An Embodied Inquiry

Blog, Philosophy and Opinion, writing

In 2015, I set out on a journey to a faraway place. I knew I was in for an impactful experience. How could I not? Six months away on a remote atoll with rustic accommodations and minimal contact with the outside world. It’s what I signed up for and I was looking forward to nothing more than leaving behind everything I knew in hopes of finding anything new.

I returned to the atoll, known as Kure, two years later in 2017 to continue where I left off: with a newfound mode of inquiry, one I have deemed an embodied inquiry. I had experienced a personal transformation and sought to understand the significance of this transformation. It is a difficult experience to describe, one that I have attempted to do through pages and pages of writing, too lengthy to illustrate for this paper. But, if you could for a moment, relax your gaze and steady your breathing while reading the next paragraph.

Imagine yourself immersed in a landscape devoid of any modern sounds, and instead, listen to the constant and nearby roar of ocean waves crashing onto a shore that surrounds you in a 360-degree direction. Imagine a night sky in which you can see every horizon, and above you the glimmering of more stars than your brain allows your eyes to process. Imagine this is your life for 180 days straight without a break.

 I had not the slightest grasp of what I was meant to do moving forward with this experience, one for me that was not a faint abstract imagination. Now, two years later, as I’ve unraveled my own experiences, I hope to explore this emergent concept of embodied inquiry by diving into some of the relevant work that teachers, cultural practitioners, and scientists in Hawai’i have reported on in their own endeavors to unravel the meaning behind embodied inquiry. Through their work, I will examine the effectiveness of their techniques geared towards perpetuating a cause for Hawaiian well being that does not separate out the economy of people from the economy of place. 

To begin, embodied inquiry is a term I am pitching as an attempt to encompass a massive and potentially unlimited array of experiences that evoke a particular set of outcomes essential for the bridging and integration of multiple world-views with the end goal of increasing the welfare of any one person, group, or community along with the residing ecology. Cultures are meeting, exchanging, blending, and morphing in a myriad of complex ways. It is an exhilarating time to be alive, but also a confusing one in which the core of human operation – identity – can too easily feel at lost.

There is a sense of security that exists in this technological age in which the comfort of our lives is reliant on the goods and services of the developed world. However, the more we rely on our external technologies, the more we are potentially shedding our own intrinsic human values and handing them off to our machines. The human body becomes just a mere container for the inferring mind, but even this extension of our worth will soon be out-sourced to the far superior processing capabilities of machine-learning technologies (Brockman, 2019).

Embodied Inquiry confronts an essential question to the future of human relevance by critically examining the outcome of the education system as it prepares children for the world at large: is there human worth beyond the development of the human mind? What is the value of developing the whole human, body and all?

To answer this question, we must spend time exploring what exactly an embodied inquiry looks like by first laying down the inner-workings of inquiry itself. 

Scientific Inquiry Versus Embodied Inquiry

As defined by the National Research Council, Scientific Inquiry is the method scientists use or the direct work they do when studying the natural world, subsequently providing proposed “explanations based on the evidence derived from their work” ( National Research Council, 2000, P. 1). Inquiry is also what is referred to as a process in which students “develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world ( National Research Council, 2000, P. 1). So what are these methods used by scientists? And how exactly are students being introduced to these ideas?

Briefly put, inquiry follows the doctrine of the scientific method which outlines a congruent set of steps that leads a scientist from the observation of a phenomenon into the investigation of the phenomenon. By using prior sets of knowledge applicable to the occurrence observed, the scientist states a hypothesis that might explain the phenomenon. Continuing along with the steps of the scientific method, the scientist constructs methods to measure and produce evidence that will ultimately either support, negate, or neither support nor negate the scientist’s hypothesis. This is the most crucial step in establishing the validity and legitimacy of any scientific study as well as showing that the study was executed in a way that validates the measurable evidence.

The providing of evidence and the reproducibility of the study becomes a coin that adds another value point to a larger network of similar or relative studies, providing further statistical strength to the global human understanding of nature and the universe. 

