How Paying Attention Leads to Kindness
Simone Weil’s radical conception of attention leads us to be kinder
Everything beautiful has a mark of eternity.
— Simone Weil
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Attention is like the unconscious.
When we pay attention, we take in all stimuli around us without forming a judgment — and our desire becomes what we act on from what we have observed.
Simone Weil’s concept of attention devalues the commonly taught notion of applying oneself to a task to do the best job possible.
Attention is not a muscular effort. It should not fatigue the student.
The will is reduced so that the observer understands what is around them, assesses needs, and responds with the most help available. Attention is a form of love. Love that emanates from the individual needs to be validated by an external love, love deemphasizes the self for communion with the external love. Weil’s notion of attention is intrinsically linked to humanitarian aid.
Weil’s conception of attention is like the good Samaritan traveling a lonely path on their horse. They see the sky, dirt, cacti, birds and feel the temperature of the air, continuing until they see a destitute person on the side of the road. Instead of passing by them out of some repulsion to them, the good Samaritan offers their assistance to the destitute person.
Seeing that the destitute person is badly beaten, the Samaritan takes them on their horse and brings them to an inn, paying for their night’s stay, and telling them that they will pay any other expenses incurred by the guest the next day. The Samaritan seeks no financial gain, recognition, or favor for their actions.
Desire Activates Attention
For Simone Weil, it’s desire — not willpower — that activates attention. While commonly taught notions of attention emphasize zeroing in on a task while looking for an expected answer, Weil is not preoccupied with finding one.
Suppose two students are applying their attention to solving a calculus problem. After an hour of earnest searching for the answer, one student has solved the problem while the other has not. For Weil, the student who has not solved the problem is as equally successful as the student who has solved the problem.
This may seem radical to an unresponsible degree without considering how Weil was thinking of time. If an answer isn’t found when one desires it, eventually it will come, and that will be the right time to know it. An earnest attempt to solve a problem that is met without a solution is rewarded in the same capacity that finding the solution is rewarded. Weil says that when we are attentive, we get the answers we need at the right time.
If we are learning this way we are patient.
Within the spectrum of learning, the ego teaches students to be the best. Get the A. Get A’s in every class. Go to the top school. Enter your career and advance to the top.
This drive to assert ourselves over others leads us to be competitive, single-minded, self-driven. If we continue to be driven by selfish motives, what else is there to greet us at the end but despair?
If we deemphasize goal-oriented study and nurture children’s creativity, we’ll have more happy students growing up to be well-rounded adults.
Attention is awareness without a choreographed direction. Weil’s concept of attention is similar to what is referred to as mindfulness today. Weil called attention:
A suspension of thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to penetrate the object. It means holding in our minds within reach of this thought but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.
Attention requires effort, but it’s a negative effort that’s emitted at the deemphasis of the individual.
Attention is Like a Translator
Attention is like a translator creating a new text from a pre-existing one. If the translator wants to represent the sentiment and language of the original text accurately, their personality and thoughts do not get in the way of the translation. They’re thinking about what to put on the page, but the author’s words shape their answers. They’ll represent the original text in meaning, word selection, and delivery if they’re a good translator.
The translator becomes the muted doer of the task.
A more prosperous and accurate understanding of the world around us comes from leaving behind our wants and desires for the capacity of service. The attentive person may act on their desires, but they are desires catalyzed by the needs of others.
Look at how pity and compassion relate to what they observe. Sympathy comes from the observer who says: ‘that’s too bad,’ and distances themselves from the observed. Sympathy wants to get away from the beggar as quickly as possible. The one who pities another says: ‘I know what it’s like to be human — I am capable of feeling bad for somebody else.’
Compassion provokes observers to interact with whom they observe. Say someone with financial means passes a beggar on the street. Pity is the person of financial means saying to the beggar: ‘God bless ‘them. I hope that they get help soon.’
A compassionate responder will talk with the beggar. Compassion asks the beggar if they have a place to stay for the night, offers them money for food or lodging, even brings them to a hotel. Compassionate understanding is letting the beggar borrow their phone to call people. Compassion is giving people your time and resources.
Time is an essential factor here. Weil was an unconventional teacher whose advocation for teaching was complementary to the practice of Waldorf schools, where teacher comments are given in favor of grading students.
Weil asked what is more important — the going or the getting there?
Mindfulness is the habit of being aware of what’s around you in the moment. Its benefits are reputed to be stress-reducing, increasing the frequency of feeling happiness, and fighting cancer.
Weil’s emphasis on ‘the going’ calls us to recognize that the moment and eternity are related because they are both always present. When we ignore the vain endeavors of the ego, we have more opportunities to be enlightened through selflessness. We don’t seek enlightenment. It comes to us.
For Simone Weil, unmixed attention is prayer.