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Like their counterparts in traditional Chinese medicine who use acupuncture, as well as their counterparts in the West who use therapeutic touch (TT), the practitioners of reiki believe that health and disease are a matter of the life force being disrupted. Belief in a life force, known as vitalism, was common in the West until the 19th century. Since then, the concept of life force has joined phlogiston, ether, and many other superannuated ideas on the rubbish heap of discarded scientific notions.
The belief in vitalism is still strong in China, India (where the life force is called prana), Africa (animism), and Japan Each believes that the universe is full of some sort of vital energy that cannot be detected by any scientific instruments, but which can be felt and controlled, often by special people who learn the tricks of the trade.
Reiki healers differ from acupuncturists in that they do not try to unblock a person's ki, but to channel the ki of the universe so that the client or patient heals. The channeling is done with the hands, and like TT no physical massaging is necessary since ki flows through the body of the healer into the patient. The reiki master claims to be able to draw upon the energy of the universe and increase his or her own energy while performing a healing. Reiki healers claim to channel ki into ill or injured individuals for "rebalancing." Depending on the training and beliefs of the healer, reiki is used to treat a wide array of ailments. Larry Arnold and Sandra Nevins claim in The Reiki Handbook (1992) that reiki is useful for treating brain damage, cancer, diabetes, and venereal diseases. Many reiki healers are more modest and treat lesser problems such as fatigue or muscle soreness. I was once treated by a reiki practitioner for a wrist injury. The treatment didn't work because I was a non-believer, or so I was told. If the healing fails—and it will inevitably fail for such things as cancer—it is because the patient is resisting the healing energy. Non-belief is one of the great blocks to healing energy. There is a reason for that, which we will explore below.
Reiki is popular among New Age spiritualists who are fond of "attunements," "harmonies," and "balances." I have read that Reiki apprentice healers used to pay up to $10,000 to their masters to become masters themselves. The price has come down and, according to one correspondent, "prices for first level are around $100, second level $150-300 and master around $600-800." Other practitioners claim to pass on their knowledge for nothing.
Reiki training involves going through several levels of attunement. One must learn which symbols to use, when to call up the universal life force, how to heal an emotional or spiritual illness, and how to heal someone who isn't present.
Reiki was popularized by Mikao Usui (1865-1926). After fasting and meditating for several weeks, he began hallucinating and hearing voices giving him "the keys to healing."
Does it work? Yes. Reiki works as well as any other placebo medicine. It works primarily by the power of suggestion and classical conditioning, both of which can bring about physiological changes in the believer or the open-minded skeptic who knows little about placebo energy medicine. Reiki, however, will have no effect on someone who thinks the reiki ritual is superstitious showmanship. My reiki healer vigorously rubbed his hands across his pants before waving them over my wrist. He seems to have produced some heat and some static electricity, which I could feel when he got close to my skin. (As noted above, the healer doesn't actually touch the patient.) There are many kinds of reiki practitioners, just as there are many kinds of acupuncture. All, however, claim to be manipulating ki to assist in healing. The evidence for the existence of ki is the same as the evidence for suggestion and conditioning. Applying Occam's razor, we find no need for ki to explain how reiki works.
Is reiki or any other energy healing dangerous? The practices are not inherently dangerous, but they could be deadly to patients who try to treat something like diabetes or cancer by having someone wave her hands in the air over parts of the body or stick needles in the neck or thigh. Read, for example, the tragic story of Debra Harrison, a diabetic and co-founder of a type of energy healing called Consegrity, who was in effect killed by her own medicine.
One of the great promoters of energy medicine, Oprah Winfrey, often features Dr. Mehmet Oz on her television program. Oz is married to a reiki practitioner.
See also aura therapy, chakra, ch'i kung (qi gong), crystal power, e-meter, Kirlian photography, magical thinking, orgone energy, Q-Ray, Q-Link, radionics, sham acupuncture (for a breakdown of the differences between placebo and false placebo effects), zenreiki, the New Age page of links and "Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places." See also SD Newsletter for October 2010: Reiki: more Asian medical nonsense
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Jack. "Alternative" Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide (Amherst, NY:
Prometheus Books, 1994).
Raso, Jack. Mystical Diets : Paranormal, Spiritual, and Occult Nutrition Practices (Consumer Health Library) (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993).
"Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work" by Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.
Reiki by William T. Jarvis, Ph.D. (National Council Against Health Fraud)
Mystical Medical Alternativism, Jack Raso, Skeptical Inquirer, Sept. 1995.
Reiki Is Nonsense by Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Why NCCAM Should Stop Funding Reiki Research by Stephen Barrett, M.D,
Practicing Reiki does not appear to routinely produce high-intensity electromagnetic fields from the heart or hands of Reiki practitioners. This study comes from Gary Schwartz et al. and appears to give credibility to his endless quest to find some evidence in support of 'subtle energy' that others call chi, prana, orgone, etc. A study done 20 years ago claimed to have detected exceptionally high-strength electromagnetic fields from the hands of several energy healers. Schwartz et al. tried to replicate the study, using equipment "far more sensitive than in the original studies." Wow. They couldn't replicate the results. Now that's science for you. They repeated the experiment with variation. But.....instead of admitting the absence of any evidence for 'subtle energy' in the hands of so-called energy healers, Schwartz et al. pull one out of their shorts and propose that there really is energy there--perhaps, they say, "energy healing is stimulated by tuning into an external environmental radiation, such as the Schumann resonance, which was blocked in the present study by the strong magnetic shielding surrounding the SQUID [the machine they used to measure the EMF in the healers' hands]." Yes, they found nothing but they feel confident that there is something about their sophisticated equipment that prevented them from finding what they were looking for. Maybe they should go back to using the inferior equipment of their predecessors. If that doesn't work, keep making stuff up. Nobody will notice. Especially when you publish in the prestigious Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Catholic bishops in US ban Japanese reiki ("Guidelines issued by the committee on doctrine at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops warn healthcare workers and chaplains that the therapy 'lacks scientific credibility' and could expose people to 'malevolent forces.' ... A Catholic who puts his or her trust in reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition." If anyone would know about superstition and the lack of scientific credibility it would be the Catholic Church. As Ian Massey notes: these are people who believe Abraham's god "temporarily sacrificed himself to himself to appease himself of his anger at his own creations and to save his creations from eternal torture, ordered by him to pay for their ancestor's grave sin of being convinced by a talking serpent, also created by him, to eat a piece of fruit from a magic fruit tree, planted by him within easy reach.")