Archive for August, 2010

So Simple. So Difficult.

So Simple. So Difficult.

by Susan Downing

People often ask me whether I get tired when I do Reiki for other people, and they sometimes seem surprised when I tell them that I don’t, and that, rather than feeling depleted by my work, I receive tremendous joy and benefit from giving Reiki to others.  Maybe they ask because people talk a lot these days about how doctors, nurses and caregivers in general suffer from physical and emotional exhaustion, from compassion burnout.  So, how is it that I (and, I imagine, other Reiki providers) avoid this burnout?  At the heart of the answer lies… well, … the heart.  

In today’s blog post, I explain my understanding of how Mikao Usui understood the healing system he founded, and what his work with his students entailed.  Although we Reiki practitioners have been taught that what facilitates healing in a Reiki session is universal energy,  I have come to believe that Usui Sensei recognized that the key to facilitating healing with Reiki was in fact love, the love that we practitioners carry within our very own hearts, not a force which exists somewhere outside us.  

We know now (thanks to Bronwen and Frans Stiene, who wrote about this in The Reiki Sourcebook), that Usui Sensei (who was a Tendai Buddhist lay priest), taught Reiki as a spiritual practice, an enlightenment practice, and that  the healing which recipients experienced was a side benefit, not the primary goal.  Based on what I have learned through my own Reiki and Buddhist practices, and through my own research into what the elements of  Usui Sensei’s Buddhist training would have been,  I believe that the core of his teaching lay in helping his students cultivate and nurture love and compassion, so that they could both progress spiritually and bring greater joy and healing to themselves and others.

Cultivating love and compassion within our own hearts is a simple idea, but a difficult practice.  It requires patience, perseverance, effective techniques, and guidance and support.  But the payoff is giant, in terms of our happiness and others’. Through such a practice we really can get to a state where love and compassion guide our interactions, where we feel energized and joyful, rather than drained.   I am convinced that Usui Sensei recognized this and taught his students accordingly, and I have decided to work the same way.  Beginning in September, I will be offering an ongoing, monthly practicum, “Reiki as Spiritual Practice: Cultivating Love and Compassion.” My goal is to support Reiki practitioners by helping them develop and sustain an ongoing practice devoted to developing love, compassion. This practicum is the way I have decided I can best honor and carry on the tradition of Mikao Usui’s healing work as I understand it.

This week’s post tells you all about how I came to this conclusion, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it, below.  If you are interested in finding out more about the practicum, which begins on Saturday, September 18th and is suitable for Reiki practitioners of all levels and spiritual traditions, I invite you to contact me.  


So Simple. So Difficult.

When I was receiving my Reiki Level I training, my teacher taught that universal or divine healing energy facilitates any healing that occurs during a Reiki session.  Reiki practitioners are simply conduits for this energy. That is the standard explanation of how Reiki works, and that is what I myself have always told my students and those for whom I have done Reiki. But as I have gone deeper into my Reiki practice, I have become convinced that what does the healing is not some universal or divine healing energy, but our own love and compassion. I believe that it is the force of whatever love we have managed to cultivate within our own hearts – through taking care with others, through our spiritual practice, or both – which makes healing possible when we direct it to others and ourselves.

We have all experienced the healing power of love – whether in the form of a kind word, a loving glance, or the warmth of a compassionate embrace – and we have all given this to others, whether we have simply treated others with love and kindness or formally placed our hands on them and called it Reikii.  We have also felt the joy and healing which occur within us when we act lovingly toward those around us. So really, why say that in Reiki we promote healing by using a force outside ourselves, when each one of us can easily attest to the healing power of love? It is simpler to say that when we do Reiki, we are harnessing the energy of the love and compassion we feel for the recipients and sending that energy from our heart to theirs. 

