By: Bernard Starr, PhD

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Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 12:12am

Reiki: Learning to do it

Column: Spiritual Psychology
The overwhelmingly positive response to last week's column about Pamela Miles' work with Reiki told me that a follow-up column was called for. Many asked for more details about the training required for practicing Reiki on oneself and others. "Is this for me?" seemed to be the pressing question. To answer the queries, I did another interview with Pamela.

Question: Pamela, who are your students?

Answer: The people who come to learn Reiki are the people we bump into in our daily lives. They are parents and grandparents, married and single, professionals and students from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances. Some come on an apparent whim, while others have waited a long time to find a class that is comfortable for them. Some even travel to study with a particular teacher.

Although I often teach health care professionals — doctors, medical students, researchers, nurses, psychotherapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, etc. — at least half my students are not in healthcare. Students in recent classes have included entrepreneurs and businesspeople, lawyers, TV producers, yoga teachers, an accessories designer, writers, painters, actors and teenagers. A few had serious chronic illnesses, but most were relatively healthy and want to stay that way. Adolescents are welcome in class, but I teach younger children separately and sometimes I teach family classes.

A recent class of nine students arrived at 6 p.m. on a cold and rainy evening, so I had a pot of hot herbal tea ready. They were a particularly outgoing group, chatting easily as they took their seats in the circle.

Q. Do you ask them why they want to learn Reiki?

A. Every student arrives with two important questions: Can Reiki help me? Will I really be able to do this myself? It's my job to help each student discover the answers. In order to best support that process, after welcoming the class I ask the students to briefly introduce themselves and tell me why they want to practice Reiki. The reasons vary: maintaining health and mental acuity; reducing stress, anxiety or depression; improving sleep; stabilizing emotions; slowing disease progression; reducing side effects of medication; addressing infertility, caring for an aging parent, healing addictions — the list goes on. The more I know about my students' individual reasons for learning to practice Reiki, the more effectively I can customize the class to their needs. Although much of what we do is the same in every class, I weave in anecdotes and highlight aspects of the practice that are of special interest to each group of students.

Q. How is the "First Degree" class structured?

A. First of all, I'd like to state clearly that there is enormous variation in the way different Reiki masters teach and the length of their classes. I am traditional in my approach, which means my classes tend to be longer than most (eight to 12 hours over two to three sessions) — and I also encourage my students to practice Reiki every day, as I myself do. Class time is organized in different ways to suit my students' needs. Most often, the class is three evening sessions, but I also teach during the day or on weekends to accommodate students who travel to New York City for class.

Q. How many students are in a class?

A. In my private practice, there are usually eight to 12 students per class. When I teach at an institution (a medical school or conference, or a hospital, hospice or other care facility) there may be 20-plus students.

Q. What do you actually do during class?

A. My students start practicing Reiki as soon as we finish the introductions. The core of Reiki training is a series of initiations that empower the student to practice, and I give the first of four initiations an hour or so after the class begins. Initiations can be understood as subtle, targeted healings offered by a qualified Reiki master. The initiations enable students to connect spontaneously with the pristine core of wellness that exists within all of us, no matter how ill or unbalanced we might be. The ability to empower students to practice Reiki has been passed down the lineage of Reiki masters that started with Mikao Usui in early 20th century Japan.

After the initiation, the students sit quietly with eyes closed, hands resting comfortably on their thighs, fingers neither spread apart nor pinched together. We bring our awareness to our hands and observe the hand-to-body connection. We're not focusing or concentrating, just noticing whatever might be happening. After a few minutes, we move our hands to the abdomen, then the chest and finally the head, pausing in each area to notice any changes. The experience of Reiki is subjective and sometimes very subtle, and this exercise introduces the students to their new Reiki hands. Teaching Reiki can be very abstract until students experience the actual practice. As students experience Reiki's subtle activity in their hands, their interest shifts from trying to understand what is happening in an academic way to allowing the understanding to unfold through their practice. It is crucial for this shift to occur, because Reiki is a practice, not an academic discipline.

Q. Does everyone experience Reiki the same way?

A. Each student is unique and will experience Reiki in a unique way. Also, the experience itself changes. Students often feel heat or pulsations or tingling. One student, a physician, said Reiki felt like popcorn in his hands. Others report a feeling of fullness, or sense that their hands have become active in a new way. Some people notice a shift in themselves more than sensations in their hands. Someone may have come to class with a headache or other pain and notice that it lessens or disappears in the very first practice session. Students often express feeling somehow comforted by the light touch of their own Reiki hands in a way they never felt before. Once students start having their own experience, they have a context in which to discuss Reiki.

