Operating Instructions for Human Beings
"I'm from the factory and I know how instructions are put
together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder
and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least,
the biggest goof-off he's got, and whatever he tell you -
that's the instructions. The next guy might have told you
something completely different, and probably better, but he's
too busy". - from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Persig
I remember buying a new VCR back in 1990 that caused me no
end of frustration. The VCR itself worked fine, but the programming
instructions were so difficult to follow I finally gave up
trying to use it. To preset a recording time required no less
than 22 steps. The manual that came with the recorder only
listed 21! Someone had forgotten to include the crucial last
step - which could only be found printed on a tiny untitled
insert buried deep within the packing material.
VCR instructions and procedures are much simpler today, but
anyone who has purchased computer software in recent years
can attest to the frustration of working with poorly thought
out installation and operating instructions.
There are usually two distinct sets of instructions for any
piece of machinery: service manuals for the specially trained
experts who will have to do maintenance and repairs and operating
manuals for the user of the machinery. While it is conceivable
the service manual for my VCR was well written, the operating
manual was a disaster.
The most complicated piece of " machinery" we'll ever have
to operate is our own body. Yet it comes without any sort
of owner's manual!
Sure, there are a great many training programs and "instruction
manuals" designed for specialists in human functioning - doctors,
psychologists, nutritionists and the like. Some of these instructions
can be highly specialized indeed, such as those dealing with
the specifics of skin or hair care.
But we - the owners and operators of our body - don't have
an easy-to-understand set of instructions about how it functions
and how we can influence the overall quality of its operation.
Most of us come from the "factory" nicely wired up and ready
to operate for years, maybe decades, without the need for
any clear knowledge of how we function. But over time, as
our body is subjected to the strains of daily life, we often
find ourselves operating at less than peak efficiency.
Sometimes we can get by with occasional help of experts. If
we are injured, medical help may be all we need. If our teeth
develop cavities, a dentist can fill them. But if, as so often
happens, we develop restrictions in our ability to sit and
stand with ease or to move with freedom and grace, we're left
pretty much in the dark as to how to improve the situation.
A number of somatic methods and therapies have been developed
which are designed to help people improve the quality of their
physical functioning - The Feldenkrais Method, Rolfing, Somatics,
Pilates, to name but a few. I am most familiar with the Alexander
Technique, a method that has a long history of teaching people
how they can improve their posture and coordination.
Teaching is the key word here; the Alexander Technique is
above all an educational process that recognizes that real
change must come from within. It is for this reason that practitioners
of the Technique call themselves teachers rather than therapists.
One of the four books written by F. Matthias Alexander, the
developer of the Technique, is aptly titled "The Use of the
Self". And while the Alexander Technique certainly does not
claim to offer a complete "human instruction manual", it does
provide basic, practical information about how we humans function,
and how we can improve the quality of our functioning.
Two other books that provide the beginnings of a human instruction
manual are "How to Learn the Alexander Technique - A Manual
for Students" by Barbara Conable and "Mind and Muscle - An
Owner's Handbook" by Elizabeth Langford.
More information about the Alexander Technique can be found
Information about some of the other somatic methods and therapies
can be found at http://www.posturepage.com
Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique
living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in
Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of The Complete Guide
to the Alexander Technique at http://www.alexandertechnique.com
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