Without a doubt, this the question I see most often in shamanism forums.
The ethics of energy and spiritual work is a topic I bring up often, not because I want to push a specific viewpoint, but because we don’t discuss it enough. A component of the imperialistic western mindset, particularly of Americans, is that if something is available, we have the right to use, repurpose, repackage, and redeliver to consumers whatever we so desire. This truth also pertains to the acquisition of esoteric insight in the New Age.
In classes that I teach, I speak very openly about the many routes on my shamanic path, one of which is Usui Reiki. I’ve discussed in prior blogs my concerns around the New Age handling of Reiki, though I’ve never clearly stated how I came to it, why I incorporated it into my practice, how I do so, and how I bridge its cultural differences. I’m not Japanese, that I’m aware of. I’m also not Shinto or Buddhist, per se, though am well-informed of both. I was, however, firmly on my shamanic path when I sought to learn Reiki, and was very familiar with cultural appropriation. For those of you who may not know, cultural appropriation is taking a component of a culture not native to one’s own, and adopting it in some fashion. Why on earth, then, was I attracted to Reiki?
Initially, an off-the-hook co-worker told me about it, and invited me to attend a community Reiki Share in Raleigh. A group of about a dozen people sat in circles of wooden chairs (because the Reiki Master refused to allow us to sit in metal chairs. When I asked why, she said it interfered with the life force. When I asked how, she said. “It just does.”). Vague peculiarities aside, we opened the space and the Master came to everyone in the circle and allowed Reiki for whatever each needed.
When she came to me, tremendous pressure fluttered in my chest . My heart cracked open in a metaphoric break. I was overwhelmed with an indescribable emotions, something I referred to for years as “The Great Sadness.” At that point I’d never allowed anyone else into that space, and I wasn’t intentionally allowing the Master, then. That breach was new territory, and so overcome with sadness and embarrassment was I that she could feel it, too, I shook.
She stepped back from me and said, “You have a lot going on there,” intimated that I really needed a lot of work, then went on to the next person. Pressured to believe the healing she had done and the summary of it was this precious treasure, in reality I felt violated and abandoned to deal with its aftermath alone. Of course in hindsight, I realize that unfortunate experience was a great example of what not do so as a group leader, particularly as a responsible facilitator of healing, and what the Master was doing stopped being Reiki the second she opened her mouth (if it ever was). I also learned later that it wasn’t an appropriate “Share.”
I swore I’d never approach Reiki again, and that I wouldn’t attend garden variety energy work stuffs on the whim of lesser-informed friends.
A couple of years later, in my shamanic work I felt led to expand my knowledge of energy healing approaches. I didn’t know of another avenue, so I completed the Shoden and Okuden attunements (Another unsavory interpersonal experience, but a brilliant joining with Universal Life Force.). I asked that teacher about the cultural appropriation of Reiki, and I had to explain to her what that meant. She informed me Reiki was for everyone. Shortly after, I completed the Shinpiden level under another Master, via unorthodox means. For those who don’t know, it’s a big no-no to switch Reiki teachers (or was then). Part of the reason I did is despite that my final teacher didn’t directly address cultural appropriation, she incorporated original Shinto and Buddhist tenets into the study.
That’s how I got to Reiki. How it came to me is something other.
I knew from the peacemaking and culling of personal truth in my shamanic education that I had to go through the same process with Reiki. One thing I never encountered in my shamanic learning is the concept of secrecy, that there are some truths meant to be kept from others, those who are not initiated on the same path. Being a middle class American with no awareness of gentry and little respect for elitism, this made no sense to me. I honored that one must be ready for certain truths, though the shroud around Reiki–that the attunements, symbols, and process must be kept hidden–gave me pause. Often such secrecy comes from oppression, or it has elements of control. Maybe both? I don’t know, because for me, wandering down the path of clarifying such points is going away from the work I want to do, which is in engaging who in the spirit realm will walk with me, regardless of tribe, etc. Of course I can’t say what tenets of Reiki are true to Usui’s original teaching. The thing is, nobody else can either. Even if there are surviving originals with perfect branches from Usui’s original roots, they are lost in a sea of disinformation as much as misinformation and ego. Maybe it is all supposed to be a secret, and perhaps that is a cultural separation that I can’t understand. I can say that having worked with Reiki for 20+ years, the personal relationship to it is key.
