Is Reiki Nonsense?

by Gil Dekel, PhD.

The purpose of this article is to analyse the difficulties in formulating coherent arguments about the benefits of Reiki. Whilst scientific research has undoubtedly brought progress to the human race, scientific knowledge is not yet able to provide reliable evidence on the benefits of therapeutic practices such as Reiki Healing. The tools with which we measure reality are not refined enough to capture the advanced forms of energy underpinning Reiki.

In his article ‘Reiki is Nonsense’ (2009) Stephen Barrett raises the important issue of health frauds. He opens his article by declaring that “Reiki is one of several nonsensical methods…” [1] Whilst respecting Mr. Barrett’s role as a ‘watchdog’ for anything that could be seen as health fraud, one may question the use of words in his article. It is easy to select specific words and specific contexts to describe Reiki, such as Barrett’s choices of “this ceremony” and “serve as a conduit”, conjuring up a misleading sense of Reiki as a sort of semi-mystical, uncontrolled, dangerous black magic. It is easy to scare people, since the natural instinct of mankind is to seek protection and avoid dangers. On the other hand, it is difficult to inspire and uplift people by embracing the best from each system available to us.

Reiki is merely a modern ‘package’ corresponding to an ancient practical wisdom. Each generation needs to redefine, in its own terms, the same healing energy that has been known for centuries. Over the last hundred years or so, that healing energy has been called ‘Reiki’. Whatever name is used to call that energy, one must consider the personal benefits resulting from it. In the absence of much research available on the personal benefits of Reiki, I have taken a particular approach: I have studied Reiki, and have trained up to Level 3 (the so-called ‘Reiki Master/Teacher’ level) in order to use my own experience so as to advance the academic research in that field. With the life-changing benefits that I have experienced with the Reiki energy, I have also noted the epistemological problem we face in describing it.

'CKR?', by Gil Dekel.

The many questions we have on Reiki. (artwork: 'CKR?', by Gil Dekel).

Epistemologically, why are the benefits of Reiki so hard to evaluate? While I argue that current scientific tools are not sufficiently refined to measure the intangible, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake takes a different approach. Dr. Sheldrake argues that evidence for ESP is available but it is dismissed by some researchers, resulting in evidence-based studies being “set back” [2]. On the related issue of telepathy, Dr. Sheldrake explains why most people tend to disregard that practice:

“Because it’s a taboo area. Some people simply believe telepathy and other forms of ‘extrasensory perception’ (ESP) or psi are impossible in principle. So, they suggest that all the scientific evidence for telepathy must be flawed and should be treated with scepticism. Most research that brings evidence falls into obscurity. It just doesn’t make it into the mainstream scientific literature.” [3]

Taboo? Belief? Obscurity? Could these terms reflect on the mainstream scientific literature and on the way that facts are assimilated? Could it be that personal views and scepticism overshadow evidence that shows the benefits of such as Reiki? If so, then it is not the tools of measurement which are not refined enough to measure Reiki, but rather the ‘tool’ of open-mindedness which is not refined enough to accept the evidence that is already available.

Evidence-based research must begin with an open-mind so that it can accept surprising findings. This is one of the tenets of scientific developments that bring the future to the present. In that respect, one should re-examine the basic belief system on which decisions are made for which evidence is accepted and which is not. The power of beliefs, I would argue, determines what we can take as scientific evidence. To use an analogy, even if other forms of intelligence such as ‘Spirit Guides’ were to appear in front of our eyes, calling us by our name in a loud voice – still we would hear nothing and see nothing, if we believe that such things cannot exist.

Epistemologically, the belief systems that we hold shape the results we see in our scientific researches. And once we see those pre-set results, we then take them at ground value, behaving accordingly, and formulating a reality that fits the ‘evidence’. Put another way, we shape reality so as to fit our beliefs. Professor Josephson Brian, director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project in Cambridge University, does not go as far as arguing that reality is shaped by our belief system. Rather, Professor Josephson implies that people may have a greater influence over reality than was previously understood. His study explores “…what may loosely be characterised as intelligent processes in nature, associated with brain function or with some other natural process.” [4]

The concept of “intelligent processes” in nature that are associated with the brain, is interesting one. Could it be, as Shakespeare suggested, that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ – or should we consider this as mere poetic observation? Are there forms of ‘intelligences’ that are beyond what our measurement machines can record, and what our minds can comprehend? And, can emotions unite with logic, bypassing the rules of centimetres and minutes, and transcending forms of measurements invented by the human mind? Albert Einstein suggested a complimentary measurement model: “to sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp.” [5] Or, as Carl Jung (quoted by The Society for Psychical Research) sees it: “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” [6]

Many great scientists seem to argue against the limited view in which we tend to box reality into a time/space paradigm. According to Hartal, Einstein concluded that maths does not correspond to reality, suggesting that “As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” [7] If mathematical symbols do not refer to reality, then how can we use them to measure Reiki energy? As long as we try to measure Reiki by the units of the ruler, there is very little chance that we can appreciate it. If we could measure by units of ‘feeling’, then we might be able to provide evidence for Reiki. The problem, of course, is that we do not have the tools of measuring by ‘feelings’, non the least tools to measure feelings accurately. Feelings do not fall into the realm of scientific research, yet they are real.

