Archive for July, 2011

In the Face of Pain

In the Face of Pain

by Susan Downing

When I walk into the room where I give Reiki sessions and glance at the walls, I notice that they’re blue. When I step out onto my porch on a summer evening, I may hear frogs croaking, or glimpse a firefly’s light.  I feel the softness of my cat’s fur when I pet her.  As I move through my day, my senses constantly give me information about the world around me.  But, although I see the walls’ blueness when I look at them, my own skin doesn’t grow blue as a result of that seeing.  And I wouldn’t think of suggesting that my own hair could grow softer or more lustrous because I’ve petted my cat.  All that I experience when interacting with everyone and everything around me just tells me something about their state at the moment.

This happens when I’m giving Reiki, too, but in addition to seeing and hearing what’s going on with the recipients, I also gain information about them in other ways.  If they’re anxious, I may feel as if my own breathing is restricted.  When they have aching shoulders, mine may hurt, too, or I may feel my clients’ sadness well up in my own chest.  Oh, and I will become aware of their happiness, too as I feel a smiling coming to my face.  Once the person leaves, this awareness fades, just as I no longer hear frogs croaking once I’ve gone inside from my porch.

I began learning about my recipients in this way as soon as I began practicing Reiki, and at first I didn’t know what to make of it.  That’s because you’ll often hear Reiki practitioners talk or worry about “taking on” their recipients’ ailments or “absorbing negative energy”. There’s also a lot of talk about learning to protect oneself from the absorbing illness or disturbance from those to whom we give Reiki.  My students frequently ask about this.  I hasten to reassure them that we absolutely cannot “catch” a disease or illness or depression from our clients by giving them Reiki, any more than an oncologist can develop cancer from treating cancer patients. But I think this fear has spread because practitioners sometimes do feel their clients’ pains or negative emotions, but lack a positive way to view them. That’s what I’m offering you today:

When we notice our clients’ pain or disturbing emotions by feeling them ourselves, it’s not that we’re “taking them on.”  When I temporarily feel a client’s sore knee as my own, it’s analogous to glimpsing a firefly’s flickering: it’s an awareness of a state at the moment.  Sensing another’s emotional or physical state this way is like having an extra sense. And I’m grateful for this additional way of learning about those to whom I give Reiki.

When I first began learning things this way during sessions, I mentioned it to my Level I Reiki teacher, who sternly told me, “You do not want to be taking that stuff on!” She saw my experiences as evidence that I had weak boundaries.  I saw them as a benefit to my Reiki practice.  That was largely because a key focus of my Buddhist practice is developing my ability to understand others’ point of view, and deepening my connection to them.  And as you may recall, if you’ve been reading my blog posts, I am convinced it’s precisely this ability to connect and be present with recipients (whether or not you get any of this other type of info about them) which enables deep healing to take place.  So this awareness seemed like a great blessing, an indication that I was connecting to my recipients strongly.

And since I see this process as just one more method of information gathering, I don’t fear it, especially because anything I feel in my own body or mind fades when my sessions end, or even sooner.   There’s nothing to be afraid of: although I may notice a client’s sadness or anger or pain, I don’t develop genuine anger or pain, any more than a frog’s croak becomes my voice.  So why do practitioners worry that what they sense in clients can become part of them?  I think it’s because they don’t understand that this way of understanding is like another sense.  It’s just one that not everyone accesses, so it can be disconcerting at first.

To be honest, when I first began noticing my recipients’ state reflected in my own body and mind, it felt strange to me.  Then I realized that I’ve had this kind of awareness all my life, especially with those close to me: I’d notice my stomach beginning to be upset, and then one of my kids would come up to me and say, “Mom, I feel like I’m going to throw up.”  That kind of thing.  When I began practicing Reiki, I became aware of others’ feelings more easily because of the close energetic connection with the recipients.  That’s when I figured out that I’ve been sensing others’ states this way for years.  People who have this kind of awareness are often call empathic, and there’s been a lot written about how unpleasant it can be to feel what others feel, particularly if they’re sick or upset.  We tend not to like to feel even our own discomfort, much less anyone else’s, so this keen awareness has come to be seen as something to be avoided.   Thus, lots has been written about how those who are empathic can shield themselves from others’ energy.

