Journey to Mt. Kurama

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This photo by Becky Holtzman; all others by photographer David Ondrik.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Japan—something I’d hoped to do for years, long before I even knew about Reiki. As luck would have it, my visit was based in Kyoto. Mt. Kurama, the sacred mountain where Reiki was first perceived by Mikao Usui, is about an hour’s train ride north of the city. Traditionally, Usui is said to have discovered Reiki after a three-week fasting meditation on the mountain, in 1922. Of course a visit to the origin place of Reiki was at the top of my list!

The train ride was beautiful: as the city eased into suburbs, lush rice paddies and vegetable gardens began to replace dwellings. Our train tunneled through maple trees as we moved into the mountains. Finally, we were deposited at Kurama Station, and our trek began.

We paid the entrance fee at the main gate, and received a lovely, pale purple “Summer” ticket, which told us that Mt. Kurama is “imbued with life energy, a wide variety of life forms resides here in serenity, and the rich natural environment continues to flourish.”

Perhaps a quarter mile up the trail, we encountered another large stone entrance gate. Just beyond that, we found a beautiful, large, hand-constructed ring of vegetation, an ephemeral and marvelous entrance. We thought perhaps this was from the Bamboo-Cutting Ceremony that had happened a couple of weeks previous. The multiple thresholds opening onto the Kurama trail created a sense of ceremony, of being led deeper into the pilgrimage.

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Beyond the green-gate was a flight of steps, which ran alongside a huge, old Grandfather Sugi tree—estimated to be about 800 years old, adorned with a rope and a “lightning strike” paper streamer (called a shide), elements from Shinto rituals. Gigantic trees, and reverence for them,  was a common theme in my experience of Japan. When you look at these old beings, and see the many lichens, mosses, plants and insects that live on and whirl about them, one can’t help but appreciate these magical ecosystems-unto-themselves.

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The trail up the mountain alternates between paved path, dirt switchbacks, and long flights of stone stairs. So many stairs! Lanterns line the route. The mountain is home to dozens of Shinto shrines, both tiny and large. The bright reddish-orange of the lanterns, a shade that also trims the shrines, positively vibrates against the various greens of the forest. 

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One of the things I had most been looking forward to was visiting a particular shrine near the top of the mountain. My (admittedly out-of-date) guide book said it was a not-to-be-missed quiet treasure of Mt. Kurama, nestled into a sacred grove of massive sugi trees. As we neared the top, I mentioned this to my partner, who hesitantly broke the news that the shrine had been destroyed in 2018’s Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years. Ah. Well.

After traversing the Tree Root Path…

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—a labyrinth of living tree roots right out of a fairy tale—we came upon the shrine. Uprooted trees were everywhere, and parts of the shrine lay in piles. The exception was a small stone bowl resting on a short pedestal, and also a rectangular stone basin—perhaps the former purification trough. In this basin, dark tadpoles swam with vigor. Life wants to live!

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Near the wreckage of the shrine, amid the overturned trees, several humble wooden benches had been installed, low to the ground. A small sign was staked into the ground by the benches: Meditation Place.

I sat down, and looked around me: the downed trees, the mud, the shattered shrine, and the robust green of the still-standing trees. I searched for feelings of sorrow in the wreckage at the sacred site, but wry humor is what came forward: the traveler-from-afar fantasy I had harbored, of having a perfect meditation in the perfect place where Reiki was literally born … that fantasy had tumbled down the mountain.

In fact, I was having the perfect meditation, in the perfect place; it just didn’t look the way I had expected. As the birds sang and the insects buzzed, I let my gaze drift back and forth between the downed trees and the trees still growing. I felt the heat of my partner’s leg next to mine, heard our breathing, and I asked myself to be present in this landscape exactly as it was: uprooted and tempest-tossed. I loved this sacred grove, which had made a sacrifice to forces bigger than itself: the wind and rain, a climate that is raging in ways this old mountain might be untroubled by, but which is challenging to the hundreds-of-years-old “youngster” trees. 

Echoing through it all, continual birdsong.

