This morning, on my way home, I walk past a book table outside a local charity shop. One of the books has blown to the ground and only when I’ve walked some distance, when I’m close to my front door, does it occur to me how easily I could have picked it up and restored it to its place.
A small matter, perhaps, but one that’s emblematic of a bigger concern: the actions that are denied to me when absorbed in something and not paying attention to the world around me. My absorption in thought blinds me what’s called for, a simple opportunity to participate in a small kindness, and it gets me wondering about everything else I miss.
I notice that I often walk a line between absorption and attention and that while both are necessary (absorption for the effortless skilfulness of dealing with everyday things, attention for responding in fresh ways to people and situations) absorption is much easier. It’s familiar, comforting. It calms me. It takes me away from what’s difficult. And it allows me to miss the world.
When I’m absorbed I don’t just miss books on the floor. I miss people. I’m blinded to their difficulty as well as their joys. And just like with the book, I miss the opportunity to contribute, to do what’s called for, to be of use.
I notice how absorption can be a purposeful act of turning away. I easily become absorbed, for example, after seeing distressing images on the news, or walking past people sleeping on the street, or when I know I’ve wronged someone.
And so even if absorption in activity or in thought is a necessary and often sustaining part of being human, it can also be a way of being asleep in life.
And it is why paying attention is so much more difficult. To pay attention I must allow myself to be confronted by the world. I have to acknowledge what’s happening around me and within me. I have to allow myself to feel troubled. And I’m called to respond – to suffering, to difficulty, to books lying on the floor.
And in this way actively cultivating and practicing attention, being awake, is a moral question.
Because without attention I – we – slip into the easy thrum of habit and away from taking sufficient care of the world.