A number of years ago I saw a sign over a trash can that read:
When you throw it away, remember: there is no ‘away’.
It struck me because I realized: Some part of me really did believe in “away”. Of course, if I gave it any conscious thought, I knew that my bit of garbage would end up in a landfill or something. But in the moment of tossing it into the trash can, there was a subtle intuition that seemed to say, “And now that thing is completely gone from my reality.”
I’ve been reflecting on this recently, and I’ve come to suspect that this little intuition holds the key to creating an exquisite world. It looks to me like a rather stunning degree of our suffering comes from misplaced faith in “away”, which leads to trying to solve problems by finding ways of ignoring them. If we just choose to notice when we’re doing this, even if we don’t yet know what to do differently, I’m pretty sure magic happens.
I’d like to sketch that vision here.
ANYTHING DEEMED “GARBAGE” PILES UP
Once upon a time, before we had language or fire, it made sense to ignore things we didn’t have use for. We’d toss fruit pits or inedible parts of our prey off to the side and nature would take care of it for us. Kind of like how we don’t have to think about what our guts do in order to eat.
I’m guessing that because of this, our most widespread cultures have a general default for problem-solving: find a way to make the problem go away.
The trouble is, we’ve become very powerful, and nearly everything is in our domain now. So there is no “away” anymore. We’re just neglecting parts of our experience. Because that works in the short-term, at first it looks like we’ve gotten rid of some of our problems — but eventually what we’ve been ignoring comes back to bite us.
I’m not just talking about environmentalism, although that’s totally a large set of examples. Here are several that have little to do with the environment:
- Prisons. We talk about putting criminals “away” and sometimes refer to people in the system as “trash”. We’re even dealing with overcrowding in prisons for basically the same reason that our landfills are overflowing.
- Anti-homeless measures based on (a) architecture that makes sleeping difficult or (b) making it illegal to be homeless so that such people have to hide. There are other, kinder efforts too of course. But it’s worth noticing that the two I named have been popular and widespread for a long time, and their whole premise is to make homeless people go somewhere else without concern about where “somewhere else” is. Unsurprisingly, several cities are now facing homelessness epidemics.
- In the 1960s, psychedelics helped create objection to the USA war in Vietnam. So the government declared a “war on drugs” to make political undesirables go away. In surely unrelated news, we’ve been having trouble with meth and opioids along with homelessness and prison overcrowding.
- It makes sense why a culture would blame the victim for sexual assault if said culture is in the habit of trying to ignore problems into oblivion. No credible complains, no problem, right? Of course, those victims’ pain can’t just magically go away by being ignored… which is why the spark of #MeToo lit such an intense fire.
- Alcohol can numb painful emotions. But that doesn’t address the causes of the feelings. Those can’t really go away that way. So someone who makes a habit of drinking their problems away ends up hurting their loved ones and eventually destroying their lives.
- In relationships, it’s common for one person to be the “fixer”: they’ll respond to their partner’s distress by suggesting solutions to the problem. This frequently comes from a desire to help their partner by making the distress go away. But even if that works in the short run, it tends to make the “helped” partner feel alienated, as though their hurt feelings aren’t welcome. That shows up later as relationship problems that usually confuse the “fixer”.
The pattern is the same each time. First there’s an effort to make a problem go away. But because there is no “away”, the problem persists in a different form — only now it’s going unnoticed because it’s being ignored. Eventually it reasserts itself, often much more loudly and painfully than before.
In other words, what we deem “garbage” piles up out of sight until we can’t ignore it anymore:
TREATING OURSELVES LIKE GARBAGE
We do this to our own minds and hearts too. It plays a huge role in emotional problems, addictions, recurring relationship challenges, physical illnesses, and a host of other miseries.
Maybe I feel a little uneasy about my finances… and suddenly find myself binge-watching Netflix. Why? Well, watching shows makes the unpleasant feeling go away for a while. If I make no emotional distinction between “away” and “doesn’t exist”, that can actually feel like a solution even if I know better when I think about it. And if my financial worries threaten to come back into awareness… well, I probably won’t even notice because I’m already on the next episode.
