Reiki and Reductionism – Yuk.

After running a brilliantly successful Reiki Share last month (next one Sunday July 29th), and then offering up a post with my favorite Reiki videos, I found myself pondering the common question, “But how does it work?”

This question often comes from the mouths of people brand-new to Reiki, who are rightfully skeptical. For those of us who have experienced the profound healing available through Reiki or another “alternative” therapy, the question sometimes seems less critical. However, the question is of vital importance as we work to make Reiki a valid and vital part of an integrated health care model in our society. With Reiki being offered in hospitals and taught to nurses, with many patients speaking to their doctors about it, the naysayers and skeptics can have a field day. After all, Western medicine is fixated on “how stuff works.”

Fundamentally, this interest begs a materialist or reductionist model of science, the human body, and healing. It’s the model that has given primacy to physics over biology.

This perspective wonders, why accept large-scale explanation of phenomena when there might be a micro-particle explanation?

I first was bopped over the head with this model in college. I was interested in studying human perception and consciousness. But consciousness is a vexing problem for rigorous scientists. Philosophers have many explanations of consciousness, and surely every waking human experiences consciousness, so it must exist, right? But where is the seat of consciousness?

Many parts of the brain can be damaged or removed, and consciousness still seems to exist. Despite massive computing power, we have yet to make a conscious machine.  As a recent summary of the most cutting-edge neurological research says, “The key may be in the exquisitely complicated ebb and flow of the brain’s trillions of connections.” Nonetheless, in my own studies I found that the trend in psychology was toward neuropsychology, wanting to explain every experience as a firing of certain neurons, those in turn a model of chemicals, enzymes, and electrical charges.


It just didn’t make sense to me. As the Woodpecker in Tom Robbins’ marvelous Still Life with Woodpecker says, “Yuk.”


In fact, Western medicine is plagued by this reductionism. Despite having no idea (literally) how many of our pharmaceuticals work – especially anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs – we clamor for fundamental explanations. The total disconnect of this approach from complementary medicine was driven home for me when I first read The Web That Has No Weaver, a remarkable volume about Chinese Medicine. It laid out for me how Chinese Medicine is not just a collection of acupuncture and herbal treatments, but a whole system distinct from Western medicine. The understanding of the body, the healing process, and yes, the treatments, is distinct and complete. Despite having the same symptoms, TCM will often treat two people quite differently. No wonder early (and ongoing) Western experiments with acupuncture, trying to use isolated points to treat isolated symptoms, have failed to yield up to Western researchers clear explanations of how acupuncture works.


Reiki is quite similar. Some people want to explain “how” it works as manipulating the biofield.  Which of course, in and of itself esoteric and controversial.

Yet I wager that each of us, independent of Reiki training, has had the experience of placing our hands on our stomach and receiving an instant rumble, or having someone place their hands on our temples and feeling instant relaxation. Something is happening, even if we don’t know how. When we have an attuned Reiki practitioner working on us, the effect is even more profound.


As the Woodpecker would say, “Yum.”


My basic explanation of Reiki for a new client or at a Share is quite straightforward: “We are all surrounded by an animating life force – that’s ch’i, prana. Without it, we, and the plants and animals, would be dead. It’s what gives life to organic matter. We are never totally cut off from it, but it can be depleted, diluted, or damaged. In Reiki, we connect back to that life energy so it can flow freely and get to where we need it.”

Just like a lightning rod invites static electricity from the sky, just like a magnet gathers loose iron particles in a childhood experiment, just like a queen bee draws the hive to her, so the hands of a Reiki healer, and the intention of both healer and client, draw in the “Ki.”

Recently, science discovered (sort of) conclusive evidence of the Higgs Boson. It will help us understand how the fundamental particles of our universe acquire their mass. Which is to say, for decades we have been discovering and measuring subatomic particles without any understanding of how they come to weigh anything. We have been taking things on faith, and theorizing as best we can, until our modes of perception have caught up with our theories and experiences. “Yum.”

So let’s not be too reductionist. Why? Here’s one of my favorite parables, from the Rocky Mountain Institute:


“In the early 1950s, the Dayak people in Borneo had malaria. The World Health Organization had a solution: spray DDT. They did; mosquitoes died; malaria declined; so far, so good. But there were side-effects. House roofs started falling down on people’s heads, because the DDT also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government gave people sheetmetal roofs, but the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs kept people awake. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats.


Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied. Soon the World Health Organization was threatened with potential outbreaks of typhus and plague, and had to call in RAF Singapore to conduct Operation Cat Drop—parachuting a great many live cats into Borneo.”

Systems are complex. If the mosquito-wasp-caterpillar-rat-cat balance on an island is complex, how complex must be the systems that have given rise to our miraculous human bodies over millions of years? I don’t profess to understand how Reiki works. In fact, I love that with my highly evolved, over-used human brain, I don’t. I have to trust, and let experience be my guide.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *