Relational perception, mindfulness, kavannah, Levinas and relational ethics


One of the most important insights of mindfulness is that we have relational perception. Daniel Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist, is an important theorist in this area. He talks about us having an eighth sense where we can tune in to what other people are thinking and feeling.

 Others are also working with this area. Person-centred therapy is working with relationship and its perception in very interesting ways. One of the influences on recent developments in person-centred therapy has been the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), and especially his theory of relational ethics.

 A central aspect of awareness and attention is when it has a relational and ethical scaffolding. An influential development of this was by Levinas.

 Roger Simon explains that one of the ways Levinas emphasized being attentive was through the Jewish concept of kavannah, ‘the attentiveness, attunement and intentionality with which one is able to engage in prayer.’[1] This is sometimes called Jewish mindfulness

 Simon goes on to talk about two forms of this attentiveness within Levinas’ thought, ‘the spectatorial and the summoned.’[2] These are specifically defined.

 A spectatorial kavannah leaves ‘ourselves intact, at a distance, protected from being called into question and altered through our engagement with the stories of others.’[3]

 The summoned kavannah ‘establishes proximity, not as a state, a repose, but a restlessless, a movement towards the other in which one paradoxically draws closer when vigilant of one’s infinite distance from the other.’[4] This summoned kavannah involves a different level of responsibility, a vulnerability, towards the other.[5]

These forms of attentiveness can be used in any setting, not just in prayer.  In our culture it is a spectatorial attentiveness that dominates.   

Jesus also gives attention and awareness central place in a relationally ethical scaffolding. I am grateful to Stephen E. Fowl in his commentary on Philippians for pointing this out.

 In Philippians 2: 4 Paul says ‘Do not attend to your own interests but rather to the interests of others.’ (Fowl’s translation)

This is in direct imitation of Christ’s attitude and focus of attention (Philippians 2:5-11). The Greek word here for attend is σκοποῦντες, which means regard attentively, colloquially ‘fix one’s mind’s eye’ on something. Focusing our attention on others in this way helps to form a consistent pattern of helping others in us.[6]

 So how we use our eighth relational sense is very significant, as is how we focus our attention and awareness. Within secular mindfulness for health you are encouraged to develop compassion, for yourself and for others and to be non-judgemental.

 One can also ask, how else can one relate to one’s own self as well as to others through how we focus our attention and awareness?   


[1] Roger I. Simon. ‘Innocence Without Naivete, Uprightness Without Stupidity: The Pedagogical Kavvanah of Emmanuel Levinas.’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 22 (2003), 50.

[2] Simon, 51.

[3] Simon, 52.

[4] Simon, 53.

[5] Simon, 52.

[6] Stephen E. Fowl, Philippians (The Two Horizons NT Commentary), Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans (2005), 85.

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