Way back in another lifetime, metaphorically speaking, I was persuaded to attend a weekend reiki training class. That’s right, I went to learn how to administer reiki. It’s an “energy medicine” in which you put your hands on or over a person and then something undefined happens that allegedly heals the other person of what ails them.
Reiki is based on the old and now discredited concept of vitalism. Vitalism is the proposition that living things are animated by a non-physical essence that has been called soul, prana, chi, qi, animal magnetism, spirit, life energy, and so on.
When I attended this class, I found a lot of the talk very familiar, because I’m a former participant in a new age type meditation program. I was told, for example, that reiki was simple, natural, that anyone can do it, that it improves just about everything, and it can do no wrong. If by chance you do feel any discomfort from the practice, that is only due to the release of negative forces, “toxins,” or stress. Yup, I’d heard all that before.
But most familiar to me was the story about how this knowledge had been passed on from teacher to teacher in relative obscurity, but now this sacred technique is available to the world at large. They all say that. The moment has arrived! The world is ready to receive. How lucky we are. A new light is dawning. And so on. The modern originator of reiki had been struck between the eyes or on the head with a divine light or some such thing.
It’s a comforting idea to think that there’s a divine force behind the universe that is all good. It’s a little odd that the same universe that buries people in earthquakes, drowns them in tsunamis, and produces badly deformed and mutated offspring on a regular basis – that’s the universe that wants to cure you of disease. But this is the claim.
Reiki posits a “universal life force” that flows through you and into the person you are treating. Unfortunately, the universal life force energy is never defined in a way that actually makes sense. In natural healing and new age circles, the word “energy” is thrown around a lot and means whatever you want it to. It’s that energy, you know, behind everything. It’s life. It’s love. It makes the flowers grow. It’s not what makes cancer grow. It’s everything that’s right and lovely. It’s a rainbow unicorn of joy. Almost forgot; there’s this thing called quantum physics, and therefore reiki energy is for real.
By the way, although reiki is natural and anyone can do it, you can’t just do it. There are classes, fees, and silly things to do first. In the class, you spend hours putting hands on people. This culminates in a ceremony enacted with lovely background music and with the instructor waving hands, striking poses, and imagining all kinds of special energies shooting through the air, much like Dr. Strange does in almost every comic.
There were a couple other students in my class and they described energy and vibrations coursing through their bodies. I would strive for something to say and finally come out with, “Well, it did feel relaxing.” I didn’t want to be a spoilsport. That was me then. Today I’d probably say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. There is nothing going on here but fulfilled expectations.”
Truly, reiki’s benefits derive from relaxation (people are generally reclined or prone), human touch, and good old placebo. You can come up with a hundred zillion personal stories of “It really worked for me,” and “It cured my aching back,” but when the rubber hits the road, there is no convincing evidence that it’s better than placebo. Nothing wrong with placebo, but let’s be honest, okay?
Can you find double-blinded studies with control groups, published in reputable, major medical or science journals showing any benefit greater than what you’d get from relaxation and placebo? A review of credible research in 2008 showed nothing. The current word from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is that there is little if any good evidence in its favor.
Let’s visit a few common sense ideas:
If reiki made a significant change in a person’s health that went beyond placebo, it would be measurable. It isn’t.
If the benefit was obvious and measurable, this technique would spread like wildfire. Given the cost of medicine in the USA today, word would get around quickly and there should be a stampede out of doctor’s offices and into reiki treatment. There isn’t.
Also, if healing was obvious, people would have no trouble convincing scientists to put it to the test. Why? Because scientists enjoy receiving Nobel prizes, and this would surely win one if it was shown to be true. It would turn medicine on its head. Believe it or not, scientists would dearly love to turn the status quo on its head if they could. In the case of reiki, they can’t. Because it doesn’t.