Q. How would you characterize your role?

A. I'm there simply to give the initiations and guide the process. Being a Reiki master often feels more like being a midwife than being a teacher. It's not what I tell my students that matters, it's the practice that changes their lives. This process starts with the first initiation. By the time the students leave class, they are engaged and delighted and sometimes skeptical. I reassure them that I welcome their skepticism, that I actually prefer skeptics over fools (that always draws a surprised laugh and a sigh of relief). But the caveat is that they must commit to practice. If they practice regularly, their skepticism will relax over time as the conviction born of their own contemplated experience grows.

I keep my classes conversational and practice-based. The students experience Reiki in various ways, giving themselves modified and full treatments and sharing Reiki with one another. The information they need — theory, practice guidelines, specific applications, combining Reiki with conventional medical care, and history — unfolds organically between practice sessions. There is ample time for Q&A.

Q. Any homework assignments?

A. Of course — to practice at home as much as they can and at least 20 minutes a day. Since the students are by now intrigued by their new Reiki hands and feeling benefits from their first practice, they usually can hardly wait to get home and practice on their own. I ask them to choose a time of day that will be their Reiki time — usually while waking up or falling asleep — when they do the full self-treatment of eight hand placements on head and torso (this protocol varies among Reiki masters). And I encourage them to place a Reiki hand on their bodies wherever/whenever they feel the need of refreshment or centering during the day.

Practicing at home increases the students' confidence, and they can then bring to class the questions that arise only when first practicing at home. Students will get the most benefit from Reiki if they practice every day for the rest of their lives, so I structure the class to create a strong beginning to their personal practice.

Q. Do students have to prepare themselves in any way before class?

A. Reiki class is a come-as-you-are party. There is absolutely no preparation needed. People bring their unique life experience to their practice, and students discover for themselves how Reiki builds on what they have already found to be of value in life.

Q. Any special concentration exercises or mental focusing?

A. Quite the contrary. Although it's lovely to simply observe the pulsations of Reiki, we can actually practice Reiki while doing something else — watching TV, speaking on the phone or reading — as long as we can rest one or both hands on our body. We can move our hands through the eight placements or just place even one hand wherever is comfortable. Because of the initiations, the Reiki response in our hands is spontaneous, so there is no need to focus.

Q. What are the challenges in teaching students to practice Reiki?

A. The hardest part about Reiki, in the beginning, is appreciating how truly easy it is. We are all so used to working hard to achieve anything, but Reiki is more like a gift we simply receive. The initiations enable us to practice, and the practice itself is quite passive — but passive does not mean random. The basic treatment has a specific protocol. And that brings us to a crucial challenge — appreciating how important it is to continue practicing every day. Many students take another, higher-level class to advance their abilities, but Reiki is primarily developed through practice. Most people only need to take the First Degree training to enable them to practice Reiki effectively for the rest of their lives.

Q. Do students feel competent to practice after 12 hours of training?

A. By the time the class ends, students have logged in many hours of practice, both in class and at home, and they are typically very enthusiastic about the benefits they are experiencing from Reiki. Although they are just beginning, there is already comfort with the practice.

Q. Any follow-up? Do you continue contact with the students?

A. I offer continuing support in a number of ways. Since the students have bonded with one another, I encourage them to be Reiki buddies, scheduling time to share treatment with each other. My book provides ongoing support, including tips on how to maintain one's practice. And I am available to my students through email and at our monthly Reiki reunions where we practice together, share experiences and discuss questions.

For more information about Reiki, how to find a qualified master teacher, and to read excerpts from Pamela Miles' book, "Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006), go to her website:

In case you missed last week's column on Reiki:

Reiki: A healing touch

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Bernard Starr, Ph.D., formerly professor of developmental and educational psychology at the City University of New York, now teaches psychology and leads the Spiritual Forum at Marymount Manhattan College. In addition to his work in radio, he is a longtime contributor of commentary and opinion articles to numerous major publications. He is currently completing a book, "Escaping the Prison of the Self," to be published by Rowman and Littlefield, which explores spirituality as a psychology of consciousness. His email address is {email}{/email}. © copyright 2007 by Bernard Starr