“Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly, and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence.” Pico Iyer in this article I half-read in the L.A. Times.
I read it, then forgot where I read it, then went looking for it, which is how I found the Joseph Campbell quote, and then as I contemplated throwing out last Sunday’s paper, which I still haven’t finished, I found this one again. The idea of “being absorbed” in something as equal to “being happy” has been knocking about in my head this week, a week in which I have have been particularly unable to find that “zone” of absorption (have you noticed how the spelling changes from “b” to “p” depending on the verb form, how confusing is that?”), due to my mental state, easily influence by bodily sickness, the slippage of routine, the upcoming holidays etc. So my periods of absorption in tasks have been short-lived. Have I been less happy? I’m not sure. In that I have been less productive, I am less satisfied with myself I suppose, but there is nothing like physical illness–whether it be cancer, as it has been in the past, or simply a cold, as it is at present, to bring home how much of an “illusion” our arbitrary end-points really are. Even though I normally define my writing as the thing on which I am pinning my hopes of earning a livelihood, my opportunity for reflection, self expression, the thing that is “who I am,” it really only takes one week of a hacking cough to shrink all of these conceptions to relative non-importance next to the more looming issue of simply NOT coughing, and also of finding some physical and mental comfort–a state of relative rest.
But, generally, on a day to day basis, I would agree. Absorption is what I aspire to. Falling into an act of creation, or into a book or a movie… these are the easy ones. What about a conversation? Or a walk? Or washing the dishes. These are the hard ones, but the ones where the Buddhists would encourage us to be “mindful and present.” Is this also a kind of cultivated absorption? I think it’s easy to equate absorption with the more “escapist” activities, but this week I have tried, to some extent, to accept the experience of being sick. I haven’t tried to be absorbed in the sickness, per say, but perhaps in the qualities that surround it–being home and allowing my mind to skip from one occupation to the next. It does have a certain timeless quality, but I’m not sure it’s absorption. It’s more like a kind of mental purgatory, a no man’s land. Even as I write this, I am aware of only being able to skirt around thoughts, regard them obliquely. As soon as I try to engage a line of reasoning head on, it has floated away.