In recent times, as science has evolved beyond its geopolitical origins and as cultures from around the world have inevitably come into contact with it through western expansion, a new dialogue has emerged in the ethics of science which seeks to give voice to alternative ways of knowing. This is certainly the case in the realm of natural sciences, and more specifically amongst the environmental sciences such as conservation, which seeks to find sustainable solutions between human relations and interactions with nature by democratizing its practices through the incorporation of other societies of authority (Salomon, A.K., 2018). 

This type of thinking, which proposes the partnering of a diverse set of entities, is a move towards acknowledging that “all knowledge holders have the right and opportunity to participate in scientific endeavors ( Saomon, A.K., 2018, P. 1). This process has been deemed a democratizing process because it acts as a key to opening gateways for these different knowledge holders to work together. It is a systems solution, which is essential for achieving its goals. However, we cannot skip over the fact that all systems are made up of a group of living beings – in this case, humans – who interact and function based upon both innate biology and socially constructed – also known as cultural – behavior traits (de Waal, 2001).

A practice needs to be adapted amongst those coming from their differing, respective cultures that allow those involved to integrate the multiple world views in a coherent and harmonious manner. This is what an embodied-inquiry can offer to the desire of experts across cultures who want to work together and ultimately want to establish a grounds for practice in education that is able to face an ever-expanding diversity of values, norms, and behavior.

Embodied inquiry is a kind of gateway into the enculturation process which allows those involved to shift, alter, or expand their orientation to the world. To illustrate this point further I now turn to the efforts that have already begun in Hawai’i, a place that I have personally experienced the gathering of multiple world views. Here are a few hopeful anecdotes that represent an exploration of embodied inquiry and a commitment to revitalizing a way of knowing for the sake of continued health and prosperity of the people of Hawaiʻi. 

Applied Hawaiian Epistemology 

In 2006, an unprecedented move was enacted in the history of marine conservation: the establishment of one of the largest marine national monuments in the world: Papahānaumokuākea (Kikiloi, 2010). Four years earlier, a Ph.D. candidate from the Anthropology department at the University of Hawaii Manoa named Kekuewa Kikiloi set out on a voyage to these far-reaching islands, the very same islands I had the opportunity to work on in 2015 and 2017. He was determined to discover the significance of these islands to the Hawaiian heritage (Kikiloi, 2010). Over the next seven years, with a total of eight more trips, Kikiloi’s discoveries and experiences launched him into a level of inquiry that he could not possibly have predicted (Kikiloi, 2010). “On these trips, I was left to live and survive on these islands with barely any contact with the outside world. Through this process, I began to see through our ancestors’ eyes. The past became alive to me. It was a transformative experience that fundamentally changed my life” (Kikiloi, 2010, P. 74 ). 

As Kikiloi was connecting the metaphysical dots between Papahānaumokuākea and Hawaiian heritage, a group of adventurous teachers embarked on their own journey into the ancient cultural wisdom of Hawaiʻi (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). They were attempting to do something new and risky: create a K-12 curriculum that would unite the world of Western science Astronomy with Hawaiian traditions (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). In education in Hawaii, this very notion had always been a source of tension, a clash of epistemologies (Meyer, 1998). Epistemological overlap in Hawaii is an ongoing challenge and historically (as well as presently with the recent news of the blockade protest of the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the recognized sacred mountain of Mauna Kea) has caused escalations in conflicts of interests between the State and the people (Yerton, S., & Simon, J., 2019).

Nani Pai, a classroom teacher, and Alice Kawakami, co-investigator and Native Hawaiian Educator, committed their time over the course of four years building connections between Hawaiian cultural practices and modern space science (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). This project was modeled under the process of learning through experiences in authentic environments, proving to have an effect on the participants, changing their outlook on education  (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). Pai writes, “We wanted to support each other in creating a holistic learning experience in our natural cultural landscape so our students could experience Hawai’i and space science as relevant and life-enhancing” (Pai and Kawakami, 2005, P. 56). Through their partnership with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, an organization that single-handedly revitalized the traditional navigation and way-finding practices of Polynesia, the teachers learned the true value of stepping into a canoe, or Wa’a, and experiencing an embodied inquiry, experiences with which “each other and time together on the wa’a truly transformed us as human beings” (Pai and Kawakami, 2005, P. 57). 

