Meditations on Ouroboros
Like the dog chasing its own tail, Ouroboros has forgotten a part of him that belongs to himself. There is a split, a splinter separating the head (mind) and tail (body), and this split manifests in many diverse yet similar ways.
Think of our chemically enhanced foods which stimulate the mind but malnourish the body, or cigarettes which satisfy cravings but decay the organism, or the incessantly stimulated mind titillated by sights, sounds, and smells but never allowed a moment’s rest; the body suffers at the expense of the mind. Or, not to put too fine a point on it: in the pursuit of pleasure, the mind consumes the body.
Following the wretched logic of Descartes’ (which, despite being intellectually unsound, offers a philosophy consistent with how we live), there is a mental or spiritual realm and an earthly or material realm; the mind belongs to the former, the body to the latter. The material realm – messy, convoluted, chaotic, and free as it is – must be replaced with the smooth, frictionless, and infinitely plastic workings of reason, rationality, and mind. And so, we live in a world increasingly ruled by abstractions and inventions of the mind.
The rhythms of seasons, sunrises and sunsets are replaced with clocks and the demands of the work week. Abstractions like ‘success’ or ‘power’ increasingly drive us; a modest life seen as rather petty and pathetic; with those who chase money for its own sake (money being only a symbol of real wealth) as the most extreme example of this thinking.
The food of the Earth is inadequate; our cereals must be fortified with vitamins, our vegetables must be artificially ripened, our fruits must be preserved with chemicals. While we enhance every food with additional vitamins or minerals, we simultaneously drain our food of any nutritional value. Real nutrients must be discarded so we can inject our food with the right nutrients in the concentrations and volumes we see fit.
Like bad alcohol, we are too much spirit lacking body. The domination of the head is coming at the expense of the body, for it is to no surprise that living according to clocks disrupts our sleep, chasing money leads us nowhere, and our food is making us sick.
While he may commit to his meal, Ouroboros will eventually reach the point where he is faced (if we can entertain such a confusing metaphor) with the back of his own head; where he will eventually be forced to eat his own mouth. Then, and perhaps only then, will he break out of his illusion.
Here, eating is analogous to suffering. We can immediately see our illusions for what they are, and therefore, not fall into the trap. However, as is often the case, we fail to recognise our illusions as such, and we fall for them, consuming ourselves in the process.
We may be inclined to believe that not falling for illusions is the way we should strive to live. But perhaps this misses the point. We cannot help but fall for illusions, what is required of us, therefore, is an appreciation that once we break out of illusions we know something that others don’t: we know what our own tail tastes like.
While every internet page – in a seemingly endless self-referential circle – claims Ouroboros is a metaphor for infinity, I believe there is another, far more fruitful interpretation. Rather than a circle of life, Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of a vicious circle, where one part of the body is in conflict with the other.
The vicious circle takes many forms, on many levels. There is the vicious circle of a society which extracts resources which destroy nature in the name of saving it, thereby encouraging ever more extraction to compensate for the destruction wrought from the first round of extraction. There is the vicious circle of pesticides to protect crops, which thereby create more resistant insects, thus requiring ever more concentrated pesticides to deal with them. There is the vicious circle of the man, who in his insecurity, flees into what makes him feel safe, thereby making his insecurities more daunting, and thus calling for ever further retreats into safety. There is the vicious circle of trying to forget a thought, and in the process, giving this thought such prominence that it become impossible to forget.
Ultimately, Ouroboros represents the resulting conflict when two inextricably linked parts are seen to be separate (society and nature, crop resistance and insect strength, the feeling of insecurity and the quest for security, trying to forget and remembering). In each instance, it is the intellect (societal or individual) attempting to subdue the body (of Earth or of ourselves) without understanding its fundamental and inescapable reliance upon it.
It is only when we see that the circle is a circle that we will stop. Because to ask ‘what shall we do’ is to fundamentally miss the point. Because, if a dog could see its tail belonged to it, it would cease the chase; and once Ouroboros sees he is eating his tail, he will stop eating. Once we see the circle for what it is, the illusion that the head and tail are separate disappears.
Yet, there is a certain truth in imagining Ouroboros as a symbol for infinity, a truth buried amidst a thousand rehashings of the same idea, like a tired phoenix buried beneath its ashes.
Ouroboros symbolises the illusion of controlling the flow of life. Ouroboros, like life, has a beginning (his head) and an end (his tail). But, failing to see that what flows in must also flow out, Ouroboros fights this, consuming his tail, fighting death, failing to realise that death is as inseparable from life as a tail is from a head.
It is not infinity which Ouroboros symbolises but rather, the conflict which arises when we separate death from life.