Attention is a kind of love

Written by

Jonathan Fordham

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In an age of increasing uncertainty and complexity, how we pay attention to the world has never been so critical. The work of Professor Iain McGilchrist on the hemispheres of the brain sheds light on how we might navigate these times and stay connected with ourselves, others, and the world around us…

“Attention without feeling is only a report.”
Mary Oliver

‘Look at the ivy on the old clinging wall;
Look at the flowers and the green grass so tall.
It’s not a matter of when push comes to shove;
It’s just an hour on the wings of a dove.
It’s just warm love,
It’s just warm love.

Van Morrison

A sea anemone, nemetostella vectensis, which lived off the Isle of Wight 700 million years ago, is the oldest known creature with the origin of a brain. Asymmetry is built into its neural network. This is true of all animals, because every creature needs to know how to get, and not be got. This survival need is resolved by the brain having two ways of disposing consciousness towards the world: how to acquire things – catch prey; fetch twigs to build a nest; pick up a seed – functions of the left brain hemisphere, which tends to ignore what is irrelevant to its purpose. It sees clearly, but it sees little; is inclined to either/or thinking; enables us to manipulate the world.  The right hemisphere is better at understanding the world in all its complexity; is inclined to both/and thinking; is reflective, intuitive, organic, implicit, empathic.

In his seminal work The Master and His Emissary, The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, psychiatrist and writer Professor Iain McGilchrist describes the two hemispheres’ completely different ways of attending to the world. The left hemisphere is concerned about utility and power, the acquisition of things. It is primarily concerned with being. The right hemisphere looks at things as they are: complex; not necessarily certain; connected with other beings; broad; sustained; vigilant, and open. It is concerned primarily with becoming.

While we need both hemispheres, we need one of them to be in charge of the other.  McGilchrist points out how cultural and anthropological texts ranging from Chinese, Native American, Indian, Judaic, and subpolar Arctic regions commonly depict two people at odds: a pair of brothers (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau); or an Emperor and his General; a wise spiritual master and his emissary – where one is clearly the superintendent of the other. McGilchrist cites the Industrial Revolution as the beginnings of becoming “over enthralled by the kind of attention paid by the left hemisphere…for the acquisition of things rather than an understanding of what we’re living amongst and in.”1

In my work as a therapist, I come across a range of unique individuals seeking help, variously impacted by issues such as childhood trauma, burn out, or lack of fulfillment in work contexts, stuck in patterns of rescue, control, or addictions, as well as other psychologically adapted states. Other patients I see are simply overwhelmed by the accumulative efforts of living and striving in a culture and society that is overwhelmingly left brain dominant. I would add that a significant number of people seeking therapy with me are HSPs (Highly Sensitive People; see the work of Elaine Aron on this tribe of amazing individuals). Psychological adaptions that may have worked for a time inevitably break down and repressed trauma, manifesting as neurosis, surfaces. Some feel they have been left behind in the race to the top in the aggressive and isolating capitalist system, in the bun fight for the golden eggs of power and utility, and are drained. In the absence of meaning and change in the external world, the necessary movement is to connect with internal processes, and instead of medicating our depression away to seek to develop our right brain capacity.

I well remember, after finishing my training and completing my placement hours, waiting for my first therapy client to arrive. I had been taught by then by my inspirational tutor Lee that therapy is an encounter. That, more than any theory, informs my practice. On meeting new clients, I remain deeply impacted by the courage and humility required for someone to come into the space of a stranger and ask for help. It requires vulnerability. According to Brene Brown, “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, accountability, and authenticity”. 2

The primacy of relationship in the therapeutic context is paramount. 

While German has the word ‘wissen’, simultaneously ‘to know’ by fact and experience, and French has the same differentiation with the dual words ‘savior’ and ‘connaitre’, in the English language we only have the one word. And perhaps many of us may believe the illusion through Google and AI that we have the world at our fingertips, that we can somehow ‘know’ it through information and categorisation. Professor McGilchrist sublimely points out that the root of the word ‘belief’ is from the German ‘lieben’ meaning ‘love’. Indeed, in sixteenth and seventeenth century English formerly this became a relational address to other – ‘my lief’, ‘my beloved one’. More contemporarily, quantum physics helps us understand that knowledge and belief are processes and relationships rather than facts. This is the gestalt of human existence – that life is a dynamic force: if we hold two things together something arises that is more than the sum of its parts. As physicist John Archibald Wheeler said: “We are not only observers. We are participants. In some strange sense this is a participatory universe.”3 McGilchrist underscores this: “What something is, is already determined by the relationships in which it stands. We are not atoms. We are part of a society, a culture, a species that gave rise to us.”4

Carl Rogers, psychotherapist and founder of person centred therapy, observed how in the freedom of the therapeutic relationship individuals seem “to become more content to be process rather than a product…to accept a more satisfying realization that he/she is not a fixed entity, but a process of becoming”. 5 This resonates with anthropologies around the world that speak of a world that is becoming rather than being. Prayer, meditation, and mindfulness all require right brained process. Mindfulness requires stilling the judgmental, categorising, verbalising faculty of the left brain, engaging widely dispersed networks predominantly in the right hemisphere, so that we can experience ourselves as present; while compassionate meditation requires engagement of the right frontal cortex.

Prayer, equally so. Twentieth century French philosopher Simone Weil considered the superiority of attention over the will as the ultimate tool of self-transformation. “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” 6 Eighty years after her untimely death, Professor McGilchrist’s work urgently reminds us that the kind of attention we pay – to ourselves, to each other, to the natural world and, ultimately, to the Divine – is our best hope in realising the meaning and change required to traverse the uncertain waters of our deeply polarised age. As Weil profoundly wrote: “In the inner life, time takes the place of space. With time we are altered, and, if as we change we keep our gaze directed towards the same thing, in the end illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible.”7


  1. Prof Iain McGilchrist, The ‘Bishops Day’ Series, Canterbury 2023
  2. Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable
    Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
  3. John Archibald Wheeler, ‘Radio Interview with Martin Redfern’
  4. Prof Iain McGilchrist, The ‘Bishops Day’ Series, Canterbury 2023
  5. Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy
  6. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
  7. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace


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