It has been traditional to say that Reiki practitioners bring healing energy through themselves and into the recipient. But Mikao Usui, the founder of this healing system, said in an interview (published by Frank Arjava Petter in Reiki: The Legacy of Dr. Usui) that he was unable to precisely explain the healing mechanism.  He described his system as a spiritual healing “method of healing the body and mind”  in which “energy and light radiate from all the body parts of the person who is giving the treatment.”  But Usui Sensei does not say that practitioners are serving as conduits for any external energy.  What he does stress is that anyone who “lives according to the moral principles can certainly learn within a short time to heal themselves, as well as others.”  And the core of Usui’s work with his students, in addition to using his energy healing method with them, were the five principles by which he urged them to live: “Just for today, do not anger, do not worry, be humble, be honest in your work, be compassionate toward yourself and others.”  In other words, what I believe Usui meant by calling his method a spiritual healing method, was that it enabled people to heal themselves and others by developing their own spiritual potential, not by summoning some outside force.  As we become better people, Usui Sensei was saying, we become able to heal ourselves and others.  This is not surprising, since we know that Mikao Usui was a lay priest within the Tendai Buddhism sect. And at the core of the five principles he taught his students, and which reflect the spirit of the Buddhist precepts he would have followed as a Tendai lay priest, is the commitment to treat others with love and compassion.

Certainly, there are various ways to cultivate that love – for some, it may be their connection to what they see as divine presence, or Spirit, while for others, like me, it is an understanding of the Buddha’s teachings combined with acting according to vows and using specific meditation techniques. Usui Sensei’s teaching method, I believe, was to cultivate love through a combination of hands on Reiki healing and devotion to the precepts he taught.  Had Usui Sensei’s method hinged on serving as a conduit for an external healing energy, the focus on the precepts and on ongoing energy work would not have been key.  He would have known that consistent withBuddhist teachings, no self-existent external healing energy can exist.  But the practices he used can cultivate love within us - no matter what our spiritual tradition – and sharing that love enables us to facilitate healing in others by helping them feel our love and compassion.

I came to believe that love is what does the healing through the intersection of my own Reiki and Buddhist practices, and through my research into the teachings of Usui Sensei.  Buddhism came first for me – I began studying Tibetan Buddhism with Jeff Brooks and soon decided that I wanted to take Bodhisattva vows. You become a true bodhisattva only when you develop bodhicitta, a boundless love and compassion for all beings which prompts you to devote all your energies to relieving their suffering – in this and all future lives.  Until you develop bodhicitta, you are an aspiring bodhisattva, striving to cultivate bodhicitta in your heart through a variety of practices and meditation techniques. When I received my Reiki Level I training, I was in the midst of my study for taking the vows, and my practice included meditations designed to cultivate bodhicitta. I was also volunteering in hospice.  So, given this intersection of my spiritual and volunteer work, it is not surprising that Reiki and bodhicitta seemed inseparably intertwined to me from the start.  Perhaps that is why, as I continued my Reiki training and began practicing Reiki more deeply, I became convinced that the practitioner’s own love and compassion are, in fact, the key component in any Reiki session. That what does the healing is love. Compassion.  Bodhicitta. 

I came to this realization through my own experience: as I focused my spiritual practice on cultivating bodhicitta, I found that I was able to come to my Reiki work with great compassion for those I worked with.  When the compassion would well up within me as I gave Reiki, it felt as if this very love was pouring out of my heart, through my hands, and into the recipient.   And those to whom I was giving Reiki would feel that love, they would grow calm and relaxed, and healing would become possible. For both of us.  

That made sense to me within the Buddhist framework.  Mahayana Buddhism stresses that bodhicitta arises as we gain insight into the fact that beings have no fixed identity, no self-nature.  As our attachment to an intellectual feeling of boundaries between ourself and others fades, our love and compassion for them naturally arises.  Within my Buddhist study, I had seen the transformation that my own bodhicitta-focused practice had brought about in me and in my life.  My own growing insight into lack of self-nature and the resulting compassion and love I was feeling for those around me were helping me free myself of anger and resentment toward others. The compassion was bringing about healing in me.  It seemed only logical to me that when we pass love onto others, that transmission of love can also facilitate healing.

