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: Energy healing

Imagine a situation whereby the thoughts and intentions of one person can help to heal the physical and/or psychological problems of another, even at a distance. The idea of some form of subtle energy healing is not new and is one scientists have grappled with for decades. Given this, it is no surprise that there is a wealth of literature on the topic and a comprehensive review exploring all the various types of healing and their effects is beyond the scope of a single chapter. Nevertheless, the aim of this chapter is to explore some aspects of energy healing practices to provide insights into what may occur and why. The chapter begins by exploring the notion of energy healing and what it refers to. A brief outline of some of the key approaches used is then provided and this is followed by data on those who access such treatments, the prevalence of use and their satisfaction with such interventions. The chapter then examines evidence of healing from three domains. The first examines the effects on humans, both physical and psychological. The second explores studies conducted on non-human animals and the final domain examines in-vitro research. Each of these areas provides some unique insights into the potential beneficial effects of energy healing. The chapter then briefly examines some effects which have been shown to mediate or influence the outcome of such healing sessions. This includes the number of sessions and the skill or experience of the healer. The chapter ends with a brief exploration of proposed mechanisms that may account for such healing effects. However, before venturing into the field of subtle energy healing it should be stressed that the evidence presented here in no way should be taken to suggest that modern healthcare and/or biomedicine is in any way inadequate. Subtle energy healing simply provides a complementary approach.

Subtle energy healing

The idea that energy, in some form or other, could aid the healing process is one that is found throughout the world in most cultures and across religions (Levin, 2011; S. A. Schwartz, 2017). For instance, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians used magnetite to stimulate damaged tissue, and before that shocks from electric eels were used to help the healing process (DiNucci, 2005). The term energy healing itself broadly encapsulates a range of various types of healing practices. For example, the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has defined energy healing as involving the channelling of healing energy through the hands of a practitioner into a client’s body to restore a normal energy balance and, therefore, health.

Such approaches are often grouped under the broad general heading of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM (Tindle, Davis, Phillips, & Eisenberg, 2005). For instance, in the UK the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee (Lords, 2000) has acknowledged that healing should be recognised as a form of complementary medicine. Hence the idea is that the focused intention of one person, the healer or practitioner, can influence another, the patient or recipient, possibly at a distance and in a non-invasive way that is assumed to pose little or no risk and without utilising known physical means of intervention (Astin, Harkness, & Ernst, 2000; Benor, 2005; Jonas & Crawford, 2003). This healing is based around the manipulation and/or direction of some form of energy. It should be noted that whilst the term ‘energy’ is used this does not refer to any known source of energy. Therefore, some refer to this as subtle energy healing to indicate that the form of energy is a subtle and as yet unknown one (Jonas & Crawford, 2003), though Schwartz (2017) has speculated that such healing effects may be due to the transfer of information from practitioner to recipient rather than energy per se. Nevertheless, the fact that the underlying mechanism(s) of healing are not clearly understood and/or known represents a key challenge to the field.

Types of energy healing

Subtle energy healing represents a wide range of techniques and approaches rather than a single unique system. Here the focus will be on energy healing techniques that allegedly heal via the exchange and/or focused channelling of some form of supraphysical energy, such as Johrei, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch (TT) and prayer. One way to conceptualise such techniques is as a lens used to help focus energy onto or into the recipient (see Figure 8.1).

Whilst these techniques may be more common, there are many other forms of energy healing approaches such as healing touch, or IRECA, Qigong, quantum touch and biofield therapy to name but a few (DiNucci, 2005; Jain & Mills, 2010; Levin, 2011; Rubik, Muehsam, Hammerschlag, & Jain, 2015; Vitale, 2007). This plethora of techniques or approaches represents another challenge for the field as it is not always clear precisely what approach or technique has been used in a particular research study. In fact, some do not distinguish between the various techniques and

Each of the energy healing techniques as a distinct lens which can be used to focus the necessary energy onto/into the recipient

Figure 8.1 Each of the energy healing techniques as a distinct lens which can be used to focus the necessary energy onto/into the recipient.

default to the generic term of energy healing (Bunnell, 1999). However, this is problematic as it may well be that there are slight differences between the various techniques and that one may be better than another at treating a specific problem. As such, more work is needed to delineate the specific effects of the various techniques and identify their unique benefit.