But no one seems to be writing about the positive benefits of being able to gather information in this way.  What about the times when you become aware of others’ extreme joy? Any Reiki practitioner who’s felt other’s pain as their own has certainly felt others’ positive emotions, too, but no one seems to have suggested we try to avoid that. I mention this to show that there can be a very positive side to possessing this kind of awareness, even if you’re not a Buddhist practitioner who sees it as a spiritual benefit.  At the very least, you can view it as a neutral thing: if you see all that comes in through your senses just as information about the world and people around you, instead of as a new feature of your own body or mind, then you can begin to not be afraid of it.

That’s the first step: allowing the awareness to be there without being disturbed by it, because you know it will fade when your session is done, the way you can be in a really noisy place without freaking out, because eventually you’ll leave the place and the noise behind.  Once you begin to let go of the fear, you’ll be able to welcome this profound closeness with your Reiki recipients: you can simply be there with the recipient, unimpeded by anxiety about “taking on” a headache or anger.

I’d even go so far as to say that as Reiki practitioners, we in fact sign on to be present with all that our recipients bring to us, whether positive or negative.  People come to us for comfort and support, and we will be able to provide that fully only if we manage to not pull back in the face of their pain.  That is the nature of our commitment to them and to our healing mission.  Though we willingly place ourselves alongside others in their suffering, we can do so without being thrown off balance by it ourselves.  We do that partly by having a regular and strong self-care practice, and partly by gaining insight into this awareness that draws us closer to our recipients and can bring them — and us — such great benefit.

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The Locus of Subjectivity

The Locus of Subjectivity

by Jeffrey Brooks


Children and teenagers, without adult guidance, are governed by what they want. Genuine adults are governed by purpose. This is a natural choice because it frees us from the self imposed slavery of permanent adolescence, of being permanently ruled by dissatisfaction and desire.


I have noticed in the life-long practice of self defense that as people mature in their practice their definition of self changes and their understanding of defense changes as well. One of the afflictions of contemporary martial arts is its heavy reliance on self regard. People are focused on getting approval from their teacher and on improving their abilities, so their practice becomes narcissistic, because it’s all about them, and technically limited because performance is all about pleasing the teacher and achieving status within a limited group. Much of life – in sports, school, politics, and work – may be structured in this way.


Those who do mature in their martial arts find a purpose for what they have discovered.


One of the things that changes is their locus of subjectivity. When we start martial arts we think of ourselves mainly as our body, and we learn to defend it. That is a good start. As we mature, as human beings as well as practitioners, we understand that we are not separate from the world around us. We need to draw nourishment from the earth several times a day. We are connected to it and dependent upon it. And it needs our care too.


There are people we love and want to take care of, there are neighbors and others to whom we feel kinship and friendliness and human connection which make our lives possible. There are universal virtues which, if we live by them, make our lives wonderful and our humanity genuine, and which ultimately will free us, and all the people with whom we share this world, from suffering. The boundary of our self, the way we perceive who we are, and the ways in which we protect our world, change.


If you are walking across the street and a car comes toward you, you see it and jump out of the way. Your locus of subjectivity is in your own body. When you are walking across the street with your child and a car comes toward him, you immediately pull your child to safety. It is not a considered act. There is no weighing of options, pausing to reflect on the merit of the act in light of the interests of the self that resides inside your body. You act because in that moment your locus of subjectivity is centered in that person you love.


If you are serving in the military or in law enforcement, if you are a warrior, there is no question about your duty under pressure. There is no doubt that the motivation for your actions in the extreme of danger is taking care of the people for whom you are responsible.


For heroes, for leaders, in the decisive moment, their locus of subjectivity does not reside in their own body.  They do not conceive of their selves as bounded by narrow, calculating self interest or personal safety. Their self encompasses all of those for whom they are responsible, all of the people they lead, all of the people they serve. It is why the Dalai Lama’s concern for the suffering people of Tibet is so moving. You can feel that for him his life is indistinguishable from theirs. You can feel how he suffers as they suffer, and how painful it is for him, as their leader and as their servant, to be unable to help them very much.


In Buddhism the bodhisattva ideal creates a locus of subjectivity even more encompassing than that of the hero. The obligation to others, and the suffering one willingly takes on, are greater than that of a parent, greater than that of a warrior, greater than that of a hero. Because the bodhisattva commitment has no boundary.


