Of Note By Toinette

Toinette Lippe

Telling It Like It Is

Straight talk is vital when it comes to children. I learned this lesson long ago when I was taking care of a teenager for three years. I had warned her that if she misbehaved in a certain way again (I can’t any longer recall the circumstances), I would put her across my knee and spank her. When I said that, it was just a threat, and I thought it would be enough to deter her, particularly since she was at that time about seventeen. But then she disobeyed me once more, and I was honor-bound to deliver. I applied a hairbrush ten times to her rump. When it was over there were tears in her eyes and I was taken aback, but I thought that perhaps the indignity had upset her. I hadn’t struck her hard at all. About a year later she told me that it was not the punishment itself that had hurt so much but the quality of my attention. She said that anyone else would have brought the brush down in a different spot each time but because I was so careful, I hit her repeatedly in the same place and almost broke the skin. It’s not that I recommend corporal punishment. I don’t. What is important is that you shouldn’t tell a child that you will do something (or not do something) unless you mean it, because, if you don’t follow through, and it is an empty promise, the child will no longer believe you or have any respect for you. (The same is true for adults, of course.) I know a woman who is always lashing out at her children verbally, but they no longer pay much attention to what she says, because they know that she is speaking from anger and that she has no intention of fulfilling her threats.

Intimately connected to this is the practice of asking a child to do something one way while you yourself act differently. Children learn through mimicry and osmosis. They copy the way you behave. If you are always anxious, the chances are that they will learn to be anxious too. It’s in the air. If you remain calm, then they will not panic. You are the one providing the cues.

It follows that using reverse psychology also sends children a hollow message and the repercussions later in their lives may be irreversible. And, lastly, I don’t subscribe to the “If you eat one more mouthful, then you may…” school. Bargaining with children is an unfortunate practice. I admit that I was tempted to use both these methods when my son was little, but I didn’t succumb. I found that if I spoke with enough authority and really meant what I said, he heard me and would fall into line (Shades of Dr Seuss).

At one time in my life I was put in charge of the advertising for the philosophy school where I was a student. I was instructed that all I needed to do was present what we were offering accurately and concisely, never promising that any particular result it. After all, how could one know what the result might be for other people? The point of advertising is to offer customers goods and services they might need. It is not about tempting them to buy something they might want. There is a vast difference between necessity and desire. I don’t think that anyone remembers this anymore. Copywriters nowadays imagine that their job is to arouse desire. They do this by pinpointing a perceived need but it is rarely a true need.

From NOTHING LEFT OVER

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Arriving in the Present

We live our lives as though whatever we want might arrive in the very next moment. We are skeptical about it arriving right now but if we could just get to the end of this (whatever “this” happens to be), there is a strong possibility that we might be happy. I have observed this even in periods of meditation: I sit down on my cushion, look at my watch to see the time, and set my internal alarm clock for however long, as though the point of the meditation is to get to the end of that period, rather than to be present, in each moment. It is not to get to the future or to be able to say that I have spent x amount of time on my cushion.

I was once taught, “Don’t work for results” and my initial reaction was, “If you don’t work for results, you won’t get any.” At the time I was helping to renovate a brownstone and, indeed, we never seemed able to finish even one part of the house. I see now that the answer lies in having an end in mind, but not focusing on it to the exclusion of the activity itself. For instance, when I get on the subway, I make sure to get on the right train and get off at the appropriate stop, but I don’t focus on where and when I will leave the train while I am sitting there. It is certainly at the back of my mind, but it doesn’t receive ninety-nine percent of my attention.

Our reluctance to remain in the present comes from our natural restlessness. We want to find tranquillity and fulfillment, and for some strange reason we believe that we have to go elsewhere to discover it.

 From CAUGHT IN THE ACT

Are You a Complainer?

Do you like to complain? Even though there is really no point in doing so, unless it is to someone who can remedy the situation.

Those that know me well are aware that I have an annoying habit: I complain a lot. This is something I know I need to work on, and I apologize now to all those friends to whom I should have apologized long ago. When we (read “I”) complain, it is because we believe that things should be other than they are. Who was it who said, “The rain falls equally on the just and upon the unjust, but the unjust has the just’s umbrella”?

