A Human Experience

I wrote this after our participation in one of Gil Hedley’s workshops. Initially I posted this to facebook, and the responses I received were so profound I am re-posting here, outside of the world of social networking. Please enjoy and reflect, as we continue to do. We are all on a path (countless paths I’m sure), and this is a snapshot of one location. ~Joanna

Last week I became part of a group of about 30 other people from around the world – bodyworkers, movers, teachers etc. We came together to explore the medium of our choice, the human body. To become Somanauts, partners in a six day intensive human cadaver dissection workshop.
While there is simply no way to sum up the experience that was shaped by Gil and shaped by us, there are things to be said about it.

The approach of this course is unique. We move layer by layer – skin, superficial fascia, deep fascia, musculature, viscera and bones. We unwrap the body, literally, over and over again.

We were all aware of the taboos we break by doing this work. Its not taboo to own an anatomy text book. Its not taboo to have a neat page laid out with the “answers.” But we’ve all gotten so many different reactions by being here and doing this – from support, to disgust, to disbelief that this is available to non-medical students. For much of history different cultures have forbade any kind of exploration like this. Even today I have to tactfully say what I’m doing, keenly aware as I bike home that if I were to tell someone on the sidewalk what I was just doing they would be horrified. I’m also aware that to admit the mechanical motions I was just making has so little to do with the overall experience as to make it grotesque.

Then there is the next layer of taboo. The embalmer and head of the donor program at our host institution meets with donors, their family, attends memorial services when they die, embalms them, and sees the fruits of his work. I can barely imagine what that would be like. Its like the ultimate peak around the corner, a place everyone agrees you’re not supposed to be.

But we have fun in the gross anatomy lab. We joke with each other, laugh, smile, and even talk about lunch sometimes.

Eli likes to say we do not find answers, we only find confusion on a higher order.
Its never been more palpably true.

No one signs up for this course because its easy. As a child I had terrible nightmares, so I wasn’t sure I’d react well. But anything I could try to use now to conjure up a sense of fear – the fact that I’ve sawed through vertebrae, sawed through a skull, clipped ribs, held a human heart in my hands, and piled pieces back in to make a form I only hope is acceptable to our respected donor – these moments are filled with love and appreciation for the brave donors who surrendered the attachment to what they no longer needed. As Gil reminded us, most likely no one has treated their body with such care and thoroughness as in this experience.

These forms are, as Gil calls them, the diary of a life. They aren’t the human. That human is no longer there. They are a form that remains, a model of a human. Initially the skin feels like clay. We give them a nick name, because the form is not the living named being.

I came here to learn larger lessons for sure, but I also came to learn bits and pieces of anatomy. To understand a little better than the pictures show us.
I have come away with the general feeling that the pictures are 80% lies. Very well meaning and educational lies, but there are few other fields than this one where we take drawings at face value.
Its much more of a guideline than anyone could ever hope to convey in words. Your everything is connected to your everything else. My everything is connected in a different way, sometimes radically differently. I can take a scalpel and separate your pec major from your deltoid and call them two different muscles, and I can ignore huge swaths of strong connective tissue while naming tiny little other bits and including them in drawings. But it doesn’t matter, because my body hasn’t read an anatomy book.
We parse out the gliding surfaces by hand, and the attachments by scalpel and try to make some sense. If you’ve ever seen anatomy photo books those images took hours to clean up by the most skilled dissectors. Its almost a total lie, even while it reveals the truth.

The class has 5 donor forms. The differences are profound. Some structures are clear in one person, or on one side, and others murky and indistinct. We broke down so many myths again and again. Lore perpetuated perhaps simply because Netter drew it one way, or because of the different ways schools teach it. I watched so many well meaning, so many researched, and so many high level lectures become irrelevant in the face of reality. I watched one of my teachers dismantle his own lecture in amazement. I also watched origin and insertion points become so varied as to make the memorization almost a form of brainwashing. Life just simply isn’t that linear. Life is made of spirals and twists and turns and things that made sense for your body’s pulses and pumps and layers.

I believe I understand now what knowing anatomy actually means. It has little to do with charts and “shoulds” its about flesh and life and growth. You grew your body, it will be different from the way I grew mine. I’m moving from a building block model of anatomy to an organic vision, the way we shift from a compression to a tensegrity model. I understand why learning vasculature and nerves is essential, and why when it comes to myofascia I need to (at this point) just put the book down. I also understand why what I learn will always only be a suggestion. To say that a certain technique does a specific thing is leaving out so much of the picture, or is intentionally guiding an experience – which is not necessarily a bad thing; people need and want guidance, its just important to know you’ll never really know. I am much more comfortable now with the unknown, and with simply doing good work because it serves the organism.

We were blessed to have the head of the medical department and the head of the anatomy department wandering through and guiding us, in addition to Gil, just because they want to. The wisdom these people possess is astounding. Their students are extraordinarily lucky to have teachers so passionate, experienced, and beautifully unorthodox, and I hope they know it. I understand that it is also astounding to have a room of 30 people all actually thirsty for this knowledge and experience.

I cannot express with words the gratitude I have for every single experience this week. I have seen the most amazing things. I found and touched plantaris and articularis genu, saw an ulna spin in the joint, the muscles and nerve on the back of the eye, the pearlescent sliding surface of the talus (the only bone in the body with no muscular connections), engaged in a search we weren’t even sure was successful for the elusive ligament of Treitz, saw an actual cross section of a sacrum, told stories, and touched a pinneal gland.

I saw “celebrities” like the psoas, QL, piriformis, and the ITB. But these are hardly the most memorable moments. I got to witness the motion at the hip of the sciatic nerve, see the different possible interactions of the sciatic nerve and piriformis, the huge brachial plexus branching out tendrils into the arm and the result of bringing motion to the area, see polycistic kidneys, watch the majority of the class be confused as to what part of the spine was the disc and which the vertebral bodies (which has astounding implications, no?), and compare the textures in the interosseous membranes of the leg and forearm.

Its all about texture. The hard, branchy texture of the falx cerebri membrane and the branchy undergrowth inside the heart that resembles the most perfect arching trees of Rivendel. The thick meaty muscles of the thighs in their relatively thinner fascia, and the paler muscles of the lower leg in their thick fascial encasement. The radical departure from natural order that bypass surgery creates, placing straight lines where there were none, like the first railroad tracks in China (which it is said they didn’t want because it would make the chi flow too fast). And I’ve seen the lack of health that results when the organs of a grown man relate to each other the way a newborn baby’s do.

A veil has been lifted and I’m seeing with new eyes. The texture of life is all pervasive, we are not so different from anything else on the planet. There is nothing in existence that is not about the organism. As Gil says, it is only possible to touch the entire person.

And at the end, I was not ready to say good bye. I did not want to surrender the integrity of the group, our donor’s form. We touched him, trying to get in that last bit of texture, sensory information, that last lesson he could teach us. I was afraid that after this there is only death.
It is of course not true. I see his ligaments in the border of the bike path, knot holes in boards are his lymph nodes, cracks in the pavement the texture in his superficial fascia, pavement patches become the alternation of vertebrae and disc, everything takes on the shape of the exploration within. I see through skin to the vast possibilities underneath. The functioning of his body that I never got to know in life is with me every step I take, showing me vitality in every pebble, crevice, texture and moment.

14 thoughts on “A Human Experience

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