The locus of subjectivity encompasses all beings. Every one is beloved. Every one’s suffering is yours as much as the suffering of your own vulnerable and innocent child is yours. As we aspire and train to fulfill this ideal we increase our capacity to succeed in it. Our idea of what our ‘self’ is changes. Our idea of how to defend this ‘self’ transforms from a limited ideal of personal safety to the unlimited purpose of saving all beings from suffering forever, using all the skill and strength and energy we have.


Start by being responsible for one other person’s happiness for a few minutes today, and then proceed from there. And don’t stop until you are done. This is how we move our locus of subjectivity from a point to a universal and realize a person is a Buddha.


Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer.  He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.

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Just for Today, Do Not Worry

Just for Today, Do Not Worry

by Susan Downing

My last post, regarding Mikao Usui’s first Reiki precept, “Just for Today, Do Not Be Angry,” led to a wonderful discussion with one of my students.  She was wondering whether one could express the precept’s gist using a”do this” phrase, rather than “do not”.  Another student asked me about that a couple of months ago.  Both of them felt that they would feel better repeating a phrase that reinforced an intention to act positively, instead of one that exhorted them not to do something.  This is an appealing idea, especially since Usui Sensei’s last three precepts are “do” phrases.  Just to review, here are all five of the Reiki precepts:

Just for today:

Do not be angry

Do not worry

Express gratitude

Devote yourself diligently to your work

Be kind to people

It wouldn’t be hard to come up with admonishing versions of the last three precepts – “don’t be ungrateful,” etc, but restating the first two positively is a tougher task, since being angry and worrying don’t have obvious opposites. Besides, since these are two very powerful negative emotions, I imagine Usui Sensei wanted to call particular attention to them, so he mentioned them by name.  Thus, translating them in an affirmative way is a challenge. In fact, translating them at all is tricky: if you tell people not to get angry, that doesn’t strike the right tone.  The first precept has most commonly been translate as “Do not anger,” which really is not correct English.  I’d learned the precept this way and had always taught it using this wording, but when I was writing my book, one of my readers asked what was up with the awkward English wording, and that got me thinking about how best to express that precept in English.  My student’s question led me to expand that reflection to the second precept, too.

Both of the first two precepts’ Japanese wording refers to one’s state of mind, so it’s as if Usui Sensei was saying, don’t be in the state of mind where anger and worry are present.  That’s a pretty awkward way of phrasing it too, but you get the idea. But I believe that Usui Sensei meant the precepts both as guidelines for our actions, and also as descriptions of what diligently devoting ourselves to Reiki can help us experience.  So, we do our best not to be angry and not worry, and over time, we find that we are less and less in a state of mind in which worry and anger are present.  Using “do not be angry” and “do not worry” does work pretty well to express these two meanings of the precepts.

Even so, both phrases do tell us what not to do.  My student found that discouraging: she said that if she’s setting it as her goal to not be angry or worry, but does end up experiencing angry, or worrying, then she’ll feel that she’s failed at upholding the first two precepts.   As we continued our discussion, it occurred to me that a possible positive version of these first two Reiki precepts could be:  ”Just for today, allow anger to fade.  Just for today, allow worry to fade.” This can work with the multiple purpose I see the precepts fulfilling: if you engage in a consistent, diligent, sincere  Reiki practice, you will find that it will be easier for you not to be swept away by anger and worry when they do arise; that they will begin to fade more easily; and that over time, these two disturbing emotions will just not arise as often.   My only hesitation about this wording comes from the fact that it seems to assume that anger and worry will be present (unless you add a phrase like “if it should arise,” but then you’re back to really long precept wording…) whereas the “do not” phrases, for all their “nots”, do hold out the possibility of no anger arising at all, and I like that.

