Reiki: The scientific Debate
The purpose of this article is to discuss a question that is sometimes presented to me and to encourage our appreciation of the nature of Reiki a little more. This question being; “Where’s the scientific evidence that Reiki works?”
This question can be made in a variety of ways: it can be made in the sense of a request for further information in the default socially conditioned format (scientific approval being the socially accepted benchmark/measure in relation to anything having validity, or only works if it can be measured in that way) with the person’s intention to further their understanding of Reiki, or to help them to get their head around what it is; the same question is sometimes also asked to challenge a Reiki practitioner to provoke them to prove the value of Reiki, from the position that without scientific evidence it doesn't work. It can also be asked in the statement format of "There is no scientific evidence that Reiki works": this version is put forward as rational proof or evidence that Reiki doesn't work, or has no value because if it did you would be able to scientifically prove it.
The manner in which the question is posed can be quite revealing in itself, as to where a person might be in their own mental, emotional, spiritual evolution or personal growth at the time, which may serve as an indicator as to whether they are open or indeed closed in mind and if in fact they are at a place where Reiki might be able to help support them in their life, or going to listen to the answer.
In this article, I will focus on the question itself, rather than trade examples of pro Reiki research to support my understanding to counter someone else’s research to suggest Reiki has no value. The topic of this article is more about the question itself in an effort to provoke the reader to challenge their thinking around this question in the first place, with an aim to encourage critical thinking and self thought, rather than socially conditioned thinking. As well to help people understand the potential challenges to a total reliance on scientific studies alone.
Before I learnt Reiki and became a teacher and practitioner in it, I had a background in Sport and Exercise Science. I was very scientific, sceptical and critical in thinking (the critical thinking I still retain). I was comfortable with and indeed I was encouraged to only deal with the tangible and the quantifiable, to discount any wisdom of the past, only to use recent scientific evidence-based approaches to provide the lead for my work in exercise and health. This conditioning, along with where I was with my own mental, emotional and spiritual evolution was further reinforced by the conditioning influences of my professional industry, the media and western society itself. So I was holding this widely held and highly conditioned view that something which cannot be quantifiably measured by modern-day scientific methods cannot be considered to be proven to work, that it has no validity, value or benefit.
On this thread, there is an interesting point made by a leading Reiki teacher Frank Arjava Petter, ‘when he says that when talking about energy do not to try and explain the unexplainable, rather take the view that the attempt to scientifically demystify something such as energy is another trick of the rational mind to maintain its supremacy of our lives. Instead celebrate the very mystery of energy’(1).
From a public health and policy perspective, we can appreciate the requirement to protect the public from fraudulent methods of healing. Bear in mind also that the allopathic medical community are in charge of advice for policy makers in public health. With their educational structure focused around isolation and scientific quantifiable research it’s not that surprising that the majority of the western medical community only accept natural therapies that can give quantifiable scientifically measurable outcomes. By its very nature, however, Reiki does not tend to lend itself to these criteria and limitations.
The effects of Reiki treatments are non-standardised. Experiences of Reiki are different individual to individual, even the same person can have differing experiences session to session. Factors such as a person’s own awareness of their internal environment, or mental/emotional reality at the time, or the degree of stress they are under can all influence what they perceive at the time of their treatment. So even with quantifiable research studies (perception-based) there are challenges.
How would you start to measure and compare one person sleeping better, against another feeling more at peace with their past, with another feeling more clarity in thought and coping better with stress, against another coping better with a bereavement? You can see the challenge of recording any measurable significant statistical result from such a group in a study that is likely to be acceptable to the scientific community. So just with this introduction you can see the problematic nature and difficulty of setting up a scientific study and being able to control the variables, even if this was set as a qualitative or perception-based study.