I believe that it was precisely this bodhicitta, this energy from his loving heart which Usui Sensei used in his healing work and sought to develop in his students.  This is my conjecture about how Usui came to use and teach Reiki the way he did:

While doing a 21-day retreat on Mount Kuramayama, Usui Sensei had some kind of profound spiritual experience, perhaps a direct perception of the true nature of reality, which caused bodhicitta to arise in him.  When he came down from the mountain, he felt drawn to share the overwhelming love and compassion he was experiencing.  Having at this point become a true bodhisattva, he probably felt drawn to those who were suffering, and when he interacted with them – whether he actually put his hands on them or not – they sensed his love and experienced healing as a result.  I surmise that he realized that the mechanism for achieveing this healing was very simple – to simply connect with the recipient with great feelings of love.  

I suspect that he also realized that the more he interacted with people in this way and the more he was able to help them, the stronger his own bodhicitta grew.  In other words, he saw that as he sent his own love out to others during healing sessions, not only were they healed, but his love actually grew as a result.  Having understood this, I bet Usui Sensei thought that if he could help others cultivate this feeling of love, they could also facilitate healing through interacting with others.  And so he set about figuring out how to help people develop bodhicitta and share it with others through the hands-on healing method.  So, I believe that the core of his teaching was the cultivation of bodhicitta through the use of reciprocal energy exchange, mantras, the use of precepts, and meditation. 


Once I came to the conclusion that Usui Sensei must have recognized love as the key component in a healing session and taught his students accordingly, I decided to work in the same way.  Honestly, saying that the love we bring makes healing possible challenges us to approach our Reiki practice differently. It gives us the opportunity to examine the state of our own hearts and gauge our own capacity to direct love to others.  We realize that if we want to deepen our Reiki practice – for our own benefit and others’ – we will need a reliable, consistent way to cultivate and nurture love within our hearts.    And so, I have decided to offer an ongoing practicum, “Reiki as Spiritual Practice: Cultivating Love and Compassion”. 

My purpose for offering the practicum – in which I will offer attunements and hands-on Reiki practice, and work with the Reiki precepts, symbols and mantras, as Usui did in his teaching – is to support Reiki practitioners by helping them develop and sustain an ongoing practice devoted to developing love, compassion, bodhicitta.  This practice will help us all develop our ability to bring love and compassion to ourselves, all those around us and our healing work. This is precisely what I believe Mikao Usui was doing with his students: giving them the opportunity to experience the benefits of this exchange of healing love, and to cultivate their love and compassion so that they could gradually bring more and more of it to all of their interactions. 

What I am suggesting is so simple, yet so difficult: let’s not focus on giving our Reiki clients universal energy which is somehow separate from us and perfect.  Instead, let’s recognize that the love in our own hearts is what makes healing possible. Let’s cultivate that boundless love and compassion within our own hearts and pass that on, not only to our clients, but to all beings around us.  That is what I sincerely believe Usui Sensei was striving to help his students do.  And that is what I will do my best to help my students do, too. Offering this practicum is the way I have decided I can best honor and carry on the tradition of Mikao Usui’s healing work as I understand it.

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Life Is A Journey. (Please remain in your seats and enjoy the movie.)

Life Is A Journey. (Please remain in your seats and enjoy the movie.)

by Jeff Brooks

The goal of Buddhism is to put an end to suffering for yourself and others, forever. Anything that does that is Buddhism. Anything that doesn’t isn’t.

The method to achieve this is training in three dimensions of human action: personal conduct, condition of mind, and understanding of how things exist.

The things you do to train in one of these areas will support the training in the other areas. They are not separate.

Avoid things like killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, using intoxicants and indulging in disturbed states of mind like rage, envy or jealousy – your ability to meditate deeply and see phenomena without distortion increases. The three trainings happen at once.

But pursuing the goal of Buddhism and undertaking these three trainings are highly countercultural now. The most potent forces in the world conspire to prevent us from living a life directed toward training well and putting an end to suffering.

On the contrary we are continually urged – by human voices and our cultural and physical environment – to do things which increase our suffering and the suffering of the people around us.