Several years ago, right before another big journey, a good friend asked me if I felt happy. I thought carefully before responding. I replied that I felt content in my life—that I experience happiness as a transitory emotion, while to be content is to be rooted in satisfaction, a sense of “this is enough,” even as happiness, sadness, and all the other human emotions wash over and through my days, again and again. I thought of this conversation as we descended Mt. Kurama, considering how once we commit to a journey, we can find contentment with whatever we discover along the path. All that’s required of us is to show up.

A New Year, and Rethinking “Energy”

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways we use the word “energy” in communication. I don’t just mean Reiki practitioners, rather in the broader cultural context. When we say energy, we assume people know what we’re talking about: “I like that guy’s energy,” or “I felt energy move through me,” or “The dog must be sick, her energy is off.”

Often we’re referring to something ephemeral, a “vibe.” But are we really referring to something ephemeral? What if we were willing to spend some time becoming more specific about what we mean? When I tell someone I’m feeling low energy, I could be talking about my body, my emotions, or maybe my spirit. Perhaps it’s some amalgam of all three.

Energy is kind of generic. I once heard a Reiki master describe it as the equivalent of whatever. To me, it’s like the word stuff, which can refer to anything from belongings (I’ve got a garage full of stuff), to tasks (We’ve got a ton of stuff on tonight’s agenda), to lovely abundance (Look at that banquet table full of stuff!).

It’s all about context. And so it is with “energy.” If you ask a physicist to describe energy, they will likely start talking about thermal, radiant, kinetic… and I’m not comfortable using any of those “energies” to describe Reiki!

When we really ask ourselves, “What am I feeling?” it encourages us to look a little deeper. When we look deeper, we are better able to find real solutions. Am I low energy in my physical body? Maybe I’m dehydrated, or am in need of good food, or a solid night’s sleep. Am I low energy in my emotional life? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on what’s going on in my relationships: family, friends, the groups I interact with, and my community. Am I spiritually low? It might be wise to make an effort to connect with something bigger than myself: God, goddess, the Universe, or even the natural world. A friend refers to that Something Bigger as her “committee,” a concept I love, because it suggests many facets sharing a unity of purpose.

Self-observation is powerful, and being specific about what we see, without judging it, can provide us with valuable information. When we practice Reiki, or receive Reiki from someone else, we have the opportunity to relax completely into each present moment, and to experience whatever arises. I believe this is different than energy work; it is more like meditation. A skilled practitioner is almost like a guide, one who endeavors to stay out of the way and let Reiki practice speak for itself.

In attempting to weed the word energy out of my Reiki conversations over the past few months, I’ve found that vitality is often a good substitute. For me, vitality carries all the positive connotations of energy, and shrugs off the vaguely woo-woo implications that can be troubling, especially when speaking with Reiki skeptics.

But skeptics are our friends. They push us to observe carefully, and to consider the importance of the language we use when discussing Reiki. Questions—those from others, and even our own—help us learn how to convey the practice with integrity, whether we practice ourselves, or find value in seeking professional Reiki sessions.

It has been exactly three years since the Orange Flower Healing blog was launched. I still find myself constantly revisiting the way I write, and talk, and think about Reiki. It brings to mind this description of the Way, the Tao:

Words go on failing and failing,
nothing like abiding in its mist.*

May the New Year bring you health, contentment, and abiding ease.

*From David Hinton’s marvelous translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, Chapter 5.

Are you ready for a Reiki reboot?

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Self-treatment is the heart of Reiki.

Do you wish the people in your life took Reiki–and your practice–more seriously?

Perhaps it’s worth considering this question: How can you convey the value of Reiki to others, when you haven’t committed yourself to regular practice?

If you’ve lost your daily practice, or have doubts about whether your Reiki is “still good,” you are invited to Orange Flower Healing to review and restore your commitment to Reiki and to self-care.

FREE Reiki Self-Practice Reboot
Thursday, December 6, 7-9pm
at East West Acupuncture
357 S. Landmark Ave (off west 3rd Street)
Questions? 812-327-1330

After brief introductions and a quick review of hand placements, we’ll share a guided self-practice for about 40 minutes. There will be plenty of time for sharing and questions afterwards.

