Ask me where I feel Pagan, and I will hold out my hands. Ask me where I feel Quaker, and I will touch my heart.
The other day, at my Quaker meeting, I had just come in the door before meeting for worship and was quietly greeting friends. I was, however, inwardly, already making the transition to worship in my mind, and as I was happily smiling at a friend who had just walked into the room, my hand found its way over my heart.
My friend, thinking I was giving him a kind of New Age salute, returned the gesture. My hand dropped a moment, sheepishly; I am far more New Englander than New Ager, and hate like anything to seem grandiose or self-dramatizing. The gesture, as a gesture, seems terribly precious to me.
Nonetheless, a moment later, I noticed my hand had returned to its position over my heart.
See, there's this thing about my hands. There's this thing about my heart. There's this thing about the sensuality of Spirit, and the physicality of prayer.
The thing about my hands is maybe easiest to explain if I tell you about Reiki. Reiki is part of it... but it's not the whole of it. In a way, Reiki is just the envelope, and the real message is inside.
I was given a Renegade Reiki attunement* at the Freespirit Pagan festival, in about 1996. I remember sitting out under the trees at the edge of the campground where the festival was held, smelling sweet green grass and listening to the wind moving over it, as perhaps a dozen of us received first level attunements.
After the attunments, we were directed to lay hands on someone, or at any rate some thing living, to establish the flow... and to take it easy and drink plenty of water for the remainder of the day. Spiritual work is physical work (something I'm too inclined to forget after meeting for worship, when a wave of fatigue will sometimes surprise me) and deserves at least as much respect as would a long bike ride in the sun.
I know people for whom receiving Reiki attunements has been a life-changing event, who go on to build entire identities around their use of this hands-on healing practice. (The most ludicrous example I have seen is the Reiki master I once saw wearing a mauve sweatsuit prominently emblazoned with the symbol for Usui Reiki. I put it to you that when you need to advertize your spiritual attainments on your sweatsuit, you may have work to do that does not depend on logos.)
I think this is because, for many people, Reiki is their first encounter with magic that actually works--that does something palpable in the world. And Reiki does. Oh, I wouldn't tout it as a cure for cancer--though I would recommend using it as part of a conventional treatment for cancer, if it's available. It will almost certainly make the recipient more comfortable, if not healthier. It can be hard to measure the physical benefits of Reiki, in fact, though I tend to think they exist, if only because Reiki has been useful to me, personally, for pain management when I needed it.
But what I mean by Reiki being palpable magic is simple and easy to observe: when using Reiki, your hands get hot.
I have no idea why this is, and the effect has dimmed for me a bit with time, as I do not use it as often as I once did. But, unlike many another alternative healing modality, from Therapeutic Touch to a range of magical healing techniques friends and covenmates experimented with over the years, I was able to feel Reiki at work from the first time I received it as a patient, and I was equally able to feel it in my own hands, touching other humans or even the green, green grass, that summer's day in Maryland when I was attuned myself.
For many of us, who want to believe in God or in gods, in miracles or in magic, there is a constant struggle to accept these things as true, or at least as possible. And some of us, lacking any clarity, succumb to the temptation to pretend that we believe, hoping that in that way, we'll put ourselves in a way actually to discover our hoped for relationship with the universe is true after all.
We pretend we have magic; we pretend we have faith; we pretend we have experiences of spirit, hoping we will have them one day.
Surprisingly enough, while that sometimes creates an impassable bar to actual encounters with Spirit, sometimes it does not. Sometimes, in the midst of our hopeful pretending, miracles intrude on our awareness anyway. I suppose it is a little like the way a young girl, daydreaming of falling in love and of romance, may find herself surprised by the genuine article, and fall in love for real.
For a lot of people who hoped for magic in the world, Reiki has been that first breaking in of the truth and actuality of miracles. For some, that has been as far into the realm of wonder as they have cared to go: having found one method for touching the Spirit, they latch on and look no farther.
But Reiki is far from the only miracle, and it was not my first. Having already experienced the presence of gods and magic in the world, I knew this, even as I was delighted with the sensuousness of Reiki itself.
My friend Maureeen, with a background in shamanism and shamanic healing, has likened Reiki to an Amway cult--not without cause--where those who are true believers become suppliers to the next batch of entry-level providers. Despite this, she agreed to receive an attunement from me, at the point where I had had enough training to give them. And on another hot summer's day, alone in a tent at the edge of a field, I gave her one.