How difficult is it to get a quiet half hour to meditate? It’s hard to fit into your schedule regularly, it’s hard to remember why it’s that important, it’s hard to sit undistracted with the sounds of the traffic and the televisions, the tension in your knees and to do list that keeps hopping around your mind like a caged kangaroo.

Of course you can go off to a meditation center for a $600 weekend retreat. Which is cool and everything but then you have to get back to reality and sell some more stuff and sit through all the meetings and the road trips and the conference calls and the power point presentations to do what you need to do to get back there again on your next vacation.

We stay informed about the thousand controversial issues of our day. We have consumer choices, and pick from a thousand flavors of soda, charming micro brews, chewy chunky goodness or sprouts and choose a channel to watch or a site to click or we glance at our phones like a bobble head doll in the window of a car rolling down a rocky road.

Watching is taken for granted. Body slack, mind slack, we engage in the imitation of action, watch other people pretend to do things – we forget that they are not actually doing the things we are watching them do but are pretending, and that they are not there but are recorded. We forget that we cannot influence them, that our response to them is irrelevant to them, that we cannot engage in a discourse with them in which our humanity will be significant but instead are relegated to an impotent passive consumer of their actions, with our only option to sit still and slack or change the channel and sit still and slack in front of another set of pretenders.

Most people do this for hours and hours a day. Most of us take for granted that we must live with minds churning, hearts unfulfilled, lives vaguely or profoundly dissatisfied. If we do not question this we are easy to manipulate, degraded in will and vision, overwhelmed with trivia, sinking deeper into physical and mental weakness, seeking for someone – some great leader, someone cool, someone powerful, someone focused, someone, anyone, who would help us dispel our unhappiness.

But no fuehrer – no matter how appealing, no matter how much we yearn for him or hope for her to do it – will put an end to human suffering. Only we can do it. Only by engaging whole heartedly in the three trainings of conduct, mind and wisdom.

Yes, it is countercultural.  We are like paratroopers, dropped behind enemy lines, surrounded, with no option but to do our jobs as human beings, with complete commitment, and no thought other than rescuing all those who can be saved.

In the past when I have questioned watching television movies computers and so on as a way of life people have said yeah well meditating is just sitting there wasting your time, so I would rather watch something.

This is a good misunderstanding because it points to the heart of the matter.  Achievers in all walks of life have powerfully focused minds. Watch a championship tennis player, a race car driver or for that matter a surgeon, musician, a Wall Street trader or a pilot. What you will see, as they perform, is focus. Part of the delight we get from observing their mastery is not the physical performance itself but the utter unification of body and mind in skillful, purposeful action. That is achieved only after years of intentional practice.

Watch someone watch TV who has watched TV relentlessly for ten or twenty years and the thrill will not be there.

But spend a moment with someone who has extracted themselves from the degradation of the modern cultural environment and who has spent a decade or two cultivating clarity of mind and you will never forget them for as long as you live.

Better yet, you can be that person.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at


One by One

One by One

by Susan Downing

For the past few weeks little brown ants have been marching, one by one, across the top of the backsplash behind our kitchen sink and vanishing either behind it or into a tiny crevice beneath the windowsill.  If we leave any bit of food on the counter or in the sink, they will find it and begin carting it away.  Or on the floor. They are like land-piranhas.  Who knew a stray piece of popcorn, a tiny corn chip corner or a minute bit of chopped garlic would be such prizes?

And we have been tolerant of them.  While making sure to keep everything cleaned up.  I told my son the other day that I thought the ants were a blessing, because now everyone cleans up after themselves really well!  No dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter.  But I am feeling less blessed as we enter week four.  I think it was coming downstairs the other night and seeing the ants attack our (thankfully covered) butter dish on the hitherto unbreached counter of our island.

Even so, I have not put out ant traps or other poison.  I can’t bear to.  I went online to look at hints for getting rid of ants, and it made me sick to my stomach to read the suggestions – feed ‘em Cream of Wheat which will explode in their stomachs, or salt, which will also make them explode when they drink too much.  And on and on. I don’t want to kill them. I just want them to go away.  But even I have my limits.  Tonight, as I watched them massing in my sink, drawn by some faint traces of something, I addressed them.  “Ants,” I said sternly, “listen up!  You’ve been here long enough. You have until tomorrow to leave, or I bring out the boric acid.”

