It’s been a whirlwind week, as I move into week two of a clinical fellowship in Reiki.

I find myself plunging into the world of hospitals, which has made me reflect on my lifelong relationship with large institutions.

Most of my nonprofit work has been with community-based organizations or small faith-based groups, often times those just starting up, in their first few years, or at least committed to maintaining a grassroots, familiar feel.  I prefer neighborhood yoga studios to ones with multiple practice spaces and live in a small housing cooperative with just 15 other families.

I’ve had my share of beehive experiences:  I grew up in a city of 8 million, lived in a housing cooperative of 982 units spread over several acres, attended a high school with 3,000 students.  My college and grad school were equally large.

As for the hospitals:  both of my parents were hospitalized frequently, sometimes for months at a time, because of what I can only succinctly describe as severe psychological and physical trauma.  When I was not quite six, my father spent six months in a hospital in New Jersey, after a car accident in which both of his legs were broken in multiple places; his left leg was essentially crushed.  For the first five months, I wasn’t allowed to see him.  Like hospitals across the US in the early 1970s, Hackensack Hospital didn’t let children visit patients.

“Can’t I just go see him once?” I begged my mom. “I promise not to breathe any bad germs on him.”

No exceptions were made to the hospital policy, not even for long-term patients whose illness has nothing to do with immune function.  When I got older, I learned that more often than not, hospitals expose people to dangerous infections, rather than the other way around.

By the time I was ten, most hospitals had changed their policies, so I got to visit my mother regularly when she would have long stays in various psychiatric care facilities and hospitals.

Perhaps because of all this time walking in hallways that smelled of strong disinfectant, as a teenager and younger adult, I avoided visiting sick friends and family members until they were back home.  One of my classmates had ovarian cancer when we were in 7th grade; though I don’t recall what excuse I gave, I still feel a twinge of guilt at making it, rather than the time for an hour-long visit to her in Sloan Kettering.

That changed somewhat as I got older.  I accompanied many a friend and even the occasional stranger to emergency rooms, so much so that I have instructed friends (and you too dear reader) which DC emergency room I want to be taken to if humanly possible.  (Sibley.  In other places, please bring me to the hospital located in the wealthiest and/or whitest part of town.  I’m only being half-facetious.)  I’ve taught yoga at Walter Reed Army Military Center, which is located on a 113 acre campus and serves more than 150,000 people each year.

Still, I’ve stayed largely in my comfort zone of small, complete with its special brand of annoyances.  (Such as lack of planning being equated as a sign of creativity, spontaneity, and nimbleness.)

So I’m welcoming the opportunity that this clinical fellowship is giving me to understand my relationship to the large.

What’s also fascinating is how many of the original Reiki masters in Japan were part of large institutions, especially the Japanese Navy, which no longer exists: it was dissolved post-World War II thanks to Japan’s constitutional renunciation of the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.  (Coincidence?) By the way, many were also doctors, and used Reiki as an overall part of treatment.

This week, I went into two hospitals, one being George Washington University Hospital, which is a partner in my fellowship, though the details are still being finagled; I know I’ll volunteer there, attending meetings such as the palliative care meeting I went to last week, offering Reiki to patients, and perhaps leading workshops and relaxations groups for patients. The other hospital I went to was where a friend was staying; his family lives overseas, and his friends are geographically scattered. He was thrilled to have someone to talk with, and to bring him food that isn’t made in a hospital cafeteria.  (I offered Reiki to him, btw, but after a few minutes he was like “that feels too intense!”)

In these visits, and my clinical work this week with patients and program development, I realized how much I’m enjoying what I’m doing and where I’m doing it.  I get a real kick out of putting my inner (and very amateur) anthropologist into use by being a participant-observer in how a hospital operates: asking questions about background assumptions, classification of patients as cooperative or difficult, even the theatrics and staging of the work.  (A difficult case — that is, one ripe for resident learning — might bring a number of doctors in white coats into a patient’s room, surrounding her bed, all nodding. You can picture the scene on stage, if you want, but isn’t the real deal even better?)

In any case, my decision to be a part of this fellowship, and and to look at my own perspectives on institutions feels like the right thing to do.  The first step in humanizing institutions is of course deeply personal: learn how to maintain your humanity in institutional settings, and learn to see others in those settings as more than the labels (e.g., “patient,” “technician”) we tend to affix when there’s too many of us to make distinctions.

The Reiki is important, of course, but I think our ability to stay present to what’s actually happening, to who’s in front of us, and to who we are becoming takes precedence.  Maybe that’s why I have written two posts on a Reiki blog, with very little “Reiki” in them!

I welcome your thoughts!

Until next week —


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