Afterwards, she asked about the symbols I had used. (They are Kanji, for the most part.) She sketched one for me on the ground. Had I used this?
I had not.
She told me that what she had felt seemed to her essentially like the shamanic healing energy she was used to working with. She was initially a bit startled to recognize some of the symbols she saw in her mind as I worked, as they were also shamanic, and she would have been surprised to find one of her symbols being used in Reiki attunements.
They weren't. Though they were present for her. And that, I think, surprised neither of us.
Maureen has not gone on to practice Reiki--not name brand Reiki, even of the renegade variety, at least. But I think she and I both agree that it would be odd beyond measure to think that there was anything innately and uniquely sacred in the combination of gestures and Japanese calligraphy used in a Reiki attunement that can bestow healing magic. It is not that Reiki healing is unique that it startling--it would be far more startling if it were the only such modality that worked.
The uniqueness of Reiki, if it has such, is that it has a technology for transmitting the non-verbal awareness of how to allow it to flow within you. Reiki practitioners have nothing that Maureen hasn't got. But while the spirits of her shamanic workings guided Maureen in developing her hands-on healing abilities, they did not teach her how to share that ability to others who might want to do the same thing. Perhaps they would, if she needed them to, but they did not.
Reiki comes with a set of more-or-less reliable techniques for passing the ability along. Which is very convenient and helpful.
But the real delight of Reiki is not that, and it is not even the ability to help manage pain that has been resistant to medication, to ease athsma (my own most common use for it), or to speed healing times. I have seen it do all of those things--and I have seen it fail to do all of those things. I like Reiki. But I do keep my health insurance premiums paid up.
No, for me, the best thing about Reiki is the thing that it shares with Maureen's shamanic healing practices, with Wiccan spellcraft, and probably also with prayer and yoga and a thousand other spiritual practices, named and unnamed: it lets us touch the living body of God. (Yes, yes. I know that some of you don't believe in God. You may say mana if you prefer, or Gaia, or magickal aether. For this purpose, I am not at all fussy, especially since whatever I'm talking about is well beyond my comprehension anyway.)
That is what it feels like to me, at any rate. (I wonder what it felt like to the apostles?)
It is the sense of presence, of deep, deep interconnectedness, that matters to me most.
There are times, particularly when I am around those who are suffering, when my hands will suddenly become very, very hot. This happens more for me around emotional suffering than physical pain--perhaps because, with the years I spent as a psychotherapist, that is the kind I am most attuned to.
I don't, as some do, "tell" my Reiki to turn on. I just find my hands becoming warm and tingling, and wanting to touch. Nor do I lay on hands, uninvited, to those who are grieving or in shock, or intrude on what may be very private moments in their lives. Instead, I generally find myself placing my hands over my own heart, and...
I suppose the nearest translation would be "praying for them."
I hold them in love. I feel the truth of them, and I cherish them, and I remember that the healing power that is in my hands is in them, too. In their bodies. In their hearts. And in all the space between us.
I can lay my hands on my own heart--or my knee, or my shoulder, or my elbow, I suppose--because all these things are connected, and are in fact connected by that very thing that is flowing through my hands and making them hot.
I place my hands over my heart, specifically, because it feels right to do so. Because, somehow, I know that my heart must be stronger and more open in order to be helpful in this way.
Am I praying for the person in pain? Am I praying for myself to be open? To them? To God? I don't entirely know. There are no words in this. There is only the sensuality of doing--of touching them through this Other Thing, that touches them and me all the time, and runs like a river through my heart.
It happens to me more and more often, now. Not because my brain suggests it, but because my heart hungers for it, and my hands tingle with it, when I am in worship, I will find myself, often and often, hand to heart. (Sometimes I am hand to heart and hand to belly, to hara, perhaps to remind myself that I am rooted in this world and in this body, and this too is good?)
This kind of holding aches. I think it stretches me. I don't choose it--I respond to it. I rejoice in it.
But, mostly, I feel it. In my hands. And in my heart. For me, at least, right here and right now, there is a sensuality of Spirit, and a physicality of prayer.
*There are several schools of Reiki in the world. And in the United States, the world's largest economy, most of them are for sale. Renegade Reiki is not--its practitioners are mainly Pagans who defy the requirement to charge money for attunements and teaching. Depending on your point of view, that may be a good or a bad thing, but it is the form of Reiki in which I have been attuned. Open Source Reiki, if you will.