Tsering’s Story of Reiki and Arthritis

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Reiki and arthritis in Darjeeling 

Part 1

Back in 1998 Frans and I became Reiki Masters in Nepal and consequently found ourselves in an amazing situation in Darjeeling, in the Indian Himalaya, opening up a Reiki centre. Our home and centre was perched on top of the mountain, in an English built mansion, with 360 degree views which included that of the world’s 3rd largest mountain. Once arriving in Darjeeling a fascinating stream of events had lead us to this particular point in our lives and now we were ready to experience more of what life had in store for us. Our inexperience in the field of energy work never holding us back. From our centre we hoped to teach Reiki and offer our services to the locals. Tsering, a Tibetan refugee in exile was one of our first clients and friends.

The Tibetan Rimpoche introduces me to the man and woman on the other side of the counter, her eyes just manage to peer out over its top. We’re outside one of those hole-in-the-wall general goodies shops that are along one of Darjeeling’s main jeep polluted roads. Packets of Lay’s and Uncle’s chips sway as I bend down to crawl underneath the counter and when I stand I notice that the Rimpoche has disappeared. So here we are, the three of us; me, Tsering and her husband, Pemba, while I try to explain what I do.

“I put my hands on you and…energy goes through your body…and it takes an hour.”

“Please, please”, cries Pemba the Thangka painter, “sit, sit!”

I sit on a crate of coke and accept a mug of chai. This shop is two large steps in one direction and the same in the other, which would be okay if it wasn’t for the fridge, more crates, and storage cupboards lining all the walls. Behind us is a tiny kitchen area with a gas stove and a white tiled bathroom. There is also a narrow wooden staircase spiralling upwards into a black hole.

Pemba and Tsering don’t know me. I was told of their predicament by a western woman who had ordered a painting from Pemba. She told me that Tsering sat all day in the shop and could barely move because of severe arthritis. In a flash of spontaneity I decided to get myself an introduction and offer my services as a fledgling Reiki practitioner.

Most things I do not understand about life and just one of these is why this family accepted me so openly into their house. I don’t believe that I would have, certainly not without an enormous scepticism and suspicion. Or was that before? Before Reiki assured me that I am safe in the hands of …myself?

Chai finished, excitement and tentativeness tingles in our bodies. Tsering and Pemba, because this Australian woman might have the cure for Tsering’s problem and me because this is my first real sick client – but I’m not going to tell them that. Pemba leads me up the 10 steep, narrow steps to a tiny attic with a wooden bed. Under the light of the window which looks down onto the street, is a piece of cardboard on the ground. Bowls of powdered paint ground from illegally imported Tibetan rock (the Chinese ‘discourage’ Thangka painting) congregate here on the floor with their paintbrushes. Brushes of a beautiful quality sent all the way from New York by Pemba’s emigrated brother. The background of a pale blue sky is begun on a canvas tied to a wooden frame. An elaborate figure is outlined in pencil, yet to be painted in brilliant yellows, reds, blues and gold. The gold is real 24ct and is melted with the heat of a candle and mixed with glue to decorate the Deity’s clothes, crowns and Godly emanations. This is Pemba’s studio.

Downstairs, Tsering humbly stands by step nr. 1 in a simple men’s white shirt, dark jumper, long warm trousers and with a blanket wrapped around her lower body held up by a belt. She removes the blanket with stiff mitten like hands and her husband (who has rushed below) bends forward to hoist her onto his back. They move jerkingly upwards together, step by step.

I sit on the bed watching impotently and hoping to God (whoever she might be) that I can help this lady.

Part 2

Tsering stands at the top of the steps, her face moving with pain as she shuffles into position, her back facing the bed. Pemba lowers her onto it into a sitting position then removes her lace-up shoes as gently as possible. Never gentle enough for her. He clumsily jerks her legs into the air and her head involuntarily flies backward. Phew. Dragging her by her clothing he pulls her into a somewhat straight line.

How does she dress herself? scratch her back? go to an Indian toilet and balance herself while not weeing on her feet (my experience!)?

I don’t voice my questions, turn off the glaring bulb and advise her to relax while placing my hands on the crown of her head with the intention of giving a balanced one hour Reiki treatment on her head, the front of her body and down her back. I can’t guarantee anything, I can’t diagnose anything – these are not the qualities of Reiki. I can offer myself as a channel for the energy that I hope her body will take and use to cure (or at least begin to cure) her.