Bring a yoga mat or blanket to lie on, and a pillow if you’d like. There will be some Reiki tables available; contact me if you’d like to reserve one. Otherwise, we’ll be stretched out on the floor.

This is a FREE event, all lineages and all levels are invited!

 

Practicing Reiki like a Martial Art

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Every once in a while, someone who is curious but skeptical about Reiki will ask if I really “believe” that it works. This can be intimidating, depending on the tone in which the question is asked. It is easy to start stammering, and to fall back on vague “woo-woo” language, which never helps. It only takes a few experiences like this to discourage one from speaking with confidence about the value of Reiki, a practice that is truly better experienced than discussed.

Recently I’ve been trying a response that feels more playful: Do you ask an aikido student if she believes in aikido?

My spouse, David Ondrik (pictured above) helped bring me to this idea. A student of taekwando for 25 years, he took Reiki I with me, and immediately saw a reflection of his martial arts training in the approach: the Grand Master/Master/student relationship; regular practice with fellow students; an individual commitment that, when combined with the commitment of others, becomes the larger community of the dojang.

Martial arts training benefits the body, the mind, and the spirit. An aikido student doesn’t believe in aikido, she practices it. More precisely, she practices because she believes in the benefits the practice brings her. It is an art she has committed herself to, and the power of her aikido practice lies in doing the work, not in talking about it. If you’re interested in what she has–strength, ease in her body, a calmness about her–then you might want to know more about how she attained those things. She may have some simple words to offer, but most likely she will encourage you to experience aikido for yourself.

“Reiki” is two things: it is universal life energy (Rei = universal, ki = life energy), and it is also the practice itself. When people ask if I believe in Reiki, they usually mean the former, universal life energy. All I can say to that is everyone knows when they see someone who is lacking in life energy; a person might seem depressed, washed out, a little blue, bored.

Reiki practice works at the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels (much like a martial art). We all know what physical muscles look like, but what about your emotional muscles? What constitutes mental muscle? And what shape does spiritual muscle take?

In the martial arts, testing day is often a public event. Given the task of breaking through a series of wooden planks, the student take all of his or her experience from practice—the body, the emotions, the mind, the spirit, and their sacred connection to their Master’s lineage—and brings that experience to bear on the task at hand. To an outsider, this task might seem impossible; they might not believe it can be done. The student might not even be certain they can do it. All the student can do is prepare, and then give it their best.

And so it is with the art of Reiki. I am less concerned with believing in Reiki than I am in practicing it. It is through practice that Reiki teaches me, and I can speak of my own personal experience with confidence and ease. I aspire to what Stephen Mitchell writes, in his translation of the Tao te Ching: “He who knows doesn’t talk, but words are no hindrance for him. He uses them as he would use gardening tools. When someone asks, he answers.”

 

I haven’t practiced in a long time…

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Self-practice is the heart of Reiki: a full self-treatment, every day, helps maintain balance and a relaxed awareness as we go about our lives. But it can be hard to find time for self-practice, since we have to consciously choose to make time.

I sometimes meet people who, when learning that I have a Reiki practice, say: “I took a Reiki class years ago, but I haven’t used it in a really long time.”

Whereupon, I encourage them to start again.

How do we get back to Reiki practice? By placing Reiki hands on ourselves, every day. A few ways to reengage with Reiki, if you haven’t practiced in a while:

– Give yourself a mini self-treatment after hitting the snooze button: press snooze, and then place your hands. Drift back to sleep, letting Reiki flow for the next 8 or 9 minutes. If you choose to snooze some more, you can move your hands—if you started at your head, move to your heart. If you started at your heart, move to your belly.

– Practice for a few minutes before lunch, or after. Place your hands wherever Reiki is called to—if nothing speaks to you, try your belly, and imagine your body digesting well and absorbing all the nourishment available in your meal.

– Go to bed 10 or 15 minutes earlier than you usually do, and practice as you fall asleep. You may experience the best night of sleep you’ve had in a while!

