Updated: May 21
Reiki is known as a hands on healing technique. How can it possibly work long distance?
The short yet not simple answer is that Reiki is a spiritual practice.
And in the spiritual dimension – or the fundamental reality, depending on your beliefs and/or your experience, there's ultimately no separation between people or things.
Non-duality and the everyday
This may sound abstract but it can be experienced directly and purely during meditation, and you can make conscious use of it in long distance healing. This fundamental, absolute reality doesn't stop the relative level being true, just as the wilder conclusions of quantum mechanics don't stop the world as we know it functioning according to the laws of science we're familiar with.
In everyday terms, when you hurt yourself and clutch the painful place with your hands, or when you hug a hurt child and rub the place it hurts, that's hands-on reiki practice, and when you say 'I'm thinking of you' or 'I'm sending love', that's long distance practice. It's instinctual, we understand that there's a level at which our thoughts have an effect at a distance, and that there's a way we can 'send' our love.
Reiki is the life force
Reiki is just the life force, the natural flow, what makes the plants grow, and the difference in a human body between being alive and being dead. The enhanced, intensified, consciously-used flow of Reiki for healing, though, comes about as a natural side-effect of spiritual practice.
Did Mikao Usui, the founder, teach long distance healing?
In the Reiki tradition, as originally taught by Mikao Usui, practice involved meditation, chanting and following simple, yet rigourous, ethical precepts (try to 'not worry!'). He didn't teach any type of healing specifically. When you practice sincerely in this way, and receive empowerments from those with more experience, you become able to work with the flow, starting with whatever is under your hands (plants, animals, people who are physically present), and then progressing to work on the deepest level – in which there is no separation according to space, time, or self.
Usui's students started by concentrating on earth aspects of the life force for 9 months and then heavenly aspects for 9 months before chanting the mantra for 'connection' in which the earth and the heavenly energies are felt to be one. This 'connection' was later seen in the Reiki tradition to be the key to distance healing. It's not about connecting two different entities, though, it is about experiencing the way in which they exist completely simultaneously.
The idea of all aspects of life really being one is easy to misunderstand. It doesn't mean that everything is just some kind of mush and nothing really matters or means anything - it's more that everybody and everything is a temporarily arising product of a huge web of cause and effect and interconnections that make it impossible to isolate any single one thing. Of course you couldn't really function if this was at the forefront of your mind every day. But it's really useful to be able to access awareness of this for healing, because, being true, it allows you to relax. And when the organism is deeply relaxed, it wants to heal, and has all resources available to heal.
What about the receiver of long distance Reiki?
Reiki only works at all because the life-force is what the world is made of on a fundamental level, beyond our individual bodies and minds. The receiver accesses this level too, just as the practitioner does, simply through a state of deep relaxation, and not holding on to any ideas or senses of separation. In a sense long distance reiki can work even better because there are less distractions, caused by that convincing and sometimes irritating separate person in the room with you!
Do you need to believe all this or be a 'spiritual person' for long distance Reiki to work? The short answer is no. It might help though. This leads us back to a common question about Reiki per se -
Do you have to believe in Reiki in order for it to work?
You don't. Reiki activates your own healing capacity, and it is a real force.
This force is more than the purely physical, than the measurable. It's the difference between being alive and being dead. This force is what the world is made of on a fundamental level, and it is beyond our individual bodies and minds.
You could say, using psychoanalytic language that we access this force through the subconscious, unconscious or collective unconscious... or in a more Buddhist sense that it is what is.
Whatever you believe about the nature of the flow of life energy, it can only enhance your experience, and the experience is real - after all not-believing in death never made anyone stay alive.
Has there been scientific research on Reiki?
While there are countless cases of the successful Reiki treatments leading to relief and healing, which might be compiled together, and single case studies or one-off studies with small sample sizes which could be presented, there haven't to my knowledge been rigourous, repeatable, double blind clinical trials done on Reiki. This is unsurprising, and not only because there's nothing to sell here so little incentive for full blown research - on a deeper level I would argue that a repeatable double blind study on Reiki would be literally impossible, because the life force is always flowing, whether or not people have been attuned to Reiki, and if people turn up open to healing this is often exactly what they will get. Some Reiki practitioners might disagree with me, and think that there is always a salient and measurable difference between being attuned to Reiki and not, but I don't believe this is necessarily the case. If a flow of healing energy is the effect of living well and spiritually in tune, it isn't confined to any one group of people, and the receiver is also half of the story.