Tsering lies in the dark and talks: “Three and a half years ago I woke up one morning with a pain in my fingers and over the next week it spread into my wrist, elbow, knees. Soon I found I couldn’t get out of bed without help from Pemba. I am freezing I can’t seem to get warm, That’s why I wear a blanket around my body. At night Pemba has to turn me over in my bed but he’s so rough it always hurts me. I went to many doctors and for a long time I was on steroids. Oh, they made me feel much better, I could run down the street if I wanted instead of this shuffling, unable to avoid potholes. But if I forgot to take a pill I would find myself crippled again, unable to lift myself out of bed in the morning. I stopped. It was no cure simply a curtain. The Tibetan doctor couldn’t do anything to help me. The Indian method of Ayurveda helped until I realised I was hooked on the pills – they were a form of pain killer that I couldn’t do without. So, once again I went to the Tibetan doctor. A different one from before. Her pills help a little more. Some people have told me that it’s a Loo. Do you know what that is? A bad spirit. I have done all the special pujas and prayers but it doesn’t seem to have helped. I don’t believe in that sort of thing anyway.

Three and a half years ago we built this shop – or I did, and the idea was that Pemba would work here upstairs while I would run the shop downstairs. Finally our lives were organised. This way we could be together and I, too, would have something to do. The shop doesn’t earn much, one rupee on a lot of items. If you had met me before you wouldn’t have known me, I never walked anywhere, I always ran. I made this bed for Pemba to rest in, not for myself and here I am. See, all wood, the walls, very warm – it is as if I had made it for myself. Just after we moved in here I got sick.

I feel sorry for my children. I can’t cook for them and I don’t expect them to cook and clean. Pemba’s sister says I spoil them. But I don’t think so. Tsering, my daughter, she’s 13 and is not interested, she only likes reading. And Gyelek, he’s 11 and is now in boarding school 2 1/2 hours away. Oh, we miss him and he misses us. He’s wanting to come home all the time. Our children are our best friends, it’s good that way. The four of us always sit and talk and talk and laugh. We are a very lucky family even though I have this. We love each other, this is even more important. Everybody says there is no cure for me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could get better and show them all. Do you think it’s possible?”

“Tsering, I like to believe that anything and everything is possible. If you like I’ll come along for three days in a row and then we’ll see how you’re feeling. Together we must be able to achieve something!”

Part 3

On the third day of the one hourly treatments Tsering’s body still feels like a wooden plank but at least she seems to be relaxing.

I ask Tsering to concentrate on her breathing. “Breathe into the stomach, up and down. Concentration the rise and fall of your stomach. Don’t force it, just let it move up and down naturally.”

This helps people to take their minds off what the Reiki practitioner is doing. Breathing deeply is also calming as it fills all our organs with the necessary oxygen that they sometimes don’t get enough of. Now the organs do not have to work too hard and can function in a natural relaxed manner.

Tsering relaxes. Though she’s relaxed it feels to me like her body is a plank of wood. Normally people’s fingers and toes twitch and some parts of the body are warm while others are cold. I feel nothing and it worries me.

“Bronwen, Bronwen. Please, please my back.”

Over the last three years Pemba had developed a pain in his back. No wonder carrying Tsering on it! After treating Tsering I asked him to lay down on the little wooden bed. His too long legs bend at the knees. How is it that Tsering said that she had made this bed for him and yet, out of her family, she was the only one to fit it perfectly (feet flat against the wooden slatted wall)?

Pemba’s lower back and stomach are painful. A nerve going down through his leg is also hurting. It sounds like he has sciatica and once again I remind myself and him that I am not a doctor but fortunately I can help without any diagnostic knowledge. I place one hand on his lower back and one on the sole of his foot. I repeat this position with his other foot.

“Your hands are so warm. Thankyou Bronwen.” Pemba bows two times. Pemba’s thangka was progressing beautifully. The background was finished with a couple of fluffy floating clouds, balancing it out. One day I would like to buy one these art works, but I feel too shy to ask. Pemba tells me how busy he is in his uncertain English, “It takes me about a month to make one of these, ve-e-ery long. I learnt it from my teacher in Mysore, in South India in the Tibetan Community there. I could make it quicker if I had student but I am not good thangka painter, I have nothing to teach. Once there is a woman and she re-e-ea-ally wants to learn thangka painting. I say no but she wants very much. So in the end I say alright and she comes and sits next to me for a couple of days. She finds it very boring and stops. You cannot learn thangka painting in one year, two year – it takes a lifetime, I do not know enough.