This kind of pattern is ubiquitous. I already mentioned the examples of alcoholism and of trying to “fix” a partner’s feelings. Another is compulsive hoarding, which seems to come from an impulse to make anxiety or grief go away by collecting resources. Yet another is how men who have alienated their vulnerability often resist getting help even when they show clear signs of depression. Another is the way many people don’t feel like replying to an email right away, then feel more and more resistance to doing so as the awkwardness and guilt builds from how long it’s taking to reply. And yet another is the way we automatically fill our spare moments by looking at our phones as a ward against boredom.
The core problem is that “away” is made of unconsciousness. If we practice believing that sending something “away” means it doesn’t affect us anymore, then after a while that belief just becomes a background assumption. We trust it the way we trust our hands to respond to our attempts to use them. So if something we don’t like enters our life, the unconscious impulse is to find a way to push it “out of sight, out of mind”. And we usually don’t even notice that impulse: we just find ourselves looking at our phones, or thinking a “random” thought, with the same unconscious autopilot that puts one foot in front of the other when we walk.
But if what you deem unpleasant is anger, or lust, or loneliness… what is that force now doing to your behavior while you’re actively ignoring it?
This creates what Carl Jung called “the Shadow”. The Shadow is your inner emotional landfill. It defines what you despise. It destroys what you love and twists your kindness into cruelty. It’s the parts of yourself that you’ve deemed garbage — and just like all garbage, it piles up and rots until it horrifically demands attention.
It turns out, no part of you likes being thrown away.
CHOOSING TO PAY ATTENTION
If we want out of this mess, even in a purely self-interested way, we need to notice and break our habit of trusting in “away”.
I’m on a plane as I write this. I just ate a granola bar, which came with a wrapper (an example of what I’ve come to think of as “pre-trash”). If I weren’t paying attention, I’d probably view the wrapper as a mild annoyance, to be tucked in the pouch in front of me until the flight attendant comes by with a trash bag so I can get rid of it (i.e., send it “away”).
That’s probably what I’ll still physically do. But my attitude is different now that I’ve chosen to notice this subtle “away” tone. I’m instead looking at this wrapper and noticing what it’s made of, how it probably won’t decay in a landfill, and the fact that I have no idea what I or anyone else could do with it instead. So I see how my actions have added a little more to the global garbage predicament. I pay attention to how all this impacts me emotionally, which helps me build an embodied intuition for how I’m interconnected with the world.
I don’t think this is cause for guilt. I think it’s unhelpful to prescribe emotions here. My point is that by choosing to notice my impact beyond what I usually see, I practice extending my intuitive sense of what’s real, which helps dispel my unconscious temptation to make anything “go away”.
That, in turn, helps me notice and address my Shadow.
Just a few days ago while writing an email, I noticed an impulse to drop what I was doing and watch some YouTube videos. It had a subtle tone of trying to avoid some kind of feeling. I noticed this because I’d been practicing catching the “away” thing whenever it arises. That same practice had me instead turn my attention toward the feeling I was avoiding… and I noticed a general distrust in myself. A part of me expected that I was going to screw something up in this email! Rather than trying to get away (!) from the misery of this, I acknowledged that sure, maybe I will screw up something important. I let myself really feel how much that would suck. And in doing so for a while, the feeling sort of “digested”, and a shift happened: I felt how even in the worst case I would be fine. Since then I’ve been free to feel this fear without it interfering with my ability to write. It’s even sometimes an asset, helping to alert me to things I otherwise would miss.
This is a small example of what sometimes gets called “Shadow work”. It’s a complex art, and it’s probably a fair bit different for each person. (It’s a process of reclaiming your full self, which is tautologically as unique as you are.) But I think you can roughly 80/20 it by choosing to notice and dispel your habitual trust in “away” throughout your life. I bet you’ll naturally figure out the rest from there by virtue of paying attention.
After all, the Shadow is made of the unconsciousness of “away”. If you shine the light of consciousness on it, it can’t remain a Shadow.
