Many are the times when I’ve pointed out that many “complementary and alternative medicine” CAM or “integrative medicine” (IM) modalities are very much more based on religion or mystical ideas akin to religion than on anything resembling science. I realize that my saying this is nothing new, but every so often I see something that reminds me of this concept to the point that, self-important logorrheic blogger that I am, I can’t resist commenting, particularly when I’m amused by the story. This particular story is amusing, to me at least.
You see, it’s about what happens when one religion encounters a CAM modality whose religion-inspired ideas don’t mesh with its tenets. The last time I remember this happening was a couple of years ago, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a warning against the use of reiki as being unscientific, unproven, and, worse, “dangerous to Christian spiritual health.” As I pointed out at the time, the Catholic Church was right about reiki being unscientific, unproven, and worse, but what amused me was that the bishops’ objections were based far more on their perception that reiki violated Catholic religious teachings than its disapproval of the lack of science behind it. One month ago, a similar story appeared. I missed it at the time because, well, it was in the Pocono Record, which is probably why I didn’t become of this story until recently, in which a Broadheadsville pastor warns that reiki is a sin:
Reiki. While its practitioners and some local doctors view the Japanese technique as a way to promote healing and relaxation, one local clergyman says it’s an occult practice that goes against Christian belief.
Pastor Kevin Garman, head of the Pleasant Valley Assembly of God Church in Brodheadsville, sent a letter to Monroe County’s clergy members Thursday warning them of the alternative therapy, recently promoted by Pocono Medical Center.
Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation and is thought to promote healing. It is based on the notion that a “life-force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. Practitioners conduct sessions with the intention of healing specific conditions or improving overall health. By using their hands, practitioners get the life-force energy flowing, leading to an overall sense of calm and well-being.
Pocono Medical Center recently began promoting reiki, which is performed by six trained volunteers who use a “hands off” technique, holding their hands about 6 inches above the area to be treated.
I suspect you know why I find this story absolutely hilarious. The reason, for those unfamiliar with reiki (and if you’re unfamiliar with reiki I know you’re a newbie to this blog), is that reiki is pure faith healing. Really, I’m not exaggerating. At its heart, basically, reiki is a form of faith healing that substitutes Eastern religious beliefs steeped in Buddhism and Shinto, among other religions, for the Christian beliefs at the heart of most faith healing that we hear about in the U.S. and Europe. This is not so difficult to see, either, as the basic idea of reiki is that there is a “universal source” into which reiki practitioners can tap. They do so by holding or waving their hands over their clients and scrunching their brows, as though they are thinking, concentrating, or (dare I say it?) praying really, really hard. Sometimes there are symbols that must be traced out in the air over the client. Sometimes it’s just holding the “healer’s” hands a couple of inches above the body part that is afflicted. By doing these things, reiki practitioners believe that they are somehow directing this “universal force” into the patient to healing effect. As I like to emphasize again and again, it really is nothing more than another form of faith healing.
Don’t believe me? Think of it this way. Substitute the word “God” for “universal source.” Think of the hand motions and symbols reiki practitioners make over their subjects as rituals. Think of the meditation to “channel” the energy from the “universal source” as praying. Now do you see what I mean? Whereas Christian faith healers lay on hands in order to direct the healing power of Jesus into the faithful, reiki masters lay on hands (well, sort of, often they don’t even touch their clients) in order to direct the healing power of the “universal source” into them. There really isn’t any substantive difference between the two that I can see, other than that these days reiki practitioners can be found roaming the halls of academic medical centers not as chaplains (which would not be entirely inappropriate), but rather as actual health care practitioners. Hell, they’ve even been spotted at a hospital where I spent about 1/3 of my residency training back in the 1990s! After I learned of this incursion, I asked a couple of surgeons who helped train me and are still at that hospital about it. Sadly, they basically thought it was massage and didn’t see the problem.
I was disappointed. It showed how much work we in the medical profession have to do among our own.
But back to reiki. There are more parallels with faith healing than even what I listed above. To see this, we just have to look at Dr. Mikao Usui, the founder of reiki. What few people know is that Dr. Usui’s quest to learn how to heal was inspired by the example of Jesus:
Some of the students asked him one day, in the 1870’s, if he believed in the miracles Jesus did (raising dead, etc.). Being a Christian Monk he answered “Yes”. They asked if he knew how Jesus had done this, “No” he said. He realized that he must find out how Jesus healed. This immediately set him on a journey of many years. Studying, first at Christian schools in the US with no results. Someone suggested Buddhist writings since the Buddha had also healed. This meant more years at monasteries in the Orient. Nowhere could he find the answers. In Japan he toured all the monasteries there asking about how Jesus or the Buddha had healed. In one small monastery, he found some ancient Sanskrit writings. After a few more years of study, he felt he had come to an understanding and that to go further required serious meditation.
