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Attention – A Gateway to the Mysteries of the World

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

Simone weil

Our lives are the collective sum of what we choose to pay attention to. Each passing moment a spotlight is cast into the world and reveals to us what we focus on. In one sense nothing can be more important than cultivating one’s attention, it dictates what we see and how we interact with others in our day-to-day existence.

Yet, in the modern world, undivided attention is a difficult thing to practice. As many of us know, the business model of many marketers and social media companies is to addict us to screens to sell us a never-ending array of consumer products. Riddled with the fast pace of life, the continual buzzing and notifications on our phones from messages or ‘likes’ leaves us in a perpetual state of distraction. This consequently inhibits us from being fully alive or open to the present moment.

Life passes us by without us being fully engaged.

We become mere spectators rather than active participants in the world.

A life on auto-pilot.

The French philosopher Simone Weil writes that attention is one of the greatest acts of generosity that we can provide to another human being. For Weil, attention points to the act of being in the presence of another with your full awareness, with your whole self – your whole being.

To embody Weil’s conception of is to be receptive to the world rather than assertive. To refrain from imposing one’s will, and to dilute one’s ego. Weil characterizes attention as ‘negative effort’ in which we provide the space for another to authentically reveal themselves to us. Nurturing attention enables us to go beyond the common stereotypes to embrace the core humanity of another. Labels strip away and we can see another individual for who they are. That is, another human being with their own unique inner life and set of vulnerabilities.

Offering another our undivided attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone who is suffering or needs our help. It binds us through the shared fate and experience of the human condition, and penetrates through the trivialities of the everyday world. It is the gateway to the underlying mystery which clouds our moment to moment existence.

Attention, something which often seems so basic and inconsequential, should not be taken for granted.

You can view more of my writing on my personal blog at A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life – In Search of Inner Freedom

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10 thoughts on “Attention – A Gateway to the Mysteries of the World

  1. “Offering another our undivided attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone who is suffering or needs our help.” . . . so poignantly true Andrew. Thank you.

    Sadly, the ‘convenient efficiency’ of social media has subtly depersonalized and distanced us from the attention we all need to receive from each other.

  2. Great post – a lovely reminder to pay attention and to treat others how we wish to be treated. We know how good it feels to have someone really listen to us so we should always give that to others too. Thank you!

  3. I work at a college where I often try to help students cultivate attention and not just remove distractions. In our technological/media driven world, distraction is always present. We have to train our brains to cut through the noise. It’s not easy by any means. I read an article some years ago that said, “Memory is the residue of thought.” In that regard, thinking and thought are directly tied to what we pay attention to. This might be the reason so many young people (and some old) have trouble remembering and applying critical thinking nowadays. We are losing our ability to pay attention. Too many passive spectators and not enough active participants to use your phrase. Great post and a discussion that needs more “attention” from the world.

      1. Some studies suggest practicing mindfulness. A simple way to get started is to disconnect from any unnecessary technology for the time being. Nowadays, that’s the largest thief of our time and attention. I usually go through the routines and habits my students have and evaluate their distractions or inefficiencies with time. From there, we create a plan of action for the individual.

  4. It is very exciting to have the whole world at our fingertips. If we become frantic trying to take it all in, it is likely that we give only passing attention to everything. Our loved ones, our work, and things we are truly interested in deserve more attention than that. Thank you, Andrew, for this post reminding us that attention is a gift we give, and we shouldn’t spread it too thin. <3 Happy holidays!

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