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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