Switch your lights on

INsights 044, Friday 30th June 2023

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Assalamu-alaikum. Peace be upon you.

I recently finished reading an excellent book which was published early last year called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, by Johann Hari. As one reviewer states, “If you read just one book about how the modern world is driving us crazy, read this one.”

The author takes you on a journey through twelve key factors that have resulted in the collapse of our ability to concentrate. He also has recommendations to help you reverse their effects in your life. It’s a great piece of work from which I’m sure you’ll derive great benefit, as long as you can focus for long enough to finish reading it! 

There is one passage in the concluding chapter that really stood out for me and which I wanted to summarise for you here. The author is recounting a conversation that he had with a former Google strategist called James Williams. After years of studying focus, Williams has come to believe that attention takes three different forms, all of which are now being stolen. 

The first layer of your attention is your spotlight. This is when you focus on immediate actions such as, “I’m going to walk into the kitchen and make a coffee.” You want to find your glasses? You want to see what’s in the fridge? You want to finish reading a chapter in a book? It’s called the spotlight because it involves narrowing down your focus. If your spotlight gets distracted or disrupted, you are prevented from carrying out near-term actions like this. 

The second layer of your attention is your starlight. This is the focus you apply to your longer-term goals, or projects over time. You want to write a book. You want to set up a business. You want to be a good parent. It’s called the starlight because when you feel lost, you look up to the stars, and you remember the direction you are travelling in. If you become distracted from your starlight, you lose sight of the longer-term goals. You start to forget where you are headed. 

The third layer of your attention is your daylight. This is the form of focus that makes it possible for you to know what your longer-term goals are in the first place. How do you know you want to write a book? How do you know you want to set up a business? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? Without being able to reflect and think clearly, you won’t be able to figure these things out. It’s only when a scene is flooded with daylight that you can see the things around you most clearly. If you get so distracted that you lose your sense of the daylight, you may not even be able to figure out who you are, what you wanted to do, or where you want to go.

Williams emphasises that losing your daylight is the deepest form of distraction because it can result in someone decohering altogether. This is when you stop making sense to yourself, because you don’t have the mental space to create a story about who you are. You become obsessed with petty goals, or dependent on simplistic signals from the outside world. You lose yourself in a cascade of distractions. You can only find your starlight and your daylight if you have sustained periods of reflection, mind-wandering and deep thought. 

Our attention crisis is depriving us of all three of these forms of focus. We are so consistently under attack from every possible kind of mental disruption that our mind feels bloated. We can’t find a place to get a view on everything that’s happening, realise that we’re so distracted and figure out what to do about it. We are losing our light. 

It may already have occurred to you, as it did to me, how relevant our understanding of divine light is to this discussion. Here’s a reminder of the famous and mysterious Verse of Light from the Qur’an:

God is the Light of the heavens and earth. His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fuelled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it; light upon light! God guides whoever He will to His Light; God draws such comparisons for people; God has full knowledge of everything.

Chapter 24, Light, an-Nur, Verse 35

If God is Light, then the true believer whose heart reflects divine light shouldn’t get distracted in the same way that everyone else does. They see clearly even if others are confused or lost in various levels of darkness. To put it another way, our ability to pay attention to the things that actually matter to God reveals our true level of faith or, you could say, our true level of light. 

In fact, enlightened believers go one step further. Not only can they see clearly, they help others to see more clearly too. Not only are they illuminated, they are illuminating. This is leadership.

It would be unfortunate if the average believer is just as distracted as the next person. If the ways in which we connect with our Lord – with true Light itself – isn’t having productive and protective effects in our lives, then we need to go back to the drawing board to understand why this is the case. It reminds me of the frustration that I’ve previously felt when trying to light a match but without success. No spark, no flame. At some point you realise you need a new technique or a new box of matches altogether. 

I think the reason why many believers are no less impacted by the negative effects of the modern world than anyone else, let alone being at the forefront of the solutions that people need, is because we just don’t take enough time or show enough courage to figure out how best to arrange all aspects of our lives in accordance with what God says He wants from us. 

We prefer a submission, an islam, that is convenient rather than complete. We often think about our faith in surface level and ritualistic terms, ignoring the real-world goals that we need to pursue in God’s name, and failing to make sacrifices for the sake and cause of God. We don’t set meaningful ambitions for ourselves in this life that align totally with the accountability that we know we will face in the next life. No vision, no game. 

Even though I too suffer from various forms of distraction, one thing I’ve always prioritised is protecting my daylight: giving myself those sustained periods of reflection, mind-wandering and deep thought. In fact, I often can’t stop myself daydreaming!

Simultaneously, I’ve tried to expose myself to the divine light of revelation. I remain full of flaws, but I’ve realised that this combination has really helped me generate personal insights and make important decisions about how I’m going to use my time in ways that I might be able to justify to my Lord.

I’ve also realised that another way to describe my mission to develop, support and connect Last Day Leaders is simply to say that I want to help more people live fully focused lives that are absolutely reflective of our God-centred worldview. 

I see my writing and teaching as my attempt to provide you with meaningful exposure to daylight and divine light so that you too can engage in a continuous and transformational process of working out how best to prepare for the Last Day, live as a true believer and strive for God’s cause.

Being alive in 2023 means that you are surrounded by a lot of darkness and that you are in grave danger of being totally enveloped by it.

It’s time to switch your lights on.

Before you go...

If you enjoyed this edition of INsights, you’ll love to take part in Last Day Leader. The in-person London programme starts next week, and doors are closing this weekend! 
See here to find out more and book your place before it’s too late.

Or, if you can’t make it, see here to explore the on-demand, online version.

Interestingly, the author of the book Stolen Focus briefly speculates on whether there might be a fourth form of attention in addition to the spotlight, starlight and daylight, which he suggests calling stadium lights: our ability to see each other, to hear each other, and to work together to formulate and fight for collective goals. In Last Day Leader, we switch these lights on too!

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Have a blessed fortnight. I'll see you in two Fridays, God willing.

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