Telling the Bones

I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci fi novel, The Telling. It’s about a culture that has been forced into hiding, with its social, spiritual, and cultural survival based in preservation of its oral history. Elders hold fragments, pieces of knowledge of this culture–a story, perhaps a piece of art, or a star map, or a drawing–that they transmit by “telling” them, sharing them over and over, ritually and informally, in small groups. In this way, their sacred knowledge is both protected and shared.

Today, the second day of the Axial Skeleton training with the School for Body-Mind Centering(R), I received the telling of the bones. As the rain fell outside, we gathered closely around Bonnie. She began simply, quietly, and told us the bones of the skull. Each of the bones is unique, and yet they fit together holistically and beautifully in form, function, and metaphor.

The marvelous sphenoid. The delicate and intricate ethmoid. The narrow vomer. The only way they can truly be told is to hold them. Yes, I had done advance prep of coloring The Anatomy Coloring Book pages on my own, so I’d already seen them in two dimensions, and even started memorizing the names. Even that kind of study was pretty cool. And then, with Bonnie leading us, to see the shapes and relationships in a plastic model, where you can take the bones apart and put them back together, that was really amazing.

But most awesome of all, the honor and surprise of holding actual human skull bones in our hands: to see them and feel them. These are bones that Bonnie brought, which she’s cared for and learned from for years, acknowledging with reverence that they came from people who never knew they would become our teachers. The bones are unexpectedly light, full of air and folds and holes. Like filo dough, like puzzle pieces, with patterns and chambers like a sand dollar or sea shell. Bones that were a real person now long gone. They tell us their story, our story.

This is what learning should be like. This is why I love the continuous learning, the endless depths of exploration of yoga.

Driving home, I heard a story on “All Things Considered” about a new book on whales. The author told the host that the whale “represents this huge paradox: It’s the world’s greatest animal, hugest animal, and yet we hardly ever see it. When we do, we just see this jigsaw component — a fluke or a dorsal fin or a pectoral fin. We can never put this jigsaw together.” He described how little we understand about whales, saying that we know more about the surface of the moon than what’s under the waters of our oceans.

For many of us, we know even less about ourselves, our physical being, our bones. Less than we think we know about whales, the surface of the moon, or what’s under the ocean! And yet we can put the jigsaw of our bodies together. It’s right here, and we can find it and experience it from the inside out and the outside in, telling ourselves and each other the story of what it means to be human and embodied. To protect and share this sacred knowledge.

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