Paying Attention Until the Light Bursts Forth (On Turning Study into Contemplative Practice)

We live in a world in which attention is a primary resource, a “pearl of great price”. It is our primary resource for the practice of dharma and for living an ethical and meaningful life. But it also has become a primary resource for toxic, extractive economical practices. Increasingly the global economy has shifted from material-based resources to data-based ones. The rather insane injunction of capitalism to keep growing no matter what eventually bumps-up with the finiteness of the material world. But digital space and information exchanges do not face the same scarcity issues, and can provide a way to keep growing and “save the economy”. Perhaps one thinks it is better to exploit virtual space than physical space, however this comes with a caveat. A data or digital-based economy might consume less natural resources but it does consume another essential resource: human attention.

In the present world attention has been been weaponized. Megacorporations are employing engineers, designers and even neuroscientists to develop gadgets and “cool apps” to capture and monetize our attention. Politicians are wielding “digital strategies” to flood social media with propaganda to exploit human psychology, divide society and tamper with democracy. Our attention is claimed in all sorts of unwholesome ways.

I highlight this because as students —and specifically as students of Buddhism in a place like RYI— we are in a privileged position to cultivate attention and counteract this pressing situation. If what we wish to is to integrate academic study with traditional practice, the royal way to do this is through the practice of attention, both as concentration (one-pointedness) and discrimination (focusing the mind on wholesome and uplifting objects). Engaging in spiritual practice and studying philosophy or languages do not need to be separate things.

A central point of contemplative practice and in general of any religion is to train the mind, and one cannot train the mind without a certain mastery of attention. As we know, attention is one of the five ever-present states of the mind according to one of the presentations of the Abhidharma, and its correct employment is responsible in many ways for the concurrence of virtuous mental states that lend themselves to wisdom (attention is the “charioteer” of the mental complex according to Buddhaghoṣa). The words used for attention in Sanskrit and Tibetan (manaskāra, yid la byed) literally  mean “making (of the object) in the mind.” But if we play a little we can also say that attention is what makes the mind and what we make with the mind, that is, the object, our own world. Attention, as psychologist William James suggested, is that by which we configure our experience of reality.

Although Buddhism has a wealth of methods for the the training of attention —starting of course with the following of moral discipline and the practice of śamatha— for the remaining of this post I will focus on French philosopher Simone Weil’s understanding of attention. Perhaps this will be beneficial for students who otherwise might not run into her work. Weil is one of the great and perhaps few examples —particularly in the modern west— of someone who perfectly united wisdom and compassion. Interestingly she was an admirer of Milarepa and Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. Even though she was only 34 when she died in 1943, Weil taught philosophy for more than a decade, worked in factories and fields, was an exemplar political activist, a poet and a mystic. She learned Sanskrit and was fluent in ancient Greek, Latin, English and of course in her natal French and in her paternal German.

Weil’s thesis is that a good education consists not so much in the learning of any specific subject, but in the training of attention. Not what to know but how to know. Attention must be cleansed and heightened so that it can be used for spiritual practice. The “formation of the faculty of attention is the true and sole interest of  any study… This attention is the stuff of prayer” (la substance de la prière). Prayer here means not only the act of reciting but a state of deep concentration and spiritual ardor, which enables mystical union. The aim of study is to develop a lower type of attention, which operates within the constrains of effort, into a higher form, which is open, resonant and receptive to the numinous.

We can relate to this as students of Buddhism, for in a way it evokes the “three wisdom tools”: listening, reflecting and meditating. As Vasubandhu said: “Observing discipline, and having heard and contemplated the teachings, one applies oneself intensively to meditation.” (Treasury of Abhidharma, VI, 5). We study to meditate. But studying can be in itself meditation if we bring to it a certain quality of attention. And meditation must also lead to a state that is effortless, noncontrived and nonconceptual.

Perhaps we do not enjoy certain subjects or impatiently wish to see results. But we should not yield to haste. “For each school exercise there is a special way of waiting for truth without seeking and desiring. A way to pay attention to a geometry problem without seeking for a solution or to the words of a Greek or Latin text without seeking its sense, and, when you write, to wait for the right word to come by itself.” Weil reminds us it is not the result, the number or the diploma that we should be after, and enthuses us to remain with the object patiently and let it speak to us or shine forth. This attitude is radically different from the utilitarian, extractive, power-hungry attitude with which industrial capitalism and scientific materialism force themselves into nature. It calls for a sense of wonder and delight—for the gaze of a child instead of the gaze of patriarchy —, which lets things be, and in that letting be there is the possibility of rapport, of a lively connection, of ecological communion. Attention retrieves wonder and reenchants the world.  We begin to notice there is a luminous quality in things, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said: “nature is never spent/there lives the dearest freshness deep down things”.

Attention is not only the “stuff” that becomes wisdom it is also love. Simone Weil bases her ethical philosophy on the faculty of attention. She says that what the unfortunate beings of the world (les malheureuse) actually need is attention. A type of attention that does not project into them, in a kind of faux altruism, but is selfless and wholly available, resonating with their suffering.  In the same way we do not study to seek a result or solve a problem, we do not attend to the other seeking a reward. Ultimately, she beckons, we must be able to hold our attention in an empty, contentless state; pure attention, a passive state that opens to something beyond. It is in that state that the “rain of blessings falls down” and the passion of the world transforms into the luminous nectar of wisdom.

L’attention, à son plus haut degré, est la même chose que la prière.

Elle suppose la foi et lamour.

(Attention, in its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.

It presupposes faith and love.)


(from La pesanteur et la grâce)

—Alejandro Martínez Gallardo


James, Williams Principles of Psychology,  Dover Publication, 1950

Weil, Simone, La pesanteur et la grâce, Paris: Librairie Plon, 1947

Weil, Simone, Attente de Dieu Paris: Éditions Fayard, 1966

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