complementary medicine, film, integrative medicine, media, spirituality

What is Healing, Anyway?


Written by Lee Schneider, founder of DocuCinema.

Healing is hard to quantify. Does it mean, “My back has stopped hurting by a factor of 45 percent?” Does it mean, “I don’t wake up at night because of those nightmares of being chased by thousands of cats. I only wake up now because I dream of 50 cats?” Does it simply mean, “I feel better?”

Not all healing involves ripping off the band aid and seeing the healing with your own eyes. It can be invisible.

istock_000008697553xsmallSome have experienced the invisible kind of healing using a technique called Reiki. Reiki involves moving the hands over the patient or lightly touching them. Afterward people have reported feeling balanced energetically or feeling more centered. But how does it work?

“Medicine doesn’t understand how Reiki works.” said Pamela Miles, founding director of the Institute for the Advancement of Complementary Therapies, when I recently interviewed her about Reiki. I’m working on a project about integrative and complementary therapies. As a science-oriented guy I’ve been curious about these therapies because often science can’t explain how they work but they seem to help people a lot. I’ve seen yoga reduce my stress levels. My mother stopped smoking after acupuncture treatments. There’s a mystery here and I want to know more about it.

“When I place hands on someone it’s like feeling an orchestra in my palms – I feel many different notes and qualities of vibration and it keeps changing,” says Miles.

What is science supposed to do with that? What is she transmitting through her hands? Life force energy? Mind energy? It might involve electromagnetic forces. Using a magnetometer to measure electromagnetism, some researchers claim to have seen the energy of Reiki moving from practitioner to patient. (Others say they have no idea what they’re measuring.) But even more interesting is the belief system involved for Reiki to work: you don’t need one. It works anyway, regardless of your belief system or even lack of one.

Scientists, being the take-measure types they are, have taken a shot at trying to understand the success of Reiki. One study suggested that Reiki can speed the healing of skin wounds. Another at Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in New York City looked at how Reiki and meditation might reduce anxiety, fatigue and pain in cancer patients. During the study, the intensity of those symptoms dropped by half. Results like that have encouraged mainstream health care providers to offer Reiki treatments as part of a hospital program. New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering, Boston’s Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Institute and Yale-New Haven Hospital are all in.

Nobody knows why, but Reiki seems to help the body engage in self healing. “With Reiki,” Miles says, “patients get a chance to participate actively in their health care and regain a sense of control.” They become partners in their own care, and that, most doctors would say, is a key reason why this form of invisible healing seems to be so effective. I wonder how science will develop the tools to measure something like that. For me, it’s a mystery worth investigating.

Stay curious and see you next Thursday.


7 thoughts on “What is Healing, Anyway?

  1. Bob Ellal says:

    Hi Lee,

    I’ve never experienced Reiki, but I am an experienced qigong practitioner. Perhaps both healing modalities influence the chi, or energy, meridians and channels in the body. I note that Reiki practitioners use their hands, palm down, to scan over a patient’s body. The palms hold important cavities–the lao gung cavities–for expressing energy. After doing qigong, these cavities will tingle, as though a slight current of electricity is flowing through them. This is true of other cavities on the body.

    I honestly believe that qigong helped me survive both cancer and chemotherapy, and keep me healthy for over 12 years. That being said, I have grievous injuries in every joint in my body from damage caused by the bone cancer. These injuries haven’t healed, and cause a significant amount of pain. I haven’t been able to heal myself in this regard. Will Reiki help with these types of injuries?

    Best regards,


    • Hi Bob,
      Thanks for commenting as always. I think Pamela Miles would be a good place to start. When I interviewed her she really knew her stuff. She’s also a great resource and fact-checker on much of the Reiki research out there. Judging from the Reiki people I’ve spoken with, the therapy certainly seems worth investigating to see how effective it might be on joint injuries.

  2. Lee,

    Great post. I too am a science oriented skeptic when it comes to all unknown phenomenon. My wife believes in Reiki, She has taken classes to become a master Reiki, and practices it.

    I can not wait to see the results of scientific study you mention.

    • Hi Barzin, thanks for commenting. I have been checking out the research on Reiki, yoga, even hypnosis for about 9 months now. Gathering information as we prepare to launch the project. Been meeting a lot of fascinating people who are very passionate about connecting up these therapies with scientific-level proof.

  3. Bob Ellal says:


    One measurable proof I’d like to observe would be T-cell count. The type of qigong I favor is standing post meditation–the arms are held in an arc in front of the body, palms facing the heart. According to masters, this pressures the sternum and in turn stimulates the thymus gland–which kicks out T-cells, and normally deteriorates witih age. I’d love to see a study of people who practice standing post and T-cell counts.



  4. Peter says:

    There’s a little bit of apples and oranges here. T-cells are one cell line involved in the body’s ability to fight pathogens and the thought is that as this cell line is depleted, susceptibility to infection increases. Given the innumerable factors involved in disease and healing, extrapolating the impact of one cell line on a global process doesn’t make sense. Two healthy people with a “normal” compliment of all the factors we can measure will have different susceptibility to disease, different rates of healing, and different abilities to perceive/tolerate pain. Like pain perception, healing is a complex physiological process which seems susceptible to cognitive modification.

  5. Lotta says:

    I’m so glad that you are doing this blog, Lee! I just caught up with your two most recent posts. Being a ‘convert’ since quite a while back, I remember how skeptic I was when I started out. Even when I took my first Reiki Level training, I was still a skeptic. Intentions go the same way. It was while studying some of the basics of Quantum Physics that I started to accept with my left brain, what my right brain knew since I was a child; basically that there is so much we can’t ‘see’ or ‘measure’ yet, which makes it no less valid. We don’t question love, even though it’s impossible, so far, to measure or explain scientifically. In my existing world-view, it’s the height of arrogance to believe that if we can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Life has such richness and depth and we still haven’t even begun to scratch the surface…

    Thank you!

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