“Susan” walked into my office, shoulders slumped, clothes disheveled and hair unkempt. Eyes sunken, even the most mundane decision regarding where to sit challenged her on this day.
She stumbled into a chair and, without removing her coat, proceeded to tell me how she had reached a new low in her depression. She wasn’t eating. She hadn’t left her bed except to tend to the obligatory restroom break to relieve her discomfort, but even the importance of that she debated. She looked up, her despair emanating from her sad, drawn eyes.
“I am so desperate,” she pleaded. “I even read about alternative medicine that might help.”
She looked up seeking approval.
“Offer her Reiki,” the voice in my head whispered.
“I will not!” I replied to my internal consultant.
After all, I had just received my Reiki Level 2 training the previous weekend. What if I didn’t do it right?
Even though my training as a Reiki practitioner had fully prepared me to offer the ancient energy, my ego refused to get out of the way, and I continued to ignore the increasingly irritating internal prodding.
“I read about something called Reiki. Do you know anything about it?” Susan asked.
I almost fell out of my chair as my client continued her inquisition regarding energy psychology. My internal voice squealed with delight.
“Actually, I do know a bit about Reiki,” I finally said. “Would you like to experience Reiki with the brief time remaining?”
Susan’s eyes, now the size of saucers, took in my brief explanation about the energy therapy and, following an informed verbal consent, I began to prepare her to receive the treatment. I had her relax and close her eyes while sitting in her chair. I told her I would offer her the subtle energy from across the room, keeping the intention for her greater good and healing. I asked her to imagine a lighted stone pathway spanning the space between my heart and hers on which a bright, golden flow of rich, healing light flowed, filling any spaces in her body that wanted to receive the energy.
I prepared myself, holding the intention of healing and compassion for my client, and then, reciting the ancient symbols silently, I offered her Reiki. We sat in this quiet, contemplative space for 10 of the remaining 15 minutes of the session. I wanted to have time to debrief my client and assess her degree of despair and possible need for hospitalization.
When the time was up, I asked Susan to take a final cleansing breath and then open her eyes and return to the room when she felt the experience was complete. She inhaled deeply, smiled and released what felt like a millennium of discomfort. Her eyes sparkled, wet with tears, and she stated, “That was our best session yet.”
I could feel my heart leap with joy, and I began to assess Susan’s emotional pain and safety. She stated that she felt as if an enormous psychic weight had been lifted off her chest and she could finally breathe. She indicated that she actually felt hungry … famished … and was going to go home and eat for the first time in days.
Although I did not feel that hospitalization was warranted for Susan, I was still apprehensive about waiting until our regularly scheduled appointment to see her again, so I scheduled her to come in the following week. Imagine my delight and surprise when Susan arrived to her appointment the following week with makeup on and hair coiffed and a list of goals that she wanted to tackle in her life. That became the first of many integrated psychotherapy sessions in which I employed Reiki.
Reiki (pronounced RAY-kee) is from the Japanese words Rei, which translates to mean universal or being everywhere, and Ki, which translates to mean life energy. Reiki is believed to be spiritually guided life energy. It was developed by Mikao Usui in 1922. However, it has been practiced for thousands of years.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) categorizes Reiki as an energy therapy. Reiki practitioners place their hands on or just above their clients to offer healing energy that is believed to transmit through the attuned practitioner to the client. Practitioners believe this energy to be of the purest and highest frequency of energy or “life force,” allowing the client’s body to enter a relaxed state. This relaxed state helps the body to activate its natural healing properties. Because the practitioner is channeling the energy through the body, the belief is that it does not deplete the provider and, in fact, provides healing to the healer.
Initially, Usui employed Reiki with the poor in Kyoto, Japan. He then began training others to offer this energy, including a former naval officer, Chujiru Hayashi. Following the death of Usui, Hayashi opened a clinic in Tokyo and trained a Reiki patient named Madame Takata. It is Takata who is believed to be responsible for bringing Reiki to Europe and America.
Currently, there are an estimated 50,000 Reiki masters (of which I am one) and 1 million Reiki practitioners worldwide. These providers are from a variety of clinical and nonclinical fields and include physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, massage therapists and psychotherapists.
Reiki is easy to learn. It does not require that one meditate, nor does it require years of study. A practitioner is able to offer Reiki following attunement by a Reiki master-teacher.
There are three levels of learning in Reiki. The first level is learning to offer Reiki to oneself. The second level introduces three symbols considered to be sacred and promote a connection to the energy. Completion of Level 2 affords the title of Reiki practitioner and indicates that one is equipped to offer Reiki and distance Reiki to clients. A practitioner can be attuned in advanced Reiki to a higher frequency of energy.
