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Reiki and the Placebo Effect

A few weeks ago, a comment was placed on my website that set me thinking about the placebo effect.  The comment read, ‘Other than putting money into your pocket, and supplying placebo effects, Reiki does nothing.  There is a million dollars waiting for you if you can (sic).’  Well, first of all I had to decide whether or not to accept the comment, or to trash it.  Naturally, being of a decisive nature, I did nothing, so there it sits, waiting for me to moderate it.  The comment made me feel hot inside, because it attacks Reiki, but it also made me laugh.  Doesn’t the writer have any idea just how powerful the placebo effect can be?  Time and again the placebo effect has confounded the multi-million  pound drugs industry, forcing the latest concoction of chemicals off the market because they prove no stronger than a simple sugar pill.  In some conditions, such as depression, placebos regularly induce an improvement of over 80% in symptoms.1 That’s a big improvement,  and if Reiki has that effect,  I’m all for it!

So just what is this ‘placebo effect’?  In trials, a clinician will give a patient either a ‘real’ treatment,  maybe a pill stuffed full of powerful chemicals, or a ‘fake’ treatment, often a look-alike pill containing sugar or some other innocent substance.  To their surprise, over the years, in study after study, clinicians have found that the ‘fake’ treatment provides an improvement in symptoms in an average of 35% of cases.  Now that average is a tricky beast, because it’s variable depending on what sort of trial is involved.  Placebos work better for some conditions than for others, going as low as 10% and as high as 100%.  Some doctors are better at administering them, with their own belief in the efficacy of treatment influencing their patients.2 Furthermore, it has been scientifically proven that taking 4 placebos a day works better than taking 2…3

So what’s going on?  In his inspiring book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, David Hamilton argues that what doctors are doing here is harvesting the power of the mind to heal the body.  The mind is a mighty tool, and if doctors are sufficiently enthusiastic about a proposed new treatment, then the patient’s mind starts working wonders, even to the point of producing its own chemical version of the desirable new drug.  Is Reiki working on that mind-body link too?  I think perhaps it might be.  Reiki is energy medicine, and a Reiki initiation creates a dynamic link to universal life-force energy, to the power that flows through trees and streams and sky, to the power that Mrs Takata called ‘God-power’.  Once we’ve called in that energy, it can work on the mind-body connection, changing the way we think and allowing us to heal ourselves.  But unlike a placebo, that’s not all there is to it.  Reiki doesn’t only work on the mind-body connection, it works directly on the physical body, and on emotional and spiritual planes too.  We’ve all felt it.  Describing that feeling is difficult, because we all have different experiences.  We may feel it as tingling.  We may feel it as warmth.  We may simply feel relaxed – and what a gift that is.  One of my students, someone the outside world would see as infinitely calm, describes having a Reiki treatment as a process of being ‘combed out’, so that by the end all knots and tangles are smoothed away.  Those of us who treated her were a tad surprised to hear she had knots and tangles to begin with.

The cynical will argue that this is all a figment of our imaginations, but fortunately, unlike placebos, Reiki doesn’t need the patient to believe in the treatment.  I’ve held a tiny, premature baby, whose twin died in the womb, and my hands blazed with heat until they sweated, and felt super-glued to her body, although she, of course, knew nothing of Reiki.  I’ve treated sceptics, who all at once fell into a profound sleep.  These were lively people who didn’t usually fall asleep in the middle of the day, and yet when they woke they insisted that sleep was all that had happened.  As any medic knows, sometimes the most healing thing you can do for someone is let them sleep.  As for myself, I was once a sceptic too.  I had my first treatment to humour someone I liked, and within moments was flicking around on the table, while my mind was still protesting that the whole thing was hokum.

Those of us who use Reiki everyday know that it is powerful.  It can shift big problems.  One of my students recently used an esoteric mix of Reiki, rest and visualisation to heal his broken leg, depriving the local hospital, to their surprise, of the chance to stick metal rods in him.  Reiki can be a major force for change.  Sometimes those changes aren’t at all easy and comfortable.  Sometimes the process knocks us about.  So while Reiki can match the best placebos for efficacy, it has to be said it isn’t ‘just a placebo’.  It’s a fundamental treatment in its own right, but it hasn’t yet been scientifically validated.  So far, our evidence is anecdotal, and anecdotal evidence is not enough.  Reiki is just beginning to be accepted in hospital wards and oncology departments, and the validation will come.  Meanwhile, a little scepticism from the general public is to be expected, even a few aggressive comments on a website.  And that’s just fine.  The general public took a while to accept the magic of electricity, or the notion of evolution, but those who had grasped the new ideas went on playing with them, furthering their own understanding, until both the general public and the scientific community caught up.  That’s our role right now.  We carry on playing with our Reiki, deepening our understanding, learning through doing, until the whole world notices and says, “Oh Reiki, yeah that works and it’s easy too.  You just stick your hands on.”

1.      I.Kirsch et al, ‘Initial severity and antidepressant benefits: a meta-analysis of data submitted to the food and drug administration’, PLoS Medicine, February 2008, 5(2), e45, 0260-68 cited in Hamilton, 2008.

