Of Note By Toinette

Toinette Lippe

One Thing at a Time

I once attended a press conference and watched the reporters scribbling furiously (it was in the days before people used tape recorders or cell phones to do their work for them). Then I noticed one man sitting very still and not taking notes. He just listened.  Afterward I asked him why he had not written anything down and he replied that if he took notes, he would be doing two things at the same time and would therefore undoubtedly miss something. He did not wish to split his attention.

I was thinking about this recently, in particular with regard to studying and learning, because our training has been to take notes on everything we are taught in school, so that we can refer back to them later, and I wondered why we all do this.  When we read an item in a book or newspaper, hear about an event, or discover an idea by ourselves, we have no difficulty whatever remembering it and reporting it afterward. This is because it is something that interests us, something that caught and held our attention. The trouble comes only when we are not interested in something. For instance, if we are taking a course and need to study something that is required and we wish it wasn’t. What happens then is that we tend to focus on our resistance to the matter at hand rather than whatever it is we are supposed to be learning. So the secret is to be interested in whatever we are learning or doing. Then the full power of our consciousness flows to it, it goes directly into the mind, and we have no difficulty retrieving it later. It does not have to be “learned”. The learning happens naturally.

Telling the Truth

In her poem “Ladder,” Jane Hirshfield says, “Rarely are what is spoken and what is meant the same.” I was astonished when I came across that line but on reflection I realized that, indeed, this is unfortunately the case. Over the last couple of decades there has been a degradation in the value of words. People no longer seem to have faith in the words of others, particularly anyone in public office or the press, and so they don’t give what these people say any credence. And I have come to the reluctant conclusion that many people don’t even understand what they themselves are saying. There is an imprecision that has crept into the language that is a little terrifying.

I try to be meticulous in my speech, in that I say exactly what I mean in the fewest possible words. From time to time I see that other people are taken aback by this forthrightness, since they are not used to it. There are certainly times when it is better to say nothing at all but if you are going to speak, why not say what you mean? Get right to the point. Avoid the preamble. This doesn’t mean that you have to be brutal. You can cut to the chase and still be gentle, but it is a kindness to others not to hold back if there is really something you want to communicate. When I talk, there is no hidden agenda because nothing is hidden.

I am still English, even though this is my fiftieth year in New York City. It is no secret that many English people find it hard to express a preference and are inclined to defer to the other person, not wishing to upset them in any way: “What would you like to do?” “Oh, I don’t mind. What would you like to do?” “It doesn’t matter to me, really. Would you like to go to a movie?” “Would you?” This exchange can go on for some time and even when it is over, neither person is quite sure whether the final choice is mutually satisfying. Better to be clear in the beginning and get on to the next thing. Someone once called me to ask if I would like to go and see “Gladiator,” since it had just won an Oscar. I was pleased that I had been invited, but my answer was brief and to the point: “No, thank you. Go with someone else. I saw ‘Quo Vadis’ when I was a teenager and that is enough Roman stuff for me.” If you say something this straight, other people know exactly where you stand.

I recall the broadcast that Saddam Hussein made to the American people during the Gulf War. It went on for a very long time and almost no one could grasp his message, because he never seemed to say whatever it was he wanted us all to know. All I took away from listening to it was the phrase “the mother of all battles” and the impression that Arabic was an even more indirect language than I had thought. I couldn’t tell whether his style was more flowery and oblique than other Iraqis, but I suspect that it was. And this was sad, because I think that many of us were curious to understand his point of view.

Telling the truth is completely uncomplicated. You don’t have to work out any strategy. You just tell it like it is. Also, there is no residue. You don’t find yourself wondering if you should or shouldn’t have said something. This saves an inordinate amount of time and energy (two things at a premium these days).

Nourishing Ourselves

Whatever we put into our bodies, minds, and hearts is what feeds them, but I am not sure that we appreciate the implications of this and we are often very careless about what we consume. We think, “Oh, it’s just this once,” but these “onces” become habitual and can soon add up to a lifetime of neglect.

A simple and delicious way to eat is to choose food that is as close to its natural state as you can find and then enjoy it without adding or taking anything away from it, that is, without cooking or seasoning. Lanza del Vasto described it as “putting as little space and time as possible between the earth and your mouth.” Choose fruit and vegetables that are fresh and in season, and that have not traveled too long or too far before you buy them. If you can discover fruit that has ripened on the tree and was not sprayed in the process, so much the better. Then eat it at its best, with the taste of the sun still there. Resist the temptation to garnish everything and you will find that an avocado, if it is a good avocado, has a flavor all its own. In fact, each avocado (or apple or apricot) seems to taste completely different from any other you have ever eaten.

From time to time I stock up my shelves with dried herbs, beans in all colors, shapes, and sizes, a variety of grains, cookies, and crackers. They form a wonderful display in their glass jars but months go by and I forget to use any of them. What I actually consume are the things in my short-term memory—whatever I have bought in the last few days. I go to the fruit and vegetable market and buy whatever is fresh and firm (beware of produce that is bruised or flabby). I am, after all, the granddaughter of a Covent Garden wholesale fruit and vegetable merchant. I do not buy more than I can use within two or three days because then it will no longer be fresh. This is hard to keep to when I visit a farmers’ market because there is so much wonderful stuff, but you have to be stern with yourself and buy with your head and not your belly.  I also find it difficult to restrain myself when it comes to quantities of wondrous-looking fruit and vegetables. When I am putting them into plastic bags, I have to remind myself to buy enough for only one dish. This is particularly hard when I am cooking just for myself. But I believe that it is a crime to take home more than I can use.