A huge topic, in my opinion, is the assumption that all Reiki treatments are conducted the same. On this assumption let’s say a research study gets a group of professional Reiki practitioners who all conform to industry best practice in terms of qualifications, they tick the boxes and are members of the right associations. They commence a qualitative study performing Reiki on a group and measure the perception of change for a scale of relaxation, pre and post the course of Reiki treatments. At this point it is important to take into consideration the different technical methods used by practitioners in different Reiki styles and the effect these differences have on the outcomes. Let me highlight two key differences: some practitioners (Group 1) hold their hands away from the person’s body, hovering over the head for five minutes before moving on to perform eight more five minute applications at other areas of the body (giving a 45 minute total treatment time); other practitioners (Group 2), trained in say authentic Japanese Jikiden Reiki, place their hands directly on the recipient’s head and remain there for the whole 45 minutes. These two different treatment approaches will give different outcomes: effectively we are comparing apples with pears within the same study.
Reiki is a contact therapy with both a high frequency of treatment and a high total volume of time spent at a target area. So in the above example, those who received treatments from the Group 1 practitioners may receive some benefit but those who received treatment from the Group 2 practitioners are more likely to experience a stronger result to the target area. Put another way – let’s use the analogy of a dosage regime of a new antibiotic, for example: the recommended dosage is one tablet, twice a day for 28 days (Group 2); the Group 1 equivalent modified dosage is one tablet, once a day for 4 days. It may then be reasonable to come to the conclusion that the Group 1 outcomes are that the treatment does not work. However, the recommended dosage, or treatment protocol, has not been followed, or the dosage was not sufficient. Just like any other study it is important to understand the protocol used in the study when reading the research results.
Despite these challenges some people are trying to carry out studies and, without doubt from a public perception perspective, all of us in the Reiki community would benefit from their results. We are grateful for their efforts. Reiki is gaining some momentum as having value and is now increasingly being accepted by the NHS as an alternative therapy in the UK. Also Reiki is increasingly being used in environments such as hospices and hospitals with positive effects.
To prove Reiki scientifically, we may need to be looking in areas of science such as metaphysics. However, if you are an individual who receives benefits from Reiki, does the measurement of Reiki really matter to you? The bigger question may be, in our own ability to only accept something as real if it can be quantifiably measured? As quoted by Albert Einstein:
"Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”
In an interview with Usui sensei(2), the founder of Reiki, he states:
“Our Ryoho (healing method) is a spiritual method, which is beyond medical science, therefore is not based on medical science.”
If we think of the example of love, you could claim with confidence that genuine unconditional love is a most powerful force, with immense capacity to heal. Yet could you go into a laboratory and quantifiably measure and prove your claim with statistical significance under scientific measures? Maybe not, but would that mean it didn’t exist or have the power to heal? No. The point I make here is that the healing energy of Reiki can be thought of as similar in nature to love and in the way it behaves is far beyond our own comprehension.
A person’s response to Reiki is non-standardised within an individual let alone between individuals. I therefore would suggest that the best research comes from your own personal experience of Reiki. Find a Reiki practitioner you feel comfortable with, keep an open mind and make your own judgement. If it’s not for you at this time, then let it go, but at least your personal view is now taken from an informed position, that of experience, which you could argue is a more relevant approach anyway.
My own path is not working on the acceptance of Reiki, but rather developing my work with Reiki energy and enriching people’s lives with Reiki, helping people heal and progress on their own path of personal growth and wellbeing. I do not spend time trying to force people to accept Reiki, especially if they are entrenched in a position against Reiki. For some actual real world examples of people's experiences of Reiki who I have personally worked with, you are welcome to visit the reviews page of my website.
I will conclude this article by inviting you to ponder on this question:
“Is the lack in measurement due to the limitation in that which is being measured, or the limitation in the method of measurement?”
(1) Reiki Fire (1997) Frank A Petter., Aitrang., Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
(2) Kokai Denju, Jikiden Reiki Manual (2013), Jikiden Reiki Institute, Kyoto.
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About the author, Shaun Mckeown: could be labeled as a performance strategist, or coach, or a life balance specialist. In essence Shaun is a strategic, creative problem solver, with a holistic view. He has over 15 years professional experience helping people with health, well-being, sport performance, reducing stress and life balance. He has a BSc.(Hons) degree in Sport and Exercise Science, as well as experience coaching and teaching in exercise conditioning, holistic lifestyle and nutrition, sport performance and Reiki. So has both science and holistic perspectives.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Shaun Mckeown, disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.
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