Attentional Violence

Sunday, August 24th, 2008 | Uncategorized

One of my greatest intellectual teachers has been the peace researcher Johan Galtung. He is known for developing the term and theory of structural violence. The concept of structural violence dawned on him while seeing the victims of poverty in India. People were suffering and yet the cause for the suffering was not another person (direct violence) but the collective economic structure (structural violence).

Likewise it dawned on me over the past few years that there is yet another form of violence that tends to be even more invisible, unrecognized, and pervasive: attentional violence. Attentional violence is to not to be seen and recognized in terms of who you really are–in terms of your highest future possibility. Instead you are only seen in terms of your journey of the past, that is, in terms of the circumstances of the past, in terms of who you happen to be today. People are blind or ignorant of that aspect of your self, that isn’t (fully) born or manifest as of yet.

Who is the victim of such attentional violence? Its our highest future possibility, our essential or authentic Self. When our authentic self and highest future possibility is not seen, then its future potential is cut off from the evolution of the present. It does not have a holding space where it could land, were it could presence itself. Not being seen is a form of violence because it violates fundamental human needs. Our culture (following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) thinks of material needs as more fundamental than our spiritual needs (such as being seen in one’s highest potential). I believe that is dead wrong. When do your social and spiritual needs start? at 1200 calories a day? 1500 calories? 2000?

Its the wrong question. spiritual, social, and material basic needs are always present with us. The attentional violence today hits most people on earth all the time. But it hits the hardest those of us, who happen to live in marginalized groups (including youth in general), in which people are habitually not recognized and not referred to in terms of their true future potential. All great teachers, leaders, and educators are highly developed in terms of seeing the other (the student) in their highest future possibility. In fast, SEEING that highest future possibility in the other IS the essence of great education and leadership.

When i was a student i once interviewed a great philosopher. His name is Vitorio Hösle. I probably had read 2000 pages of his work before visiting him. He was like a living Plato to me–in fact, i still think he is. The mere fact that HE was TALKING to ME was kind of mind blowing. He took me and my question as serious as if i was on an equal level with him. I couldn’t believe it. But what really floored me was the end of the conversation. He looked at me and said: “Otto, i expect great things of you in the future.” i almost fainted. i thought “Who is he talking to? Cant be possibly me. Cant be the unknown student who is sitting in front of him now.” But clearly, there was no other person in the room. Is he really talking about — me?

All i can say is that his remark had a big long term impact on me. He saw something that i was totally unaware of. But when he said it i had truly no idea what and whom he was talking about…


currently Stowe, Vermont

19 Comments to Attentional Violence

August 26, 2008

and now i am inspired by you

August 28, 2008

attentional violence:
thanks, what a great thought!

Dave Ebenhoh
August 28, 2008

At the core of every person lies that spark of the divine, that fire of passion that knows no limitation. To see that reality and assist it – to see the beauty of another person’s spirit waiting and trying to blossom and flourish and to create a space that welcomes it – this may be the greatest gift we can give another.

Who might you do it for today?

August 29, 2008


I just love this quote:

“Our culture (following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) thinks of material needs as more fundamental than our spiritual needs (such as being seen in one’s highest potential). I believe that is dead wrong.”

I just moved from the Boston to Vermont. I was worried that no longer having hundreds of restaurants and amenities within walking distance would be a problem. Within a couple of weeks all of that was erased by the human connections that came from being around like minded people. My perspective of my own potential was stuck in my paradigm of the past. Thanks.

George Por
August 31, 2008

> To see that reality and assist it – to see the beauty of another person’s spirit waiting and trying to blossom and flourish and to create a space that welcomes it – this may be the greatest gift we can give another.

Dave, thank you for that elegant expression of what we can do to stop attentional violence (what a perfect meme!) in our sphere of influence.

> Who might you do it for today?

Your question grabbed me, didn’t let me take it just for a rhetoric one. It evoked my desire to raise what I am doing with friends spontaneously, to the level of conscious, generative practice that I can cultivate with anybody.

