This week I was thinking about the quality of being absorbed in an activity. I wondered about the origin of the word so I googled it. In an online etymology dictionary, I read that the English “absorb” comes from an old French word that derives from Latin. Breaking it down, “ab” in this case means “from” and “sorb” comes from the Latin sorbeo, to suck in or swallow. These combine into “absorbere” or “absorbeo” – to swallow up or devour. The Proto-Indo-European language root was “srebh.” I can really hear the sound of sucking in that word! I wonder if it ultimately derived from the sound of a nursing child.
In German there is absorbieren. A related German word, schlürfen, sounds to me like someone slurping beer. 😉 In Dutch there’s slurpen, in Italian, assorbito. The Welsh word is amsugno; perhaps Graham will explain how that fits in. Or doesn’t.
At any rate, by the 18th century, absorbed also meant completely gripping one’s attention. When we are absorbed we incorporate and assimilate with full attention (again, think of a nursing child, oblivious to everything but the task at hand). The idea of complete attention is important. To be absorbed in something necessitates an absence of distraction. It’s almost a refusal of incoming sensory information, except within the narrow field of engagement. When I think about being absorbed I sense a unity, a lack of boundary between what we call the self and the object of our attention. The separation that our minds create between ourselves and the rest of the world is useful for functioning in daily life but when we’re completely absorbed in an activity the separation recedes. Some of these ideas are my personal associations with the experience of being absorbed. Isn’t it interesting that we humans communicate by using agreed-upon word meanings but we each have a whole host of subjective associations attached to words as well?
This state of absorption is akin to flow, a concept developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His interest in creativity and happiness led him to assert that being fully absorbed in something for its own sake, or being in the flow as he called it, enhances our feelings of well-being and our creativity. Csikszentmihalyi talked about the importance of a balance between skill and challenge in the flow state. He recognized that motivation in this state is intrinsic, not external. The theory of a flow state isn’t exactly the same as the concept of being absorbed in something, but active focus and a sense of timelessness are characteristic of both.
This state of flow or absorption is a very human quality, something we all experience. As photographers, we’re pleased when we sense the dropping away of day-to-day worries and concerns and become fully absorbed in what we’re doing. Truth be told, we often hope that when we get home we’ll find an image that reflects the way we felt, even if it doesn’t convey the full experience. Looking through photographs that I made in the last month, there are hardly any pretty blue skies. The fullness of spring is just a dream. But even in less than optimal conditions, when inspiration doesn’t come easy, it’s possible to enter into a meditative state of absorption. And whether a pleasing photograph results or not, any time spent being absorbed in something is its own reward.
Whether it’s a small detail, a wide vista, or something in between, being absorbed in what I see is one of the best things about being human on this earth. It goes without saying that music, touch, and all of the senses offer the possibility and pleasure of full absorption into the moment. I hope everyone experiences at least a few moments of absorption today.