WHAT YOU ALIGN WITH MATTERS
I’m not prescribing any physical actions, to be clear. I don’t mean to say you should recycle or meditate or whatever. I’m not a fan of pressuring people into behaviors, regardless of how good those behaviors might theoretically be.
But I am a fan of inviting people to notice the consequences of their choices. In the case of grokking that there is no “away”, I think this leads people to want to make choices that are good for everyone, and for entirely self-interested reasons.
Each time I notice something like the granola bar wrapper, I find myself moving a little more toward a “zero waste” lifestyle. Importantly, though, it’s not out of anything like a sense of guilt. (That would be taking actions to try to make the guilt go away!) It’s because I’ve come to notice that “waste” only makes sense to us because of our global linear economy. It’s a collective Shadow, a large-scale practice of trusting in “away”. I notice that when I practice being a linear consumer, it becomes more of a habit, and that habit reinforces my internal habit of trying to send parts of myself “away”.
I don’t like any of that. It feels bad to me. I don’t want to welcome that unconsciousness into my life.
So, I’ve found myself wanting to make some environmentally conscious adjustments. E.g., I switched to using zero-waste floss — not because I think my personal floss trash physically matters on a global scale, but because I enjoy how my life gets better when I align my actions with awareness instead of with obliviousness.
I’ve come to view this as linked to integrity. Who am I practicing being? I know sending plastic trash to landfill goes in a negative direction, even if a tiny piece of floss doesn’t matter all that much. Do I focus on how it “doesn’t matter” and choose what’s personally convenient, either ignoring (“away”) my negative contribution or deciding that I’m fine being a person who impacts the world negatively? Or do I aim to acknowledge every impact I have and nudge my efforts toward the positive wherever I can? I find myself choosing the latter more and more, because it feels like being honest with myself about what’s real and who I want to be. That choice of honesty carries into my Shadow work — and it also just feels good.
Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should do. I’m describing what I think naturally emerges when someone pays attention to how they’re embedded in a larger system.
It’s a lot like cleaning your kitchen once you’re done cooking and eating: You could make a habit of leaving it to “later” (another version of “away”), but you know that you’re caring for yourself both by caring for your space and by choosing to pay attention to how your space affects you. It does you a disservice to focus on how “This one dish doesn’t really matter this once.”
That’s not a moral claim. It’s just something that becomes obvious to you when you start paying attention.
CLEANING UP OUR WORLD
Global unconsciousness comes from unconscious people interacting on autopilot. If individuals become more conscious, so does the world.
Companies put wrappers around candy bars because it’s convenient for their business, and it’s convenient for their business because consumers don’t pay attention to the impact on themselves of throwing those wrappers away. If consumers stopped putting their trust in “away”, they wouldn’t want to buy items wrapped in pre-trash. Then companies would stop finding single-use plastic wrappers convenient.
In fact, they’d have to sincerely start caring about their own impacts in order to be profitable. E.g., Greenwashing wouldn’t be profitable for them because consumers would likely notice and talk about it. Why? Well, greenwashing works only to the extent that people buy “green” products out of a vague sense that they’re somehow “better”. But if people were instead aligning their purchases with their own awareness, whether a product is “green” would matter less than where it came from and where it’s going. Then greenwashing would be seen for what it is: the company trying to distract people from its attempt to profit from their unconsciousness. In a world of individuals who are choosing to pay attention, no one would want to support a company that encourages unconsciousness. So greenwashing would vanish.
This is just one cluster of examples around profit. The same thing applies to politics. E.g., a lot of American politics gets weird because politicians can’t get anywhere without the support of special interest groups (SIGs). If a SIG’s interests were aligned with unconsciousness, awareness-focused Americans wouldn’t want to support them. If a politician were trying to gain the support of such a SIG, Americans wouldn’t want to vote for that politician. So the collective Shadow in American politics wouldn’t have any sway, and the constant pressure would be toward a government that tries to sincerely care for everyone.