In Mysore, I would cook for my teacher and clean for my teacher, he was getting very old. Sometimes I would paint until midnight waiting for him to dismiss me and he didn’t come. When I look through the window I see him in meditation pose, asleep. I put him to bed and I go to sleep beside him.

In Kathmandu the tourists buy thangkas that are painted by children. Everything is wrong on these thangkas, the colours are not right, they are made to look good for the Western eye not for the purpose of the thangka. They are painted with water paint and it will fade in a couple of years. The gold is not real . But they are also very cheap. I never know what to ask for a thangka. No matter what I say Tsering says it is too much.”

Tsering interrupts, “I see what he uses, a little paint, a little gold – it is not worth that much and I feel guilty. Yesterday he makes a One Day thangka. This is a small thangka for a sick person and it has to be finished in one day and it is better if Pemba doesn’t eat meat and onions on this day. When the man comes to pick up the thangka Pemba says 1000 rupees. I think it is too much.”

“She thinks it is too much and I see her looking like this at me and I become very confused. This makes me angry, I know how much it is worth. Then I ask him 900 rupees.

“I think it is worth 700 rupees,” says Tsering guiltily, “but I know I should mind my own business. You know sometimes it is like an emergency room in hospital – thangka painting. People are always needing things quickly, for example if someone dies or is sick or something, then they will need a thangka. When we first came to Darjeeling, Pemba needed work. But he didn’t know everything. For example he didn’t know that he had to paint gold faces on the Tibetan statues. When we started a man asked if my husband could do that and I said ‘YES, my husband can do that’ and he learnt it all by himself. In the beginning it was difficult, but then we built this shop with a place for Pemba to work upstairs and a shop for me downstairs, then I got really sick.”

Pemba cheerily carries on while handing me another cup of chai, “I have many Westerner customers – look I’ll show you a letter. Here, they want 4 more thangkas but I don’t know when I will have time to make them. It is also very expensive for them if I have to send it to them. Maybe they will come back to Darjeeling sometime. That is better if they pick the thangkas up themselves.”

I’m thinking that the cost of a flight to Darjeeling is most probably more expensive than sending a couple of thangkas by UPS.

Pemba starts listing all the work that he has for the next year and a half and my hopes of ordering a thangka fly out their window. Most of his orders are religious ones except for his few foreign contacts. He thinks Westerners are pretty crazy anyway. “I am embarrassed when they order thangka with me. They say the colours are too bright or that I should change the picture around or give different fruit offerings for different Gods. How can I tell that this is impossible, that this is how it must be?”

Pemba is shaking his head while I nod mine in agreement. Looking at this family who I so much would love to help I decide to offer them the 4 attunements that are necessary to complete Reiki 1. They accept and I pray to myself that this will give Tsering and Pemba the power to overcome these illnesses, individually and as a couple. 

Part 4

Over a couple of days, up in the little wooden attic, I attune Tsering and Pemba to the Reiki energy. An attunement is a ritual which takes about 10 minutes and is where the ability to accept Reiki energy into the body is passed from the teacher to the student. You receive 4 attunements with Reiki I and they need to be spaced apart by a couple of hours. I always find this the difficult part to explain to our Western students. In Eastern countries it’s a normal form of teaching and is called ‘transference’. An easy way to understand it is to imagine that you read about Reiki in a book. This will show you how to do it but it doesn’t give you the ability to do it. Tibetan Buddhism works on these principles as well, so it was not necessary for me to explain anything to my new friends. I demonstrate to Tsering how she can do Reiki on herself and I ask her to spend at least 1/2 an hour a day, either in the morning or the evening, to do Reiki on herself. I ask Pemba to not only do Reiki on himself but also on his wife as she can’t raise her arms above her shoulder height. The head is a very important part of the body to Reiki as this is where many illnesses begin and it also has control over how relaxed the body becomes. At the end of their Reiki I course Tsering and Pemba received a certificate from us.

‘Bronwen, thankyou for my first ever certificate.’ Pemba is half laughing and half serious – it really is his first certificate! To speed up Tsering’s recovery Frans and I arrange to come by once a week for a social visit and an hour of Reiki.

