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A rush of intensity: fasten your seat-belt for Lever’s ‘Still Point’

We are delighted to share this book review of ‘At the Still Point of the Turning World: The Art and Philosophy of Osteopathy’ (Robert Lever), which comes to us from Elizabeth Elander, Head of Programme of Operations for the College of Osteopaths.

“Can you recommend a book that I should read before I start?” It’s a question I’m often asked by would-be students on the cusp of the College of Osteopaths’ degree course in osteopathy. It’s a difficult one to answer.

The book that most new entrants crave is entitled ‘How to be an Osteopath’. It is packed with easy to read chapters and images explaining each of the techniques in the osteopath’s toolkit: step by step guidance to competency. This book does not exist. Neither does the DVD. In Robert Lever’s words to his students “I can’t teach you how to do osteopathy… but what I will try to do is plant enough seeds of thought and orientation that the skills, attitudes and approach will begin to develop in you such that you can make the craft your own….” As Lever wryly notes, “the more mature and patient students can accept this, the others fume with frustration.”

At the Still Point of the Turning World

Although relatively slim, Lever’s opus At the Still Point of the Turning World was 40 years in the making. The design on the front cover evokes the iconic prism and rainbow emblem of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and reminds us that when this album was released in 1973, a young Robert Lever was just setting out in his osteopathic career. That it took the author so long to make sense of osteopathy might give a clue to the book’s scope and depth.

Challenging concepts are swiftly unpacked one after the other and deftly fitted together into a 3D matrix: holism, reciprocity, quantum theory, tensegrity, placebo, ritual, chaos, paradox, the intelligent fulcrum…..There is certainly the sense of a turning world: it’s like watching a scrambled Rubik’s Cube being snapped into order at full pelt. To attempt it in a single sitting could be akin to unwittingly harnessing oneself into a seat on Smiler at Alton Towers. A rush of intensity. One could imagine the uninitiated reader stepping off at the end feeling unsteady and slightly unwell. There could be an unintended impact on student attrition rates. Worryingly, a spokesperson has said of the Smiler experience ‘We want people to get off the ride and not know what is real’. Surely Lever’s aim is completely the opposite.

Yet to unload Lever’s weighty philosophic text into the hands of an osteopathy fresher could be as unwelcome and inappropriate as compelling the youngster who wants to learn how to ride a moped to plough through Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before even getting on the saddle. Too much information? It’s all fascinating, but it’s certainly not in the ‘prerequisite speed-reading’ category. Osteopathy cannot be downloaded into the student’s brain. It has to be assimilated slowly through experiential learning, and some aspects cannot be accelerated – we just have to do the time ourselves.

Not for the prospective student then? I disagree. This book should be right at the top of the reading list for any aspiring osteopath. But it should come with a caveat: not to be consumed in one shot. The ideal mechanism for the contents to be slowly deconstructed and sieved through the curriculum is the Integrated Professional Portfolio (IPP). An innovation introduced by the College of Osteopaths, the IPP is designed to develop students’ reflective practice over a period of five years – and beyond, into the qualified practitioner’s approach to CPD. Students make significant entries in their IPPs based on their analysis of critical incidents in their own lives at least 3 times throughout the course of the part-time M.Ost/B.Ost degree programme. When they look back on their first entry, their advancement in osteopathic thinking and their personal development is self-evident – and often astonishing. Lever’s book would be an invaluable companion to this process of exploration, discovery and progression.

My advice to my new students would be to read the first chapter only, turn the pages without disturbing the air, and then stop: give yourself time, weeks perhaps, to let the ideas ferment gently and interact with your lectures, your clinical experience. Then pick up the book again, and finish Part One. Next, lie down for a rest. When you return to your IPP in the third year of your training, re-visit those opening chapters and see how they read like a different book, as if the plot has been rearranged whilst you weren’t looking. It will be an unsettling moment; you will fear for an unsatisfactory ending. But this is testament to the emergent osteopath. Forge ahead through Part 2 of the book, treading carefully. Towards the end of your training as you reprise your IPP, move through the final chapters, and you will be able to fit the concepts into a place in your consciousness that has been prepared for them. The story line will shift again. The ending will not be what you expected.

It won’t be possible to prove me wrong on this for several years. So until then, osteopathic education institutions, why not add the title to the introductory reading list and urge your students to fasten their seat-belts and enjoy the ride?

Elizabeth Elander, 18 June 2013

Elizabeth Elander is Award Leader for the M.Ost/B.Ost programmes at Staffordshire University, and Head of Programme Operations for the College of Osteopaths.

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