But if you’re working on the assumption that anger and worry might indeed come up, phrasing the precepts the new way can serve as a reminder of how to respond when anger and worry do come up: allow them to fade instead of allowing them to rule you.  Note that you’re not actively trying to prevent them from arising.  You can’t, by force of will, decide that you will not allow anger or worry to arise in your mind. But your Reiki  practice gives you powerful tools that help you allow anger or worry to fade: when you begin to feel upset, give yourself Reiki as soon as possible. Even for just five minutes. My students tell me that they love that idea, but ask what to do if they’re at work or in the middle of a conversation with someone and they start to get really angry or worried?  They don’t want to start giving themselves Reiki in the middle of a meeting!  Here’s my advice:  as soon as you can, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.  Seriously!  It may be the only place where you have real privacy, and most people are unlikely to follow you there to continue a discussion or argument.  Give yourself Reiki for five minutes or longer.  Repeat the relevant precept silently, or in a very low voice, like a mantra.  That will help the anger or worry fade, too. Giving yourself Reiki and reciting the precepts will help you ride out these disturbing emotions without being swept away by them.

This last point is key: using Reiki will help you maintain your composure when you find yourself in a situation that really pushes your buttons.  If you’re in the grip of anger or worry, it’s very difficult to have the presence of mind to deal rationally with whatever you’re facing. You can’t think straight, and when you’re in that state you can end up saying or doing something you might regret because you’re overcome by anger or worry.  That doesn’t mean you ignore the negative circumstance at hand, or look the other way when others are out of line.  Maybe you do need to address an upsetting situation or inappropriate or unkind behavior, but you’ll do it in a kinder, more rational way if you’re calm and collected.  That’s where self-Reiki and the precepts come in. They help your anger and worry fade, so you can go back out and face whatever you need to face without causing more distress to yourself or others.

In terms of expressing the precepts, choose whichever version resonates most with you.  Do or do not. What’s most important is that you do, as Usui Sensei reminded us, “Repeat the precepts and keep them in your mind and heart.”  Keep the essence of their meaning in your mind and heart, no matter which words you use.  That, together with consistent Reiki practice, allows the disturbing emotions to fade, and gratitude and kindness to arise in their place.  So, keep practicing, both on a daily basis and when turmoil strikes.  Even if you end up spending a lot more time in the bathroom!

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The Face of the Earth

The Face of the Earth
by Jeffrey Brooks

All babies will reach a hand across the gulf of empty space that separates them from their mother’s cheek and will touch it and smile. And momma will smile back, in quiet delight at the simple mystery of love in this world. You don’t need to explain it or unravel it.
You can live it.
And spend the rest of your life with a glimmering memory of the simple love without question that is a hint of bodhicitta.

Given the right conditions it will grow. It is what makes men and women marry for life. It’s what makes brothers pull their brothers out of the field of fire or carry strangers from a house in flames.

It’s the feeling that makes you set your feet on the long road to Buddhahood and willingly walk forever or for as long as it takes.  You will have no doubt. It is all there is to do that’s worth doing. And all the distractions of this world don’t get a moment of your heart, the temptations are nothing.

You will know where your life leads and you can read your own Buddhahood written in the stars. You can hear it in the sound of the trees when the wind blows. In the grim procession of cruelty, madness, rage and greed that sweeps nations into oblivion and crushes the bones of the petty and powerful into dust; the dust we walk on, that the skies rain on, that the grass grows on, and which, in our time, will rise again as the mountains that will take us on our path to the stars.

We come into this world with the karma we have created in infinite past lifetimes. We can never escape what we have done but we are entirely free to act now.

It may be that a butterfly has no idea how beautiful it is. It may feel no sadness at all that its lifetime is just a few weeks.  But you should know how beautiful you are. And never forget how fleeting this chance to do what is noble and good in this world.

Duty is ours. Consequences are God’s.
– Stonewall Jackson

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer.  He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.

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Just for Today, Do Not Be Angry

Just for Today, Do Not Be Angry

by Susan Downing

This week I’m continuing my series of blog posts devoted to the Reiki precepts that came down to us from Mikao Usui, Reiki’s founder.  Here they are, beginning with his two-line explanation of Reiki as a system:

The secret of inviting happiness through many blessings

The spiritual medicine for all illness

Just for today:

Do not be angry

Do not worry

Express gratitude

Devote yourself diligently to your work

Be kind to people

Do Gassho every morning and evening

Keep the precepts in your mind and recite them

Have you ever wondered by Usui Sensei chose “do not be angry” and “do not worry” as his first two precepts?  I think it’s because these two powerful disturbing emotions make it difficult for us to follow through on the other three precepts: feeling grateful, devoting ourselves to our work, and being kind. In this post, I’ll take a close look at what relevance the first precept has to our lives in general and to practicing Reiki, too, and how our practice can help it fade.