Johrei represents a philosophy and healing approach developed in Japan by Mokichi Okada in the 1930s (see, Buzzetti et al., 2013; Naito et al., 2003). According to Okada, Johrei is essentially a method of spiritual purification. Adherents claim that it is a method for channelling energy, or divine light, through the hands of the healer and into the recipient by means of focused conscious intention. For instance, Johrei healing may involve the practitioner sitting opposite and facing the recipient and raising their hand to focus the energy into/onto the recipient (see Figure 8.2).

Hence the trained Johrei practitioner provides energy healing through their open raised hand. As such, the practitioner can focus the healing energy onto the recipient without needing to touch them. Johrei can be learnt and practised by anyone and is seen as a two-way process that benefits both the healer and the person healed (Reece, Schwartz, Brooks, & Nangle, 2005).

A Johrei practitioner on the left with raised a hand focusing energy onto/into the recipient on the right (picture taken by author)

Figure 8.2 A Johrei practitioner on the left with raised a hand focusing energy onto/into the recipient on the right (picture taken by author).


Reiki is another popular Japanese energy healing technique. It began, or was created, by Dr Mikao Usui who personally experienced a healing energy which he subsequently used to help his family and others (Thrane & Cohen, 2014). Reiki is described as a vibrational or subtle energy therapy most commonly facilitated by light touch on or above the body. Key features of Reiki are hand positions on the front and back of the body and the use of symbols to aid the healing process. Reiki is seen as a way for the practitioner to guide the healing energy to the recipient to facilitate the healing process (see Box 8.1). The practitioners themselves do not generate the energy nor do they cause the healing. They are instead seen as providing a channel. Generally, a session of Reiki can last from between 30 to 90 minutes and consists of a clothed recipient laying down whilst the practitioner places their hands on or above the body in a set sequence. The aim of Reiki is to recharge, rebalance and/or realign the human energy fields, creating optimal conditions for the body’s natural healing to emerge (van der Vaart, Gijsen, de Wildt, & Koren, 2009; Vitale, 2007). In this way it encourages a compassionate connection between the practitioner and the recipient with the intent to heal. According to Reiki spiritual masters, Reiki attunement opens and expands the energy holding capacity of the practitioner (Lubeck, Petter, & Rand, 2001). Such attunement is an advanced spiritual practice, which involves the transmission of energy from the teacher to the student (Trepper, Strozier, Carpenter, & Hecker, 2013). Those that have received such attunements describe powerful experiences of love and peace.

Box 8.1 The Reiki healing process

When asked how the Reiki healing process unfolds a Reiki master responded:

when I initiate the Reiki process, I usually begin by connecting to the energy with my hands raised and channelling the energy towards my sacral chakra (the Tanden). I allow the energy to build and when I feel it has accumulated I would then treat the client. This is usually done from head to toe and laying on of hands in appropriate areas if the client is happy for the physical touch, otherwise, the hands will remain in the area above the body and I would just allow the energy to flow. The thought process for me is to let go of all expectation and let the energy go to where it needs to. I see myself purely as a bridge to the energy that is required.

A full Reiki treatment usually lasts for between 40 minutes to an hour, although shorter treatments are also used for events such as fairs or where someone just wishes for a short blast so to speak.

(from Reiki Master Practitioner Gary Hewitt, with permission)

Reiki training involves several levels. According to van der Vaart et al. (2009) the focus of Level I training is to encourage the body to recover its natural healing ability and is generally used for self-help or for helping others through a light touch. Level II teaches a deeper understanding of the energetic flow and may introduce symbols to aid in treatment efficiency. It can also include the notion of healing at a distance where the practitioner can send energy to a recipient located at a distance. Level III, or master level, focuses on the inner spiritual development of the practitioner, in particular the development of a spiritual consciousness (van der Vaart et al., 2009). It also involves extensive practice and may include training others (Thrane & Cohen, 2014). Being classified as a Reiki master implies a level of expertise and experience and is usually only given after a practitioner has been practising Level II Reiki for at least one year.

