Reiki as a Contemplative Practice

By Marcia Miller

One of my first outings as my broken ankle healed was a trip to New York city to participate in the Urban Zen Training program with Rodney Yee, Colleen Saidman Yee and Roshi Joan Halifax. Ever since Rodney had met Roshi Joan several years ago, he had repeatedly urged me to come see her the next time she was there. I trusted he knew what he was talking about and I went.

Roshi Joan has worked at the bedside of the dying for 40 years. In recent years her focus has become the training of caregivers at the bedside. Her work is designed to offer strategies and practices to allow the full human expression of this difficult work and to offer the timeless practices she has gleaned from years of Buddhist meditation practice. I experienced her as a powerfully present, compassionate and human teacher.

The first teaching that I remember from her was a simple yet profound one—inhale into the full catastrophe of the present moment, exhale and give it a bit more space. This is a practice to do when you would prefer with all your might to run away from whatever is present for you—whether it is physical or emotional pain or something so confusing or frightening you can’t imagine a way out. Instead of resistance, breathe it in—here it is. This whole situation just as it is. Ahhh. Now exhale and let there be a bit more space for the whole experience to unfold as it is unfolding. Just this. Now once again, breathe in just as it is, exhale a bit more space.

The second main practice she offered, which she offers to everyone she teaches, is the practice of Tonglen. Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice that invites us to inhale the suffering of others, let it alchemically change in our hearts to our natural love and compassion and to exhale the love and compassion for the benefit of others. As Roshi Joan says in her book, Being with Dying, “The great kindness of this rare practice releases our whole being to suffering’s overwhelming presence, cultivates our strength and willingness to transform alienation into compassion, and is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do….This is one of the great meditation jewels that offers a way to nurture the natural energy of mercy and basic goodness.” (There is a complete description of the practice in this book.)

As I got back home I began to find many links in my own practices with what Roshi Joan offered us over the time with her. Over the years I have had many long periods of practicing Tonglen meditation and have found them profoundly powerful. But I also realized that my Reiki sending practice is very much a contemplative practice in the way Roshi was teaching and was glad to feel that I have already been building these connections in many and regular ways. In our large yoga community we always know someone in pain or with a family member in crisis of some kind. And many of us who have learned Reiki “pray” for others by sending Reiki as a regular part of our morning practices. I have a book with the names of all the people I have sent to over the years and I keep adding to it as requested or as I request of myself. The book itself feels like a sacred treasure—so many people I have cared about are there and my Reiki hands have blessed it over and over. As I do my send (generally after meditation and asana—all the practices that connect me to my Source) I think of the people personally on the list, the “catastrophe” that precipitated their inclusion in my book, the feeling I have for them and the mystery of connection that comes from sending Reiki. I know they are in dire need yet recognizing the sense of the reiki in my heart seems to buoy me up (and I hope them.) Love and the prayer “May this be for the highest good of us all,” flows from there. It allows me to rest in the complete mystery of not-knowing along with a direct experience of our interdependence.

In the past I might have spent time worrying about the person I was sending to; my mind seems always eager to go down that path. But the body sensations of worry are extremely unpleasant—my heart feels contracted, my belly churns and overall I am left feeling hopeless. So the practice of being with the whole catastrophe and connecting to the place in me that is Love seems much more useful. And over and over, in the midst of crisis we feel connected, enlivened and filled with gratitude.

This flow of compassion to a friend in need is natural and personal and even if we haven’t studied reiki or Buddhist meditation we may have our own ways of offering and sharing our love. What are your natural expressions of compassion for another?

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2 Responses to Reiki as a Contemplative Practice
  1. Bill Fanning

    “Now exhale and let there be a bit more space for the whole experience to unfold as it is unfolding.”
    This is a wonderful practice Marcia. When I am put in touch with or observe anothers’ suffering I look at the depth of the mystery of their life. Not being able to ever fully understand all that comprises what they are, I can still know that we are connected to the same source and essentially one. By allowing the space in myself and sharing that added space with them I see that it can allow room for their suffering to be converted into that love and compassion we first approached them with. We just have to be ready for the situation, “just as it is” and that may be the hardest part for us.

  2. Marcia Miller

    Thanks for your comments Bill, good to hear your words here.