As with all spiritual paths (renegade ones, in particular), my experience is that humans supply the ethics. My experience is that once I breached beyond the earth nature/spirit layer, no delineations exist. There’s no gender, no ethnicity, no regional boundary, no belief system, not even deity. That’s the place my spiritual path started in, literally, when I began to intuit my own origins and drive in this plane. It was a lesson for me to come back into these earthly layers and understand the pride and lineage of certain practices. I still source my work from that One space, but I tread carefully among the delineations I respect the people who uphold them, the lines, and the legacy they represent. Likewise, I practice what my experience has been, whatever it bears similarity to something. I don’t claim any traditions, when it comes to spiritual legacy. I feel certain ones in the mix, and I resonate with specific paths, but I wasn’t raised in them. I wasn’t given permission by the elder of a line, even my own, to work in a certain way. I also realize I wouldn’t have walked into most of the learning that I have, spiritually speaking, of my own volition. So much has been led, without regard to how it would retrofit into culture.
Regarding Reiki, it was presented to me as fair game, yet that never felt right. Not once in my educational experience did Master directly address cultural appropriation. I chose to take that on as my peace to make. Going into Reiki, I erroneously assumed that addressing cultural ownership would be part of the teaching, because every Reiki Master I’ve known enjoys pointing out their descent from Usui, as in, “My teacher was so and so, who was taught by Master so and so, who was the student of Ms. Takata (the woman credited with bringing Reiki to America)…” Cultural titles were taught, not heritage, not the rich traditions that birthed them.
Hi Kelley. Some of my Reiki friends get upset because I use Shamanic techniques during my Reiki practice. These same friends, however, will use “psychic surgery” techniques including the psychic extension of their fingers to reach into a client’s etheric/physical body to dislodge or remove energy blocks. My question is: isn’t this “psychic extension of digits” essentially the same as shape-shifting? If so, that is a shamanic practice. If not, I can see little difference between the two, other than degree of transformation of the energetic/physical body. Thanks, R.
Just for today –
I will not worry.
I will not be angry.
I will do my work honestly.
I will give thanks for my many blessings.
I will be kind to my neighbors
and all living things.
The Reiki Principle, Dr. Mikao Usui
Thanks for your inquiry, Roger. Before going into the specifics of your dilemna, I’d like to tell readers a bit about Reiki, as it may not be familiar to them. I describe Reiki as a Japanese form of hands-near energy healing. I’m a Reiki Master and have worked with two different forms of Reiki for many years, one form of which is the original Usui practice, and another called Ascension Reiki (ask me why two approaches in another inquiry). The word ‘Reiki’ translates roughly to “spirit healing.”
There are many takes on the history of Reiki, leaving it steeped in a bit of conflict. As best I can tell from the divergent perspectives on the modality’s origins, it began in the early 1900s, when Japanese ascetic Mikao Usui had a vision that led him to powerful healing. Not an uncommon story in the halls of enlightenment, Usui’s experience spawned a great following that continues to captivate those interested in energy healing.
Heavily influenced by Shintoism, the religion predominant in Japan prior to Chinese influence, Usui honored the spirits behind symbols, believing that incorporating them with other components of etheric healing allowed the practitioner to embody a Universal life force capable of healing. Usui formalized his ecstatic experiences into a system of energy healing called Usui Reiki Ryoho, originally comprised of three levels of study.
Usui’s practice moved into western culture in the mid-1900s, where it took off like wild fire. Today it is likely the most-taught “New Age” healing practice. At best, we in the west practice hybridized Reiki, though that statement attracts all sorts of speculation. There is much argument around what Usuis’s true teachings were. That it is a spiritual practice and energy healing modality taken out of its native space, elements, and teaching, shaped in the form that best adapts to our culture–is what we know, and adapt it has. There are as many forms of Reiki as you care to look into. Given that, Reiki is culturally appropriated, a fact that goes without mention amongst many modern energy medicine circles.