To benefit from Reiki energy some basic concepts must adhered to. Reiki energy cannot ‘force’ itself; it rather requires the agreement of all participants involved in a Reiki treatment. Scepticism is a tool that blocks Reiki energy. With free-will being a basic feature of the human race, Reiki energy cannot overcome that basic rule. If Reiki energy faces disbelief (in a Reiki treatment or in a scientific research environment) the energy will simply not be noticed. For Reiki to be successful, the client and the practitioner must come into a relationship of trust and understanding in a relaxed environment. This is so simple that many researchers disregard this basic condition.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests that “Reiki has not been well studied scientifically” [8] And yet, Mr. Barrett reports on “the most comprehensive review of reiki research”, concluding his article with “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition”. In other words, scientific research did not gather enough evidence to ‘prove’ this energy. Yet, if scientists cannot prove the benefits and the existence of this energy, should we be led to think that they proved the energy does not exist? Can anyone conclude that Reiki is “Nonsense”? If a colony of ants cannot prove there are birds, does this mean they have proved there are no birds? In the words of Professor Josephson Brian:

“…if scientists as a whole denounce an idea this should not necessarily be taken as proof that the said idea is absurd: rather, one should examine carefully the alleged grounds for such opinions…” [9]

My research into Reiki has showed me that traditional academic tools of measurement and report are not yet suitable in providing a coherent account of Reiki benefits. Instead of trying to measure this energy, it may be better to assess the impact of Reiki on those who state they do benefit from it. Methodologically, how about in-depth study asking people who receive Reiki what they feel and think of it?

© Gil Dekel.
15 Feb 2010.
Last updated 30 Jan 2012.

References:

  1. Barrett, Stephen (2009) Reiki is Nonsense. Retrieved August 14, 2010, from: http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/reiki.html
  2. Sheldrake, Rupert (n.d) Richard Dawkins comes to call. Paragraph 6. Retrieved 27 August, 2010, from: http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/Dawkins.html
  3. Sheldrake, Rupert., Dekel, Gil. (2009) Overlapping Morphic Fields. Paragraphs 4-6. Retrieved August 10, 2010, from: http://www.poeticmind.co.uk/interviews-1/overlapping-morphic-fields
  4. Josephson, Brian. (n.d.) The home page of Professor Brian Josephson, director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project. Retrieved August 16, 2010, from Cambridge University, Theory of Condensed Matter (TCM) Cavendish Laboratory website: http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10/
  5. Einstein, Albert. (1932) My Credo. Retrieved August 11, 2010, from: http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/credo.html
  6. Society for Psychical Research. Retrieved August, 27, 2010, from: http://www.spr.ac.uk
  7. Hartal, Paul. (2010) Mathematics and Reality: Is Mathematics a symbolic Universe Invented by the Human Mind? Retrieved August 11, 2010, from: http://www.poeticmind.co.uk/research/mathematics-and-reality-is-mathematics-a-symbolic-universe-invented-by-the-human-mind-part-1-of-5
  8. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2010) Reiki: An Introduction. Paragraph 22. Retrieved August, 27, 2010, from: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/reiki/
  9. Josephson, Brian. (n.d.) The home page of Professor Brian Josephson, director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from Cambridge University, Theory of Condensed Matter (TCM) Cavendish Laboratory website: http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10/
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8 comments

  1. Chelsea C.

    Well said, well said.

  2. Gideon D. גדעון דקל

    מאמר מוצלח ביותר. מביא את הספק ברייקי ודומה לו. עקב זאת ששיטות המדע העכשוויות לא יכולות לספק את ההסבר לתופעות רוחניות וחשיבה רוחנית, התופעות הרוחניות תופסות יותר ויותר מקום אצל רבים

  3. An interesting article. It is a well trodden argument that Gil is exploring but I think it is worth reiterating whenever possible. Humanity, as with all living things, has a foothold and investment in the concept of cause and effect. That means we need to have some sort of understanding of which causes lead to which effects – it is a matter of basic survival to understand a broad, brush-stroke version of this notion. Homo-scientificus (at least that part of it that has been inculcated by a West oriented, consumerist society which prizes the rights of the individual above all else) has refined the ‘art’ (I use the term advisedly) of measuring things to determine how much cause will lead to how much and which effect.

    There is unfortunately an inherent problem for the argument that is hard to overcome: To identify the problem it is worth beginning by asking a question – why are we seeking any kind of ‘proof’ that Reiki or equivalent ‘complementary therapies’ work? Why do we ever seek ‘proof’ for anything, whatsoever? I am going to suggest that it is to convince the sceptical, which might include ourselves that something either a) works/exists, or b) doesn’t work/doesn’t exist.