If the computer has a conniption and you are put on hold by the techies for twenty minutes, that’s the way it is. Complaining about it upsets you, and it also upsets those who have to listen to your complaints, so what have you achieved? It does not solve anything.

In the end it all boils down to our attitude. If you eat nothing for two weeks, you could call it a fast, or you could see it as starvation. If you are confined to one room for several years, you could view it as a punishment or an opportunity. One of my favorite authors, Charles Morgan, was taken prisoner as a British naval officer during World War I and held captive in Holland for four years. He used the time away from the responsibility of earning a living to write a novel. He considered this period in his life a blessing and went on to write many more novels and win several prestigious literary prizes. Next time I am on hold, I need to remember this, and put the time to good use.

I have a friend who lives in Arizona who tells me he likes to come to New York City where he is constantly caught up in traffic. It gives him the chance to sit and meditate for a little while. This isn’t possible where he lives, because in the desert there are long stretches of road with no traffic lights and no chance to do anything but keep driving. He is the only person I know who seems to enjoy stopping at the lights.

From Nothing Left Over

 

Sidetracked

In the West we hold tenaciously to the view that thought is linear, that we start at A, proceed inevitably to B, and continue in that mode. Yet none of us experience it that way. With the best will in the world, we cannot hold our minds on such a strict rein. They are always straying from the path. Do we cling to the illusion of a direct path because we believe that progress is inevitable if we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted? We are such firm believers in step-by-step guides, even though none of us has managed to follow instructions in the right order.  At any given moment a flood of thoughts clamors for our attention. Yet I have never managed to spot what enables one thought to triumph over all the others, nor what makes it cede its place to another random zealot.

The older I get the more resigned I am to the fact that I do not and cannot think straight, even though I probably have more tenacity than many people I know. Even my attempt to capture these thoughts and set them down on the page was interrupted by an urge to make a note of a phone call that must be made the day-after-tomorrow (I succumbed to this), a vague memory that there was ironing to do (I turned my metaphorical back on this one), a notion that this might be a really good moment to paint (when I’ve finished writing, maybe), and I had been sitting there only five minutes. My mind is a maelstrom.

I tried to observe what was going on in my mind so that I could unmask the enormous pull that happens each time I decide to devote myself completely to some activity. Even as short a time as two minutes into whatever it is, I usually look for ways to cut out and take care of something else. Not that I abandon what I am doing forever, but I don’t stick with it. My mind seeks to escape what it has told me it would like to do now. Any excuse will suffice. The message that seeps into my consciousness on this day is that the hood of the jacket I have just washed and hung in the bathroom might have slipped off the rail into the bath and so I ought to go and check up on it. I know full well that my underlying aim is to penetrate as deeply as possible into whatever is in front of me and that this is not going to happen if I keep behaving like a butterfly. What on earth is it that perpetuates such ridiculous behavior?

It is certainly not that I am incapable of long stretches of full attention. When I am occupied with something to do with my work, then I slog on for hours without a second thought. My devotion is complete when it is a question of doing something for another person but when it is for myself, it falters.

The phenomenon arises most often when I decide to do something that I associate with a practice of attention, such as writing or painting. A tussle ensues between the part of me that has decided to commit this period of time and attention to the task, and another part that seeks to deflect it to something insignificant that can easily be done later. I am determined to watch more closely and see if I can catch sight of what continually drags me away from the present. It has to be an old habit that I have been secretly nurturing all my life. Once I see what it is, I will have the chance to relinquish it.

From Caught in the Act

In What Area of Your Life Do You Feel Like a Failure? Have Hope.

One of the lessons I learned early is that whatever you seem worst at is perhaps where an undiscovered talent lies. It is as though we deliberately ignore our talents and go out of our way to deny them. I discovered this about forty years ago when I was attending classes at the School of Practical Philosophy in New York City, and I was chosen to go to the London school for a week, learn the rudiments of a particular calligraphy discipline, and return to New York to teach it to the other students. At first I thought the person who had asked me to do this was out of her mind. I pointed out that I had the most dreadful handwriting in the whole group. But apparently that was one the reasons I had been chosen. And so I flew to London, devoted an entire week to calligraphy, and went on to be in charge of calligraphy in the New York school for many years, delighting in the forms of the letters and the spaces they described. (It did wonders for my calligraphy, but, unfortunately, nothing for my handwriting, which is execrable to this day).