To answer your question, my understanding of Reiki is that it is an alignment with the true self–in other words with All Things–in such a way that there is no ego involvement. There doesn’t have to be. Working at that level of awareness there is no intellectual process driving what is done during healing. The job of the Reiki Master is to be out of the way and merely allow the life force to move through. In that light, that means no elements are brought in from any healing practice, belief system, or viewpoint, because Reiki happens well above the level of those things. I think this unconscious (?) need to bring other modalities into Reiki is why other forms of it were created. Is it that we can’t stay out of the way of Source? Must we project ourselves into/onto it? Or do we need to custom fit healing methods to what best suits our elements, our space, our teaching?
It is not my experience that you can lift a single technique out of a culture, bring it into another, and expect it to behave the same way. This has been a concern around the appropriation of tribal healing practices for centuries. This consideration generates questions like is it respectful to the originating practice to append your beliefs/symbols/deities/methods to it? Is it respectful to the culture from which it came not to honor it at all in your application of the modality? How do you honor the originating culture if you occlude it with your ego? Are you doing the same “kind” of healing if you change the foundation of the technique?
These are personal questions that require deep contemplation before you undertake working with clients, IMO, and are components that I teach in my Reiki classes. To me Reiki is a spirit ally, much as a totem or fetish is. It is a tool that allows us to connect with the Divine in a way that we can consciously process–symbols, movements, chants, often all at once–what might otherwise be too foreign to hold. Reiki engages both hemispheres of the brain; thus, brings us fully present in our power. It allows us to be part of the process without having to worry about the process. I do not tell my allies what to do. In fact, I do what they tell me, and Reiki tells me to step aside. Can it tell each of us different things? That is the question, though given Usui’s original teachings, we’d never even ask that.
There are striking distinctions between Reiki and shamanism that should be noted. Part of the role of a shaman is to be active in the process. Reiki in its true application is only passive. The Reiki Master embodies the life force, and that is the only role. A classic quote is attributed to Usui, though I’ve never read that he actually spoke it: “We do not master Reiki. Reiki masters us.” To me, that is what this quote means. We surrender.
Shamans have many roles, depending on what is needed, and those roles call on active knowledge of plants, animals, elements, symbols, so that we can engage our knowledge with our soul work. In shamanism, we engage the physical layer with the etheric. We spend years distinguishing between being active or passive in our work, as needed. In short, we know the difference and we fall back on the best tool for the job.
Despite difference, these approaches to healing are very compatible. In terms of actual healing and benefit, I find that a combination of modalities is required, each in its own time. Reiki is often best-suited to people who are early in their healing process–those recovering, gaining strength, not ready for the full marathon. In the presence or absence of Rekik, at some point in the healing process, though, we must all become active participants. At that point Reiki gracefully steps aside for more involved techniques.
That said, I don’t mix modalities; rather, I do them in separate sessions. I am in the camp that the whole point of Reiki is that I am not part of the process. For me, Reiki is THE go-to tool that I don’t have to consciously direct. I don’t drive it or tell it where to go, what to do, or how to do it. In reality, this passive healing is a very Eastern (feminine) approach to accessing All Things, which flies in the face of the typical western push to be the active (masculine) principle in everything we do (which I hasten to add, “forcing” healing is common in modern shamanism, though ancient and indigenous cultures honor more of a balance–again, another article). Perhaps this is the real reason that mutations of Reiki permeate western culture? As well, perhaps Usui shaped Reiki as a more passive system in an effort to promote healing without threat of spiritual emergency.
In short, I’m not in favor of psychic surgery or the use of shamanic techniques in Reiki sessions, especially if a client doesn’t understand the distinction, or hasn’t expressed a more active approach to energy healing. There are plenty of energy healing modalities that do allow us to engage, use our intuition, be an active part of the process. I reserve Reiki as a gift that is just sweetly here to use, without my or anyone else’s interference.
When we decide to go down any healing path as someone who will work with others, we have to consider the origins of the techniques we are learning, how honoring the originating culture factors into our work every time we use that technique, and how we can find integrity in upholding that heritage without undermining our own innate truths. Moreover, we have to consider when we’re doing none of the above.
Learn more about Reiki and energy healing from the following resources:
Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma, revised second edition now available, with a foreward by modern shaman, Christina Pratt.
