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Welcome to the fascinating inner journey of human dissection. I acknowledge your efforts of planning, preparation and "opportunity cost" which make your participation in this class possible, as well as your courage in approaching terra incognita, unknown territory. In the following pages, I offer some reflections and practical considerations in the form of a brief text. My intent is for this to be a user-friendly workshop handbook. I offer it to you as an opportunity to reflect upon and support our mutual inquiry into the wonders of human form. Many of you may want to look through all of these pages before the class. The events which lead you to this experience form a continuum, and this text can bring you more deeply into the workshop experience before you arrive to it physically. I have no expectation that you will remember or know all of what is included here in advance. That's why I wrote it down for us. Some of you may choose, due to time constraints or personal preference, to wait until the class itself to review these pages. At the very least, I ask you to read the WELCOME and DAY ONE sections in advance of the first morning. They are essential for tuning the group to a shared "wavelength." Whether you opt to read the remainder "before" or "during," please include this handbook in your experience as both a record and an opportunity to engage fully in the intent and process of the class. I have come to rely on it as a reference myself, directing students to it when necessary. It is a helpful tool. We come together as "somanauts" ready and willing to explore and navigate the land and seas of our human body. As awed by the marvel of creation as any astronaut over-viewing the heavenly body of our planet from outer space, we choose to inter-view the inner space of our own heavenly bodies whereby we move and live and feel our world of physical form.
Orientation to Place:
For most of you who are taking this class, your arrival at a dissection workshop is a new and much anticipated experience. The lab is a strange place, an unknown in your mind, and you have filled in the blanks with your own imaginings. It will soon become a familiar place, though still strange! If you would be willing to recognize and acknowledge your fears surrounding this place and what you imagine about it, you will come that much more readily past both timidity and bravado to the true courage that lies within you. Know your fears about this place and what awaits you here, and acknowledge your courage for coming to it anyway! Take the time to orient to your surroundings. Find out where the bathrooms are, the cafeteria, water, what floor of the building you are on, how to access nature and so on, so that you have the resources to take care of yourself as your needs arise. We who lead this course expect and respect your adult capacity to respond to the calls of nature and the need for periodic refreshment and encourage you to heed them as desire or necessity arises. We will additionally break for lunch as a group. In many ways this experience will seem to be happening in a dreamland and dreamtime far removed from your normal states of consciousness, notions of reality and familiarity of place. Nonetheless, you are actually required to walk between the worlds, navigating both worlds simultaneously. Make friends fast and stick close together: somanautical proprioception often depends upon gently bouncing off of one another to figure out which way is up/out/in/down!
A Few Words about Donors and their Gifts:
For my part, I am deeply grateful to those individuals who saw fit to donate their bodies for others to study and learn from them. Their remarkable act of generosity makes possible our exploration at this level, and I consider myself very blessed to be on the receiving end of these gifts. I encourage you to reflect as well upon your own status as recipient of these awesome gifts, and to find within yourself a place of gratitude as well. Now, one thing about gifts is that they are given to be opened. Our appreciation for the gift is signified in many ways, not least of which is our readiness to look inside with wonder and excitement and curiosity, having become present ourselves. You must be present to receive a gift! There's an odd turn of the tables! When you actively make yourself present, you will find yourself surrounded by gifts. Spend the entire week unwrapping your present. Every day is your birthday!
This week you also make a gift to the donors and their families. Our work together is a kind of intervention in someone else's process of letting go of their body or their accustomed relationship with a family member or friend. We are in fact stepping into the path of someone else's loss. The donor's have left not only their body behind, but often family and friends as well. The loss to the living may have been a grievous one, or a relief, or a joyful transition. We don't know. The body has been embalmed and "cured," usually for six months to a year. Now we will do our work, after which the remains will be cremated and returned to the family, interred on university grounds, or sometimes scattered in the ocean. We charge each group with whom we work with the following responsibility: let your personal engagement with this experience be a positive offering to those who will receive the cremated remains, whether family, friend, earth, wind or sea. When those ashes show up on someone's doorstep one day in the future, or when they are returned to the elements, they will have been infused with your own appreciation. In this the giver will be gifted as well. I believe this, and I hold the intent to extend the giving back from whence it came. I invite you to do the same.
Having said all of this, I hope I have conveyed our insistent concern that we take excellent care of the cadavers. I am by no means counseling timidity, however. Dissection is a very practical matter in itself, frankly requiring the talents of both the butcher and the artist. When I say "take excellent care," I maintain space for both skill sets in the process. I must be the butcher to cut with a knife or manually differentiate the tissues, to divide bone, to clear the layers, and to handle the cadaver's bulk. I must be the artist to recognize and highlight delicate structures hidden in more amorphous ones, to finesse apart adhesions while preserving component elements, to reveal the beauty in the rock. I must feel into my own depths to look upon and feel the depths of another. Please also remember: there are Zen butchers and apprentices, master sculptors and novices. The medium of preserved tissue is new for most of you. Where one person may feel herself to be considerate and careful and enthusiastic, another perceives brutality or incompetence, and so on. Forget your judgments of self and other, be true to yourself, and make room for a multitude of perspectives, skill levels and comfort zones, while you track your own. Juggle many balls. You can!
