Who wins when a snake devours its own tail?

I have been told that our society is moving inevitably towards a totalitarian regime, and that our only choice is which type of totalitarian regime it will be: fascist or communist. I was told that whichever side wins will devour the other side. This idea led me to ask,

Who wins when a snake devours its own tail?

It turns out that this is a perfect zen koan, and it has helped me to understand koans, and reality, a lot more deeply. I posted this question on Facebook, and I got a lot of answers, including:

  • “The ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Originating in Ancient Egyptian iconography, the ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition and was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism and Hermeticism, and most notably in alchemy. Via medieval alchemical tradition, the symbol entered Renaissance magic and modern symbolism, often taken to symbolize introspection, the eternal return or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself. It also represents the infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation and destruction, life and death and despair.” — Courtesy of Wikipedia. This is a cognitive answer.
  • “Whoever is watching.” This is a philosophical answer.
  • “Jewelry peddlers.” This is a very funny answer.

As I kept pondering this question “Who wins when a snake devours its own tail?” I noticed that everyone, including me, is compelled to find an answer to it. No answer is really satisfying however. I want to give credit to the mysterious and irreverent Jed McKenna, whose books I have been reading, and who has been inspiring me to question reality. Jed advocates for an approach which involves understanding questions deeply and in the process discovering increasingly meaningful questions. He does not value answers.

“The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.”— Carl Jung

When I put my attention on this question “Who wins when a snake devours its own tail?” there is a way that my mind can lock into it, and get traction with it. I can feel that with enough traction it will break open, though it has not yet broken open for me. It seems as though the question is a wedge of wood that is being driven into a crack in a rock. When the question is answered, the wedge is removed from the crack. There are many ways that I can get distracted and drawn away from the question, and into an answer, many ways that I can remove the wedge. As soon as an answer comes, and is accepted, the inquiry is foreclosed, and the question is discarded.

“In brief, the important thing is not to think about the koan with one’s mind, but to become it by unreservedly devoting one’s whole body and mind to it.”—Zen master, Wumen Huikai (Mumon Ekai, 1183–1260)

I know that the question “Who wins when a snake devours its own tail?” is a key that will unlock something inside of me, if I can keep hold of it for long enough. It’s so easy to let it slip out of my metaphorical hands by answering it. At it’s deepest level, this question is its own answer, and I know that anything that I want to give as an answer is just a distraction from the question.

There is a beauty to this question that I cannot describe to you. I invite you to spend some time with it.