I am a Reiki practitioner, but I don’t believe in Reiki.

That may sound like a contradiction, but apparently it isn’t. One of the lessons Jenny, my Reiki master, taught my class when we first gathered in her small, purple classroom in La Crescenta, California, was this:

“Belief is irrelevant. You don’t have to believe a single word I say. If you have the Reiki energy and even the vaguest intention to heal, it will work.”

Now I had paid $350 to learn the “ancient” technique myself in a class called “Reiki 1-2.” But, contrary to popular myth, Reiki isn’t all that ancient. This hands-on healing method was developed by Mikao Usui just shy of one hundred years ago. The stories are not entirely clear, but the general idea is that he went up on a mountain top in Japan, fasted, and ended up receiving special healing energy from the Heavens, which he then passed down to his students. Reiki is hugely popular in the United States, where you can find a healer in nearly every city. During a Reiki treatment, you can expect your practitioner to wave his or her hands over you, often without even touching you, to heal your body, mind, and spirit. The National Institutes of Health warn that Reiki hasn’t been thoroughly studied and should never replace conventional health care.[1]Our best bet, my instructor told us, was to always assume that whoever we were dealing with was skeptical of Reiki. And plenty of people are.

When I told Jenny I didn’t know whether I thought Reiki was real myself, she said, “Oh, perfect! People who believe in Reiki are so boring. Skeptics are so much fun! Skeptics are the easiest to work with, because they want to be fair. Just go through the motions, and let them tell you if it worked. Pretend you know what you’re doing.”

The six of us students looked at our hands, which would soon be divine instruments.

“This is a metaphysical software download,” Jenny said. “It works as long as you have the software.”

Jenny explained that everyone’s hands have some healing energy, but 10–20 percent of the population have enough to be healers already. People who get the special healing Reiki energy (passed down from Usui to every other master and student since Reiki’s birth) have the strongest, most divinely guided healing powers possible. And receiving the two “attunements” we would get in this class meant having “Super Hands” forever. It couldn’t be undone. Jenny had guided this process many times, training 2,000 students, ages five to one hundred, over twenty-three years.

For the most part, Jenny seemed like a warm, intelligent woman who defied my expectations of a Reiki teacher at every turn. She studied biology in college and was staunchly pro-GMO. Although she wore a fair amount of green and purple, her outfit was simple and all-American. Her long, brown hair was cut in straight bangs, and she was as glued to her iPhone as everyone else in the class. Besides her odd habit of saying “yesterday” instead of “tomorrow”—“We’ll learn about animal Reiki yesterday”—she was downright normal.

When it came time to receive the sacred Reiki attunements, we all sat in a circle, closed our eyes, and waited for Jenny to walk around the outer edge of our chairs, giving the six of us the holy energy one at a time. I was sitting with my hands in prayer position, centering myself and focusing on the holy energy within me already, though what I felt most strongly was a longing for the Thai restaurant next door. She reached in front of me and grasped my palms with hers, lifting my arms above my head. Then she patted my crown three times, whistled a strange tune, and touched my back. That was it. I now had partial Reiki powers.

When we opened our eyes, my classmates and I exchanged notes. Richard felt his heart become heavy and his hunger go away upon receiving the energy. Mary felt lightning bolts in her head. Tasha felt vulnerable, like wings had popped open on her back, exposing her spine. Priscilla, a physical therapist, said she was relieved she could finally be a true healer. Pablo and I were the only ones who didn’t feel much. Jenny said all our experiences were equal. We didn’t need to feel anything.

Now that we had received half of the full Reiki energy, we practiced on each other. First, the class tried to cure my headaches by feeling for lumps in the energy field above my head. I was as lumpy-headed as my teacher had expected. My fellow students all stood above me, their hands miming the removal of stagnant energy about three inches above my skull.

“Oh wow,” they said. “I can definitely feel it.”

When it was over, the teacher asked me how I felt.

“Well, fine… But I didn’t have a headache before.”

Jenny glazed over the fact that I had come into class headache-free and beamed with success. For the next hour, she would ask me periodically if I “felt better.”

table with crystals and buttons on it

When it was time to experiment on my classmates, the experience felt forced and awkward and lovely and intuitive all at once. If I closed my eyes, focused, and told myself that an aura field surrounded my patient’s body and there was stagnant energy in it somewhere that needed to be fixed, I could vaguely feel it. Or at least I could convince myself of it enough to complete the exercise. Several of my classmates said I was one of the best. They could feel my Reiki energy the strongest. As I pulled energy out of Ji-hoon’s throat, helping him to free up his communication chakra, he smiled and said, “Good, good, good.”

I was having such a pleasant time learning Reiki among these compassionate people, I almost forgot to ask the questions that worried me most: Should Reiki be used to treat life-threatening diseases and chronic conditions? How should a Reiki practitioner present the practice, as a scientific method of treatment or a complementary practice that may be all in the mind?

