The Ouroboros as a Mental Health Tool

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a snake or dragon biting its tail. In Zen, there’s the enso—a circle.

Adopting an ancient symbol and understanding it isn’t enough; the point is to trace it back to the mindset that came up with it. That’s how we trade secondhand knowledge for direct knowing. Secondhand knowledge is useful, but not when it comes to being free of suffering or seeing our True Nature.

We can’t just think, “I’m unbound,” we have to think, “I’m unbound,” and follow that thought to its source. That’s why belief and logic don’t cut it.

So to grok the Ouroboros, let’s try to embody a mindset that could come up with such a symbol. Breathe in and think, “In.” Breathe out and think, “Out,” for a minute or so.

Once you’re a little relaxed, when you breathe in, think, “Out.” When you breathe out, think, “In.”

Hahaha, interesting right? Now, when breathing in, think, “No in and out.” When breathing out, think, “No in, no out.”

Now, just breathe.

We often feel like our minds are spinning in circles, don’t we? We get caught in repetitive thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions. But we’re not actually spinning in circles, we’re moving back and forth along a straight line—like Pong. We’re engaging in one-sidedness.

A circle doesn’t repeat itself, how could it? There’s no point on the circle that’s separate from every other point, so what can repeat?

Let’s take the thought, “Nothing matters.” That’s a dark thought, and it isn’t uncalled for. If someone says to me, “Nothing matters,” I’m not gonna say they’re wrong to cheer them up because they’re actually so close to understanding.

It’s an unfortunate part of the Path, but we can’t be free of suffering if we don’t admit that we’re suffering, if we’re not familiar with that suffering, if we ignore it or use something to distract us from it. No one cares about Waking Up if they’re having a nice dream. We set out on the Way motivated by our nightmares.

If someone comes asking me for something with a smile, then I have to play the villain who wipes it off their face. Because it’s a fake smile. We can’t uncover a genuine smile unless we allow ourselves a genuine frown.

“Nothing matters,” is a genuine frown. It’s a cry for completion. We need that cry.

Now, we can make the snake bite its tail. If nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. Ouroboros. The sorrow we get from the belief that nothing matters comes from thinking that, “Nothing matters,” matters.

It’s like if we believe that—in light of the vastness of time and space—that, “Everything’s insignificant,” then we’re making that insignificance significant. But if everything is really insignificant, then so is insignificance.

Now that is significant. That’s one step away from freedom, from the Middle Way. We’ve closed the circle, now we just have to step inside it.

This works on all absolutes. Like, “Everything is meaninglessness,” that means that meaninglessness is meaningless. So what’s the problem? Have some tea.

If we go the other way, it has the opposite affect. “Everything is meaningful,” means that meaninglessness is meaningful too. See that? That’s why the smile is fake.

And if we go with, “Some things are meaningful and others aren’t,” then we suffer as the two always switch places, just like inhale and exhale. Then we chase meaning and run from meaninglessness. That’s what brought us here, to practice. The chase itself becomes meaningless.

When that happens, we’re ready to see through the absolutes, the this or that thinking. We’re ready to sit back and watch as this and that switch places. Then with that, we see that there’s no such thing as Only this is true, or only That is true. Time makes liars of us all.

So we see through time, to just this moment. For just this moment, we’re breathing in. And for just this moment, we’re breathing out. For just this moment there’s nothing matters, for just this moment there’s everything matters.

But even that’s incorrect. Because when we’re really abiding just this moment, there’s no ability to compare. We’re not breathing in when we’re breathing in, or breathing out when we’re breathing out. We’re just breathing. Just this. Welcome to the center of the circle, where we can only say, “What circle?” That snake just ate itself.

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