What Do Reiki Attunements Do, Anyway?

What Do Reiki Attunements Do, Anyway?

by Susan Downing

Everyone who receives formal training in Reiki receives what is called an “attunement” from his or her teacher.  Teachers give their students attunements are given at the beginning of each level of Reiki training (or sometimes more frequently,) and to an outside observer, it would look like the teacher is simply laying his or her hands lightly on the student’s head and then hands, while doing specific hand movements, or mudras. And yet, the effects can be very profound.  So, what exactly does an attunement “do” to or for the student? Since different teachers understand attunements differently, today I’ll share some of these views, including my own.

The standard answer, put forth by most Reiki teachers here in the West, is that the attunement enables students to practice Reiki by connecting them to the source of the energy they will then use in their healing sessions.  What doesn’t resonate with me here is that this view seems to imply that we can’t access that energy unless we receive an attunement.  I don’t believe that’s the case.

An explanation that appeals to me a bit more is that attunements initiate students into the practice of Reiki.  Pamela Miles describes it this way in her book Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide:  “Rather than adding something, I would say that the initiation process opens and strengthens what’s already there, what is already ours: the access to primordial consciousness that is our birthright.”  This is similar to how I explain attunements to my students. I say that although the energy you use when giving Reiki is already present within your body, when you receive an attunement, your awareness of this energy generally increases, so that you have the sense that suddenly there is energy flowing in you, energy you can use in Reiki sessions for yourself or others.

But here’s yet another way to think of what goes on during an attunement.  Reiki’s founder, Mikao Usui, was a Buddhist practitioner.  As part of his training, he would have received initiations from his teacher or teachers.   These initiations, often called empowerments, or blessings, in Buddhism, take place in a formal setting and involve certain rituals.  They formally mark the beginning of a student’s engagement with the given practice for which he or she is receiving the empowerment.  Sometimes this involves the students taking vows of some sort.  Following an empowerment, the teacher might sometimes take the students’ hands or place a hand on the student’s head.

The empowerment is a key factor in the student’s practice: it establishes a formal and conscious link between student and teacher and formalizes the student’s commitment to the given practice, a commitment to working with the teacher within that practice.  Even so, these empowerments don’t do anything to a student in the sense that they don’t literally enable a student to practice: with or without an empowerment, one could technically carry out all the practices associated with a certain training, assuming you could find out what they were! All the same, even if the empowerment doesn’t flip some “on” switch in the student, the student does experience an effect from receiving one.

For example, if you have received this kind of empowerment from a Buddhist teacher, you might have noticed that you experienced very strong positive emotions and even physical sensations during or after the empowerment.  Maybe you felt very happy, or full of energy, or maybe you felt even overcome by emotion.  Perhaps you felt an increased connection to the teacher who offered the empowerment, a feeling of gratitude and a strong motivation to practice, a sense that you had become part of some wonderful joint effort that includes not only you and your teacher, but all those before you who have engaged in this same practice.

So, although it would have been theoretically possible for you to engage in a given Buddhist practice without an empowerment, receiving the empowerment gives your confidence and motivation a big boost, connects you to the tradition in which you’re practicing, and assures you of the ongoing commitment of your teacher, so that as you move forward, you will be certain that you are learning and carrying out the practice correctly.

The responses to empowerments that I mention above are not only common among Buddhist practitioners.  They are also very similar to what Reiki practitioners experience following an attunement.  So, there is a very real benefit to receiving the attunements that Reiki teachers offer, even if we can’t always identify exactly what goes on during an attunement.

There is also, I hasten to add, a very real benefit to establishing an ongoing relationship with a Reiki teacher, one that will sustain and nourish you long after your given Reiki class has ended.  Although, as I noted above, it is possible to engage in various Buddhist practices on one’s own without receiving guidance or empowerment from a teacher, I feel strongly – and my personal experience with my own teacher has confirmed this time and again – that one is much better off working consistently with a teacher.   The teacher encourages you, helps you see where you are misunderstanding things, and points you in the right direction.  A stable connection with a teacher also helps keep your motivation and enthusiasm up during the inevitable periods when you feel you’ve hit a plateau or somehow gotten off track.  You can think of it this way: each moment of contact with your teacher becomes a mini-empowerment, a new blessing, whether it is formal, or ritualized, or takes place unconsciously in the course of study or a conversation.

This is exactly what your Reiki teacher can give you on an ongoing basis.  (And this is definitely the way I feel about my relationship with my own Reiki teacher.)  This, for me, is the real significance of the attunements that I offer my students.  Giving you an attunement doesn’t somehow magically transform you into a Reiki practitioner.   Anyone who wants to do self-Reiki can learn to do that by following a few easy instructions (see my last blog, “No Experience Necessary”.) And that is fine as an introduction, just the way it’s fine to pick up a book about Buddhism, read about the basic concepts and begin trying to put them into practice.  But once you’ve tried a little self-Reiki, if it resonates with you, then you should find a teacher and do some formal training, just as you would do if you wanted to learn to practice Buddhism seriously.  And this is where the attunements come in.  I always give my students attunements in my formal classes, because this is the point at which they have decided to make a commitment to practicing Reiki.  Giving my students attunements establishes the teacher-student connection and commitment and is encouraging and inspiring and motivating for the student.  It is a starting point on the student’s path of developing a regular Reiki practice.

So, somewhat paradoxically, you could say that Reiki attunements are in one sense unnecessary if you want to practice Reiki, but in another sense, absolutely vital if you want to establish a strong Reiki practice.

And I want to say one more thing about attunements. Receiving attunements is very joyful and inspiring, but giving them is even more wonderful. There is something so beautiful about marking and sharing the moment when a student makes that commitment to beginning a Reiki practice.  During attunements, it feels to me that all is possible for the students as they start off on their Reiki path. And even if I never see them again after the class ends, at least they will know, from experiencing the connection that is established with me during the attunement, that they are not alone on their path. They will always have somewhere to turn for guidance or for some shared Reiki, or simply for a conversation that will be a sweet blessing for us both.

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