I used to be the kicker for my college football team. During one particular game on a mid-November afternoon I returned to the sidelines after a successful kickoff and my teammates met me with congratulations to wish me a happy birthday. This was completely disorienting. How did they all know it was my birthday?
As it turns out, my grandpa had talked to the press box announcers, and as I was preparing to kick off, the announcers wished me a happy birthday in front of the whole crowd. Everyone in the stadium heard that it was my birthday, but I had no idea this was even happening.
Looking back, I realize that I didn’t hear the announcers because I was simply focused on the task at hand. This is the sort of flow state or “zone” that athletes experience in a game where the noise of the stadium crowd disappears into the background. Since that occasion, I have often wondered if we can experience this kind of flow state in college outside of athletics, like when we read books, work on an art project, or are absorbed in a moment of mindfulness or prayer.
Simone Weil was a French political activist and philosopher, and she explored this very idea. While we call it a flow state or being in the “zone,” Weil (her last name is pronounced, “vay”) called it being attentive, which was really about living day-to-day life in a more meaningful way. She pointed a way to lead a richer life, and built out these ideas in really concrete ways that are especially relevant to college students today.
Attention in neighborliness
Weil spoke of neighborliness as a way to capture the fact that we are profoundly interconnected. Neighborliness is simply taking action to express that connection — it could be as simple as holding the door for a stranger or a warm interaction on the quad. It can also look like acts of service, welcoming new faces, or expressing grief when someone experiences a loss in their life.
Attention to the needs of others is the central point here — stepping out from our own concerns to embrace the concerns of another. It is a commitment to the ideal that other people are not opportunities for our own personal gain, but must be treated in the most sincerely human way possible. As Weil put it, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say: ‘What are you going through?’” In fact, for Weil, giving our full attention to the person in front of us is the most generous thing we can do.
This kind of attention is about receiving a person as fully as possible without judgment or preconceived expectations. It is about hearing what they have to say, understanding their unique experience, and simply offering to help them in their need. When we are selfless enough to attend to the needs of our neighbors (and, who isn’t our neighbor?), we find that we are becoming the best version of ourselves.
Attention in education
For Weil, education isn’t simply about self-improvement — it is about self-transcendence. In school, we commit ourselves to an endeavor or a problem until we find the solution, and we become better for that struggle. In Weil’s words, “In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it.”
The discipline required to dig deeply into subjects that we like the least is actually an important test of our character and our resolve. When we feel like giving up when confronted with the most complicated problems or the most mundane tasks, we face a choice — and choosing to push forward fashions us into better people. Weil says that the critical moment is when we choose commitment and follow it with enduring effort — that’s the moment that transforms our hearts. One of the effects of that choice is that we become more receptive to joy.
This is a strange thing, but it makes sense. Even if we don’t enjoy an assignment, we find fulfillment in the face of a task well done, especially when the task was difficult. Education is like a refining fire that tests our strengths, reveals our weaknesses, and calls more out of us. Education is an invaluable opportunity. Few things refine our minds and our hearts in such profound ways.
Attention in prayer
What lots of people are calling mindfulness today has many similarities to prayer for Weil. The same dynamic is active in prayer that we saw in her description of neighborliness and education: it’s about setting our minds and hearts beyond selfish interests.
Prayer has been defined as simply raising our hearts to God — and if God truly is everywhere, then the very simplest form of prayer is just paying attention. Any time we create space to reflect and ponder the important things in life — values, relationships, God — we are praying.
Prayer can be as simple or as complex as you want. It could look like a five-minute routine at the beginning or end of the day: in the morning to clarify the goals and challenges of the day; at night to review how well those goals and challenges were met. You could even do this while eating breakfast or doing yoga. Joining others in prayer helps us bond and find community.
Prayer isn’t simply a self-help practice. While it is really important to ask the question, “What do I need?” prayer helps us take another step to ask, “What do others need?” and further, “What can I do about that?” When prayer leads us to love people better, it just might be the highest form of attention that we can attain.
Attention to our neighbors, education, and prayer are all intertwined for Weil — it’s all about being fully in the present moment, open entirely to what the person or situation in front of you is offering. Doing any one of these well helps us do the other two better. Sort of like a three-legged stool, they can form a solid foundation for a college experience that is marked by joy.