January 11, 2023
It never fails to amaze me how predictable—and predictably good—I feel after acupuncture. After several years of schlepping to Greenpoint to lay on a heated table with needles (that I am too scared to look at) poking out of my body, I started to notice a pattern, a story of sorts, for my own relaxation process. First, there’d be a pleasant sense of warm buzzing all over—like someone plugged me in but hadn’t pressed the “on” button. Then, there’d be a sinking feeling—not the kind you feel in a dream when you can’t stop falling into a black hole, or when you almost trip and your belly flips, but rather a drop into a known and accepted nothingness, where the buzzing stops and all that’s left is clear, tension-free being. Sounds like it’d be a good place to stop, right? Well, the fun isn’t over yet, because after that I start to sense my body, and the whole table, tilting backward, as if my feet were being raised above the level of my head. I’ll fall back for a few moments before, like clockwork, I hear a knock on the door and my acupuncturist comes in, 10 or 15 or 20 minutes having passed (I never ask how long it’s been), and it’s done.
I rode this wave of interoceptive state-changes for a few sessions before asking if this was “normal,” especially the titling back part, which didn’t resonate with the other, more familiar feelings of relaxation that were part of the experience. I didn’t get a straight answer—because what’s normal? And who can really articulate what they experience in these states by way of comparison?—but what I did start to understand was that this sense of clarity, openness, freedom in my head, which I felt as tilting back, was actually coming from the needles in my feet. Yep, all the way at the other end of my body. This, it turns out, is a very common thing to happen whenever there’s something we feel—pain, strain, or release; it might be originating from the point of sensation, but it’s usually from the opposite side of the body, or at least somewhere else.
Now, I’m sure there is a lot of theory and logic behind this phenomenon that goes beyond my cursory understanding and experience. But it’s made me even more curious about how I interrogate areas of pain, sensation, or seeming sources of information—in my body and otherwise: Do I look at the spot, or do I look somewhere else? Is the information direct, or is it just a referral, an inference of something more important?
The Āyurvedic texts talk about inference as the second-best way of acquiring knowledge, after direct experience. That’s because it’s still something we take in through our own senses, but the information itself is second-hand and requires higher-level understanding to get the real takeaway. Take the classic example of seeing a cloud of black smoke over the horizon line of trees in a forest; inference would tell us that there’s a fire somewhere. Likewise, if we see that a woman is with child, we can infer that she at some point had interaction with sperm (which, in the old days, was not an inference women wanted to be made about them, despite the obvious necessity if she was going to be a mother).
These are relatively clear-cut examples, and in real life inference is rarely so. For instance, we might see a pregnant person but not be able to infer how they got pregnant or with whom (something more easily assumable in the old days); we might feel a pain in the body and infer that it came from some activity or incident, or even another place in the body, but perhaps an old habit or injury or even the mind itself is actually warping that sensation even farther away from the site in time and space. Relying on inference as a source of knowledge doesn’t just require lots of experience—to know what causes things (like sex causing pregnancy, or fires smoke)—but to think outside the straight path of cause and effect and be willing to explore the more unlikely possibilities. A common metaphor speaking to this phenomenon is called upon in the medical community. You hear the sound of stampeding animals in the distance (a set of symptoms), which could be coming from a number of different animals—horses, buffalo, zebras, etc. Given where you are, you’re pretty sure it’s horses, so you follow that path of treatment. But if you just assume stampeding = horses all the time, you might miss out on an actual stampede of zebras.
Solving a puzzle via inference can be extremely rewarding, especially when the outcome is being able to resolve some issue causing distress. But even more satisfying to me is the lesson I’ve come to learn on the acupuncture table. Because the kind of inferences that happen there—parts of the body talking to each other, sending messages of pain or relief or things in between—are positive proof of the unity of my organism. My needled feet wouldn’t be able to talk to my head without some body-wide network through which such information flows; and in a language that disparate body parts and tissues might not seem to share.
In a literal sense, that network might be considered fascia, but I think it’s more than that. To me, I’m inspired and heartened to know that all of our systems—the body, our families, our ecosystems—are made of many beings speaking the same language. When we get the chance to tune into those frequencies, even when the messages are far apart or don’t logically connect, we temporarily surrender to that vast flow of intelligence, where there is neither cause nor effect because all things are possible always. My foot and my head are not separate at all but one; the fire is both the smoke and the egg and sperm and however they met, and our ability to see all of it.