Attention vs Absorption

So many of our days, so much of our society, is built on the idea of battling our very selves. To a certain extent, that's necessary: when left unconstrained, unbounded, we humans can be reckless and downright harmful beasts.

We need form, so we build walls. We need structure, so we build segments into time.

We do this to ourselves, too, and call it discipline. It's just as necessary- as a writer who works from home, I'd never accomplish anything if I didn't structure my day rigidly and cultivate the discipline to stick to that schedule.

But we need to deviate every now and again. Boundaries only work when we know we can escape them; otherwise, they become a prison. Right now, I'm escaping: I ended my workday an hour early to write this.

This whole thought model can be applied to a great many things — nearly everything, in fact — but today I'm particularly interested in how it applies to attention.

Yeah, we've talked attention in the age of the internet to death, but only because it's 1) so elusive as a subject and 2) a foundational part of how we build and use the web moving forward.

To date, the argument hasn't gotten very far. On one side, there are those who say the web is shortening our attention spans. On the other, those who either resist that notion, or simply don't care. Every essay, every rebuttal, and every ensuing conversation looks pretty much the same.

Perhaps that's because we're coming at the conversation from the wrong angle. What if we reframed it?

Enter Mark Edmundson, whose work I wasn't familiar with until recently. A quick Google search, though, reveals Edmundson's pretty impressive credentials.

Here's how Edmundson approaches the topic of attention:

I’d say, rather, that the deep opposite of attention isn’t distraction, but absorption. No one ever tells you to “pay absorption.” Absorption is what occurs when you immerse yourself in something you love doing. The artist and the poet and the philosopher and the scientist become absorbed. The kind doctor becomes absorbed in her patient; the teacher becomes absorbed in his class presentation. The musician becomes absorbed in the fugue. When that happens, time stops and one lives in an ongoing present. One feels whole and at one with oneself. The little boy drawing with his pad on the floor, tongue sticking out from one side of his mouth, is a picture of absorption. He is not really paying attention. He is being absorbed. What is happiness? W. H. Auden answered the question quite simply: Happiness comes in absorption.

We've spent so much of our time trying to force ourselves to pay attention that we never stopped to consider that paying attention might not be the best use of our time. Instead, we can seek out the things that absorb us, the things we're delighted to give ourselves over to.

I could go on, but I won't. Instead, I'll just refer you to the rest of Edmundson's fantastic piece and let you digest it for yourself.