Symbols and Systems of Collapse

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Although esoteric systems are notorious for their complexity, all their elaborate apparatus is, in an important sense, unnecessary or beside the point…

From Learning Ritual Magic by John Michael Greer.

He continues, “The following exercise [the awareness meditation] is a concrete example of this. From one perspective, it is one of the basic ‘five-finger exercises’ of the novice magician. From another perspective (some would say an impossibly optimistic one!), it is the only thing you need to know or do. All other means, exercises, teachings, and devices are for those who cannot do this exercise as it should be done.”

Last night at the Colorado Traditional Reiki Meetup in Northglenn, we were discussing Frans Stiene’s (The Reiki Sourcebook) viewpoint that the symbols in Reiki are “training wheels” to be discarded after one thoroughly understands each symbol’s unique energy. I can agree with that statement, only if one continues on to say that the entire system of Reiki can be discarded when one no longer practices spiritual energy but is spiritual energy. However, Reiki is a simple system with only a few easy tools, and to leave behind even one of those tools as we progress in our work is to me wasteful of opportunities to deepen our practice and our understanding of ourselves and of spiritual energy. As John Michael Greer says in the quote above, the elaborate apparatus of any esoteric system is simply a set of tools for doing what is infinitely simple to do—just be, aware of yourself and your connection to all things. In a moment, this is perfectly and easily attainable. In every moment, I am constantly reminding myself to return to my awareness. It only takes a moment to be enlightenment. But to maintain enlightenment, I will joyfully embrace my training wheels everyday.

In the Western Mystery Tradition of Ceremonial Magic that I follow, we combine physical movements (including drawing esoteric glyphs in the air), speaking words of power with awareness, stillness and breathing meditations, invocations of angels and gods, connecting with light, and initiations. Reiki is surprisingly similar, adding in hands-on healing and leaving out working with higher spirit beings. (Incidentally, some Japanese traditions do have deity correspondences for the symbols, and last night in meditation I was inspired to begin work with these.) Mikao Usui was not trained in the Western Mystery Tradition, but certainly we can see that these two systems share core elements.

Like Reiki, the WMT emphasizes daily personal practice as well as regular group work. However, adepts in the WMT stress that no matter how far we get in our training, the first and simplest teachings continue to be an important part of our work throughout our development. Try throwing away the ABC’s now that you’ve advanced as far as you have with language! Removing our tools is like a game of Jenga—certainly not every stick is needed to hold up the tower. And it is at the moment of collapse that we see what is truly needed and what can be discarded.

Often destruction is the seat of enlightenment. I have no intention of using training wheels to prop up my wobbling tower! I’d rather embrace the collapse. However, Reiki—unlike the WMT—does not have elaborate systems for exploring the deepening layers of symbolic mystery. It is infinitely simple—its goal is health and happiness—and it is built from only five basic elements. To single out a particular element to be discarded simply strikes me as unfair and perhaps a bit capricious. To me, the most optional item in the system of Reiki is the attunements, and there collapses the entire system, when people learn there is absolutely nothing needed between them and full connection to spiritual energy!

But if you would like an easy to learn system for increasing your awareness of yourself and your connection to all things, I can recommend a few simple techniques taught by Mikao Usui.
Joy Vernon is a Reiki Practitioner and Teacher in Denver, Colorado. She is trained in both the Traditional Japanese Usui Reiki Ryôhô and the Western-influenced Usui Tibetan traditions of Reiki. To schedule an appointment, please visit
© 2011 by Joy Vernon

Joy Vernon
Joy Vernon

Joy Vernon is widely recognized as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty-five years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup grew into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Now Joy runs the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher in Burien, Washington. To learn more, please visit

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  1. Great post Joy – I love how you point out the similarities and differences between the WMT & Reiki – I had no idea! 🙂

  2. Thanks Brian! Yes, I’m having a friendly feud with a Reiki colleague regarding the level of importance of the Reiki symbols. To me, they seem similar to the pentagrams and hexagrams and other glyphs we use in the WMT. And although we can certainly do the rituals without them simply by focusing on the energy, there’s no point (to my knowledge) where they are entirely cast aside. In Reiki, the conventional wisdom is that the glyphs are something to familiarize ourselves with specific energies, but then cast aside once those energies are understood.
    My colleague shared a great quote in response to this blog post: “Using a physical ritual helped Usui’s teacher students to be able to recreate the energetic space that Usui manifested. Often a physical link can help us to find our way and enable us to focus our intent clearly. It does not take away the requirement that one works on oneself – in fact it is an encouragement toward that constant goal. Ritual is structure, and structure gives us something to hold on to when we feel we do not have the ability to perform the task alone. After many years of solid personal work, when confidence has grown and the ritual and its energetic practice become second nature there is another step the teacher must take – removal of the ritual.”
    Certainly something to think about!!

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