The Gift of Attention


"A Dream of Latmos", Joseph Noel Paton (1821 - 1901), Scottish

"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." - Simone Weil


It is often heard, in media, through articles and various scientific or amateur investigations, that ours is the generation of short attention span. The articles, beside their titles, now feature a minutage- a little number which tells the curious reader if the text to be read will take three, five, ten or fifteen minutes. The decision to read the text, happens to fall, not on its premise, or supposed quality of the insight it may offer, but how much time it takes. It is not that we as humans, are so busy in our lives that fifteen minutes of reading would bring a huge difference in our aims, goals and tasks for the day - it is simply that an article which takes fifteen minutes to read demands too much, not in terms of time, but in terms of attention and devotion. Our articles have slowly been replaced by short tweets and two minute long videos which report the latest news, followed by constant change of the images - otherwise we are bored. The idea of reading a book that is longer than two hundred and fifty pages is close to a horror and many will not even give a chance to a thick book of French or Russian Realism. A beautiful book, a must read, but who has got the time? It is easier to catch a short synopsis, hoping in it to gather everything that the authentic experience of a lengthy and dramatic Stendhal novel provides. Why is then, attention a form of generosity as Simone Weil claimed in the opening quote? What does it mean to grant attention to someone or something? Why is it important?

Attention as a Form of Generosity

Photo by Romuldas Požerskis (1951), Llithuanian

Attention is, simply an act of giving and a unique moment of self-oblivion. Our awareness, our consciousness is so often directed towards our own selves, chasing every emotion, every thought, memory and imagination like a lion that chases a gazelle. More often than not, we are obsessed, following every little change within ourselves, comparing it to hundreds and thousands of other, future or past, images. We are frustrated that we do not match some idealised image of the future and we hardly forgive ourselves our pasts. Even in the acts of self-gratification, we praise ourselves for meeting our own imagination or ideals. And yet, the intent of this is not to accuse, judge and condemn human beings for being what they are - indeed, awareness directed inwardly, introspection, can bring much good, but is also, very often, our biggest prison. Many are ways in which human beings try to avoid, often through unaware and reactive escapism, the aforementioned sense of inner prison. Alcohol, drugs, sensory indulgences are often easy paths to self-oblivion and an easy exit from the prison cells of one's own mind. The unconscious cycle goes on and yet, one's prison, when conscious is often even harsher - the voice speaks louder. Gentle awareness of our inner inclinations, without judgement or condemnation might bring less grief and despair, but it is often the hardest thing to do. Attention is one way to leave ourselves, to free ourselves from our self-obsession without numbing our senses and emotions - on the opposite, our senses, emotions, awareness, moves towards something or somebody else. Our own emotions and thoughts, then, find a locus in something outside of themselves. They reocgnize themselves there - it is a liberating and connective, rather an imprisoning and alienating recognition of one's own existence. Attention requires effort, care and focus, it demands that our attention for certain amount of time is on something else and someone else's experience. It is a victory over ego that always wants to give itself the utmost importance and the ultimate differentiation. This victory is achieved by recognising the importance in the other and the connection and similarity. True attention, in that sense, requires generosity - it requires that we give greatly. People are often judged for being attention seekers, and perhaps, in much of it, there is something vain and shallow. But is it a surprise that people seek attention in the most egoistic and shallow manner in an epoch in which nobody pays attention to nobody? Even a fellow human being who sits right across of us, rarely has our full attention. They have to share it with a phone and with thousands and hundreds of other people coming through it. People smile and are joyful when someone points out a new hairstyle or a new dress, because it tells them that somebody has noticed them - and it does not have to be in pursuit of vanity or shallow self-satisfaction. It can often be, a simple, innocent human joy which we experience when somebody else recognises, affirms our existence and gives evidence that we are not alone in the experience of life.

Attention as a Prayer and Act of Devotion

Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879), British

"Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself." - Simone Weil The image of a person in a sincere prayer is almost in the subconscious of each one of us. We see the sincere devotee in almost any form of art. The devotee's eyes are pierced, looking as if they were not in a physical space - the gaze is fixed at the object of one's devotion - statue that represents specific divine power or its manifestation, palms of one's hands, heaven and sometimes even the empty space in front of him or her. The devotee's focus is entirely and completely towards the divine. The attention is not shared, it is fully dedicated.


Prayer, as an act of humility and as a recognition of one's powerlesness and inability to control everything that happens in life, demands attention. It is not short attention, the one that moves to a new, shinier object very quickly that it demands. Prayer requests a deep and full attention in order for it to be sincere. By paying attention to that which they deem beyond their own existence, the devotees let go of that, earlier mentioned, egoistic need to give one's own existence the utmost importance. It is recognition of interdependence and the need of something else, something "transindividual". Attention is also, like Simone Weil suggests, an invitation of something else into our lives. It is not just the will that decides the course of our actions, it is very often that our will is directed at that which we dedicate most of our attention to. By paying attention to it and by willingfully going towards it, we by our own will invite it to our life. Far from being the simplistic "Law of Attraction" theory, the idea is simply that we exert ourselves towards that which attracts our attention. Many sages, philosophers, authors, psychologists and much folk wisdom would often say that much of life's joy is hidden in paying attention to what truly matters and in the recognition of the transindividual significance in something which truly deserves it. And then we can dedicate our prayers to it. If we are just to direct our senses to a buzz of a bee, a bird's song, a child's laugh, a lover's face and for a moment, focus, give the prayer-like attention to it, recognise it, perhaps, we would all feel like Tolstoy's Prince Andrei, who, not long before his death, realises that everything around him - bees, flowers, fellow human beings were inviting him to love them, but he was blind and deaf to their calls, to their own desire to connect and experience their own existence through the existence of someone or something else.

"We are all strangers in a land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly, there is a strange, sweet familiartiy that vanishes almost as soon as it comes." - Madeleine L'Engle

Links "Gravity and Grace", Simone Weil

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