The window of the soul: the value of attention

Catalan philosopher Jaime Nubiola says we have to pay attention to life to really learn its lessons.

The School of Attention

I liked the new book by my fellow Catalan philosopher Josep Maria Esquirol, L’escola de l’ànima, (The school of the soul: Acantilado, Barcelona, 2024). Not yet in English, unfortunately. As I always do, I have taken some notes, especially on those passages where the author’s opinion coincides with mine. In almost all my notes, the author manages to say the same thing I think but much more beautifully than I manage to.

For example, I was struck by these lines of Esquirol:

“Attention is like the window of the soul. The world is already open. But it is necessary to look through the window.”

He continues: “You have to get closer to things. You have to lean out, and stretch out your hand. And touch the air, and breathe the sky, and let the raindrops slide down the features of the face.”

I liked these words because they say that the most important thing to be attentive is to let oneself be filled by things, by the landscape, by the person in front of us, or by God if we are praying.

It is about silencing our ego in order to be able to take charge of the matter at hand.

Without inner peace, if we are not serene because we have within us a riot of worries, sensations, memories and ideas, we will not be able to pay attention. Hence the importance of the ‘negative effort’ that Simone Weil spoke of, which consists of pushing distractions aside to let ourselves be filled by whatever we are listening to, reading or whatever we are doing.

It is difficult, but being attentive is learned: it is the key to personal formation.

The light and the cracks

If we pay attention, we also learn to value the imperfect.

For this reason I really enjoyed reading Isabel Sánchez’s book Cuidarnos (Taking care of ourselves: Espasa, Barcelona, 2024). Again, not yet in English. Its subtitle is “In search of the balance between autonomy and vulnerability”.

It is very well written and in some passages I was deeply moved. I particularly loved a metaphor that the author takes from Sally Phillips, a British comedian and mother of a child with Down’s syndrome:

“There is great value in what is not perfect. If there’s a crack, that’s where the light can come in. And imperfections are the place where humanity becomes most visible.”

It is through the cracks that light seeps in. We see it every day in our society, which so often seems dull and gloomy, with poor flickering neon lights.

Yet, from time to time we meet people on our path who illuminate, who shed light around them like a beautiful stained glass window in a gothic cathedral bathed in sunlight. People with an aura, people who inspire us and persuade us that it is worth living a life of caring for others.

Isabel Sánchez’s book is such a crack, capable of rekindling our hearts with its light and its reminder to care for ourselves and others.

The mystery of music

Another, supremely significant, way to pay attention to life is through sensitivity to beauty.

I was moved a few months ago by reading the story of the conversion to God of Erik Varden, now a Catholic monk and bishop. In his The Shattering of Loneliness, he relates that what brought him closer to God was the burst of beauty and truth he perceived in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

Varden explains: “At these words [“Have faith: you were not born in vain. You have not suffered in vain”], something burst.

“The repeated insistence, ‘not in vain, not in vain’, was irresistible. It was not just that I wanted to believe it. I knew it was true. It sounds trite, but at that moment, my consciousness changed.

“With a certainty born neither of overwrought emotion nor of cool analysis, I knew that I carried something within me that reached beyond the limits of me. I was aware of not being alone. There was no special warmth, no ecstatic inner movement. There were no tears. But I could no more doubt the truth of what I had found than I could doubt that I existed.”

A few weeks ago I met the entrepreneur Luis Conde who took on the exciting adventure — without having studied music, but with a lot of preparation — of directing the second and fourth movements of the Second Symphony of Mahler with the Vallès Symphony Orchestra at the Palau of Catalan Music.

I had just read the book in which he narrates his experience and I loved it (The Formula of Talent and Mahler, Platforma, Barcelona, 2015).

But what I want to say is that in these days I have discovered the final movement of Symphony No. 2, which Gustav Mahler composed between 1888 and 1894. With little knowledge of music, I’ve been captivated. It impressed me so deeply that, despite the deafness I am now suffering, I couldn’t resist the temptation to write this post. Multiple versions can be found on Youtube. I especially liked the one directed by Gustavo Dudamel.

Music is – maybe – one of the activities that makes us more human, because it makes us more spiritual and can lead us to God. It is a form of sublime attention: to beauty and to the divine.

Mahler’s Second Symphony culminates with the verse (in German) with all instruments and chorus members at full blast: “What has beaten [the heart] will lead you to God.” It certainly leads me.

Eliminate the overflow

Another book I loved was Franco Michieli’s book The vocation of getting lost (Siruela, 2021), which someone recommended to me. This is the impressive testimony of an Italian geographer and explorer, committed to developing in his wanderings a new relationship with nature, similar to how our ancestors did.

He has removed maps, clock, compass and of course mobile and GPS. He has learned to be guided by the sun, the stars, the layout of the land and even the wind to make with a friend long crossings through uninhabited lands.

In this case, the expedition the book focuses on was skiing across Lapland from coast to coast through snowy land. Michieli writes: “In between there are two or three populations we’ll have to find to supply ourselves. With our choice, the possibility of getting lost is real and therefore also the opposite: it may be the occasion to find, to find ourselves, to be found by the unexpected.”

Reading this book makes you think about how many superfluous things fill up our lives and steal our attention to stop us focussing on what’s important. And so Michieli concludes: “Whoever gives up things considered indispensable in the society in which he lives is more likely to glimpse what is really essential, or that can sometimes save us.”

The writer’s vocation

And one last book to comment on. I have read with interest the extensive autobiography of the Norwegian writer Per Olov Enquist (1934-2020) entitled A Different Life. What struck me most in this book is Enquist’s struggle in his maturity against alcoholism; a struggle that was finally victorious.

He writes: “6 February 1990, 24 years ago. I have been sober ever since. I have not tasted a drop and I have written many books when I thought I would never write again.”

Another expression in the book also caught my attention and I wrote it down:

“A sentence can contain a lifetime, if one listens carefully.”

Again! Listening. Paying attention. Maybe what makes a great writer is his or her ability to pay attention.

These words echoed in my head last Saturday in Berlin when my friend Jaime, a veteran writer, said with admiration, referring to a priest friend of ours, that those who faithfully live out their vocation lead a healthier and probably longer life. 

I fully agree, but I am even more impressed by Jaime’s own commitment – afflicted by a serious illness – because what really keeps him alive is his desire to write, even though he can only do so for a few hours a day. He is now working on the translation of his books into English with the help of DeepL for their distribution in the United States.

With his work Jaime shows that writing is also a vocation capable of giving meaning to life because it keeps us open, attentive, to the lessons God may want to teach us through it.

The above article is based on various recent Facebook posts by Jaime and is published in Adamah with his permission.

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Jaime Nubiola [] is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Navarra, Spain. He is the author of 17 books and 150 papers on philosophy of language, history of analytic philosophy, American philosophy, C. S. Peirce and pragmatism.

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