why learning anatomy matters

oak tree branch drawing from The Comparative Anatomy of Trunks, 1675

Here is how it should be: as we are born and grow older, we learn ways to talk about and experience what is happening within our skin as well as what is happening outside of us. Education, we all know, should support us to experience life, ours and what surrounds us. This means supporting us to be in deep relationship with our first and original homes: our physical bodies and the communities of life that are their shape and swirl.

Contrary to what it says at the top of the page, learning anatomy doesn’t matter. Learning the latin names or a textbook’s idea of the correct placement of the duodenum or the third cervical vertebrae, no, this doesn’t matter. Learning anatomy as poetry, as history, as cultural understandings of physical tissue, that’s what matters. Learning anatomy as a way to BE the first gathering place of the intestines (duodenum) or to feel/know/understand the throb and shape of a headache that rides low at the back of your head (third cervical nerve and so much more), that’s what matters. Learning anatomy is not about assigning facts to parts but instead is about sensing in and becoming that anatomy. It’s about experiencing our own lives in the place of nuance and detail that is, at the same time, completely and always connected.

Learning anatomy is, at its core, about learning about difference rather than standardization. Just like communities, there are some things you can say are likely to be true about the collective of cells called a human body but this likeliness does not mean that there is a normal or an average body. Such a thing doesn’t exist. Hearts are not all in the same place in the chest cavity, nerves do not act or move or attach in the exact same way in every body and let me tell you: organs migrate. Ask any person who spends time looking at the inside of a human body; they will tell you that anatomy is a map that helps give you a sense of the general layout but when you go looking, things are often not where or how you thought they would be. It’s why I like to call anatomy poetry rather than fact: it evokes something that then helps us to understand what we are experiencing.

It’s important to think of anatomy as poetry rather than steady fact. It’s important in the way of liberation and honoring the sovereignty of individual bodies to have and be their own experience of life and of themselves. There have been and continue to be entire social and economic systems, medical practices and eugenic practices, deeply racialized and gendered and ableist ways of approaching the body, that focus on identifying which kind of body is “normal.” Across history and in the present moment, horrific things are and have been done to those bodies not defined as “normal” to bring them “back” into control. Systems of definition, like race and gender and even, often, health, have been created to define normal and different and then meaning (and violence) have been attached to that difference. How we talk about — and experience and connect with care about and live in and attend to — bodies matters.

It also matters to know that this thing we call anatomy, this wealth of information that has been catalogued on the page, this compilation of drawings and recordings, of bits and pieces held in formaldehyde, evolved out of a mix of slow observation and violent attack. In the US, the person who has been called the “father of modern gynecology”, J. Marion Sims, is a man whose research and work was forced on the bodies of enslaved Black women, building a compendium of “knowledge” about gynecology which is still taught with rarely any awareness or repair or healing for where that “knowledge” first originated. This is only one story. There are stories like this throughout the history and development of anatomy as a science.

It is important to learn anatomy, its poetry and flow, the violence and pain of its history, the liberation possible in its sharing. It is important to learn….something. Some story of connection that does not only single out the heatedness of the sympathetic nervous system without also talking about its connection — to everything complex and marvelous within us, and to the histories outside us that helped to give it its name. It is important to learn, to become, to not lose connection to the cellular experience that is our life.

These bodies are our original homes. Our beginning place. They are also our ending place and our place in between. They are what we have/who we are. Keeping them a disconnected mystery is what trauma and oppression and conditioning that numbs and freezes depends on.

The poetry of anatomy is just one way to pay attention. There is no single story that tells the truth of this community of cells that organizes within our skin. Chinese medicine has a completely different story about what goes on inside. So does the yogic tradition, and aboriginal traditions and yoruba traditions and on and on and on. What gets called western anatomy is an evolved and emerged set of stories and understandings that is, in comparison with all of these other stories and understandings, wiser in some places and more awkward in others. What we call the science of anatomy emerged first, as far as we know, in north Africa, particularly in Egypt, about 3700 years ago. Because there is wisdom here, this way of talking about the physical body began then mixing with cultural traditions and understandings in Greece, and then back and forth between Islamic and Christian and Jewish thinkers and dreamers, poets and scientists, until eventually becoming this thing that we recognize today. This evolution of illumination, of excitement and learning, is also part of its teaching, alongside the violence and disregard that has flourished through its development. Like a whole body, this is a whole story. And it is only one story., only way of assigning meaning to shapes and connections and spaces so that we can teach each other about what we believe is going on in there. In here.

And, of course, we are here all along and long long before: pumping blood, swirling lymph, laughing and crying and experiencing ALL kinds of pleasure.

Sometimes when I hear Nanabozhoo stories, because of how they feel to hear them, because of what lights up inside, what connections are made, I also remember that knowing/sensing/being with what is inside of us can happen without having a map with all of the specific places marked out and defined. I remember that there are other ways of knowing, of being in relationship to the rhythms of contraction and expansion, of lymph that circulates and cleans, of hormones and hearts and the tight/loose/tight nature of hamstring. There are more ways of building intimacy with the gush and squeeze of the inside-life than what my — or your — imagination could even begin to name.

I get dizzy and feel weepy when I sit in front of someone and they start to tell me the story of some aspect of this inside-self. Embryological development makes me shaky in a good way, like love-buzz-drug welling up from those ancestral places, evolutionary spaces, echoes of long ago that are still here, just like our vestigial tails and early tadpole-in-the-uterus moments.

I dream about teaching an anatomy class one day. About teaching it as ceremony and respect, as a conversation about remembering and also about coming home through poetry and practice. I dream about teaching an anatomy class that doesn’t limit itself to the boundaries of the human shape but instead shares in this way: look at how our noses are like and different from the noses of wolves. Look at how the mitochondria in our cells and the choroplasts in plants have the same grandparents. Can you feel it? Can you feel how we all remember each other?

It’s what we can tell the youngest when they are first new-body discovering themselves and the world around them. This, this body is part of your magic! Go ahead and be it, feel it, know it. It’s your home, your glorious and original home that helps you feel/be/know that the original specificity that is you is no more a separated part than a liver or fingernail is.

This, after all, is the ultimate wisdom that our body shares with us: that we can be two things at the exact same time, completely specific and unique while also being, seamlessly, one inhale and exhale of a greater connected breath that is just the rhythm of life itself.