Anatomy literally means to cut up with a knife. Anatomy is furthermore an act of abstraction. Abstraction means to draw away from. So anatomy is a study based upon cutting up a body with a knife and drawing things away from the original whole. Those drawings in the anatomy texts that we have come to love and admire are abstractions to the point of idealizations. They represent an artist's ideas as much as any "reality" that might be attributed to any particular human form. Cadavers themselves demonstrate a high degree of abstraction from the living form of a person, and from the person who expressed the form. Life as we are accustomed to it has been drawn away, with all of its movement and heat. Inner chemistry and textures, colors and odors have been transformed by the process of embalming. That process creates what is in fact a replica or model of the body of the donor on the day they shed themselves of it, much as a conch steps out of small quarters for more spacious ones. The model's precision derives from its elemental origins in that body's very substance: it's basically the same stuff, but preserved in a way that the living flesh, ever moving, never was. The conclusions that one arrives at about "reality" or "that person" when deduced from the study of a cadaver are based on an abstraction, so to that degree at least, they are unreliable.
We will, however, certainly reveal ourselves to ourselves as we study anatomy. Our perceptions and conclusions, what attracts and repels us, our feelings of compassion, love, beauty and horror-these are the projections of ourselves which we will be throwing out upon the screen of the cadavers and each other. The lens through which you focus the aperture of your perception is your own body, your own joy, your own sorrow, and your own sensitivities. Once again, track yourself to the extent that you are able, and take responsibility for your own reactions.
Having said that anatomy is an act of abstraction, and that our ideas about the given reality of the human form are as much the revelation as the form itself, I make the following invitation. When you dissect, do so aware of both your intent and your idea. Although you may think you are revealing what is there, the "what is there" which you reveal is very much dependent upon the intent and ideas which you carry to the table. You may have the idea that the human body is full of tubes, and it may be your intent to see and feel and differentiate those tubes. Go for it! The project is both exciting and revelatory. However, do so while acknowledging that those tubes you create are carved out of whole cloth, apart from which context they have never existed until the very moment you applied your knife/scissor/hand/ hemostat/belief in tubes. You have created something new! Another who is in search of planes of fascia will intend rather to strip depth from breadth and so demonstrate the idea of two-dimensional sheets. Cool! Just know that this is as much or more a product of the idea and intent you brought to the table as it is "a part of the cadaver."
A word of caution: when you find you cannot determine what idea and intent is shaping your actions, step away from the table or at least put down your tool of choice. You are probably pooped out and about to make a mess! Give yourself some space, check a book, make a friend, help someone else, watch, get a drink, take a stroll.... While we are on the subject of anatomy, I would like also to distinguish "gross anatomy" from the study of human "ultrastructures," or microanatomy. Gross anatomy undertakes to study relatively large, that is to say, visible, structures. We are studying gross anatomical structure and function. That means we are blowing past the universes which microscopes would reveal to us. If we were carrying the intent to study tissue ultrastructures, we'd need a different set of tools, another text, and lots more time! The curriculum of medical students does in fact usually include gross anatomy and histology (tissue studies) during the same semester. Makes sense to me!
Introspection is the act of looking inside. An anatomy workshop therefore is largely an introspective endeavor. The tools of introspection include the visual sense, the kinaesthetic sense (our sense of movement), the aesthetic sense (our feeling powers, both touch and emotion), in addition to our intellectual skills (or baggage). We proceed by looking inside. What we dissect are relationships: skin to superficial fascia, superficial to deep, tendon to wrap of bone, heart to lung. Our bodies are nests and networks of relationships, some which can be worked through easily and without struggle. Others require our utmost commitment and attention for a deep understanding to develop. Life's like that! I believe that a deep understanding of anatomical relationships arises when the explorer is ready and committed to look inside at many levels, to feel at many levels, and to listen at many levels. The relationships which provide the context of the class are fertile ground for enriching the study of our human form. I invite you to enjoy the support which those relationships provide. Nobody is in this class alone! Your internal relationships, connections with classmates new and old, your cadaver and the other cadavers in the room, the instructors, and goodness knows who else, form an external web of meaning which can bring your understanding of anatomical relationships to depths and heights unimagined! Included among the pages of this handbook are blank sheets, which I intend to be a convenience for your own reflections or drawings as the class proceeds. Use them as you please, and clip in more blank pages as you see fit.
Frankly, there are so many practical concerns that I won't even pretend to cover them all here. Also, concerns differ from city to city, so I will confine these considerations to the most general. * Rest when you need it: This class is tiring. The work also will put you into sensory overload at times. Take breaks on your own recognizance.
We will break for lunch as a group, for about an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, as circumstances require.
Take long views:
You may find yourself so engrossed in some detail which has captivated you for a long time that you've lost the forest for the tree. If you realize it, take a few minutes to expand your horizons and see what your classmates are curious about and accomplishing all around you. Go be a fly on the wall at the next table over for a bit. This will enhance your experience.
Help each other:
We work as a group, with teams, and with partners. The classes we gather tend to be amazing groups of people, which is part of what makes our job such a wonderful one. We get to hang out with y'all! Find support in one another. We are dreaming together, and things change and move at a furious pace. We all need each other's help to find our way. Our knowledge compiled is a great resource as well. Share what you learn, and ask lots of questions. If you have come to dissect alone, you have come to the wrong class!
Most of us find some security in what we know, and cling to it like a life preserver. I invite you to dare to not know so much this week, so that you can make room for the cadavers and nature to teach you a thing or two about the human form! I am constantly amazed by the unique and surprising expressions of the human spirit I encounter when I am open to what I don't know. Cadavers are full of surprises!
I am glad you have chosen to enroll and to experience this course. Welcome!
(Excerpt from Workshop Handbook, 2007, Gil Hedley)