In my shamanic practice, I work with people from all over the world. The first decade of working with others, easily three quarters of my clientele was international. That distant acceptance seemed to indicate that other cultures had a more accessible understanding of shamanism and of what someone acting in the role of shaman does. In more recent years the shift toward a wider range of healing paths becoming more mainstream has coincided with my client base being mostly within the U.S., with a good third of those people residing in my local area.
For those who don’t know, I’m a native North Carolinian and acting interfaith clergy. While there is strong support for and a very networked Pagan community throughout the state, half of my clients do not identify as Pagan. Specifically, they identify as various denominations of Christian. For some, stepping into a more mystical expression of spirituality is a comfortable and natural extension of their faith. Others don’t allow such an esoteric openness in their belief systems. Rather, they reach out to me because other venues haven’t brought them balance, including pastoral counsel with their own clergy.
Regardless of how they’re ushered into my work, it is within local circles that I encounter the most powerful misconceptions about shamanism. In talking with clients about how they find me, a startling idea emerged: For many of these clients the idea that I’m Pagan is softened by knowing that I’m a shaman, as if that role somehow makes the truth of my spiritual path somehow more approachable. Upon delving further into that assumption a deeper misconception was revealed: the assumption that I’m Native American. That I have a fine thread of indigenous blood runs entirely independent of my calling and choice to be a shaman. A handful of people besides myself would even know that fact, just as they don’t know that I’m Scottish, German or Irish. They don’t know, because it’s not relevant.
Had this assumption come up once or twice in the years of my work I’d consider it an anomaly — disturbing, but a fluke. The reality is, it’s come up dozens of times, leading to me to explore what drives it. Two base beliefs seem to lay in support:
Both of these beliefs open a wide arena of cultural land mines, the least of which is cultural appropriation — the claiming of a facet of another culture as one’s own, historically for exploitation, personal profit or gain. Even though I do not claim the spiritual heritage of another culture, a good proportion of my clients assumed that I did, by virtue of projecting their ideals onto my heritage. That’s one problem. The other is that because they assumed my lineage, they rested comfortably in misunderstandings about my path. The message is that by assuming I’m Native American, my devotion to Earth religions is more OK than knowing I’m a modern Druid, Reconstructionist, Pagan.
Do most people not realize that in the animistic “country dweller” definition of Paganism, Native Americans are Pagan, under a diverse umbrella of spiritual traditions? Is there an instant, if not unconscious, distinction made between Pagans who are of European lineage and those who are Native American? And if so, does that not imply a judgement from many in the mainstream soul healing community that certain kinds of Pagans are better?
In the long run does it matter if the people who come to me for help know this distinction? Does it affect our work if they don’t know that shamanism is the tap root of all religions, branching through every culture? Probably not. All they know is something isn’t well in their lives and nothing else has brought relief.
For me it’s a question of how much integrity my path has if I leave clients making assumptions about my lineage and work that aren’t true. In my studies, personal spiritual discipline and work with others, I don’t feed the racist dispersions the western route into shamanism has cast; thus, I don’t want to mislead anyone about my ethical intentions.
For that reason I do take the time to educate clients who don’t understand how we arrived at shamanism in this age, and how I became able to carry a spiritual tradition forward in a new way that fulfills the needs of modern seekers while honoring an ancient tradition.
In the end, Pagan is just Pagan.
The path of shamanism in the West is a curious thing. Dogmatic world religions are crumbling institutions that no longer meet the needs of the modern spiritual seeker. A stalled extension of that same unholy conglomerate is the New Age movement, in the form of spiritual gurus, podcast evangelists and appropriators of culture poised to share their secrets with the highest bidder. Situated quietly amongst these is the emergence of neoshamanism in the Western mind.
Much of what has been written about indigenous or ancient shamanism came into vogue in the early 1950s-60s, along with all of the biases that generation could offer. Consider a bunch of Abrahamic white, male anthropologists with no training in cultural sensitivity working through translators to present timeless ecstatic traditions to the academic elite. What we gained are texts touted as thequintessential resources on what is now generally referred to as “traditional shamanism,” calling these tribal spiritual leaders mentally ill, illiterate and uncivilized, among other things.