I observed the same principle in action with another student who was very feisty and always causing problems. Eventually this man was asked to teach the class on a day when the tutor was absent, and he took it over as to the manner born. He never caused trouble in the class again.

So take a moment and consider where your talent might be hiding….

From Nothing Left Over

 

Free Flow

When I was writing Caught in the Act, I decided to try “freewriting.” Just typing whatever came into my head, without censoring it. It was interesting to see where this took me. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

In this early-morning experiment I am not writing for a particular purpose, except perhaps to explore. Once thoughts have leaked out of my unconscious and found their way into words on the page, they are no longer using up energy by being locked inside me. Is this the actualization that Jung speaks of? Uniting the inner and outer consciousness makes for a free flow in whatever direction the mind moves. After I had been trying freewriting for a few weeks, I began to wonder whether, if I was able to go into every situation in the spirit of exploration, that might shift my attitude.

I have this sensation of scouring my mind, looking for any wisps or strands of thoughts that have been lingering in the background. Bringing them into the light of day enables me to examine and evaluate them, and choose to put them to good use, or simply let them go. It is not that I am running around looking for them. I am just sitting here quietly, waiting. There is always some movement going on in the mind, so it is unlikely that nothing fresh will surface. All the stuff I have accumulated in this lifetime is roiling around inside, rising and falling with the tide.

It is somewhat like what happens on most mornings, either in the bath or shower, or when I am preparing to meditate. Odd things waft by, and I can either latch onto them or not. Once one of these thoughts has surfaced, it will hover in memory for an hour or so, revisiting me from time to time to make sure that I haven’t forgotten it. I find that these reminders occur in a very timely fashion, rather like little alarm clocks, and I am very grateful for them.

When I write, the situation is slightly different, in that I am deliberately creating a space for the thoughts to surface, rather than being surprised by them. I become aware of what is idling on the periphery of my vision. It is like looking around a room and estimating whether it needs cleaning and, if so, in what way. It is an active process and, as such, is probably less organic than acknowledging and welcoming thoughts that turn up when I am not summoning them from dark crevices.

Why Do We Always Want to Have Things Our Way?

Toward the end of my mother’s life I went home for a while to take care of her and found myself fighting a silent battle every evening. Books no longer held her attention and she liked to watch television. She turned the volume up very loud because she didn’t like to wear her hearing aid (or could not find it). I sat beside her because I knew how much she treasured my company but I had no interest in the antics being displayed on the screen and I was trying to work on my writing. I could have gone to sit in my bedroom but then she would have felt snubbed. Still, it was hard for me to sit there with all that noise. I had often told her that I like silence but she didn’t believe me. From time to time she asked if I would like the television turned off, and I said that it was fine as long as she watched it and allowed me to work. But every minute or two she made a comment and demanded a response from me: “Look at that woman’s hair! See the beautiful flowers. Isn’t this an old film?” and when I kept silent, she asked whether I had heard her. I would explain that I was fine with her watching and me working. It’s just that she wanted to involve me in her activity and I found this infuriating.

I was able to ignore the flickering and chattering of the tv, but I could not ignore her voice. She would promise to be quiet and not interrupt me again, but she suffered from short-term memory loss. Looked at in one way, this is a blessing: She had reached a state that many of us are still aiming for in that she was more often than not in the present moment and did not refer back to the past. Still, for those around her it did test the extent of their patience. As I remarked to my brother, she was more ecologically conscious than the rest of us and she recycled her conversation every minute or so. Before I could get to the end of another sentence, she would be asking me innocently to look at the tv again. Why did I find it so hard to give her this time? There was probably little of it left. I was trying to deny her my attention—the one thing that it was in my power to give, but which I was selfishly withholding. Much of what she said and did was no longer under her control. I was ashamed of my lack of generosity and resolved not to tussle with her that way again. What on earth did I think I was achieving by punishing her in this way?

Gradually I became aware that it was simpler (and kinder, of course) to say yes to what was happening and let it be, to “suffer” it, in the real sense of the word. After that it was not nearly so hard to sit in the living room with her hour after hour, joining her in her activity rather than attempting to flee in my mind. After all, I had traveled three thousand miles to be with her. What was the point of wishing myself somewhere else?