    So why seek proof of the existence/efficacy of Reiki (or any other complementary therapy)? To convince the sceptical. But none of the proofs that the sceptical rely on and will accept, exist. The sceptical seek ‘scientific’ confirmation and the argument freely admits that scientific confirmation cannot provide the proof they seek. What the argument then asks is for the sceptic to accept that Reiki works and then they will have the proof that it works – because they will have accepted that it works.

    This is not a convincing argument. In fact it isn’t even an argument – it is proselitisation of a belief.
    The real crux of the article and, to my mind, the justified claim that all practitioners of complementary therapies can make, is not that we have insufficiently sensitive methods for measurement but rather that we need to rethink our parameters for measurement and our criteria that determine what shall count as ‘proof’. This inexohorably leads to the arguments found in philosophy of science and this inevitably gives rise to questions, or may be preceded by questions arising out of the philosophy of knowledge – epistemology.

    In all truth, the issue is not about complementary therapies and how they are treated by homo-scientificus. This is merely the corollary of mind-set borne of the age of enlightenment. The exploration and challenge has to be the mind-set itself and that can never be done from within the mind-set. There needs to be a Kuhnian shift before anything changes. Challenges such as this article are part of what can move towards that shift. The trick is finding the right arguments and focusing efforts on them.

  4. The weakness of the article’s argument is simply this: Extraordinary claims (e.g., the existence of reiki “energy” that can be manipulated by the appropropriately trained person) require extraordinary proof. That proof, to date, has not been forthcoming.

    “Yet, if scientists cannot prove the benefits and the existence of this energy, should we be led to think that they proved the energy does not exist? If a colony of ants cannot prove there are birds, does this mean they have proved there are no birds?” A lame argument indeed. It’s axiomatic that a negative cannot be proven.

    “Methodologically, how about in-depth study asking people who receive Reiki what they feel and think of it?” Completely insufficient as proof. How do people “think and feel” about the information they get from charlatans who claim to speak to their dead relatives?

    “The tools with which we measure reality are not refined enough to capture the advanced forms of energy underpinning Reiki.” Evidence that can’t be detected or examined is not evidence.

    “Scepticism is a tool that blocks Reiki energy.” Um, no. Scepticism is a tool that blocks illogical thinking.

    • Thank you Frank. I actually agree with what you say here. When you say “It’s axiomatic that a negative cannot be proven” I see your point – and agree with it. My intention was not to provide a proof for Reiki by saying ‘no one dis-proofed it, so it must exist’… My article was actually referring to the epistemological problems I see in too many arguments that suggest something like this: Reiki was not proved scientifically, therefore ‘Reiki is Nonsense.’ This argument is misleading, simply because to measure Reiki is impossible, therefore it may be ‘outside’ of scientific investigation (at least at the moment), thus, scientists cannot argue against it…

      While all the above still does not prove that Reiki does exist, my point is the wrong use of ‘academic’ methods to supposedly argue (wrongly) that Reiki does not exist. Can you see my point? But you may disagree with me since you argue that “Evidence that can’t be detected or examined is not evidence.” I suspect that by ‘evidence’ you mean ‘anything that we can see and measure’?. If so, then we are going back to the first point: Can we measure everything? And if not, does this mean some things do not exist, simple because we did not manage to measure them?… I am not trying to follow this up by saying that this provides evidence for Reiki, but I simply state that many observers (who consider themselves reliable scientists) are lacking the understanding and the tools to bring evidence, and still they assure us they have the evidence that proves Reiki does not exist… Where is that evidence?

      I think the discussion here is more about research methods than Reiki?

      • Sure, and there are invisible pink unicorns that are good at dodging radar. You can’t just invent arbitrary stuff like reiki (with lots of supposed rules, techniques, and operations — all human-devised) and then justify it with woo-woo. Have you not heard of “Occam’s razor”?

        • I think the starting point should be this: What is a proof? What constitutes evidence?

  5. Larry Dossey, MD

    I believe there is compelling scientific data suggesting that healing intentions (whether called willing, wanting, wishing, prayer, etc.) can bring about biological changes in humans and a variety of non-human organisms (plants, microbes, various mammals, etc.). There are numerous well-designed clinical studies documenting nonlocal/distant/remote healing effects. I have written at length about this evidence in various books and other publications. The mechanism is unclear. But in medicine (and science in general) we often know that something works before we know how it works.

    Reiki may be a form of healing intention. Most Reiki practitioners I’ve talked to believe it can work at a distance, which suggests that it is a form of nonlocal healing that transcends concepts of energy transfer (nonlocal events don’t involve transfer of energy or any kind of energetic signal). I think the “energy talk” by Reiki (and Therapeutic Touch) practitioners is hugely speculative and unproved, but their hypotheses of how Reiki works may be a useful fiction that helps them do their work.

    So I do not think Reiki is nonsense. My opinion is that it is fundamentally a form of nonlocal healing intentionality that deserves attention and more research.

    I think your paper is superb and very wise.

    Keep up the good work!

    Very best wishes,

    ~ Larry

    Larry Dossey, MD
    http://www.dosseydossey.com
    Executive editor: Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing http://www.explorejournal.com

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