On Attention

Simone Weil painting

In 1942 the philosopher Simone Weil wrote
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object
About a millennium and a half earlier the Christian Orthodox monk Hesychios had similarly written
Attention is unceasing silence of the heart free of all thoughts.
One could no doubt multiply such examples, notwithstanding which, this has been very much a minority opinion in the West. More than that it has been and still is viewed with some suspicion by the mainstream.

The basis for this hostility can be summed up in an argument that goes something like this-

  • The thing which most distinguishes humans from other species on Earth is the ability to use reason.
  • Reason is exercised at its highest when it is engaged in conscious, deliberate analysis or synthesis.
  • Therefore when Reason in general and analysis in particular is suspended then humans have regressed from their peak state to something inferior.

Not only is it a less than optimal level of intellectual functioning but the more cynical might suppose that a blank canvas is created in order for a manipulator to paint something of their own upon it. In this era the fear might be that it is a prelude to religious brainwashing. Earlier epochs feared that demons might rush to occupy a space free from specific thoughts about God or virtue.

The central difference of approach is neatly encapsulated in this further sentence of Professor Weil ‘Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort.’  That is, truth is something which will reveal itself if we direct our attentiveness towards it and wait for it long enough. By contrast the Western focus is on positive effort, active at all times, which forces the truth out of a reluctant nature or even, to some extent, creates truths where they did not previously exist.

There are two broad arguments which have been advanced in favour of the essentially passive approach favoured by thinkers like Simone Weil. One is religious and the other is not necessarily so.

The first is, as I understand it, the one supported in theory if not always in practice by the Latin Catholic Church among others and runs like this-

  • There are two faculties by which humans are markedly different from animals.
  • These are, the rational faculty and the spiritual faculty.
  • The first is an auxiliary to the second
  • Therefore humans are exercising their supreme ability when they are apprehending a spiritual reality regardless of what Reason may be doing at that point.

In this model the role of reason is indispensable in two places. Before the period of focussed attention it will direct the mind towards the object upon which it shall focus. Afterwards it will analyse and synthesise any perception which the process has thrown up. The supposition being that there are truths which are beyond reason but none which are contrary to it. Thus the fruits of negative or passive attention require double-checking by reason but unaided reason cannot itself produce such fruits or, at any rate, only with considerably more difficulty.

The second argument is that humans possess an intuitive faculty which is responsible for producing those flashes of inspiration or ‘lightbulb moments‘ with which the history of both the sciences and the arts is liberally provided. This may not have anything supernatural about it but simply be the activity of the mind working below the level of consciousness. This buzzes and whirrs away throwing together established facts with guesses, apparently irrelevant data, wild theoretical suppositions and the like. Occasionally everything clicks into place and it then signals to consciousness that it has a message to impart. It is therefore a useful activity on the part of the researcher, student or thinker to regularly set aside positive thought and simply sit waiting to see if their intuitive faculty has thrown up anything worth considering. Such  intuitions, generally speaking, will rarely burst through into a busily cluttered mind.

It may be that both arguments are simply using different words to describe the same phenomenon or it may be that there are in fact two or more different phenomena at work. What is important for our purposes is that, either way, understanding can be arrived at by some process other than the positive, concentrated effort of the consciously exercised rational faculty within the discursive mind. Moreover in order to gain the benefits of this spiritual or intuitive faculty the method outlined by Ms Weil and St Hesychios, the suspension of thought, is the one which must be adopted. No doubt any empty mind is something that brainwashers and/or demons can make use of but no technique can be considered apart from the intention formed by the person using it. A mind focussed on finding the solution to a problem and suspending thoughts for that purpose will likely be no more vulnerable than usual to ideas or suggestions contrary to their willed intent.

For those of us who are not scientists, intellectuals or writers Simone Weil goes on to offer a further, humanitarian, use for this faculty of attention. The same quality of attentiveness can be directed towards persons, particularly those experiencing suffering, as towards ideas and things. She writesThe soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth‘ When we understand the full reality of a person and their situation unmediated by our imagination or our anxieties or our need to go on to the next task (or go to lunch) then we can rightly direct our reason to respond to the reality that is the person in front of us.

In brief then, the quality of attention which makes of our mind a blank screen for The Real to imprint itself upon us is a key tool enabling us to know and to love truth as it is in itself and to love our neighbours  for whom they truly are in themselves.

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My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic


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