Specifically, Eliade’s book “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy,” heralded as the western conduit for shamanism, declares what shamanism is and who is allowed to become a shaman. His studies omit cultures of female shamans and deliver observations of tribal shamans through a Christianized viewpoint. It is hardly unbiased or the lauded thorough examination it’s touted to be. Later, in I. M. Lewis’ book Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, we’re given such messages as women and homosexual men are more likely to become possessed because they are weaker; thus, no credible report of shamanhood. Lewis’ work provides a narrowed “study” of selected shamanic cultures filtered through the privileged Western psyche.
To this era we can also attribute the beginning exodus of westerners seeking wisdom from other spiritual traditions. A reaction to the idea of shamanism put forward by academics was the racist notion of the “noble savage,” or that only true spiritual enlightenment comes in traveling to far away, hidden jungles, and out of the mouths of exotic, dark people. Such soul journeys created a model that valued the wisdom but not the people, their land, or their economic challenges. Such was evident in the work of Carlos Castenada. Any experiential value his writings presented was lost among criticism for its lack of cultural authenticity and fictional leanings. In the end Castenada’s work, as much as that of his academic forefathers, put forward the idea that enlightenment is permitted only to a chosen few. This image of shamanism is carried forward still, not just in the general populace but even among well-educated neopagans.
In the 1980s, Michael Harner reintroduced the concept of shamanism in his work “The Way of the Shaman.” Following, he branded an approach called “core shamanism,” cultureless techniques heavily drawing off the concepts in Eliade’s work, and firmly established the movement we now know as neoshamanism. Many internationally noted neoshamanic practitioners emerged — Lynn Andrews, Brooke Medicine Eagle, Sandra Ingerman, Tom Cowan, Christina Pratt. Some such practitioners work respectably within reclaimed traditions, some from original spiritual truths, some sprung from Harner’s “cultureless” teachings, and others horribly breached the confidence of native teachers, leaving yet another chasm in the path.
The current state of neoshamanism is particularly interesting. Despite its harried past, now it’s fairly easy to find a soul healer in the West. The path has diverged into many traditions, studies and opportunities. Why, then, do we still uphold the judgments early scholars placed on shamans, and why is there such a potent trend among modern seekers to look to other cultures for shamanic healing and instruction?
There is a palpable tension between what we believe was the path and how we experience it now. Those aware of our estranged history and of the cultural sensitivities around it recognize the richness of an unbroken shamanic lineage — a line of shamans raised in a family or tribal setting that maintained a heritage of ecstatic mentoring, support and perspective. Such informed students also know that these unbroken groups aren’t better, more solid, or more capable in what they do than those of Western broken lineage.
Further telling is the insight from accounts of unbroken lineages expressing that even they perceive themselves as less than their shamanic predecessors. They express sentiments that those who came before did it better, bigger, more profoundly. They indicate feeling close to something they are unable to touch fully or in the same way that their ancestors did. As Western neoshamans, we think we’re alone because we’ve resurrected a path whose roots we can’t truly know and don’t understand, yet we somehow know that we’re on the path. In reality, every path branches to some obscure trail.
For half a century the neoshamanic movement has trekked to other cultures to find the unbroken lineages, and we’re still doing it. At the beginning of the journey we had no one else to go to. Our European imported religions didn’t support the personal spiritual path, so seekers learned from other cultures how to connect with a route that brought them back to life. As well, westerners already having an ecstatic awakening turned to other cultures to get the spiritual support that ours couldn’t provide. We needed the academic ego displays that came before us to bring back to our consciousness an ecstatic awareness that wasn’t foremost prior.
In my shamanic work, I find that people now coming to shamanism aren’t asking the questions that I did early on my path 23 years ago. They’re sensitive to cultural appropriation. They know about the broken path. They understand why the broken path. Still, they’re just as lost because they’re afraid to be their own heritage. They’re afraid to own their culture and find anything good in it. They don’t realize there is no one shamanic way. They don’t understand that we are not the ancients who came before or the indigenous here now, and we don’t have to be. They are insecure in the knowledge that we cannot be them because we have our own culture and an obligation to it and ourselves to look within it and find its spiritual source. They must see our culture as spiritually capable. They must see themselves and their elders as wise. They must promote their own Nature connection precisely where they live, through what they see and experience every day. They must learn to create their own traditions and rituals based in the culture of their current atmosphere.
Who are the pioneers of authentic paths of neoshamanism in the West? Who are the modern shamans venturing into uncharted territory? Meet some of them now: