I have a confession to make: I’ve become a grumpy, easily irritated person when I’m out in the street. If someone walks too slowly in front of me when I’m in a hurry (usually I am), I get impatient and mentally will them to a side; to the person standing still with their face buried in their phone, blocking the entrance at the post office, I launch anathemas: ‘Don’t they realise other people exist too?’. Then it hits me. At such moments these very people are, to me too, nothing but an interference to my purposes. Our shared problem is inattentiveness.
Of course I see these people – in a sense, I see them all too well. But just as there’s looking without seeing, there is seeing without paying attention. I see their bodies, the mass that occupies the street. I also see some of their desires, for ease, for space, for entertainment. But, clearly, I do not see people. I see parts. I see functions and impediments. My irritation turns to sadness because I realise that, in this way, I have locked myself into my own little world, a sorry solipsistic space where my own desires and goals, the same drives which locked me in it, wither meaninglessly without air.
To realise that something other than oneself is real, wrote the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, is extremely difficult. She called this realisation love. Love (understood as eros: love for reality) fuels attention. Attention is what gives us vision beyond seeing, knowledge beyond the immediately visible.
When I am overcome by irritation at the people blocking my way, I fail to see something which is there, and obvious: that other people have interests like me, goals like me. Maybe they’re tired and hence walk slowly, maybe they’re anxious and hence walk unpredictably, or maybe they are just as blind as I am to what surrounds them. Their attention, like mine, is exhausted, under-trained, perhaps painful, and difficult to sustain.
In the novel Blindness, Jose Saramago describes an epidemic where people start losing their sight,, without apparent cause. Saramago wrote the book in 1995, some time before we became so completely used to the technologies that, many now worry, are making it even easier for us not to see. Or, rather, technologies that enable us to see only what we choose to see at that moment, each hit and swipe determining what will satisfy our desires and curiosity in the next minute or hour. Or, again, to see what someone else has decided will make us better consumers, more targeted buyers, or, yet more chillingly, more polarised voters. Welcome, as Tim Wu has argued, to the attention economy.
Inattentiveness, manipulated attention, instrumentalized focus, are so, so easy. To attend, forcing ourselves out of the dream world we keep creating, is both wonder and toil. Attention, as French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil wrote, is nothing short of a miracle. Not just because truly, fully attending is hard, going against our natural tendencies for self-gratification and ease. But, more interestingly, because attention can reveal the reality of things, that which we rarely see because it requires a keen, devoted, passionate, disinterested, unhurried gaze - and when we see it (whether it’s a leaf, the face of a friend, the paw of a cat, a rock, a painting by Miró), we’re transformed.
This may simultaneously sound mystical and perfectly ordinary . That’s the kind of mysticism I like. And I bet any of you has experienced that kind of keen, devoted, passionate, disinterested, unhurried gaze – that attention – perhaps without realising, because here’s another beautiful thing about attention: it’s not about you. When we are immersed in whatever we are attending to, we forget ourselves. And strangely enough for creatures whose primary goals seems to be for self-preservation and self-gratification, there are few things as wonderful as forgetting ourselves. That’s why attention is so difficult and yet so worthwhile.
Attention is what connects us to the world outside of ourselves: There is a peculiar ignorance about attention, an ignorance of the best kind. To attend is to admit the reality outside ourselves, our own limits, and the bridge between us. To remain in that moment of unknowing and taking it for what it is allows for a revelation, or perception if you prefer, of what we couldn’t invent or make up.
Attention has a special relationship not only to self and knowledge, but also to time. Weil writes that attention is a form of waiting (the French word attendre translates both as ‘to attend’ and ‘to wait’). Here’s another thing I don’t do very much – waiting. In my actions and thoughts, my schedule and filling my ignorance , I seek and grasp, and then the world whizzes by while I take in little of what is important. I don’t know what this is all for. Is it merely a blind submissiveness to the way one is supposed to live these days? Whatever the reason for it, it leaves me desperately empty. And having this awareness, knowing that I’m missing most of what the world around me offers in impatient inattentiveness only makes it more bitter. In the past months, I have often travelled by train for an hour from Prague to Pardubice, in the Czech Republic. Never once have I looked at the landscape. Mostly I work. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I let my gaze wander outside, preoccupied with some thought, and really see nothing. I couldn’t tell you whether the houses have red brick roofs, nor whether there are animals grazing in the fields, or whether the landscape is dry or full of trees. You will say, I attended to something else. Something I chose to attend to, for the sake of productivity, accomplishment, or ticking boxes in my diary. But getting things done is not driven by the patient attentiveness that Weil was talking about, if we take her word as I think we have reason to. And always choosing one’s objects of attention leaves one bereft, once again, of the vast reality that one has not chosen but is there and, much like that Czech landscape, one doesn’t even know what it is and what it looks like.