Are We Human Beings or Human Doings?

It is our addiction to “doing” that causes us to feel so pressured these days. We cram more and more into our days and none of it ultimately satisfies us, because we ourselves are the driving force behind it, seeking to achieve this and that, and coming up empty-handed every time. All this activity doesn’t bring us the serenity and contentment we seek. It just exhausts us. If we stop to think about it, whatever it is will either get done or it won’t. If we were to die today, either someone else would take care of it or not.

It is the claim that we put on this doing that is the problem. Somewhere deep inside us we believe that we are what we do. We identify with our actions. We invest ourselves in every action, under the illusion that if we are not doing something, then perhaps we don’t exist. Invest means “clothe in.” It is a habit, something we don. Somehow, we persuade ourselves that it is our responsibility to do every job. We become identified both with the work and the results. But the truth is that it is not our work, it is the work. If we can find a way to relax our grip on our actions and what comes out of them, there is great freedom. Just watching the activity, rather than becoming completely identified with it, is restful rather than exhausting. Nowadays people will claim almost any work they think they have to do. I hear people say that they have to do a wash, when what they mean is that they have to carry laundry to the washing machine and press a button. However, since they believe that they are doing the washing, they may be using up as much energy as they would if they had to go down to the river and beat the sheets on a rock.

Just This Moment

The eighteenth-century Japanese brush painter Ike no Taiga was once asked, “What is the most difficult thing to paint?” And he replied: “The part that is not painted.”

By dint of exquisite placement and juxtaposition, in traditional Japanese arts our attention is arrested time and again, and we are presented with an opportunity to contemplate and appreciate discrete moments of eternity. The Japanese have refined everything to its essential elements.  Theirs is a culture of illumination, highlighting instants of clarity by focusing on small details. Each movement or object is exactly prescribed and nothing is left to chance. Spontaneity is allowed to arise but only within a certain form. Each stroke of the brush, movement of the fan, and so on, stands alone as a gesture that can never be precisely replicated. There is also a strong element of modesty in everything the Japanese do while the American way is profligate, a way of excess. Americans are always seeking more of everything, while the Japanese demonstrate how little is actually necessary. What we have is an in-your-face culture. We shout rather than whisper while in Japan things tend to be implied rather than spelled out.

So today I am keeping this short (!).

 

A New Look

A key issue we often overlook is our own attitude. Someone once said to me: “Everything is fine as it is. Your view of it may or may not be.” In his book, Travels, Michael Crichton pointed out that the most valuable thing we can possess is a perspective, a new way of looking at things. “The purpose of education is to provide perspectives… Any new perspective alters consciousness.”

What I have discovered is that not only does a different view of things change the outcome but so does a different form. I used to make bread every day and I always used the same recipe (whole wheat flour, dry yeast, salt, water) but I didn’t necessarily make a round loaf each time. Sometimes I made a long loaf and sometimes I made rolls. When I took the bread out of the oven, the texture and the taste were different depending on the shape and size. This never failed to surprise me. Early in the 1970s I shared a brownstone with some friends. Since we all enjoyed fresh bread, we would take it in turns to do the baking each day, and we signed up for however much we needed: half a loaf, two loaves, whatever. We were all using the same ingredients and the same recipe, but the bread always turned out differently, depending on who made it. In fact, you could tell who had baked bread that day by looking at it and picking it up. The taste and appearance of the bread usually reflected the character of the baker. Some people baked high, fluffy loaves with lots of holes in them but little taste. Others produced indigestible, stone-like offerings. What did I bake? Very compact, tasty loaves, of course. I could never make my loaves rise the way I wanted them to, but they always tasted delicious.

I encountered a couple of tai chi chuan teachers recently who focus on this principle. They have understood that if you free the body from mechanical movements, you also free the mind from mechanical thoughts. As one put it, “The moment you change your physical position, it changes the way you think.”

The opposite is also true: If you change the flow of energy, you change the structure. When a moment of clarity comes, we move naturally from a contorted position and vice versa. Straighten your back and become balanced, and your head will also clear.