Simone Weil’s apophatic concept of attention

I initially found Simone Weil’s concept of attention confusing because I tend to think of this as a purposive orientation towards an object. It’s something which you do in order to increase the depth of an encounter. In contrast Weil conceives of attention in an apophatic register, creating the space in which the object can enter into our awareness. What you’re doing is creating the conditions in which it can happen rather than acting directly in relation to the object:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by 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. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

Waiting for God, pg 111-112

The point I think is to let reality enter on its own terms rather than rather than deliberately trawling the lifeworld with a self-conscious sensibility and intellectual categories. In one of Rilke’s letters he advises that “We lead our lives so poorly because we arrive in the present always unprepared, incapable, and too distracted for everything”. There is an autonomous reflexive misreading of this point (parallel to how I totally missed the point of this argument by Dewey until coming back to it when bedridden with Covid) focusing on being prepared i.e. to enter situations with cultivated expectations and a plan of action in order to be more capable, rather than rushing mindlessly from one situation to the next in a condition of self-inflicted helplessness.

However this is exactly what being distracted means in Simone Weil’s sense. Entering a situation overflowing with attitudes, expectations and beliefs such that we encounter reality through a thick fog of our own cognition and affect. To avoid distraction in the way Rilke suggests could instead be a matter of trying to enter a situation in an open way. This doesn’t mean fantasising that we could or should be a blank slate, but perhaps simply to stand on the mountain – empty, waiting – to take the in the beauty of the scenery and see what unfolds from this encounter.

So hold your own
Breathe deep on a freezing beach
Taste the salt of friendship
Notice the movement of a stranger
Hold your own
And let it be

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