After 2 more weeks of treating Tsering I finally begin to feel the movement of a living being beneath her flesh. The blood is pulsing and her body is taking in energy through my hands. I am actually feeling faint as I treat her head as her body sucks the energy down through me. Fortunately, afterwards I feel quite refreshed and with each treatment become more excited. Not only do I feel the energy moving through my body but Tsering says that she feels she is getting stronger too.

She is climbing the steps on her own today (with difficulty mind you) and her face is strong and proud. Tsering says, ‘I am feeling so positive, I know I can get better now. The doctors told me there was nothing they could do for me, but look at me, I can improve. When I wake up in the morning I am no longer cold, I am a little stiff but I am so much more warmer. Feel my hands,’ she grabs me, ‘they are always hot. I never had this before. I don’t wake Pemba up in the night to turn me over. I am so much stronger.’

‘This Reiki is very good. None of our friends understand what it is. We say like a massage – but it really works. Thankyou Bronwen, thankyou Bronwen,’ says a beaming Pemba with his hands proudly imitating a Reiki hand position on his chest.

Their enthusiasm is catching and Frans and I decide to to treat Tsering twice a week. He goes on a Monday and I go on a Friday. We never knew that this healing business could be such great fun.

Part 5

Tsering is steadily improving until the day she hears that her son has been sent home from his school with blood and pus coming out of his ears. She instantly reverts to her former state of health and cannot even walk up the stairs again.

‘Tsering I am so disappointed! After all the hard work and time we’ve put into getting you better. Not just me and Frans but yourself.’ I take this tack knowing that sympathy is not the right medicine. If you can give yourself an illness you can also take it away. This applies one hundred percent to Tsering’s illness and I would never have accepted this so easy if it wasn’t for the last week. Tsering sees this for herself so we don’t discuss it further. Of course it’s easy for me to say ‘It’s all up to you to get better!’ but how do you get to that point of realisation? In this situation Frans and I and the Reiki energy are supporting Tsering in her growth. We have to be careful that as an instigator to good health that we don’t also become a dependence. If Tsering relies on us to make her better she will never recover. Recovery means less attention and Tsering makes this fear clear to me as I treat her. I soon realise that it is not only Frans and I whose attention she wishes to capture.

Pemba hasn’t always been so good. I wanted to call my children Tenzing after the Dalai Lama, that’s his name. You can do this by taking your children to the Dalai Lama to get them blessed then he gives them his name. So most of the children called Tensing have been blessed by Him. But when I gave birth to my daughter I was so embarrassed that Pemba had left me that I didn’t dare go to the Dalai Lama. Pemba did the same with my son two years later. I gave birth on the Indian plains in Mysore. The people there are very simple and the houses are farming huts. My mother sleeps in the fields sometimes to scare the wild elephants away.

When I gave birth I got up immediately afterwards and cleaned myself and my baby under the pump in the centre of the village. My mother had to go to work. Normally a mother should make a special salve that she places on your forehead and then you would have to rest for a certain time before standing. Some people said that this is the reason why I got sick. What do you think?

Do you know what Pemba means? Saturday. Because he was born on Saturday! His mother’s funny she didn’t like me when we first met because Pemba had gone to Mysore to study – not to bring back a wife. You know we are not even properly married. I just got pregnant at the age of 18. Nobody said it was wrong and we just accepted it as normal. They’re simple farming folk there. I don’t know if my grandmother was that happy though. We never once thought about the responsibility that we were taking on. Guess what Pemba’s brother’s name is?’

‘Friday,’ I say jokingly. ‘No, Wednesday! And his sisters, Monday and Thursday and his other brothers, Tuesday and Friday and his one other sister is called Dolma, I don’t know why. Lucky for his mother they were all born on different days of the week, except for Sunday.’

‘Because Sunday was a rest day!’ and we giggle away.

‘But Pemba was sometimes good, sometimes bad. When we moved into this house he was bad for at least a year going out at night and gambling and other women. But then about two years ago he changed. He started staying home, helping with the cooking and the cleaning and me. I had been sick for a year. But you know what scares me if he can so easily change for the good he can just as easily change for the bad. I will never be able to trust him.’