Coincidentally, around the same time that Pai and Kawakami were braving the waters on the voyaging canoe, Kikiloi was entering uncharted waters of academia as he began to paint a picture of where Hawai’i was heading, politically, before European contact. To do so, he had to return to the sites of Nihoa and Mokumanana, two uninhabited islands devoid of resources yet rich with archeological evidence and oral-historical accounts of early Hawaiian presence from A.D. 1400 – 1815, (Kikiloi, 20120). Kikiloi knew he would have to move his vessel of research across disciplines to make the strongest case for “the centralizing of chiefly management, an integration of chiefs and priests into a single social class, the development of a charter for institutional order, and a state-sponsored religion spreading throughout the main Hawaiian Islands” (Kikiloi, 2012, P. 5). By embodying the native language of Hawaiʻi (‘Olelo Hawai’i), and diving deep into the ethnohistorical documents of Hawaiian mythos persevered both through writing and the passing down through oral tradition, Kikiloi was successfully able to bring to light evidence that Hawai’i was already modernizing itself prior to the influence of European-American contact (Kikiloi, 2012). Kikiloi writes, “Ethno-historical analysis of cosmogonic chants, mythologies, and oral accounts are looked at to understand ritualization as a historical process, one that tracks important social transformations and ultimately led to the formation of the Hawaiian state religious system” (Kikiloi, 2012, P. 8). 

The findings of Kikiloi’s research is less relevant to this discussion than the methods he used to arrive at his conclusion, which encompasses this idea of embodied inquiry. It seems that based on Kikiloi’s dedicated trips to these remote islands coupled with the rhythmic proverbial chants reverberating in his research, he discovered an even more profound message to share with the people of Hawai’i and the world: “The ‘āina [land] sustains our identity and health by centering our attitudes, instincts, perceptions, values, and character within the context of our sacred environment. We, in turn, sustain our ‘āina and love them with generations of memories and experiences of enduring compassion. As we nurture and restore all aspects of identity and well-being of ‘āina, we will, in turn, begin to recover and thrive as a people. Now more than ever, we must remember who we are as native people of Hawai‘i, reaffirming these ancient truths and renewing this holistic worldview on people and ‘āina” (Kikiloi, 2010, P. 30).

The message here is about looking forward to a lively future we can imagine in which humanity and the ʻāina are prosperous. He means to stress the importance of embodying a human identity that is married to the land, a relationship that is encoded in the name of the very Marine National Monument established in 2006, Papahānaumokuākea, which is actually two distinct names, Papahānau (mother earth) and Wākea (sky father), two deity-like figures who provide the genealogical evidence to the Hawaiian people of their direct descendants of the land itself (Kikiloi, 2010). Should we not look to the important works of scientists like Kikiloi who provide compelling solutions for the deepening modern problems of environmental degradation? If the Western world is held responsible for bringing a modern social order to the whole world, a vast reduction of human violence and poverty (Pinker, S, 2012), who or what cultures can we look towards in establishing the welfare of the rest of Earth’s communities as well? 

To answer this, we must return to the efforts of the New Opportunities through Minority Initiatives in Space Science (NOMISS) four-year project in which Pai and Kawakami share their insights. 

Pai and Kawakami surveyed the teachers involved in the project who identified three main themes that were effective in linking Hawaiian cultural practices and space science: sense of place, origins, and observation (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). Each of these themes qualifies as an embodied inquiry, for they return the learner to a primary mode of experience. In the case of sense of place, the embodied experience is literally in the stated words described; sense of place. Of course, our primary mode of experience is through our sensory organs. Also integral to this theme is place, which refers to the physical world around us in which our bodies are in continuous contact with. These two words bring together a more complex concept that gives context for the developing identity of a child or learner. Many developmental scientists, psychologists and naturalists such as Steven Trimble, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Edith Cobb write about the innate desire of a child to “find a place to discover the self” (Fisher, 2013). 

