Emptiness & "Concrete Consciousness"
An examination on what might be going on underneath the experience of emptiness
“Remember that you can know yourself, and with that you know enough. But you cannot know others and everything else. Beware of knowing what lies beyond yourself, or else your presumed knowledge will suffocate the life of those who know themselves. A knower may know himself. That is his limit.” - CG Jung, The Red Book, p. 306
In conversation with a deeply wise soul-friend last night, discussing the trouble I was having in feeling whole, effective, good enough, etc. at my job, in my work, he gently prodded me to investigate my stuckness, asking can you understand the need of others to remain asleep? I realized that I was judging humanity for its unconsciousness, for its stuckness, for its unexamined need to keep the veil exactly where it is, thankyouverymuch because I didn’t want to acknowledge my own stuckness and longing to sink back into the undifferentiated (read: un0self-aware) unconscious.
This morning I woke up with the idea that this idea of empty deserved a closer encounter. This is what’s come from that exploration.
That Which Appears Empty
Maybe emptiness is actually not emptiness. Maybe it’s being so unbearably full of feelings one doesn’t want to feel, that instead of saying I am in excruciating pain or I’m full of regret or I’m devastated that this is what life is or I have more need than can be satisfied or I’m full of the mortification of my own human predicament or my life is woefully loveless; I don’t know how to love; I have never known and I’m terrified I never will, man disengages from the truth by constructing a feelings-empty rationality, like pouring concrete over the opening which would lead him inward. The concrete slap inside where there should be a door gives the illusion of inner emptiness, just as concrete on the ground gives the illusion that there is not a roiling, teeming, mycelium & root & insect & bacteria & life-potential filled earth underneath. In some sense, this construct is empty, for rationality cannot feel, and therefore is devoid of feelings—but that rationality cannot feel does not mean feelings do not exist.
I’m thinking that emptiness is fullness in disguise. To feel empty is to pretend there isn’t something deeply meaningful, highly personal, and incredibly serious happening inside oneself. It is a product of unwillingness, or lack of awareness, or dulled skillmanship when it comes to the craft of addressing the unconscious.
When we see a sidewalk, we do not think about all of the layers of life living in quite darkness underneath. Similarly, when a person notices their emptiness, they make an assumption that its empty all the way down. The reaction is to simply not investigate further. You wouldn’t take a jackhammer to the sidewalk to find out what’s underneath. A person doesn’t feel the need to know what’s underneath the sidewalk, as long as the sidewalk is functioning as it’s supposed to. As long as the feeling “empty” does its job of numbing the truth, there’s no need to investigate what’s happening below the surface. It’s only when a pesky root pushes up from the earth that we remember there’s endless soil beneath the concrete. At that point there are two options: pour fresh concrete, keep building up the facade of placid detachment and stoic solidity. Or, don’t. Let the remembering of the earth beneath the concrete take effect. See what happens if you leave the root alone to move literal mountains and make changes to the surface—see what happens if you let the earth reclaim the concrete by letting the truth grow.
I’m thinking that emptiness is a tug from the life inside. Apathy is a beckoning to investigation. Disenchantment is a call to adventure. But not out—in. The adventure of emptiness is learning to stop pouring concrete; it’s learning to remember the earth beneath the sidewalk.
The concrete is the result of too much rationality, for rationality in abundance necessarily privileges mind over matter, thinking over feeling, what is seen over what is unseen. Hyper-rationality—rationality that leads to pathology and neurosis—could be said to be the pavement over our inner paradise. In his memories, Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung writes that “the more the critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more of life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion the individual is pauperized.” Could it be that the solution to the problem of the sense that the shuddering void closes in is to take one’s life so very personally, so very seriously—so seriously that it burns with the brightness of its own participation with the All? That to actually feel connected to everything, man needs to claim the life inside himself which is his and his alone to claim?
“Normal” is collective concrete. Perfection, supposed to, “that’s what was expected of me”—these are concrete we unconsciously agree to cover up our truth with. These are societally sanctioned parking lots, built for the default setting. Built for the vehicles of the hyperrational psyche. As long as man stays asleep to the life inside, the parking lot affords a perfectly adequate place to parade around his perfectly adequate emptiness. As long as you don’t remember what’s been paved over, as long as you don’t look inside the other empty vehicles and see how much beautiful mess each one contains (each of them, upon examination, a unique vessel containing infinity), the parking lot is a perfectly adequate place to drive around for a lifetime spent waiting to die.
I have a sneaking suspicion “as long as” is not actually very long. Because life teems underneath, no matter how impoverished it has become. The nature of the impoverishment is not to eradicate the life inside, only to push it further down. The thicker the concrete of hyper-rationality, the stronger the tools of erosion need be when the time comes to remember what’s underneath, but the thickness of the concrete has not killed what’s inside, only buried it. In consider this, I am reminded of the old Mexican adage: “They tried to bury us. They did not realize we were seeds.” When the truth of a person’s life-force is buried by the concrete of hyper-rationality, perhaps it seeds new life in the fecund underworld of the unconscious.
