Left to our own devices, we like the basement. It’s cosy, warm and undemanding. We have thrown cushions all over the floor, there is a widescreen TV and DVD with surround sound and the floor is littered with our favourite films. After heading in through the front door it’s easy to fall down the steps to this subterranean den filled with our favourite things. The hi-fi goes on at the press of a button and our lifetime soundtrack plays.
This is especially true after a hard day. We arrive home weary, bruised, feeling like a trapped animal. All we want to do is find the familiar dent in the cushions in our favourite room and fall into it.
Our brains are structured that way too. We may have a billion neurons per square millimetre in our brains but we have familiar cosy places there too. The axon that connects one neuron to another (communicating information, memory and feelings like an electrical conductor) tells it that there’s no point doing anything different because the outcome will always be the same. This reinforces the myelin sheath that surrounds the axon that transmits the behaviour that we always display at these times. The more often we exhibit this behaviour, the more embedded it becomes and the less likely it is that we will change it. Hence red anger spasms; habitual behaviour, automatic responses, addiction, violent ‘away-from’ reactions, childish behaviour when confronted by familiar threats.
Down in the basement the comfortable music plays and even when we don’t like the décor any more and the music has worn thin and repetitive we still go there because we don’t know where else to go.
One day it becomes unbearable. It’s as if a fire has broken out in our well-worn den and the flames are licking at our nest. We run up the stairs, a decision forced upon us by circumstance, but a meta-action – not really our choice. The arguments for and against making a life-changing decision have just been transferred up a level. We desperately hope as we run that the fire down below will be contained and we can recreate our comfort zone on the floor above.
But the fire doesn’t stop. It follows up the stairs and forces us to move up another flight. We could fight but it’s easier to run and we move up again, desperate to find safety, non-aggression, non-confrontation, the status quo again.
The fire pursues us. All the decisions we’ve been putting off for years are being dragged behind us in a hastily grabbed blanket. As we move up floor by floor they become a little heavier.
Finally we get to the attic. And our bag of pluses and minuses, ‘if I do this then I lose that’ stalemates is dragged up with us. The flames and heat are also climbing the stairs behind us. That really big decision about that activity, relationship, life decision, ‘I can’t help it’ action is trying to suffocate us. The heat is becoming unbearable. If I do that, then this will happen. What do I value most?
Then you spot the skylight. Through it the stars twinkle unperturbed by your plight. Outside the night sky is cool, clean and free.
Inside, the flames are moving up a step at a time. You open your bag of indecision and look inside. The ‘Either/Or’ option is already smouldering. The skylight beckons. Beyond it lies just one question.
‘What do you value more than any of this?’
As you open the skylight and climb through, leaving your bundle of old contradictions behind, there is room for you and the answer to that question. Nothing else.
When you climb through into the fresh air and freedom, you realise that you knew the answer to that question all along.
And you take it with you.