I believe we learn better when we learn through our bodies, with our bodies, involving our bodily beings in the task of thinking expansively in order to learn. I have been thinking about the body as a site for cultural translation for several decades now (I’ve kind of lost count). Cultural translation allows something new to enter the world, not unlike linguistic translation. But it is not nearly as reliant on language. So the body emerges as an excellent translator.
I began this ride by wanting to understand how acupuncture, a health care practice many thousands of years older and originating in a vastly different part of the world than modern medicine, could “catch on” and become a go-to healing modality for many Americans. I studied this question as an anthropological fieldworker for many years, interviewing acupuncture practitioners, patients, and even the “celebrity” acupuncturists who wrote books and ran schools. I observed clinical practice, talked with acupuncture students, and put my own body on the table for needling.
There on the table, I got curious about the needle itself. What were those sensations the acupuncture needle provoked? It didn’t hurt, exactly. But it didn’t feel like anything I’d ever felt before.
Twirling the needle is a technique used by acupuncturists during a treatment to stimulate the movement of Qi (“chee”), or vital energy, through the body. Twirling the needle connects the acupuncturist to her patient on the table, links the person the table with her body, and opens up the possibilities for a specific experience of embodiment rooted in physical sensation. The needle literally points the way to the body for both the acupuncturist and the person on the table. “Do you have it?” asks the acupuncturist while twirling the needle, referring at once to the acupuncture point, the peculiar sensation of Qi, and to the acupuncturist’s own attempt to reach the patient’s body.
Sometimes the question, do you have it? is verbalized, sometimes it is a glance at my face, a listening ear attuned to my grunt or groan of confirmation. Do you have it? What is it that I have when I feel the sensations that most acupuncturists describe as a Qi response? When the needle is inserted, I feel a prick or a pinch, a surface sensation that quickly dissipates and deepens, a dull ache, a tingling, a heaviness, sometimes a spreading warmth, sometimes a thin stream of electric sensation moving, like the first quickening of a fetus without regard for its mother, from a point on my arm to another point in my belly.
Like acupuncturist-author, Harriet Beinfield, I feel “more of myself” (Between Heaven & Earth 1991, p. 3).
This transformational moment can be a powerful metaphor for understanding how we learn in and through the body. The body is our translator. Instead of a needle, we might experience an injury or give birth to a child or undergo surgery. We might only wake up one morning with a new sensation, quickly call it “pain,” and perhaps lose our opportunity to experience a transformational moment. What can I “hear” my body telling me through this new sensation? What are we “talking about” today? The sensations of the body allow something new to enter the world every day.
What can we learn if we harken to the translator?