But even if many of us would take up that practice, it would be not enough to stop attentional violence because it has systemic roots in how our institutions and society are organized. What will change *that*? Probably noothing less than the emergence of a learning society that Willis Harman evoked, 20 years ago.

Talking about the Athenians, he wrote in the Global Mind Change: “They made their society one designed to bring all its members to the fullest development of their highest powers…. Education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of the society….”

How can we get there again (minus the slavery of Athenians), at the current higher turn of history’s spiral? I have no clue but I know the first step and that maybe enough for now: developing our practices inspired by 13th principle:

“Create circles in which you hold one another in the highest future intention. There is an invisible movement going on in the world. It’s a movement that is manifest in a variety of forms and practices, practices that rest on the same underlying principle: to form a collective holding space in which the participants support one another in making sense of and advancing their life and work journeys. It’s also an old movement. It is what the band of real friendship has always been. But it’s more vigorous, fragile, and vital today than ever, because social norms and structures are disintegrating and dissipating left and right.” TU, p.410

Ralf Lippold
September 8, 2008

Dear Otto,

Quite a similar special moment happened to me when I met Jay W. Forrester last summer at MIT (while I was attending a workshop on system dynamics). During a coffee break I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes and asked him, how to get forward with system dynamics in the work field if nobody is really taking it serious. His answer was, “If they don’t listen yet, don’t worry. Work it out yourself and you will learn a lot! By the way, I am still learning.”

Having said that -at the age of almost 90 years of age- I felt quite the same as you did and thought, “Wow, I got some of his time and thoughts even as a total newcomer to the field! That can’t be really true, or?”. Despite his age his eyes had still the spark of fire that someone with a vision has -regardless of circumstances or age.

This episode has inspired me to take the step forward and move on on the road to the future I see, not an easy path as “The road to success is under constant construction” (chinese proverb).

As my ancestors come from Eastern Germany (even though nobody of the family really knows from where exactly) I have the strong feeling that there is the place for me to be (despite the economic low level that it still has). In many talks to people I always sense that the pride of not taken the easy route (going to more prosperous areas) and the spark of doing it a different -if there would be a joice (for them). Actually there is another event in a region where there almost no major economics prosperity and just larger plants. Shutting down a plant with around 600 workers depend on it (directly in the plant and indirectly at several service providers mainly doing business with the plant). In a small town with merely 16.000 inhabitants that will have a big impact (not in the best case, I guess;-().

How to make the change happen before all the mobile workers have moved away for better work?

I wonder, whether there would be a change possible? I have heard that the situation is not so uncommon especially in areas where economic growth depends just on a single resource (such as a mine) or product (washing liquid – as in the mentioned example).

Best regards


September 12, 2008

Dear Ralf–

so what Jay Forrester did to you and what Vitorio Hösle did to me–how could we make the same thing happen ON A COLLECTIVE LEVEL FOR A REGION? What attentional intervention could lift up a whole region from depression towards presencing its highest future possibility?


Ralf Lippold
September 19, 2008

Dear Otto-

At Richard Florida’s Blog ( I have just found a similar case covering a rather small town.

In a way it is the other way round.


Ralf Lippold
October 2, 2008

Dear All –

Seeing what is possible (either as in insider or an outsider) and take action (=intervention) that seems appropriate from this person’s point of view can lead to denial and resistance. This often happens in change programs in organizations where we put lots of money into the chimney only to see that no change happens at all – on the contrary the ball is rolling back into old status;-(

A dear friend from Brussels has shown me the story of “In the land of fools” ( after I had told him that in a workshop a few days ago (on starting up as a team entrepreneur) I was stared at in sheere disgust by the presenter (from a large and well-known consulting company) and the rest of the people.

No connection whatsoever to what idea is behind the team entrepreneurship (which I have experienced at Team Academy a few weeks ago). Talking about the “normal” fields as an entrepreneur (doing software programming, printing T-shirts, teaching academy, etc.) was what the group was on to for the next 2.5 hours.