“Tell them it’s their body, their choice,” Jenny said, but advised having a waiver handy. She showed us her own waiver, which stated that Reiki was a technique that helped the body to “heal itself” but said nothing of special holy energy trapped in the practitioner’s hands.

“Yeah, I don’t believe a word of this, but it works,” she said. After all, if you told people what Reiki was, you would be opening yourself up to all sorts of liability issues.

“It would be overstating it to say that Reiki cures cancer,” Jenny understated, “but I’ve seen some remission.”

She went on to say she helped one patient “put off treatment for twelve years.” Noticing my startled expression, she added, “...with monitoring.”

And if a treatment doesn’t work, she said to remind clients that Reiki only works about 80 percent of the time.

“The success rate gives you a fallback if you don’t get a result,” she explained.

And if they don’t believe it, so what?

“Skeptics,” she said, “are just disappointed believers.”

Day Two

When class began the next day, everyone was in a different mood. We all brought our new practice home to try on family, friends, and pets, and leaving the safety of the classroom seemed to affect some people’s success. The only person I tried Reiki on said his back hurt slightly worse when it was over. My dog seemed to like it.

“My boyfriend really loved it,” said Mary, tearing up with happiness. She later shared with me that he was a mild schizophrenic and that helping him had been one of the major reasons she came to the class. Kindness beamed from Mary’s eyes. She desperately wanted to help her partner and had lived with all the limitations any partner does, learning another’s habits and quirks. But Mary had had a darker demon to contend with.

Most of the others said they couldn’t feel the Reiki working and that this had disappointed them.

“Just pretend. You are in a massive game of pretend,” Jenny said.

Now it was time for us to receive our second and final Reiki attunement, making us full Reiki practitioners. Again, we all sat in a circle. Jenny played New Age music, and we closed our eyes and centered our thoughts. I mostly thought about tea.

Jenny again circled around behind us, giving the energy to each person. When my turn came, she grabbed my hands, clasped them together, raised them above my head, and released, filling the space between my hands with invisible energy. My hands felt drawn together, as if magnetized. Jenny went on to tap on my hands nine times, then whistled a few slow, steady notes and moved on. It was done. My hands would never be the same. When it came to Reiki, I was full of it.

After the second attunement, Priscilla experienced a wave of doubt. She hadn’t felt anything and was starting to wonder if she could really heal. Like most others in the room, Priscilla was a giving, warm woman who wore her heart on her sleeve. She deeply wanted to help others, and her dedication to her work as a physical therapist wasn’t enough. She wanted to make all pain go away. Seeing her doubt that her hands really had a special healing force broke my heart a little. But Jenny reassured her that she would feel it with time and that doubt was good. Priscilla smiled thinly, and we moved on.

For the rest of the day, we learned specialized Reiki techniques like distance healing, animal work, and healing for specific complaints like headaches, menstrual pain, anxiety, difficulty with male authority figures, and even ticklishness. I asked Jenny if I might accidentally make someone’s problems even worse with a misplaced finger here, a poked aura there.

“God is a decent parent,” she said, “He won’t listen to negative requests and He will only honor what’s good for everyone.”

So, the worst I could do was not help. I couldn’t hurt. Although, I pondered, in the case of forestalling other forms of medicine, not helping and hurting look very much the same. And with Reiki sessions costing anywhere between $40 and $150 a session, maybe they shouldn’t.

Our Reiki experiments on each other eventually went from the physical to the emotional. The class nearly became a group therapy session as we unloaded our past hurts and fears. Lucy cried, recalling a friend’s dog she hadn’t been able to help during his last hours of life. She wished she had had the Reiki then, to help the dog ease painlessly into the afterlife.

“You know, you can send Reiki forward or backward in time to help that person or animal deal with whatever was going on then,” said Jenny.

Lucy became excited. I pictured her envisioning her friend’s dog, sending him healing energy, and I was so glad she believed. I doubted it would help the dog, but as Lucy cried next to me, grabbing napkins to dab her face and looking skyward, I knew Reiki would help her let go and forgive herself for not being able to save everyone. When things seemed hopeless, a vague hope was the only hope left.

By the time we had all finished experimenting on one another and felt each other’s healing energies, spirits were up again. I didn’t think I had special healing energy in my hands, and I was worried about how others would present it to people who had something serious to treat. But in that moment, in that room, it was all smiles. People who came to the class because they felt powerless as relatives slipped into dementia, animals passed away, and clients dealt with untreatable pain felt a small sense of peace again.

“It’s kind of like Peter Pan, isn’t it?” said Richard, “If you believe it, it’s real.”

I didn’t believe it. But it was real.


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