I’m sure any of us can easily recall times in our lives when we’ve gotten angry.  But what about if you’re a Reiki practitioner? Has anger ever come up as you were practicing Reiki? That might seem unlikely at first.  After all, we associate giving Reiki with happiness and comfort.  Really, have you ever ended up yelling at someone during or after a Reiki session? I doubt it!  Even so, anger and annoyance can arise.  Maybe we’re doing Reiki for a friend or family member with whom we’ve recently had a disagreement.  Maybe we’ve reluctantly agreed to give someone Reiki at an inconvenient time and we’re feeling a little taken advantage of.  Maybe a client was late to a session, or even didn’t show up.  In any of these cases, we might feel annoyed, if not downright angry.

Anger and annoyance can also take more subtle forms during or after a session.  Let’s say the recipient doesn’t seem to experience any immediate benefit.  Maybe his knee still hurts after receiving Reiki, or she is still depressed about a breakup, or even seems more upset than before the Reiki.  Or, maybe he’s new to Reiki and had the nerve to sit up after the session, shrug, and say, “I didn’t feel a thing.”  Because these people have not responded to Reiki as we’d hoped they would, we may get annoyed — at them or at ourselves.

If we can say, oh my gosh, yes, I’ve felt this kind of annoyance and even anger, does that mean we are awful Reiki practitioners?  No.  It means that we are not immune to anger just because we practice Reiki.  It also means that we can benefit by taking Usui Sensei’s precept to heart: Just for today, do not be angry.  The question is, how do we manage not to be angry?

Usui Sensei’s instructions explain exactly what to do.  They don’t tell us to banish anger from our mind, or suggest we use other active methods to get rid of it.   They say, “keep the precepts in your mind and recite them.” In my recent post, “The Secret of Inviting Happiness,” I suggested that in addition to providing a guide for our behavior, the precepts also show what we’ll be able to achieve if we devote ourselves fully to our Reiki practice: “If you practice diligently, you’ll be able to not be angry.”  Practicing Reiki this way really does allow anger to fade. We place our focus on our practice instead of on our anger. We recite the precepts and give ourselves Reiki every day without fail and let our sincere, consistent practice do the work.

But what to do when you do feel anger rising up within you? In such cases, your practice can help you ride anger out without being swept away by it.  You can silently repeat, “Just for today, do not be angry,” when you find yourself beginning to feel angry. Repeat it to yourself silently like a mantra, over and over, distracting your mind with it until the anger or annoyance fade.

Giving yourself Reiki can also help keep your anger from growing once it appears.  If you begin to feel angry, try to find a place where you can sit for a few minutes and give yourself Reiki.  Reciting the precept at the same time will help your mind focus on something other than the person or situation that’s angering you.  If the anger persists, set aside some time later in the day to give yourself a longer Reiki session.

By using your practice this way, you’re not pushing anger down or away.  Rather, the practice elements are helping you remain calm in the face of the disturbance, making it possible for you to ride out the turmoil until it fades on its own, which it will. The key is to remember to use the practice elements when you begin to feel upset. The more you practice this, the easier it will become for you to recognize anger when it’s just beginning to arise, and you’ll be able to turn quickly to the precept and self-Reiki.

So, devoting yourself fully to your practice will allow you to feel less angry over time, and your practice elements can help your anger fade in your day-to-day life, too. Maybe this seems illogical to you, not active or conscious enough, but believe me, it works!  After two of my Heart of Reiki students had been practicing for a couple of months, they began to notice that they were feeling less anger, and that when they did start to get angry, they’d catch the feeling early enough that they could avoid being swept away.  Not by repressing it, but by putting their focus on reciting the precept or giving themselves Reiki.  This surprised them, because they hadn’t been consciously thinking about not getting angry.  They were experiencing the natural benefit of their practice.

So can you.  If you’re a Reiki practitioner, never forget that in your Reiki practice, you possess a powerful tool that can help you both in the long run and in the moments when you are most upset.  All you need to do is remember to use it!

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