Simone Weil On Attention, Learning, And Compassion

by Anitra Pavlico

I recently read Simone Weil for the first time after having come across numerous references to her over the past year. I broke down and bought Waiting for God despite the intimidating and frankly confusing title.  I was not disappointed. One of her essays in particular, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies in View of the Love of God,” has opened and focused my thinking on education and learning in general, whether for children or later in life for the rest of us.

Weil writes that “prayer consists of attention. . . . Although today we seem ignorant [of] it, the formation of the faculty of attention is the true goal and unique interest of all studies.” She explains that by developing our capacity for attention, we can enhance our spiritual practice. Leaving that aside for the moment, it is nonetheless worth exploring what she means by attention. I am very interested (along with countless others) in how we in the internet era are maintaining our ability to focus given ever-multiplying distractions. As a mother of a school-age child, I also have a particular interest in how children are developing their ability to focus in this distracting climate.

Weil essentially promotes a meditative or mindful attitude for children facing challenging subject matter in school:

If someone searches with true attention for the solution to a geometric problem, and if after about an hour has advanced no further than from where they started, they nevertheless advance, during each minute of that hour, in another more mysterious dimension. Without sensing it, without knowing it, this effort that appeared sterile and fruitless has deposited more light in the soul.

Weil’s approach is timely because it makes learning less stressful and more enjoyable for students. Even if it does not seem as if the student is mastering the material, in Weil’s view she is coming closer to understanding by virtue of having focused her attention on it. In an age when students are sleep-deprived and unduly anxious about exams, college prep, and living up to parents’ lofty and usually unreasonable expectations, students may be comforted to hear from Weil that “we confuse attention with a kind of muscular effort. [. . .] Fatigue has no relationship to work. Work is useful effort, whether there is fatigue or not.” What is happening today in our schools is not your typical adolescent turmoil–it is a mental health epidemic. Suicide rates have surged; two-thirds of college students report “overwhelming anxiety.” [1] Clearly, merely applying more effort is backfiring.

Weil’s thoughts on pedagogy are relevant not only because students are miserable. She has somehow anticipated modern developments in neurology, which appear to confirm her suspicions about the learning process benefiting from a meditative approach not fixated on immediate results or breaking a sweat. In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson notes that “Virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom are supported by the three fundamental functions of the brain: regulation, learning, and selection. [. . .] Mindfulness leads to new learning–since attention shapes neural circuits–and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness.” Along these lines, Weil writes that we make mistakes “because our mind has settled on some idea too hastily, and was therefore prematurely filled, not open to the truth.” If a student can empty her mind of preconceptions, slow down, and concentrate, she will be more likely to absorb the material.

A mindful approach also takes success and failure in stride, so it would follow that it would alleviate the anxiety that students are experiencing in their striving for top grades and elite college admissions. Weil writes that those of us trying to learn new material and skills–and this is by no means only students in schools, as many of us contemplate how we will compete in an AI-driven job market–have to “constrain ourselves to rigorously consider head-on–to contemplate with attention for the long-term–each school exercise failure, in all its ugliness and mediocrity, without searching for any excuse, without neglecting any error or any of the professors’ corrections, trying to uncover the origin of each error.” Anxiety over perceived failures and implications for the future has destroyed students’ enjoyment of the education process (not to mention that running away from errors hinders actual learning). My favorite excerpt from Weil’s essay: “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be joy and pleasure. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable to studies as breathing is to running.”

This calls to mind something that Bertrand Russell wrote, reminiscing about his younger days when he was so unhappy that he regularly contemplated suicide. He said the only thing preventing him from killing himself was “the desire to know more mathematics.” [2] If students can explore subjects that they enjoy in a leisurely manner–because they are not anxious about grades–they may find more things to distract them from unhappy thoughts and to expand their worlds.


The end result of students’ developing their attention in school, Weil writes, is that their attention is honed for communication with God. Another byproduct is developing compassion for our fellow humans:

Love of God is not the only substance of attention. Love of neighbor, which we know is the same love, consists of the same substance. The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world except someone capable of paying attention to them. The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle.

The secular application of “attention” is therefore compelling on its own. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by others’ suffering, we can at least listen to them, instead of trying to “save” them and inevitably failing. The feeling that we have to fix someone’s situation and knowing we cannot often prevents us from paying attention to them at all.

I confess I had to sever the religious bent of Weil’s essay from the rest of it in order to extract meaning for myself personally. I had qualms about this and about substituting my notion of mindfulness for Weil’s notion of prayer, but then I read Susan Sontag on Weil, who wrote that in her opinion, no more than “a handful” of Weil’s many admirers actually shared her ideas—we read Weil and other writers “of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths.” [3]

Despite Weil’s propensity in her other writings to highlight suffering (and some might say, glorify it—it is suspected that Weil starved herself to death while ill with tuberculosis as an act of solidarity with victims of the war)—this optimistic essay instead emphasizes the sublimity of attention, the joy of learning, and the potential to progress from attention to compassion. Seventy-plus years after her death, Weil has grabbed this reader’s attention and refused to let go.



[2] Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (1930)