Unlike choosing, wanting, controlling, attention is being suspended. When we attend, we have not yet arrived anywhere. But we have already departed a little from ourselves. We have left our comfortable boredom and, perhaps gingerly, taken a step forward – picture a rope stretched out from rock to rock. It’s exhilarating and frightening. So we may wish to step back, into the habitual, controlled space from which our attention somehow emerged. Attention can be, for many of us, very uncomfortable: the suspension of our mind, the emptiness of our knowledge, the impotence of our agency. For if you take seriously the fact that we attend to what we do not yet know or understand, then it becomes clear that the objects of our attention are irreducibly other to us, and in being other, they are beyond our control. We may manipulate them, capture them, consume them, but what they are – that which attention can reveal – is not, not at all, can never be, up to us.
But if we stay – if we accept this state, the discomfort that many of us may feel, and resist the natural urge of running back, snapping out of attention – we truly enter the state of attention, where we forget that we are attending, and we enter a new time, not that of waiting, but of timelessness. Then attention becomes effortless, and what it reveals is revealed continuously, in a flux that feels obvious, as if nothing else made sense. Attention makes us forget we are attending, forget ourselves as the ones attending, and then, too, forget the time in which we are attending, the before and the after. Full attention is a room with no walls, doors, or windows.
As a connector between me and you, between me or you and the rest of the world, attention is the capacity to dissolve the familiar dichotomies that, in this very formulation, return. Me and you, me and the world, here and there, active and passive, inside and outside. When, in attending, we enter the third space, the space between, we are not really between, but somewhere else entirely. All it took was to step outside ourselves and move towards the world, but now we do not see the good old self growing smaller behind us, nor the vast astonishing world coming into shape ahead of us. We are in both, and in neither. In the space of attention, we are the self and the world at once.
If we think about it this way, we will no longer be surprised that a single moment of attention can move people to any action. It can move us to leave our job, marry someone, save a life, hug a friend. Nor will we be surprised that a moment of attention can move us to tears, because for the first time we see a flower, a place, a fly, or a cup.
If I am right that attention, as I have been describing it, does not often come easily to us, then we may need teachers. Some of the best teachers of attention, I believe, are non-human animals. Often, when I walk down the street, I meet the gazes of dogs, completely present, while their human companions are absorbed elsewhere. But the dogs are there, and when we see each other, there is no need for understanding, for we are both in that space, at that time, recognising the life in the other.
My main teacher, however, is a cat. Charles Bukowski concluded the poem ‘My Cats’ with the line ‘they are my teachers’ and I bet attention is at least one of the subjects that his cats instructed him in. My teacher is called Jean, and whenever I walk past the room where she’s sitting, she calls me in for a cuddle. Sometimes I think I don’t have time. At others, I stop and pet her briefly, immersed in thoughts of what I should do next, or rehearsing another conversation or another argument in my mind. If I accept the invitation, but find myself being only physically present, I scold myself for wasting that time we have together. Then I try to be there attentively, and become impatient because I fail again and again. But when I just walk in, and by some miracle I put my reflexivity to rest, and my attention is awakened by Jean, silencing my constant chattering, then my hand glides over her smooth black and white fur, her purring vibrates under my flesh and I vibrate with her, her enjoyment becomes my own, I am not filled with delight, I become delight. And I wonder what was so hard that I resisted it. Jean probably wonders that too, but she is far more forgiving than I am.
All of this may sound obviously true or completely mad to you, depending how you’ve experienced what I am writing about – yet I am sure you have experienced it. Talking about attention is difficult because in or after its presence all talk and writing may seem forced, superficial, or pointless. Of course, writing can occasion attention too, especially poetry, and be itself an act of attention. I wish I could give you that; instead, I’m giving you what I can: An assemblage of pointers. An invitation. An attempt at describing what it’s like and more importantly why it’s so vital that we use our attention, that we cherish it, grow it, and stay with it.
So now, let’s just try it. Find an object of attention. Anything, really anything. Something simple, like a leaf, may be easier and more surprising. Just stay with it. Be aware that, really, you don’t know this leaf. You may know a lot about it, but there’s so much you don’t know. You don’t know what this leaf is, right now: the existence of this leaf. Maybe that green never struck your eyes that way before. What made this leaf possible? What runs in its veins? Can you picture the water, nutrients, trace gasses? What’s the role of the leaf in the plant, in the house, in your life? Perhaps its shape is delicate yet irregular or broken. Whatever the leaf is like, there’s so much to discover, and you can take so much time. It’s just you and the leaf for now. That leaf is there. Really, can you see it? That leaf is there. That’s where it all begins.