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Osteopathy: beyond the scientific / spiritual dichotomy

Robert Lever, much admired former teacher at the European School of Osteopathy, here reflects on the central issues for osteopathy that he explores in greater detail in his forthcoming book: At the Still Point of the Turning World – the Art and Philosophy of Osteopathy.

The profession of osteopathy has known many challenges over its 130 year history. Some of these have been political, some academic, but they have all contributed to issues relating to identity, scope and method. These struggles persist to this day and the irony is that they are, to some extent, perpetuated by members of the profession itself, creating much healthy discourse at best, and destructive argument at worst.

Not only has the practice of osteopathy become stereotyped in the public mind to resemble various manual treatment methods with which it shares few conceptual ingredients; it is frequently represented by its own practitioners in such varying hues that it begins to look like a panoply of entirely different disciplines with very little consensus or coherence.

Osteopathy as a discipline is large enough to incorporate a variety and multiplicity of approaches, but all too often its exponents have struggled to discover their common ground or celebrate their differences, instead favouring an attitude of exclusivity or superiority. If for political reasons this is coupled with the tendency to have osteopathy conform to the ‘orthopaedic end’ of conventional medicine, the essence of Still’s message gets lost or overwhelmed.

This conundrum finds a parallel in a more general cultural crisis that resides in argument over science versus spirituality, and the potential for these two fields of human enquiry to be reconciled. Many feel optimistic about such a convergence, whilst others remain focussed on dichotomy and polarised argument.

Perhaps it has taken the emergence of quantum theory to demonstrate that science can accommodate qualities we’ve come to associate with ‘spirit’ and vice versa; a convergence of objective and subjective, matter and consciousness, in a world more holistically conceived and a sense of reality based on experience as well as logic and analytical thought.

The art of medicine stands to benefit from such a convergence in that its skills, however technically based, are immeasurably enhanced by the human interactive qualities that can be engendered by a truly ‘listening’ attitude.  Osteopathy is not the only discipline that gives expression to such an attitude but, at its best, it can exemplify it to perfection.

The field of healthcare has a responsibility to move towards a mode of practice that emphasises uniqueness in three respects: the patient and their particular clinical presentation, the sole or supervising clinician and their particular diagnostic and therapeutic skills, and the quality of the interaction between the two. To permit these unique aspects to express themselves more fully is to encourage a more complete expression of the art of healing.

Robert Lever, February 2013