worth applying to

    1. Thanks for your comment, Justin.

      There actually is some research done with both healing arts, and with psychic abilities, with private, therefore low funds and means, and not well publicized in the mainstream literature, look up Gary Schwarts, Daniel J. Benor and Jim Oschman.

      I do conduct small experiments during my classes, and often during my speaking engagements, experiments appealing to the individual's subjective experience - sensory perception. A healing arts teacher in our town has also conducted tests where the results are measured (counting specific bacteria before and after treating the water sample with a type of healing art, and the results are impressive (a decrease in the count after hands on healing applied to the water).

    2. Thanks for the names - I'll look those up!

      I'm very open, but remain not thoroughly convinced until I've either analyzed an experiment myself and/or the results have been reproduced by scientists worldwide using double-blind methods or whatever is needed to make the results undoubtable... and there's a consensus among the scientific community.

      About the healer who did tests measuring bacteria, for example, I can't help wondering about the details of how the experiment was done.... here's how I'd set it up:
      For statistical significance I'd have an unbiased person (not the healer) prepare 40 samples of water labeled 1, 2, 3, etc. Have the healer do his healing over half of them (chosen at random by different person). Later, have a third person who has no idea which samples had been "healed" measure and document the bacteria in each sample. I'd also make sure that the healer was unable to touch the water or their containers in such a way that any bacteria or anything else from his hands could come into contact with the water. If the healer's abilities are real, then all 20 samples of water that he had healed should show a significant decrease in bacteria which was not seen in any of the other samples. There are probably a few other conditions that should be set up, but I'm sure you get the idea... a real valid scientific experiment :) And one that other scientists could reproduce and validate. In the absence of a real scientific experiment, there could be so many alternate explanations of the results. I wonder how "scientific" this healer's actual method was.

      I'm not claiming that the experiment was not valid or that the healer didn't actually affect the bacteria ... just that I personally need solid evidence to be convinced - evidence which I hope I'll find someday :)

    3. Interesting - I see in the Wikipedia article about Gary Schwartz that he declined to participate in the James Randi challenge that I mentioned in my first comment.

    4. Hi Justin,

      My objective, scientific exploration of Reiki, and generally, the healing arts, is minimal, as I prefer approaching it as an artist, subjectively, which is why I am glad that my trade is appropriately called 'healing arts' and not 'healing sciences'.

      The results of my work with clients and students are also regarded through a subjective lens: changes in body felt sensations, levels of pain, levels of stress, sense of confidence, inspiration for creativity, changes in the quality of thoughts etc.

      Both my clients and I are also able to observe objective changes correlated with the subjective ones, which include measurable modification in biological symptoms, behavior modification, changing of habits, communicating more effectively, making more wholesome personal choices and making more courageous choices professionally.

      Because I integrate healing arts with coaching and teaching soft skills (such as embodied self awareness, communication, embodied listening, self management and leadership) it is difficult to say which component of my work exactly led to which subjective and objective changes. I sometimes perform small tests, such as tasting a glass of water charged with Reiki and comparing its taste and texture to regular, 'untreated' water, and this is too a subjective test, neither quantifiable, nor measurable in any other way.

      The bottom line is, my work's focus is the client's well-being, growth and thriving, whether scientifically provable or not, and I engage my intelligence, wisdom, intuition and skills to this purpose alone.