Try practicing just a small amount each day for a month. A full self-treatment, every day, is what you’re aiming for, but if you get off track, don’t worry. Some Reiki is always better than no Reiki. Just notice how you feel: as you practice, when you awaken, during the events of your day, and going to sleep.

Need a refresher on the hand placements for self-treatment? Contact me about getting together one-on-one, or in a group, to practice. Reiki is safe, so simple, and deeply supportive. Once you’ve got it, it never “goes away”—you just have to remember to practice what you already know.

Reiki, art, and “soft eyes”

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Before starting to practice Reiki, I’d been practicing art for many years. This proved helpful to me when learning Reiki, because I understood the value of a daily commitment: with any regular practice, we strengthen muscles both physical and mental, and stay familiar with our tools. With daily effort, we worry less about “good” and “bad” practice, and keep the focus on consistently showing up.

One of my tools for art practice is something I call my “soft eyes.” This is when I step back and look at something I’m working on with my eyes slightly unfocused, which offers me a chance to see the work in a looser way. (I do this when looking at other artists’ work, too.) Problems–and strengths–in the image often jump out, and deciding what to do next is easier. Other times I realize it’s time to let something alone.

It took me a long time to notice this “soft eyes” effect, and it took me even longer to consciously employ it as a tool. Years later, when my Reiki teacher encouraged me to observe with “Reiki eyes,” it then took time to recognize that, for me, Reiki eyes were the same soft eyes I called on in the art studio.

Whether in Reiki or art practice, soft eyes encourage me to wait for pattern and meaning to emerge, rather than letting my mind carry me to a premature conclusion. The soft gaze of not-knowing can be an important space to hang out in, if slightly uncomfortable.

I sometimes think of art as something that I do “for myself,” and Reiki as something I offer “for others.” But I self practice with Reiki almost every day, and my art does find its way out into the world. (I’ll have some work in The Vault at Ivy Tech’s John Waldron Arts Center, in May.) Both art and Reiki help me stay aware of the big picture, while keeping a soft eye on the details.

 

 

Your Energetic Savings Account

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Sacrum/Blossom

Reiki is often translated as Universal Life Energy. The second part of the word, Ki, is similar to the Chinese concept of Qi, the “life force” that flows through living things.

After a Reiki session, recipients might feel sleepy, rested, or energized. The next day is when the effects of a session might be most noticeable: people often sleep deeply the night of a Reiki treatment, and wake up feeling renewed.

In my own experience, this is when a strong temptation pops up, to spend that fresh new energy tackling any number of worthwhile tasks. Which is seductive at the time, but quickly leaves people feeling depleted all over again.

To resist this urge, when receiving Reiki, I treat my session like a mini-retreat: if my appointment is in the morning, I keep my schedule light that day, and set aside quiet time. If I schedule an afternoon or evening appointment, I try to stay away from digital gadgetry the rest of the day, and go to bed early. Whenever I receive Reiki, I drink plenty of water afterwards, and listen to my intuition when it comes to food, exercise, and rest—every session is different, so there is no one-size-fits all response. The day after a session, however energized I may feel, I try to keep my day as flexible as possible.

This is how I choose to accept the Reiki I’ve received, welcoming it into all the little spaces that can benefit from healing. When we allow ourselves to fully absorb a Reiki session, it’s like making a deposit into the “energy savings account,” and tucking a bit of vital life energy under the proverbial mattress.

We benefit from receiving Reiki during times of relative ease, which can help sustain us in busier times. When life gets stressful, we can keep the Reiki flowing by practicing daily self-treatment, and receiving Reiki from others. Whatever may be happening, we have choices in how we nourish, conserve and wield our Ki.

As we move into autumn, and all the wonderful busyness of cooler days and longer nights, it’s worthwhile to stash some Ki in the self-care bank. Whether through receiving Reiki, getting plenty of sleep, practicing meditation or prayer, or making time for gentle bodywork like yoga or Qigong, you can care for your Ki, and invest in your self.