In Hawaiʻi, cultural traditions influence the experiences of its members on a daily basis through common values such as mālama ʻāina (care of the land) (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). I myself have experienced the commonality of this type of practice and hear the phrase used by all ages. Even as a high school teacher, when I asked my students one day what they believed to be the most important thing in their life, the phrase aloha ʻāina (love of the land), was one of the most repeated in all my classes. 

The second, origins, is a trickier theme, but perhaps one of the most powerful socially. The questions of “who we are” and “where do we come from” are foundational for any culture. Connecting the Hawaiian Moʻokuauhau (genealogy) to the western science pursuit of the origins of the universe is a way to support integrating cultural and scientific communities (Pai and Kawakami, 2005). It is also a powerful way to integrate personal experience with the world at large.

Lastly, and key to the actualization of the first two, comes observation. Pai and Kawakami point out a contrast between the Western tradition of observation which “assumes consistency and reliability of quantifiable data to verify information that may be generalized to other settings”( Pai and Kawakami, 2005, p. 68). They make the claim that this accordance of observation is derived from a cultural world view, or epistemology, that differs from that of a Hawaiian epistemology. 

The western approach to scientific knowledge exists upon a premise that assumes “knowledge is static, and once verified, can be replicated under similar conditions” ( Pai and Kawakami, 2005, p. 68). However, this is not the only epistemology that is correct and/or accurate. It too has its limitations as is pointed out by the long-standing and on-going discussion about the replication crisis – most notably in the life and social sciences (Aarts, 2015).

The Hawaiian epistemological approach to acquiring knowledge described by Pai and Kawakami puts the observer in the center of focus rather than attempting to limit or remove the subjective experience from that which is being observed. Thus, there is an emphasis on the initiation of a protocol to prepare the observer for accessing “the unseen (spiritual) dimension” (Pai and Kawakami, 2005, p. 68). This, in turn, has a lasting and critical effect on how individuals experience a place, for it is through this type of observation in which the subject is seeing the location as if it too were a subject, as if the observer is establishing a relationship with a place just as one might with another fellow human being. 


Kikiloi, Pani, and Kawakami are but a few dedicated scholars and educators in the State of Hawaii working to expand the way in which different epistemologies interact. In both narratives on their work, they describe this personal transformation which has afforded them not only a deeper connection to the culture of Hawaiʻi, but more profoundly to the place of Hawaiʻi. To be instilled with a sense of aloha ʻāina, like my high school students confided in me, is to be fully open to the ways in which people of all different backgrounds may successfully come together in achieving well-being for the community at large. As the modern global citizen rises to meet the forces of the technocratic society, a quiet yet profound rumble is murmuring below the foundation of our existence. It is here the embodied inquiry can be felt in full force. And it is here I believe we must lend our stance, firmly footed, if humanity is to stand a chance in securing a foreseeable future, lest we are swept away by our own demise.


Kikiloi, K., (2010). Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Wellbeing; Rebirth of an Archipelago: Sustaining a Hawaiian Cultural Identity for People and Homeland (p 73-115) (Vol. 6). Honolulu, HI: Pauahi Publications Kamehameha Schools.

Pai, N., & Kawakami, A. (2005). Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Wellbeing(Vol. 2) (p 47-72). Honolulu, HI: Pauahi Publications Kamehameha Schools.

Kana‘iaupuni, S., Ledward, B., & Jensen, ʻ. (2010, September). Culture-Based Education and Its Relationship to Student Outcomes[PDF]. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Research and Evaluation.

Brockman, J. (2019). Possible minds: Twenty-five ways of looking at AI. New York: Penguin Press.

National Research Council 2000. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Salomon, A. K., Lertzman, K., Brown, K., Wilson, K. B., Secord, D., and McKechnie, I. (2018). Democratizing conservation science and practice. Ecology & Society, 23(1), 597-608.

About Papahānaumokuākea. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Meyer, M. (1998). Native Hawaiian epistemology: Sites of empowerment and resistance. Equity and Excellence in Education, 31, 22-28

Yerton, S., & Simon, J. (2019, July 31). Do Negotiations Offer A Way Forward On Mauna Kea? Retrieved from

Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Fisher, A. (2013). Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Aarts, A. A. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science,349(6251). Retrieved August 4, 2019, from

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