There's nothing like a life-threatening injury to make you forget your skepticism and start believing in God, luck, science, or … faint pulsations of unmanifest energy?
After I fractured two vertebrae in my neck in a surfing accident -- a lucky break, with no nerve damage and good prospects for recovery -- I was willing to try anything to relieve the trauma. I didn't expect the light-touch therapy called reiki to miraculously stitch up my bones and make neurosurgery obsolete. But after 10 weeks in an immobizing neck-and-torso brace, I found myself opening up to the possibility that invisible energy fields accessed by a laying-on-of-hands just might help ease the pain.
After searching for a practitioner online, in print, and through word of mouth, however, I began to question my openness. Known for being easy to learn and simple to practice, reiki ("ray-kee") has no certifying board or official playbook. It can be taught over a weekend and comes in many colors and flavors, including Violet Flame, Blue Ray, and Usui, named after Mikao Usui, the Japanese spiritual seeker who discovered reiki while meditating on a mountain in the 1920s. Besides reiki purists, there are those who like to mix it up with auras, shamanism, chakras, and something called energy psychology. One practitioner even offered "Mortgage Consulting & Intuitive Energy Healing." No offense to dual careerists, but if I'm going to try something this intangible, I want to be in the hands of a serious professional, not someone selling home loans on the side. My search led me to the office of such a professional. Meg Siddheshwari Sullivan, the founder of Reiki Center of the East Bay in Oakland, California, has been a reiki master for 16 years and a registered nurse for 26. Petite, with long, gray-tinged hair and a reassuring kindness, Sullivan is just the person you would want to see after a major accident.
During our first session, she sat me down on a massage table and told me there was nothing I needed to do -- or not do -- during the treatment, as the reiki would work whether I was talking, meditating, or sleeping. "Reiki goes where it's needed," she explained. Not only did I not have to pay attention, she didn't even have to pay attention. Once initiated into the reiki field, she says, a practitioner serves as a conduit for the energy with almost no effort on her part. Sullivan had me lie on my back -- fully clothed -- and put her hands lightly over my eyes. Five minutes later, she moved her hands to the crown of my head, then down to the chest and abdomen, finally turning me over to the upper and lower back, stopping for 5 to 10 minutes at the major organs of the body. The pressure was light, and I didn't feel the tingling or warmth (beyond body heat) that people sometimes report. We chatted, then quieted down, and my eyes were sometimes open, sometimes closed. That was it; the whole thing lasted about an hour.
Practitioners often recommend consecutive treatments for reiki newcomers who have health concerns, so for the next three days I spent an hour, prone, with Sullivan and her gentle "reiki hands." Having tracked my state of mind and body in before-and-after charts, I can tell you that each session made me feel slightly less pain and anxiety and slightly more focused. The most marked physical change was in my breath. When Sullivan put her hands on my pelvis midway through each session, a channel seemed to open inside me, allowing in smooth, satisfying breaths from my nose all the way down to my toes.
The sessions also seemed to awaken my body to the trauma it had endured. From the moment the top of my head hit the bottom of the ocean, my whole being had been in survival mode. For some reason I thought I had to be strong for my friends, family, and all the medical professionals who were taking care of me. Even after the ER doctor uttered that frightening sentence that no one ever wants to hear -- the one about how your neck is broken -- I kept myself from crying. Like many adrenaline-induced reactions, this attitude no doubt helped me cope with a potentially devastating situation. But 10 weeks later, with the crisis averted, the fight-or-flight mode was just wearing me down. Now, in the presence of this woman who was by nature and training a nurturer -- the word must share the same root as nurse -- my guard came down, and the tear ducts opened.
At each session with Sullivan, I felt the stress I was still holding onto, including the tension of not wanting to let go of the tension, because I might fall apart if I released it. It's as if my spine had been clenching onto itself and was now relaxing enough to feel the reverberations of the injury. To tune into all this trauma was like taking a step backward to move forward, but it seemed necessary to my full recovery.
Though the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classifies reiki as a form of energy medicine, Pamela Miles, author of "Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide," believes it's miscategorized. "Reiki does not treat conditions," says Miles. "It is a spiritual healing practice that promotes balance." Furthermore, according to Miles, reiki is not really energy -- it's more like pre-energy, quieter and more amorphous than even chi or prana. Reiki is the first layer of pulsation to emerge from what Miles calls "the unified field" or "unmanifest primordial consciousness." One of Sullivan's teachers called it "unconditional love"; one of her "reiki grandmothers" (a teacher of her teacher) described it as a "pure white light." Fortunately, neither the client nor the practitioner needs to understand any of this. "I don't know what reiki is; I just know that it works," Sullivan says. What she does know is that the harmony it promotes helps to heal on many levels, including the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual. Practitioners often notice that as the reiki is activated, the client's nervous and endocrine systems tend to show the first, most noticeable results. It's no surprise, then, that anxiety, pain, and sleep problems often respond quickly to reiki, according to both givers and receivers.
"Placebo" is one of the kinder terms critics use to describe reiki. Yet this healing power -- whose existence can be neither proved nor measured by conventional scientific criteria -- finds a surprising lack of resistance in conventional medicine. Hospitals from New England to the Southwest, including an NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, are incorporating reiki into their care programs. "The use of reiki in medical environments has grown out of proportion to the research," says Miles, who believes its acceptance stems partly from the fact that it causes no harm and doesn't interfere with other treatments. Doctors may not understand or agree with the practice, but they like the results they see in their patients, who become more relaxed and less anxious-and therefore easier to treat. When I turned to reiki, I expected, and got, no miracles. But I did feel better after each session. Was it the power of suggestion? The faint vibrations of an unmanifest energy field? Or the warm, loving manner of a gentle caregiver? I don't dare guess; I just feel grateful for the deep, soothing breaths and the way my body seemed to unclench itself -- two steps forward on the long road toward healing.