Reiki as an Adaptogenic Practice

I was recently talking to a good friend about Reiki, exchanging our experiences of the practice and musing about how it “works” for each of us. My experience of Reiki is that it supports whatever is going on. I think of it as bolstering what is working within the person (or animal, plant, situation) and minimizing negative factors that drain life force.

My friend, who is well attuned to the magic of medicinal plants, responded with this: “So you feel Reiki is like an adaptogen?” The light bulb went on in my mind (and more importantly, in my gut). YES! That is exactly how I experience Reiki.

In the world of herbal medicine, an adaptogen is a plant that meets the body where it needs support, and assists in bringing the body’s systems back to balance. Adaptogens gently tug the body in the direction of wellness and away from the effects of stress, illness, and depletion. It’s less about curing symptoms than about supporting balance and resilience, so that symptoms lose the upper hand.

Here’s another way of looking at it: we all have a friend or family member that we feel especially close with. And no matter what’s going on in our lives, we’re always pleased to be in that person’s company. He or she somehow manages to make things better, simply through their presence, and they help us adapt to whatever is going on.

Thinking of Reiki as an “adaptogenic friend” has been a good meditation: it is wise to check in often and appreciate its quiet strength–like watering an herb garden or catching up with a dear friend–and then let “the work” happen naturally.

 

 

Reiki, Self-Care, and the Inner Life

Possibly the most important part of anyone’s Reiki practice is self-practice. This means giving oneself a Reiki treatment every day; a full session is ideal, but even 15 minutes of Reiki is beneficial.

Strangely, I’m starting to realize that I am better about my self-practice when I’m busy or stressed out—which is awesome, because self-practice is a healthy choice when life gets crazy. But I’m very curious about why it’s harder for me to stick to this habit of self-care when the weather is fine, relationships are going smoothly, and life is more or less even-keeled. It’s like some sneaky part of my brain decides: “Oh, things are great, why do you need to waste time relaxing, right now? There are important things to do out there!” Whether it’s work or play, there is a lot to attend to. Spring fever makes it even easier to stay busy.

I just listened to a lovely interview with Pico Iyer at On Being (it’s from June, sadly I’m always a little behind on these things). He says:

“… I think we all know our outer lives are only as good as our inner lives, so to neglect our inner lives is to really incapacitate our outer lives; we don’t have so much to give to other people, or the world, or our job, or our kids.”

When things are going smoothly, it’s so tempting to neglect the inner life. But that inner life helps to steer the purpose of the outer life, and if we stop tending to it, all that we do “out there,” even the good stuff, will slowly start to deplete us.

Taking time for Reiki every day—rain and shine—is one way to tend the inner life. If you don’t yet have Reiki hands, I’d be happy to help you find a class. Just shoot me an email.

Talking Reiki

Reiki has been a significant part of my life for just over two and a half years. Which is not that long, ultimately — there are practitioners out there who have been practicing for decades. My Reiki journey has just started.

As much as I practice and think about Reiki, and occasionally discuss it with other practitioners, I still find Reiki difficult to describe in words. I know how Reiki feels to me when I experience it: usually relaxing, often “lightening,” and sometimes more energizing than a power nap + espresso. I’ve watched others fall into states of deep relaxation, emerging dreamy and calm, or bright-eyed and energetic. Often people will sleep deeply the night of their treatment, feeling rejuvenated the next day.

Practically, Reiki is a safe, gentle, method of supporting relaxation and the body’s intrinsic ability to restore itself to balance. A Reiki practitioner has been empowered into their practice by a Reiki Master; I find it helpful to think of Reiki as a gentle martial art, wherein the student is guided and encouraged by a mentor. The student is taught the skills to practice on themselves, other people, animals, or plants. The student learns, but then they must practice, practice, practice.

But this “factual” description doesn’t capture the poetic essence of Reiki, which somehow evokes our deepest vitality and unfolds in mysterious ways.

I have long been a fan of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, especially the audio book version. A few months after I started practicing Reiki, I realized how much my understanding of the Tao is similar to my understanding, and experience of, Reiki. Yep, we’re talking two totally different cultures, separated by 2500 years (give or take) — but something resonates there.

As Lao Tzu wrote:

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
(Chapter 5)