Why, you might ask, do I even hesitate to put out ant traps and kill the whole colony?  Well, for one, I took vows not to kill, and even little ants are live beings, so I don’t want to be cavalier in my treatment of them. You might wonder, does it really matter if I kill a few hundred ants, even a whole colony? They are tiny, they don’t do anything useful, and how smart can they be if they carry away a piece of popcorn that can’t possibly fit through that opening in the wall?  Buddhists say it certainly does matter: they assert that all beings were once our mothers, and even if these hundreds of ants were not my mothers, they still are just trying to eat.  I can’t blame them for that.  And Nagarjuna, the key 3rd century contributor to Buddhist understanding of dependent origination, wrote that if we felt our own ribs crack as we stepped on an ant, – i.e., if karmic ripening followed immediately on the heels of our harmful acts -we would quickly learn to treat others kindly.

All of that can seem a bit abstract and distant – vows, 3rd century writings… So here’s some motivation a little closer to the present moment: today I learned that an old family friend, who’s my age, 53, suffered a major stroke over the weekend. He was extremely fortunate and is expected – with time and rehab – to make a full recovery.  But we were all shaken by the news, and when I spoke with his wife, she told me that the doctors could find no explanation for the stroke.  Even so, she is relieved – we all know it could have been much worse.

I reflected tonight on my friend’s stroke and stroke of luck – and this during a seven day period in which another of my friend’s father died, a second friend was knocked out cold in a golfing accident, and a third friend lost her second beloved dog in two weeks.  And I called to mind the words I recite as part of my opening prayers before each meditation period: “The negative karma

I have accumulated since beginningless time is as extensive as the boundless oceans.  Although I know that each negative action leads to countless eons of suffering, it seems that I am striving to create nothing but negative actions.  I lack the ability to purify these faults so that no trace of them remains. With these negative imprints still in my mind, I might suddenly die and find myself falling to an unfortunate rebirth.”

It is to remind myself of the possibility of just such occurrences that I recite those prayers every day.  To set my motivation.  Not my motivation to live life to its fullest, or to seize the day to get all out of life that I can, as some urge. Rather, to set my motivation to take as much care as I can in my actions with others.  I need to keep reminding myself, because otherwise it might be easy to slip into thinking that it doesn’t really matter how well I keep my vows, that I can always keep them better tomorrow or just do some purification ritual later on, if keeping them as perfectly I can today is too difficult, or I am tired, or annoyed by pesky people around me.  Or by pesky ants.  What my prayers – and my friends’ experiences – help me keep in mind is what the Buddhist scriptures all stress:  that death is certain, and that we cannot know the time of our death.  At any moment we might find ourselves suddenly falling into death and wishing that we had done all we could in every moment to act kindly and ethically to all beings around us, before it was too late.

Which is why I felt extra motivated today to make sure that those I love know I love them, to treat everyone around me with love and compassion- because tomorrow I might not be around to offer that, or they to receive it. It is also why I am hoping the ants will be nowhere in sight tomorrow.  Because I don’t want them to realize I was bluffing.

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How To Save The World

How To Save The World

by Jeff Brooks

Prince Charles said last week that his job was to “save the world.” Even if he can’t do it, by setting himself the task he may think he can help restore relevance and high purpose to an institution (British Royalty) that is suspect and expensive.

What is interesting about his statement is not that it is so grandiose but that it is so common.

Untested, immature and self-regarding people often think it is up to them to save the world. Sitting in their dorm rooms at midnight, minds afire with righteous reading and unfulfilled desire; sitting on the bed at Mom’s house approaching middle age, minds afire with failed projects, desperate for one-step vindication; sitting in the reading room of the British Museum covered in boils, conspiring against people who wouldn’t give him a second thought; trashing SUV’s, people and houses so animals can be happy; fantasizing about their own annihilation and emergence into paradise embraced by a blossoming flower of destruction that will consume hundreds, thousands, millions of non-believers; with minds reaching across empires thousands of years old, teaching the necessity and virtue of murder.