2.      David R.Hamilton, PhD, How your mind can heal your body, Hay House, 2008

3.      A.J.de Craen et al, ‘Placebo effect in the treatment of duodenal ulcer’ British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1999, 48(6), 853-60 cited in Hamilton, 2008

Louisa Booth June 2010

Paradoxically, Autumn always seems a time of new beginnings. Just as the leaves turn golden, the children start a new school year and I plan Reiki shares and Reiki courses. We have our first Autumnal Reiki Share in Tavistock on Tues September 8th, at 7.30. If you would like to come, and haven’t been before, just give me a ring on 07802 863008. I will be teaching a Reiki 11 course in Tavistock on Oct 10 /11th, and a Reiki 1 course on Oct 24th/25th. If you would like to join in, please ring me.

Meanwhile, I seem to have lost a blog or two somewhere. I wrote about my Canadian trip, about meeting up with Wanja Twan in Vancouver and swimming in English Bay, and then moving inland to Mission to stay with Native American Reiki Masters Annelli Twan and Don, who took me to a cold mountain lake for more swimming. It’s a good thing I have been hardening off in the rivers and seas around Devon! There is something about swimming in real water that helps me find myself and make connections with earth and spirit. Annelli, Don and Wanja also took me to the Transformer Rock, where, way back when, three leaders were transformed to stone because they had failed to pass on the knowledge invested in them. Reiki is about passing on knowledge- not knowledge of the mind, but knowledge in the hands and spirit. It happens during initiation, from Master to student, and it is the role of the Master to ensure that the knowledge is passed on perfectly, without loss during the transmission. So, I try to teach exactly as Wanja taught me, and she teaches as Mrs Takata taught her, and it is the same, but inevitably different, because everything else we have ever learned comes in too.

Hello! I plan to use this site to chat about my Reiki life in Tavistock, and about the stories that come up as I teach Reiki, give Reiki treatments, hold Reiki shares and chat to Reiki practitioners everywhere. At the moment I am in the middle of a very exciting venture with Wanja Twan. Wanja was one of the 22 Reiki Masters taught by Hawayo Takata, and in April she came to Tavistock to hold a Storytelling workshop. I wrote about that for The Reiki Association’s Touch Magazine, and that story is below. Meanwhile, this week I am off to Canada to spend some more time with Wanja and Michelle, to have a think about the book we hope will come out of it.

Story Telling with Wanja Twan,
Tavistock, April 25th 2009

Wanja Twan is one of the 22 Reiki Masters created by Mrs Takata. She has lived a life full of Reiki for over thirty years. Two weeks ago, she came to Devon to hold a Reiki Story Telling Workshop. Louisa Booth tells us how it happened.

Two days before I went away for a month, Wanja and I concocted a plan to hold a story telling workshop in Tavistock. Wanja herself is a wonderful storyteller, and I love stories too, so this was clearly a fine plan. I recall now those stories Wanja tells about the early days, when Mrs Takata would declare that she was arriving to teach a Reiki class, and Wanja would say ‘yes’, and then work out how to rustle up some participants.
I sent emails and texts, and made as many phone-calls as I had time for, and then let it all simmer while I was on the other side of the world. When I returned, with 10 days to spare, we had 4 participants. Here’s the thing. Tavistock isn’t exactly near anywhere, except Dartmoor. People think they’ve reached the West Country when they hit Bristol, but they have another two counties to go before they reach Tavistock. For Canadians like Wanja and Michelle, that distance is nothing. Canadians cheerfully travel 10 hours just to pop in for tea with a neighbour. But in the British Isles, distance is different. People find it harder to traverse. Nevertheless, we soon had people coming from far (Scotland, Ireland, Shropshire, London) and near (Cornwall, Tavistock and all the way over the moor). By the end of the week I was asking the locals to bring chairs and mugs and hoping we would all fit in. We did, of course. We had the perfect number for a perfect day. (Note to self – do not worry).
Wanja told stories first. We started with perhaps the most important story for us as Reiki practitioners – how Mrs Takata taught Wanja to lay her hands there, and there, and there. We watched, we listened, we tried to absorb. Into this Wanja began to weave stories from her journey as a Reiki Master. Canadian stories feature coyotes and bears and interactions with the wild outside. Tentatively, we began telling stories too. Our stories were different, featuring transformations and healings. The stories are being gathered together and will create a book we can all share, and then we will see, perhaps, whether the flavour changes as Wanja travels from country to country, gathering stories as she goes.
As the day closed, Wanja gave each of us a Reiki blessing, and people came out shining. A Reiki blessing from Wanja is amazing and powerful, and creates its own transformations. As Jean Jones said of the day, “what incredible energy… I guess that is what it feels like when you have truly lived Reiki. I really had the opportunity to experience her amazing energy and presence in a completely real way’. Wanja is a wonderful person, and opportunities to spend time with her are valuable. If you get the chance, any place, any time, I urge you to say yes!
Louisa Booth, May 7th 2009