After this came a classic spiritual quest very much like 40 day fast described in the New Testament that Jesus undertook on the mountain before he began his ministry:
He went to the mountain and settled in with 21 stones with which to count the days. On the 21st day nothing had come as yet, and he turned over the last stone saying “Well, this is it, either I get the answer today or I do not”. At that moment on the horizon he could see a ball of light coming towards him. The first instinct was to get out of the way, but he realized this might just be what he was waiting for, so allowed it to hit him right in the face. As it struck him he was taken on a journey and shown bubbles of all the colors of the rainbow in which were the symbols of Reiki, the very same symbols in the writings he was studying but had been unable to understand. Now as he looked at them again, there was total understanding.
After returning from this experience he began back down the mountain and was, from this moment on, able to heal. This first day alone he healed an injured toe, his own starvation, an ailing tooth and the Abbots sickness, which was keeping him bedridden. These are known as the first four miracles.
“Miracles”? And reiki practitioners like to try to claim that their practices are based in science.
I don’t know if this story is true or apocryphal (accurate information on Usui is hard to come by), but in a way it doesn’t really matter all that much whether this story is an accurate representation of how Usui developed reiki or not. Believers in reiki are telling this story as though it’s true. Remember, I got this off of the oldest reiki website on the Internet, a website that’s been in existence since 1995. It’s how many reiki practitioners view Usui, and how they view Usui is very much how Christians view Jesus, at least in the stories that are told about him in the Bible. The parallels to Jesus and his reported life and methods are unmistakable. Jesus spent 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness; Usui spent 21 days meditating. Both represent an obvious and classic ritual purification often required of religious figures. In fact, Usui even goes one better than that in that his story resembles that of Moses climbing the mountain and receiving his revelations from God in the form of a burning bush, although, in all fairness, he wasn’t tempted by Satan, as Jesus was. In fact, large swaths of “energy healing modalities” and not just reiki echo similar stories.
Garmin doesn’t see it that way, obviously. Or maybe he does. It’s unclear. What is clear is that the reason he doesn’t like reiki is exactly the same reason that the Catholic bishops don’t like reiki. It’s a competing religious world view to his own religious world view:
Garman said reiki has its foundation in Buddhism and the practices of Usui and Shintoism, which he said both worship animal spirits, mountains, trees and people.
“The Bible definitely speaks against forms of spiritual communication with spirits of any kind, except the spirit of God. This type of communication or energy invoking activity is rejected in the Bible as witchcraft, sorcery, mediumship and idolatry,” Garman said in his letter.
Garman said he isn’t asking the hospital to stop allowing reiki, because he knows that request would be unreasonable.
“I don’t think the technicians should be allowed to visit the rooms without being invited there. I think patients should have a full disclosure that this is a Buddhist religious practice, because if they were Christian, I think they would say, ‘Please don’t bring that into my room.'”
Which is actually a fair demand. You shouldn’t be required to admit into your hospital room a chaplain whose religious beliefs are contrary to yours or someone who tries to foist his religious views on you. On the other hand, I also think it’s a fair demand to stop representing reiki practitioners as legitimate health care providers. They are not. I don’t care if they’re represented as chaplains or something akin to ministers or priests who can “pray” or counsel patients the same way chaplains do with fellow believers, because that’s what reiki practitioners really are, but telling patients that reiki is anything more than an elaborate religious placebo is lying to them.
Perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious part of this whole article is the comments section, where various defenders of reiki descend, enraged and outraged, to attack the article, the journalist who wrote it, and the criticisms of reiki by pastor Garman. For example, here’s Patty Penner weighing in:
When I read something like this, I wonder how anyone can be so in the dark in this day and age. I find it incredibly sad and scary! Reminds me of witch burning times and the Inquisition. I am a Reiki Master Teacher. I have studied, practiced and experimented with Reiki for a long time so that I know without a doubt what it is I am working with. I am also a Christian (Episcopalin) The roots of Reiki are Buddhist and Shinto because it’s founder was Buddhist and Shinto but what is wrong with that? Reiki is a not a Buddhist practice or any relegious practice and definitely not a cult, it is a healing modality like acupuncture, massage or acupressure. Reiki energy is DIVINE life force energy from God channelled through the practitioner for the purpose of healing.
Wow! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Reiki is faith healing in which the healing power of God is used to heal! One wonders, of course, how Ms. Penner can state that reiki is not a religious belief and then turn around and immediately state that reiki energy is “DIVINE life force energy from God.” The cognitive dissonance must be astounding. It’s also comedy gold!
Then there’s Kristin King:
If the Pastor had cared enough to make a statement regarding Reiki, then maybe he should have at least gotten his facts straight. Reiki draws energy from the universal life force that is all around us. One might ask that if God is the one who created all, then isn’t it his energy that is drawn upon?
Why yes. Why not?
In any case, the numerous posts from believers in reiki and reiki practitioners expressing outrage at the pastor’s comments about reiki practitioners being “sinners” echo almost perfectly the religious nature of them, but the commenters are completely un-self-aware. In any case, I would argue that virtually every so-called “energy healing” modality is at its heart far more religious in nature than anything else. Certainly there is no science there. Yet reiki practitioners deny the religious underpinnings of their practice because they want to think of themselves as more akin to physicians and nurses than to chaplains. Chaplains, at least, don’t claim they can heal disease, and physicians (most of them at least) don’t represent pseudoscientific religious practices as science-based medicine.
Well, except for Dr. Oz, of course.