Therapeutic touch

According to Peters (1999) the idea of Therapeutic Touch (TT) was derived originally from the notion of healing by the laying on of hands. As a method of healing it is based on the work of Krieger (1995) and, in a similar way to Johrei and Reiki, it assumes an energy or life force surrounding the body that can be influenced, or controlled by TT. During the process the practitioner directs healing energy to the recipient and assists them in modulating their energy field to correct any imbalances (Krieger, 1995). Hence, the idea is that the energy field of the recipient can be manipulated or influenced by the TT practitioner and over time this has shifted from using direct physical touch to relying more on focused conscious intention. As such, despite the name, direct physical contact is not necessary. According to Krieger (1995) TT involves several stages. First, the practitioner prepares for the healing session by focusing on centring themself via meditative practice. Second, the practitioner will evaluate the recipient’s energy field assessing any possible imbalances or disturbances around the body. Third, there is a re-balancing or re-synchronisation of the recipient’s energy field which is achieved by the practitioner sending healing energy to areas that may require attention. Finally, the practitioner will reassess the energy field to ensure it is correctly balanced. However, it should be noted that attempts to assess whether TT practitioners are able to detect such energy fields have not been successful. For instance, Rosa, Rosa, Sarner and Barrett (1998) tested 21 experienced practitioners of TT under blinded conditions and found they were unable to identify which of their hands was in or near the energy field of one of the experimenters. Rosa et al. (1998) concluded that suggestions TT practitioners could detect and/or manipulate such energy fields is both groundless and unjustified. Nevertheless, others have pointed out that even if the mechanism of TT is unknown this does not invalidate it as a potential therapeutic intervention if it can produce clinically measurable effects (O’Mathuna, Pryjmachuk, Spencer, Stanwick, & Matthiesen, 2002).


According to Simao, Caldeira and Campos de Carvalho (2016) prayer has been used since ancient times to promote both self-healing and the healing of others. It has been suggested to be the best known and most widely practised form of such healing (McCullough, 1995). Indeed, a survey of American adults by the US Centres for

Disease Control and Prevention, National Centre for Health Statistics found that of the top five most popular complementary approaches, three involved prayer. The most popular complementary and alternative healing practice was prayer for oneself and the second most popular was prayer for another (Barnes, Powell-Griner, McFann, & Nahin, 2004). This highlights that there are several variants of prayer. For instance, personal prayer involves an individual praying for themself (Hodge, 2007). This is thought to provide hope to the individual by providing a connection with a sacred self-transcending dimension (Simao et al., 2016). Such prayers can take the form of a supplication, which represents a request for a specific type of outcome, or non-directed prayers, which are a more passive and generic form of prayer whereby the individual praying does not request any specific outcome (Astin et al., 2000). There is also intercessory prayer which is characterised by petitions on behalf of others for their health and well-being. It is advocated in many religions and philosophies and involves an effort on behalf of someone with a special need, aiming to alleviate ill-health and promote well-being. However, it need not be religious and can refer to any means of concentrated mental effort to influence reality in a particular way, by appealing to a force. Sometimes this is carried out far from the target recipient and then it is generally called distant intercessory prayer.

Conscious intention

A key point worth noting is that whilst the above healing techniques may have some subtle differences in the way they approach the process of healing there are also many similarities. All methods include both proximal and distal healing, though without the need for direct physical contact. Indeed, some have argued that there are relatively few meaningful differences between the distinct healing approaches (Rahtz, Child, Knight, Warber, & Dieppe, 2019). For instance, a central commonality in such approaches is the underlying core of a shared compassionate conscious intention to put self aside and focus on healing the recipient. This intentional mental effort has been suggested to be an essential part of the process (Schlitz et al., 2003). In fact, some have found that the precise healing approach may be less important than the focused intention to heal. For example, researchers have shown changes in cellular growth using mental imagery without recourse to any particular healing approach (Rider & Achterberg, 1989) and that such imagery alone can influence tumour growth or remission (Achterberg & Lawlis, 1984). However, this should not be taken to indicate that the particular healing technique is irrelevant, rather that it is unclear as yet what the potential differential effects of the various healing techniques may be. There has been very little research directly comparing different healing techniques. Most research to date has been focused on comparing an active healing intervention to a placebo or non-active control group to assess what, if any, beneficial effects emerge. However, many researchers have argued that more needs to be done to fully describe and categorise the various techniques and their effects in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the field (Jonas & Crawford, 2003; Rahtz et al., 2019; Schlitz et al., 2003). It is also worth pointing out that it is not clear yet whether healing represents more of an innate ability or a learnt skill. Some have suggested it can be taught to anyone (Benor, 1992). For instance, Nash (1982) found that individuals with no prior skill or healing ability could be trained to significantly influence the growth of bacteria in-vitro. Others have suggested that there is insufficient evidence and the question remains empirically unresolved (Bengston & Murphy, 2008).

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