I Feel and Think, Therefore I Am: The Head and The Tail of The Snake

W. Aractingi

I’ve had several conversations recently with friends who are taking actions that feel wrong in their gut. Literally. Whether it’s knots in their stomach from stress or new intolerances to foods. Yet, their decisions, from the outside, look rational, reasonable and prudent.

We are, as a society, far too Cartesian. Remember, René Descartes (17thcentury French philosopher) and his, “I think, therefore I am”? He famously thought our bodies were mere machines.  I bet he wasn’t much fun in bed.

When we ignore the knowledge that our bodies carry, by refusing to include that wisdom in our decision-making process, we intentionally deprive ourselves of useful and relevant information to guide our actions.

To find insight into this puzzling behavior, we can look to another 17thcentury French thinker, this one a fabulist whose work I’ve immersed myself for the past 18 months (as many of you know).

From Jean de La Fontaine: 

The snake has two parts, the head and the tail. Both are dangerous to humans. And both have earned fame almost as great as that of the cruel Fates. So much renown caused a great debate to arise between them as to who should take the lead. The head had always walked before the tail.

The tail complained to the heavens, and said: I go to this place and that place, wherever pleases the head. Does she think I want to be dragged about? As if I am nothing but her humble servant. I was made, thank you Lord, her sister and not her follower. We share the same blood. Treat us the same. I carry a prompt and powerful poison just as much as she does. Look, here’s what I’m asking. It’s up to you to demand that I am allowed to take my turn to go ahead of my sister, the head. I’ll lead so well, you’ll see, there will be nothing to complain about.

The heavens acted on this wish with benevolent cruelty. The heavens’ compliance often has ill effects. They ought to have turned a deaf ear to the tail’s blind desires, but not this time.  

And the new guide, who couldn’t see, even in broad daylight, any better than inside a dark oven, banged up against a marble statue, against a passerby and against a tree. The tail led her sister straight into the River Styx. 

What misfortune, to err and fall so low.

Our much-vaunted human intellect is no more than the tail of our full body of knowledge.  The universe presides over our benevolence and, too often, our cruelty, as we ignore our physical, emotional and psychological intelligence (our body’s wisdom). Instead, we favour a mechanistically separate view of our minds and bodies. Yet we know they are so inextricably entwined that to even differentiate between mind and body is ludicrous. Two of the simplest examples: When we are in pain (physical or psychological), we have trouble thinking straight; so too, when we are in new love.

Our mental states—our thoughts, our experiences, our attention, our memory, our judgment, our reasoning, our problem-solving abilities—are not just governed by mind, but also the body. This understanding is called embodied cognition. Our true snake’s head is the inextricable body-wide-web of information and intelligence that we can have full access to, if we allow the head to lead, instead of the halfwit tail.

This is not to say that we should act on every emotional impulse. No. But nor can we pretend that our physical-emotional-psychological condition can be contravened and repressed into submission by our so-called rationality. Though the opioid crisis suggests that the medical establishment thinks we can.

Our society has way too many people who have become addicted to physical delicacies and yet never want to change any of the fundamental psychological realities of their world. Me too, obviously. I wear myself down (like now) and choose not to listen to my body, because I have all sorts of fears (aging, fatness, out-of-shapeness), which really add up to one fear, loss of control. I fear that resting will become the metaphor for my whole life and I will never succeed at anything.

Our minds need to be better followers. We have to listen to our bodies. Develop our intuition. Violence and cruelty are societal manifestations of how far we have erred. The tail will always lead us into the River Styx.

Our true heads, fueled by embodied cognition, will lead us toward the light. This is the path that opens our hearts to the vitality within us and all around us. Leading with our true heads nourishes our connections to each other and the universe.


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