“How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you’re always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief-seeds? We need ground to scrape and hoe, not the sky of unspecified desire.” - Rumi
Of course, another problem of this “concrete consciousness” is that in order to maintain its superiority, it has to keep paving the whole world with itself. People suffering in this way will lust for the ability to control the world around them, for they cannot bear the pain of having no control (and thus enormous responsibility) or the disillusionment of their ego’s dominance in the psyche.. This control manifests as “if the world would only be XYZ kind of way, then I would be happy” or “if people would only ________, then things would be easier!” Man tries to remake the world in his own image; in essence, to pave it with the concrete he himself is paved with so that he needs never be touched, needs never let anything effect him, needs never suffer loss. A person only tries to force the outer situation when they cannot contend with the inner one. All external predicaments have an inner correlate. The problem of concrete consciousness is it hides that truth from view, and so we keep pouring more concrete to try and patch up the places where messy, unpredictable, incomprehensible life has broken though, thinking that the messy, unpredictable, incomprehensible is the problem, when indeed it is the concrete covering it which is the problem, the denial of the life within which is forcing this painful need for undisturbed perfection.
But as Jung teaches, “emotion is the chief source of all becoming conscious. There can be no transformation of darkness into light and apathy into movement without emotion” (CW10), and emotion is inherently uncontrollable. To feel an emotion means that something has penetrated the concrete—some detail, some majesty, some longing or heartbreak or hurt. To penetrate the concrete is to give up one’s standing on it, and so emotional literacy becomes the antidote to hyper-rationality, as does the embodiment which precipitates it, for one cannot feel genuine emotions in a dissociated state. The true, instinctual experience of life-force happens on the level of the body and the level of the heart—the mind is for constructs, discernment, and reasoning. As such, it contains no life-force, but acts in service of the life-force teeming in the body. To penetrate the concrete of the mind, one needs to connect to the body, to the heart.
This is no easy task for a globalized world built on the achievements of hyper-rationality. There is little to no external reward for suffering one’s true nature (which IS nature, in all her riling wildness). In his book Living Between Worlds, Jungian analyst James Hollis points out that “in our forensic investigation of the ‘stuck places,’ we have to ask ourselves: What anxiety will be generated here if I stop being stuck? Will I have to face something that feels overwhelming to me and step out into the world to take it on?” In other words, we have to consider that the concrete was poured for a reason, and getting to what’s underneath will come at a price.
Which brings me perhaps the most nefarious, unconscious drive of the concrete-which-feels-like-emptiness. To recognize the earth below is to become responsible for its tending, as well as for the havoc it might have wreaked while paved over. To turn and face the unconscious is to become accountable to it, as well as for all of the dubious actions one has taken while asleep to its existence. Paving over it, forgetting its power, denying it are all excellent strategies to shirk responsibility for it. But self-awareness is synonymous with responsibility for oneself. There is no separating the two. And this fact can result in the denial of self for a very long time, as it’s easier to be in denial than to be responsible. It’s easier to be made “empty” by laying some concrete than contend with the burden and responsibility of being a bonafide human being with such embarrassing and harmful truths as lusts, aggressions, and narcissistic tendencies toward selfishness. This is a childish impulse rooted in the need to remain unified with the unconsciousness of infancy, a time when one was enveloped in the “right not to know” of mother’s protection. To take a sledgehammer to the endless grey sidewalk of that inner state is indeed a hero’s task.
My final thinking (for today) on the experience of emptiness, or the listless apathy that comes from avoiding one’s inner world, might indeed be pointing to true emptiness within, but it is not so much empty as spacious. What feels vacuous—or too full of feelings to touch—might actually be a kind of hallow space; like the alchemical vessel, the temenos where transformation occurs. The inner emptiness might be just roomy enough for true materialization to happen—that is, for an inner life to take root—like a cave in the bowels of the earth which secretly contains a store of cool, soft groundwater, the supply which supports all the life above. It might be that emptiness is a source of nourishment, and even ecstasy, if it is properly attuned to.
“No matter how far away you are from yourself, or how exiled you feel from your contribution to the world or society, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world—the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already on your way home.” - David Whyte
In closing, I’ll summarize by saying that emptiness, by which I mean the feeling that life is devoid of meaning, is a result of too much consciousness, or, more accurately, and imbalance of the consciousness mind toward the rational, known, ordered world. Paradoxically, this kind of orientation is actually an orientation of deep unconsciousness, for one cannot encounter their truest nature if they live solely in the light of consciousness. In this state, one lives as if their world were paved in concrete and no life pulsed underneath. This is to be so identified with what one consciously perceives as to become blind to the presence of anything else, and thus remain unconscious. This manifests as a compulsive, dogmatic rationality which claims to know all truths. This hyper-rational state is an undifferentiated state of total consciousness, as no delineation between what is conscious and unconscious has been made. To do so would require one to feel the chaotic, unruly suffering of their own human form and to take responsibility for all of the unconsciousness which has been ruling their life up until now. The antidote, of course, is just that: to turn and face the truth about one’s inner world, perhaps beginning with, as David Whyte suggests, naming the unbearable pain of being disconnected from yourself.
One is never alone—it is never empty—when one discovers the wild kindness rooted within.
Thank you, as always, for your readership. I’m delighted you’re here. And yes! I HAVE ALREADY FAILED IN MY COMMITMENT TO WRITE EVERYDAY THIS MONTH. I knew I would & I did it with a smile on my face & fullness in my heart. This is an experiment, not a slave ship. I’m here for all of it.