Then out of the sudden someone had a chance to talk about his “baby” (=project) and as nobody was buying what he was really talking about he released step for step (while being forced by questions and comments like, “This isn’t going to fly! You should have the money earning upfront!”) a dialog opened up -even though not outspoken- the idea of team entrepreneurship came into action as group members sensed that their own idea of business could be woven in with his project in order to generate well-being for everybody.

I had a chance to facilitate the process as I sensed what the people had in their minds – it was great!

And yet the process was stopped as the normal presention had to be finished (as layed out in the agenda):-(

What I could learn from that is the following:

1. Don’t force change
2. Get into a relationship with people where they can feel safe to express their ideas and assumptions (without fearing to be turned down)
3. Let the process decide, whether the agenda is useful or the dialog is more useful
4. Step back in your role as “teacher” even though that his sometimes hard (as in a sense to give up power to the group)
5. Open up time constraints, if the process needs more time!

Just what is currently going through my mind I would like to share with you.

Best regards


Ralf Lippold
October 19, 2008

Yesterday during a conference about climate change in Berlin the opening of the window for new thinking occurred. Martin Unfried, lecturer at the European Institute of Public Administration Maastricht, had a presentation in an ordinary conference setting that was pretty much different.

I could see frowning at people’s heads and changing gears in thinking. Some were disturbed, others -like myself- inspired and after thirty minutes of this extronary event people gathered around Martin showing their appreciation asking for information.

Martin does a column at TAZ, a German newspaper pretty outside the mainstream, focusing on fields uneasy to talk about naming the problems in an open way.

To get a sense here the Youtube video (it is in German though;-()

Boiling down the issue to emotions will eventually lead to sustainable change.

October 22, 2008


i like your five point list above. here is another entry:
–always pay attention to the crack. when the crack calls you then you need to stop (your normal program) and to start paying attention. then, go with the flow…

Lissa Pohl
December 4, 2008

The following quotes relate directly to the literal manifested result of what Otto refers to as attentional violence. “It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost” – Black Elk. “Learn to see again with the eyes undimmed by precedent” – Max Dupree. These statements are not merely metaphorical or some spiritual abstraction, they speak to what is literally happening to us at the physical level 24/7 but we fail to SEE (perceive), and have failed to teach our children the skill sets needed for actually seeing, one and other’s highest potential. Mankind, in general, lacks the perceptual discipline to even notice when someone else’s LIGHTS ARE ON! Or more importantly, when their LIGHTS ARE OUT!
Is this lack of attentional perception violence???
I totally resonate with the idea that being SEEN for our authentic Self (both individually and collectively) is at the heart of transformation and the lack of SEEING often results in heart breaking catastrophe (just look at divorce rates, much less global famine and religious and political wars). However, I can’t say that I resonate with the term attentional “violence” because I feel that most people are not at a level of awareness such that there is anything that can be identified as hostile or violating as a result of their apparent blindness to the potential of others. (Not to come off as a Polly Anna, I am more than aware that there are those on the planet who consciously take other people’s Lights Out). Yet, perhaps a better way of describing this phenomenon is “attentional negligence” or even “Attentional Ignorance” as it seems to be in the realm of unconsciously ignoring that part of us that radiates potential. I like the words Blind Spot. Just because I can’t SEE doesn’t mean I am inflicting violence on others. A huge missed opportunity? Yes!
SEEing others future potential is easy and can be done very systematically. We just need to remember how to do this. In fact, I feel that huge clues for leading ourselves and others are not any farther than our own and other people’s bodies! This is a pretty radical statement but a very important one because I feel that ignoring the physical intelligence (information from the body) is not only a profound oversight but a missed opportunity and resource for developing human potential. By taking literally philosopher Sri Aurubindo’s statement, “The Spirit shall look out through matter’s gaze and matter shall reveal the Spirit’s face” one can begin to build the perceptual discipline that is required to transform ourselves through others.
The questions at hand are “Is anybody home?” and if so, “Are the Lights On?”