The power of the universe simply surpasses our intentions. Science is for the measurable, for material substances, that need to be checked, that need to be measured. Reiki however works directly with the immeasurable.
The power of the placebo
The placebo effect, however, is something measurable, and there has been plenty of research to back up the hypothesis that the placebo effect is often stronger than the drug, stronger in the sense of more long-lasting.
Here is a meta study of 96 scientifically rigorous, double blind research studies on anti-depressants, which involved giving anti depressants to one group and empty pills to a control group, who were informed that these might be anti-depressants. The placebo effect - that is improvements in the condition of the people who received the empty pills, accounted for 68% of total improvements in participants in the studies- and these improvements were significantly more likely to last over long periods of time than the improvements experienced by people who took the actual anti-depressant.
While the Western mind might be horrified to think that a placebo is some kind of fooling the patient because 'there's nothing in it' - there is something in it. The placebo effect works by activating your own healing capacity. The placebo effect has not only been significant in depression either, a search on PubMed leads to a diverse set of studies. From this conventional scientific point of view, the placebo is seen as some kind of potentially useful tricking of the brain, but while this makes good sense on the relative level, people might also be tricked into believing unhelpful things (which I don't think has been studied for ethical reasons), when we are talking about healing - the drive to heal and be whole and well functioning is, I believe, primary.
This healing capacity isn't given to you by any substance - it's innate, it actually is what you're made of, yet we outsource this power and become dependent on external sources. There are obvious incentives to do this, like in the above example, the drug companies selling the anti-depressants.
At the same time, the healing capacity is not just your private thing that you can turn on and off - it's the life force which is the same in nature, you're just an instance of it, and you can choose to, or by cultural default ignore and partially block it and not tap into it - or to the contrary you can enliven, enhance and work with it.
Reiki treats people on precisely this level, the life force level which is present in all beings. This is why it can work with all medicines, all substances, there are no contra-indications, there is simply no conflict. Again, this is not a sign of weakness, 'because there's nothing in it' but a sign of strength, as Reiki actively supports all substances that work on a mainly material level, only. There are of course many situations and conditions that require medicine on the material level as a matter of urgency and Reiki alone is not enough to rectify the situation - but without life force energy at all, you can find what medicine you like - the person will be dead.
Coming full circle to long distance Reiki again
So the life force, being in everything, is not concerned by time and space, and we can tap into it with our intention and allow our own receptive healing capacity to open and to support our bodies and minds in whatever situation they find themselves in, whether that is supporting other healing medicines, opening the mind to its own capacity to feel safe and stop the defensive actions that are at the base, I think, of so much illness. Even if the body is dying and cannot heal itself, there will be another kind of nurturing sustenance given by the Reiki to the whole person.
Long distance Reiki comes about when a practitioner intentionally focuses on a person who may or may not be consciously focused on receiving, and the barriers between them fall away, or the illusion that there were fundamentally any barriers between them falls away.
In my own experience as a receiver I have felt long distance Reiki even more strongly than in person Reiki, I have felt as if there were other forces at work than just the person who was sending me Reiki. I have no particular beliefs about spirits, angels, or whatever, and they are not a necessary or traditional part of the Reiki system, but I definitely felt an active, supportive presence, maybe of ancestors. I simply don't know, and being in the not-knowing, in a state of trust, was deeply relaxing to the system, and that causes everything to work better, from the immune system and the digestion to the brain, as it clears all the anxious static, and the emotional system as feelings are allowed to be what they are, and to flow.
On the other side, as a practitioner of long distance Reiki I often feel much freer as a channel to concentrate on the other person than I do when they are physically present with me, it's as if the parts of them which need healing are entirely available and open to the Reiki. In physical presence people are always more guarded, which is completely understandable. In physical form we need to keep ourselves safe and boundaried. There is a level also always present, though, in which these concerns don't apply, a state of complete trust which is not personal, it's not a complete, unconditional trust in the practitioner (which might not be the best idea, humans being as they are). While you obviously trust the practitoner enough, complete trust belongs to another level, deeper and more primary than both the healer and the person who is asking for healing.
We are made of interconnections between elements, between each other, there's no place where one thing definitively stops and another starts. Thich Nhat Hhan had a good term for this, 'interbeing'.
You don't need to understand any of this for the healing effects of Reiki to work!
If you're curious, check it in your own experience – just try.
Sarah Luczaj, PhD
Therapist, writer, artist, reiki master, creative regenerator and co-founder of terrealuma. offers online reiki healing/chanting sessions, here.