When the light goes out

light in a window at the end of a dark corridor

From where I sit and write, I can look down a long, narrow corridor, across a 15km gulf of London and see Canary Wharf.

Each morning I look out at the blinking light on top of the tower with the pyramid shaped roof. It has the regularity of a metronome and is a lovely anchor point.

Blink, blink, blink, blink, blink.

It can be seen in all but the heaviest fog and the brightest sunlight, so it’s a reliable beacon.

If it’s dark outside and the the building is visible, the light is visible.

Blink, blink, blink, blink, blink.

It’s dependability is comforting. Soothing. Like watching the heartbeat of London.

But this morning, the light has been irregular. It’s there for a few blinks, then it dims, then it disappears. It comes back moments later, but in that brief period, everything changes.

All the value it confers is lost. If it’s not there all the time, if it’s not dependable, then it’s of no help. Now it’s not comforting, it’s just a frightening reflection of the “real world”.

It awakens our fear of change. The light use to tell me that everything will be alright. What’s it saying now?

The light’s gone out, all bets are off. London’s lost its heartbeat – beware what follows.

An early morning view of Canary Wharf from Haringay

Now, here’s the the thing. That light, on that building isn’t there for me. It’s there so that pilots know where the building is when they fly into City Airport.

If the light fails (as lights often do), then it’s got nothing to do with me, or London or anything except the infrastructure which supports the blinking.

It’s not personal, it’s not a message, it’s not a code to be interpreted.

The meaning I’ve attached to the light is completely personal, but the circumstances which have stopped it from blinking are not. The two are completely independent and the state of the light shouldn’t influence how I feel about anything.

So much of the suffering and hardship we experience is the result of us inferring personal meanings from impersonal circumstances. From thinking that the light should be something other than what it is, and railing against it when it deviates from our expectations.

So much of it is all imagined.

That’s not to say that tough things don’t happen to us. They do. But we would be much better off just working on the things which have a real impact, than worrying about what happens when faraway lights stop blinking.

The difference between acceptance and being a doormat

Much of our anxiety and suffering comes from the fact that the world isn’t what we want it to be.

We see situations and people which could be so much better and think, “if only they were different”.

When the reality of the world, collides and conflicts with our models and expectations, we experience cognitive dissonance. We realise that something is out of joint and either we, or the world (or both) will need to change if we’re to feel better.

Typically the world – and the billions of people in it – is so big and indifferent and external and out of our control, it doesn’t change (at least without a good deal of effort). So the burden of change naturally falls to us.

But surprisingly, changing our personal attitudes and beliefs is difficult as well. Often this is because we’ve emotionally invested so much into them that we feel like we’re losing when we let them go. We also often feel that by recognising the status quo for what it is and accepting it, that we’re in some way condoning it in a way which compromises our beliefs. That by accepting what we think is wrong, we’re being a doormat and letting our situation or peers walk right over us.

Neither of these are actually true, but treating them as if they are is our biggest barrier to moving forward.

When we experience conflict between what should be, and what is, we resist it. This resistance (as opposed to the other Resistance I like to write about), arises from our acknowledgement that something needs to change, and our fear that the burden of change might fall to us.

This is the behaviour which causes us to cling to old beliefs when we see compelling evidence to the contrary. This is the behaviour which causes us to avoid conflict with those who challenge our ideas. This is the behaviour which turns away from the waves instead of facing directly into them.

This resistance has a formidable stranglehold on our behaviour and can… well… make us act like a bit of a dick. But what we don’t often realise, is that it’s power is entirely illusory and self generated. It’s not an external force, it’s one that we ignite, fuel and perpetuate ourselves. And just as naturally as we can kindle this resistance, we can snuff it out.

Thankfully, the process for unplugging this resistance from its main power source is surprisingly simple – all you have to do is to recognise that it exists, look at it directly, and let it go.

Unfortunately, not everything which is simple, is easy. Skydiving is simple: fall out of a plane. Stand-up is simple: be funny on stage. Juggling is simple: don’t drop the balls. But that doesn’t mean that they’re easy.

Like these examples, letting go of resistance is simple, but not that easy. But also like these examples, it’s just a skill – and any skill can be mastered with practice.

It takes practice to identify resistance. It takes practice turning to face it. It takes practice to let it go. It’s not arduous practice, and it pays dividends – but the only way to get better at it, is to do it and do it and do it again.

The reason this practice is worthwhile, is that as soon as the resistance drops away, you can better see the situation for what it is. You’re not viewing it through the lens of your personal attachment, or existing beliefs, you’re seeing what the reality of what it is, in the here and now. And while you might not condone it, you might not like it, you can at least accept that this is the currently reality.

And as soon as you accept this, you’re in a much better place to respond to it skilfully. Now that you’ve looked at it dispassionately, you can decide if it’s even worthy of your future attention and effort – most of the time it’s not.

If you have any kind of meditation practice, then you’ve probably got some experience in letting this resistance go. If you don’t, then a good place to start is with headspace or Tara Brach – both of which are effective, accessible and free. Tara has also written an entire book on the subject.

Being a doormat is the result of emotional attachment limiting your options in a situation which isn’t going your way.

Acceptance is about stripping away your attachment to a situation and creating a better set of options for spending your precious time and attention in the future.