Clarissa Sawyer
December 10, 2008

Dear Otto and Ralf-another wonderful example of an “attentional intervention that is lifting up a whole region from depression towards presencing its highest future possibility” is the Harlem Children’s Zone. I was reading about it in the book Worldchanging, when, minutes later, Geoffrey Canada, its center of energy appeared on the (Steven) Colbert Report (a TV program on the USA’s Comedy Central cable TV station). Consistent, loving, patient, unwavering attention to the needs of children and their families has transformed this community. Ralf, love your blog, by the way.

December 30, 2008

Dear Lissa–attentional ignorance. thats interesting. it looks at the process from the viewpoint of the person who is doing it, the perpetrator, right? what i like however about the notion of structural violence is that it is totally separate from the viewpoint of the perpetrator: even though nobody may have bad intentions, people are still hurting and dying. so i like that injection of reality: even though one may not have any bad intentions, it still hurts if you happen to be the victim of attentional violence. right?

thanks for the comments–to be continued–otto

Maggie J
January 18, 2010

As a social worker, I have worked with many people who are struggling with the basics of life, from teens who don’t know how to handle anger, to homeless families. But it is not unusual to find them very concerned about something that is supposedly at a “higher level” according to Maslow. Now one of my clients is HIV positive, didn’t yet have an apartment to live in, had recently broken up with his boyfriend (who was emotionally abusive), and has a history of drug problems. When I collected intake information with him, ending with writing down his personal goals, a major one for him was becoming connected with spiritual resources. Also, he had only been clean and sober for a month, and knew he must address that. Now he has an apartment, regularly attends a group called “the Healing Circle”, and is getting outpatient drug treatment. Life is still a struggle, and will continue to be, but he knew that spirituality was a top goal. I love working with those who are struggling because I learn from them!

Dale Hunter
January 25, 2010

Attentional violence is a very radical notion and I have been resisting it for the last week. However I could not put it out of my mind. Bringing about this change – to seeing ourselves and one another completely as our highest future possibility would change reality completely. The media could not exist as it breeds on the small “s”. Gossip could not exist. Competition could not exist(?) Realtiy would be transformed.
This is more than non violent communication. It is a total revolution of (almost) everything I/we know.

Ralf Lippold
January 15, 2011

Why to believe in others? – ViktorFrankl with some very true words from the 70s

It is seeing the highest possible in individuals as well as in people based entities such as organizations!

Seeing the end of the tunnel, the “northstar”, is what makes out great mentors we have to be very thankful!

Ralf Lippold
January 15, 2012

…. another 12 months (to be exact 365 days later on the day) have passed. Failures, and success, unlearning, and learning occurred, new friends made across the globe, supporters found for the bold idea to create something you also have in mind Otto: a citizen-driven institution enabling innovation to come to reality across boundaries in disciplines, time, space, language, culture, despite different mental models/ landscape that explain the world around us as it happens.

On 31st, Decemember 2011 I have put together some thoughts (see link on my name).

What are your dreams for 2012? #Dreams2012

September 24, 2012

Dear Otto,

it is overwhelming as some blog posts or expressions (like “attentional violence”) have been stuck in my mind, only to come out when experiencing the connections in an opera.

Hans Werner Henze’s “Wir erreichen den Fluss/ We come to the River” which I visited at just a couple of the facilitating ground. Currently I am writing a review on the piece which will have three more performances, and a very well example on the fields of “attentional violence” and the “blind spot of leadership”, even though the original context, and time setting was back in the mid 70s in the late time of the Vietnam conflict.

Many thanks for your public work around change at large scale, and giving me the opportunity to share my findings.

Cheers from Dresden

PS.: For anybody interested in seeing the piece here in Dresden, it will be played on 25th/ 26th and 29th of September!!! A true experience of a life time. Check on Twitter for the hashtag #Henze & #Semperoper

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