The master level of learning involves additional symbols and another attunement or ignition to the energy. A person is not considered a master-teacher until she or he has taught a class. Organizations such as the International Association of Reiki Professionals and the International Center for Reiki Training promote quality and standardized approaches to Reiki training.
Mechanisms of Reiki
According to Eastern medicine, life energy or ki flows through the body. When this energy is compromised in some capacity, it hinders well-being. The goal of Reiki is to allow the body to be at its optimal condition for life energy to flow freely, thereby affording the opportunity for natural healing properties to occur in the body. The natural healing mechanism is promoted by helping the client to obtain a relaxed state through the laying on of hands or distance treatment and channeling the energy to the client.
Records of Reiki’s use are growing as Western medicine seeks ways to provide care in a holistic manner. Reiki is currently being offered not only for management of physical pain but emotional pain as well. According to a survey conducted by Health Forum, a subsidiary of the American Hospital Association, 42 percent of the responding hospitals in the United States and 70 percent of the responding hospitals in Canada offer complementary and alternative treatments including Reiki and healing touch. Reiki is used in the treatment of anxiety, depression, trauma, stress and memory loss, as well as in palliative and oncological care.
Reiki is offered in hospitals, clinics and hospice settings. For example, the Integrative Medicine Department of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital offers and teaches Reiki to patients and caregivers. In a 2010 study conducted by Yale University and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers Rachel Friedman, Matthew Burg, Pamela Miles, Forrester Lee and Rachel Lampert found that 20 minutes of Reiki significantly improved mood and variable heart rate following a heart attack. This was above and beyond control for other variables.
Reiki and psychotherapy
The Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology is a nonprofit organization of international licensed mental health professionals and allied health practitioners who are “dedicated to exploring, developing, researching and applying energy psychology methods to alleviate human suffering, enhance human performance and access human potential.”
More and more mental health professionals are seeking ways to empower clients with tools to manage their emotional and physical discomfort. Anxiety and emotional discomfort may provide information regarding behavioral and life changes that would be more healthful. Reiki allows clients to ground and be fully present in their bodies, listening to what the body, mind and soul are disclosing and manifesting as symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Reiki provides a tool that integrates grounding exercises with talk therapy. For example, I like to use a Reiki tool that allows clients to imagine whatever they want to rid themselves of as a shape with color, weight and texture. Once they have completely created their image, I ask them if they really want to release themselves from this (anxiety, resentment, depression, anger, etc.). They affirm this out loud. I then ask if they are willing to make the necessary changes to release their manifestation. Again, they affirm this out loud.
These preparations for the actual Reiki healing resonate with cognitive behavior therapy and expressive therapies. Clients employ their senses in creating an image that captures their sensory experience of their perceived angst. They are then asked to affirm their desire for change and their desire to make the changes necessary to affect change. Following this setup, I prepare myself and energetically help clients excise the imagined object from their being. This is one of my favorite tools because it has led to great success with clients who just seem stuck and need additional clearing.
Reiki is also a tool that clients can learn for their own personal use in self-care. The tenets of counseling promote the empowerment and self-sufficiency of the client. Reiki promotes a practice of clients becoming more self-aware to their physiological and energetic needs and provides a means to address care and healing.
A variety of universities, hospitals and organizations are conducting research to assess the efficacy of Reiki and touch therapies. The Center for Reiki Research (TCRR) uses a Touchstone Process of peer-reviewed consultation and analysis of current research projects.
In a controlled experiment reviewed by TCRR, Ann Baldwin and colleagues were able to demonstrate that Reiki offered at a distance decreased the stress response in rats. This was indicated by a reduction in heart rate and a significant increase in the physiological indicators of relaxation state. Animal studies reduce the placebo bias previously suggested by critics.
Ancient modalities appear to have wisdom to offer Western medicine. As mental health providers continue to seek ways to help clients with pain reduction and self-care, Reiki and touch therapies will be further explored. As a Karuna Reiki master practitioner, I have countless anecdotal experiences that speak to the effectiveness of Reiki. However, as a scholar-practitioner, I recognize the need for continued rigor in research as we discern the efficacy and standard of practice in the integration of Reiki and counseling practices.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a Karuna Reiki master in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to her practice, she is a visiting full-time faculty in the pastoral counseling program for Loyola University Maryland. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See also: Fisher’s previous article, “What would Yalom do? Ten nuggets of wisdom for counselors old and new.”