So across the board, if individuals choose to recognize that they’re personally better off without using “away”, then the whole system around them becomes more aware.
Again, I don’t mean this as a moral argument. I’m not prescribing what anyone should or shouldn’t do. I’m just describing cause-and-effect. The world believes in “away” because individuals do. If individuals instead notice that they personally benefit from paying attention to and caring for the whole context they’re embedded in, then the collective starts doing the same, and some really beautiful things become possible.
We’d stop labeling people as “garbage”, ask what circumstances and traumas cause them to become criminals or homeless or whatever, and sincerely work on finding the support each person needs to heal and integrate back into society.
If we find we don’t have the resources to do this kind of work, we would ask why. We’d notice that throwing vast wealth at sports and building up universities while people die of preventable diseases makes no sense, and we’d care and let ourselves feel the pain of that rather than letting defeatism numb ourselves to the truth. And then we’d look around and ask, “What can we do differently to care for the whole system?”
And just asking the question would tend to free up resources in directions that make more sense. People who have chosen to pay attention wouldn’t want to align themselves with misuse of money and power. People who are paying attention want support to flow in compassionate directions — not (just) because it feels good, but because it makes the whole system work better.
In other words, by individuals choosing awareness because it personally benefits them, the species as a whole would actually become intelligent and kind.
SO… WHAT NOW?
I’ve said this several times, but it bears repeating:
I don’t think we get to this better world by prescribing actions.
I’m not saying you should switch which kind of floss you use, or vote for environmentally conscious politicians, or clean your kitchen after every meal. We’ve already tried this kind of strategy: we come up with some action plan that we think makes sense, try to pressure people into behaving accordingly, and get upset or despondent when others don’t comply.
It doesn’t work.
And it doesn’t work for systematic reasons. It’s never going to fix the predicament we’re in.
So. I’m not here to argue you into doing certain actions. I see that as pointless.
Importantly, I don’t know what actions make sense for you to do! I have some guesses, and some of them are very well-reasoned, and I’m happy to share them… but ultimately they’re just that: guesses. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your circumstances.
So instead, I’m inviting you to notice what is true about your own life. Because I think if you pay attention, you’ll come to see clearly what makes sense for you to do.
I’m just inviting you to notice where this intuitive trust in “away” appears in your life, and what it results in.
When you toss something in the trash can, can you notice the intuition that says it’s now “gone”? What happens in your body and emotions if you pause and reflect on what’s really going to happen with that thing you just threw “away”?
Maybe you really don’t know what happens. That’s fine. Just notice! Maybe you’ll find yourself wanting to learn, but maybe not. Either is fine. Just notice that you don’t know (but that you know it goes somewhere) and see what happens.
Ultimately that’s all I’m inviting you to do. Just pay attention.
I think that after a while, you’ll start to notice the way in which we’ve all been taught to worship the wrong god. New examples of faith in “away” will jump out at you, like wish-cycling and the way Amazon Prime creates miserable work conditions.
And eventually, you’ll start noticing it in yourself.
You’ll notice these little glimmers of “That’s an uncomfortable feeling, I think I’ll go repair the car now” or “I just cut myself and that hurts, so I’ll get really angry and focus on the anger instead of the pain.” You’ll catch the impulse to make grief and loathing and bad memories “go away” — and you’ll start to notice just how much pain that impulse ends up causing you, how that suffering still acts on you unseen.
I’ll be totally honest: This usually sucks at first. It’s like ripping off a band-aid.
But you’ll see why it makes sense to pay attention, and the fruit of that effort is so vastly worth it.
After a while, I expect you’ll notice that what you want to do will change. I didn’t think “Hmm, going toward zero waste makes sense, so I’m going to make myself do it.” I just noticed myself really wanting to, because it made sense in terms of what quality of awareness I wanted to bring into my life.
That natural emergence, that alignment of desire with sensibility, is what gives me hope that paying attention can build an exquisite world.
Not as a moral argument, but as an honest invitation to come to live a more joyful life for yourself…
…I welcome you simply to notice and remember that there is no “away”.