Tsering and Pemba and Frans and I are friends. We go out for a meal sometimes together. Pemba calls her his Princess and swears that all he wants in life is for her to get better and when that happens he will still continue to do all the work because he would never want her to get sick again. He is sincere but Tsering’s lack of faith reminds me how complex we truly are. I tell Tsering my personal survival technique.

‘Tsering what I try to remember is that at every moment in our lives we are all doing the best possible thing that we can with what we have. And some of us have less than others to work with.’

‘Pemba’s family is not very nice.’ Tsering offers.

‘Pemba didn’t deliberately try to hurt you – he was trying to make himself happy the only way he knew how. Perhaps through all of this he has learnt that there are other, less painful ways, to do things in his life. This is as good a reason as any not to repeat those same mistakes.’

Tsering processed these thoughts as I treated her. Could a change of attitude be the answer to her own ills? 

Part 6

Tsering has ups and downs but gradually improves. The quality of her skin, her stiffness and her attitude to life all develop positively. All who know her comment on this and doctors can’t believe that she is not on some sort of medication. There is just one more thing we believe can be done for her before we leave Darjeeling.

I arrive early one morning at the shop. My white face is no longer a surprise for the customers as I sit on my coke crate behind the counter. Today the whole family is here and we chat and laugh over a warm cup of Indian chai. I sneakily announce my intention for the day.

‘Tsering, Frans and I would like to give you a Christmas present. You and I are going to the optometrist to order a pair of glasses.’

‘Oh no, I don’t want.’ This is not humility but true aversion.

‘Mum,’ says Gyelek, ‘I used to get headaches before I wore glasses it’s good for you!’

‘Once, I wore glasses and it made the ground curve away and it hurt my ears because it was so heavy. No, I don’t like. It would be a waste of your money.’

I’ve knowingly opened a can of family worms.

‘When was that Tsering?’ I inquire.

‘I was in class 9’, Tsering replies weakly.

‘Tsering you’re a 33 year old adult now and technology has changed in 20 years.’

Pemba grumbles softly, ‘I always tell her to get glasses but she won’t listen to me!’

I know Tsering is stubborn but then so am I. I ask her to think about it while I give her a treatment. She avoids the subject and talks about her 12-year-old daughter, Tsering, as I treat her.

‘Tsering cried today when she didn’t come first in her class. I told her – you also have to learn to lose. You know it’s because she’s been a little naughty. I know this and she also. I said – It’s ok to be naughty. A little anyway.

Naughty girls get good husbands too. It’s true! Good girls get very bad husbands who play up. I think she should also have fun. Children in India and Tibet have no fun. Always studying or working, I want my children to enjoy themselves.’

The treatment is finished and I say, “Let’s go shopping! Pemba, please come and help choose.”

“Yes Bronwen,” he replies dutifully packing his brushes away.

‘Bronwen, everyone will laugh at me.’ Tsering begins listing her objections, ‘I am too old, I don’t need to read anymore, I wont wear them.’

‘What colours should we buy?’ I ask the kids. ‘Stylish black,’ shouts 10-year-old Gyelek. He’s a mad MTV watcher.

Tsering’s options having narrowed, Pemba, Tsering and I leave the shop in their daughter’s capable hands.

Tsering’s eyes get measured and her glasses will be ready on the 24th of December, just in time.

Walking back, we pass a Tibetan stall. ‘Please, meet this lady. I always talk about you and how much you’ve helped me.’

In Tibetan, Tsering explains who I am and the lady starts laying out handknitted maroon beanies with FREE TIBET in yellow on them. Tsering tells me to take one as the lady would like to show her thanks to me.

‘But Tsering I have a beanie!’

I chose one and say ‘Tutu che’, ‘thankyou’ in Tibetan.

The three of us turn to walk away. Tsering turns back to the woman and calls thankyou.

‘She’s crying.’


‘She said it is so good that you are helping me. Thankyou Bronwen,’ and Tsering starts to cry and then I start to cry and we all stand there holding hands in the middle of the busy street.

‘My good friends,’ is all I can say.

On Christmas day the family arrives at our house at the invited time. We tell them not to bring presents but they have and so, of course, have we. Before we begin, the bespectacled Tsering tells us, ‘Yesterday I started to wear these glasses, ONLY because you bought them, and I cannot believe it but a whole new world has opened up for me. I never knew what I was missing out on. I realise now all the things I couldn’t see before.


‘ThankYOU Tsering, you’ve made our Christmas perfect.’

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