They all think they are destined to save the world.

But what world is it they think they will save? Not the one they look around and see. That is the world they will need to wreck. The idea that appeals to them places them at the center of creation. Like an infant, they do not see other people as deserving of respect and consideration, but rather as either obstacles or avenues to the easing of their own unhappiness.

They inhabit an imaginary world, and it is that imaginary world they imagine saving.

This is not to say that there is nothing to be done to save the world. It is to say that no good will come from forcing the world to fit a fantasy. Being selfish and impatient all one can do is disturb people and cause them harm. What can we do?

There is a list of six things which you can do to save the world.

The first one is to help people out. Help them get what they need to be safe and happy. They might not notice you are doing it. They might not appreciate it. But it will bring more happiness into the world if you do it.

The second is to behave decently. That means don’t kill people, don’t lie to them, or steal from them, even if you can rationalize it or make excuses for it. Don’t smash your brains with drink and drugs because you will waste your life if you do. Don’t pursue wrong sexual activity as a road to happiness because you will ruin your relationships, cut yourself off from others, and be distracted from what it is that actually can bring lasting happiness.

The third one is refuse to be roused to anger. This does not mean that you should tolerate cruelty or injustice or cultivate a meek good nature that is just okay with all the crap of the world. It means that you maintain courageous calm when faced with difficulty or crisis, and proceed with skill where you can be of help. Sometimes this will mean you take the time to persuade jerks that it is not in their interest to persist in their harmful acts. Sometimes it means you act decisively and vigorously to stop harm.

The fourth is joyful effort – making consistent effort to do what’s right despite difficulty, disrespect or danger.

Fifth is cultivating a calm, clear mind.

Sixth is learning to see the world as it is without the distorting filters and limited perspective we are stuck with as a result of our past non-virtuous acts.

A while ago while on patrol I had a call for two people fighting. It was not a fair fight, a schoolyard scuffle, or a sporting match. The smaller person was getting hurt and although I did not know why they were doing this I did not need to know why to know it was not okay. And as an officer on patrol I did not have the option of turning away, thinking oh well that’s just their karma, or calling the cops.

 If we hesitated the smaller of the two could get killed. When commands did not stop the fight we grabbed the big fellow and pulled him away. While he was being assisted to the ground his opponent began to yell at me about why we were always harassing them, and to get the fuck out of there.

At times like that you really have to know what you are doing. Not just when to move in or when to wait for more back up, not just how to apply a joint lock and get the cuffs on before someone pulls a bat out of the car and takes a swing. Although, yes, tactical skills are important, and at that point it’s too late if you have not studied and practiced well. 

But equally important: you have to know for sure that you are right in taking risk to save someone’s health or life; that you are right in thinking that vigorous action to prevent harm is justified and that standing by when harm is being done is not admirable; that being appreciated is nice but not necessary.

We did a generous thing for them. The big fellow did not collect the karma (or the prison sentence) for murdering the smaller one. The smaller one did not die or spend weeks recovering or a lifetime disabled.

It’s not that people should always be permitted to exercise unlimited freedom of choice. It is that if you are going to save the world you will have to at least be able to save real people, nice or not, with skill and energy and decency. Maybe they will learn. I do not know if those two will but I do know that now they have a chance.

Grandchildren steal from their own grandparents. Thugs prey upon the vulnerability and kindness of their neighbors. Marketers exploit the desires and credulity of an audience of passive, needy viewers. Oceans get fouled. Water gets rationed.

Somehow real human beings – noble in reason, infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action like angels, in apprehension how like gods, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – are confined in asphalt and concrete prisons, cities that seem the inevitable vessel of human culture, as if they had sprung fully formed from the black heart of le Corbusier.

Disrespecting people will not save the world. Forcing people to conform to an imaginary ideal of perfection will not do it. Blowing them up will not do it.

But it can be done.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at