When the moment comes to prepare a meal, I look in the refrigerator and see what is there and what combination of foods seems right for the day and hour. This is just the way I choose what to wear in the morning. The resulting meals (and outfits) can be quite stunning, if you don’t carry preconceived ideas of what goes together and what doesn’t. It is not that I never use cookbooks but I tend to use them for inspiration rather than information. If I have someone coming to dinner, I occasionally consult a cookbook. I leaf all the way through and always come up with a recipe that includes ingredients that are not in season. This is because we are always attracted by something unavailable (or, at least, I am). Then I try to figure out how I can adapt the recipe I have chosen for ingredients that I can actually find.

Even if you have a large family, try to estimate quantities accurately. Almost everyone would prefer a new dish rather than leftovers day after day. Yes, I know that there are such things as freezers, and people are always encouraging me to make enough for several meals and tuck portions away in the deep freeze. But psychologically this does not work for me. I just can’t believe that eating food that is canned, bottled, dried, or frozen is as good as eating produce that is only a few hours old. Of course it is possible to survive by eating foods that have had all these things done to them but over the long haul, I suspect that they take their toll. You can also be nourished by foods already prepared and available in stores. However, you will be far more nourished by food you have prepared yourself and it will also be cheaper and simpler.

One thing that may change your attitude toward the food is saying grace. In 1992, I edited a little book by Marcia and Jack Kelly entitled One Hundred Graces. In the introduction I wrote about the function and nature of mealtime blessings:

 

Saying grace is an ancient and vital tradition the world over. To begin with, it provides a space, a moment of stillness, in which to relinquish the activities of the day, and allow the mind to settle. Then, as we acknowledge the source of our nourishment, we are filled with astonishment at the generosity of the Creator, with gratitude, and with praise. In bringing the body, mind, and heart together, we come to ourselves, and remember who we are and why we are here. For some families, a meal is the only time everyone is present and so the opportunity to enjoy one another and really celebrate the occasion is not to be lost. For many, a meal is also the only time that there is any memory of the Divine. Saying grace establishes an immediate connection with that memory. In such a moment, when our minds are clear and the truth is reinforced by being sounded aloud, we can dedicate the meal and the strength we receive from it to the service of whoever or whatever is before us.

 

Once you have the food in front of you, the next thing is to remember to taste every mouthful; otherwise, it is such a waste. How many times have you wolfed something down because it was your favorite food, and realized when your plate was empty that you did not actually taste any of it? So smell it, taste it, chew it, and swallow it only when you are sure you have experienced it.

 

Undivided Attention

Many years ago I was invited to attend a conference on inner science at which His Holiness the  Dalai Lama spoke. I listened to him elucidating Buddhist dialectics for three days and was for the most part unable to understand the content or direction of his argument. However, I soon became aware that his actual teaching—at least for me—was going on at another level.  I noticed that whatever he did or said, he did with his whole being—whether it was laughing, talking, or just resting. Part of him was not doing something else. He was completely concentrated in the moment and the power of his unsplintered attention was electrifying. Not only was all his attention given to whatever he chose, but mine was also. Since he was not distracted, neither was I. I left the conference in some amazement, never before (or since) having met anyone who appeared able to focus in this way. This teaching was a tremendous gift.

The other day I heard from an old colleague musing in a wistful tone about when he could retire from his job and just do one thing at a time. He felt completely overwhelmed and torn apart by the multitude of tasks in front of him. The truth is you don’t have to wait for retirement to do only one thing at a time. There really isn’t any other way to do things. People who believe that they can do more than one thing at a time are just fooling themselves. If you split your attention between, say, three tasks, all you are doing is giving your attention to one of them, then leaving that one for a minute and moving to the next, and so on. I know it looks and feels as though you are doing everything at the same time, but look again.

Most of us are brought up to believe that it is advantageous to do as many things as possible at the same time. However, if we observe carefully we will discover that this is not only undesirable, but counterproductive. Unfortunately, we not only believe that doing more than one thing at a time is good, we have drawn a veil over our activities so that for the most part we are oblivious to what is actually happening.

Take ironing, for example. We may remain aware of what we are doing while we are laying the garment on the ironing board, but as soon as our hand begins to steer the iron over the garment, our thoughts are off and away. Ironing is one of the dreamiest activities. It is a useful exercise to give full attention to the ironing and see if we can spot the mind’s tendency to wander off. Each time it does, gently bring it back to the task in hand. The ironing will be accomplished better and in less time if it is done without the mind doing something else. In addition, we will discover that ironing—or anything else, for that matter—is not a boring activity. Usually, what makes something appear boring is that we are not giving it any attention. When we give it our undivided attention, many details become clear—things that we would ordinarily miss—and the result may be intriguing.

Obviously, we can walk along the street and look into store windows as we pass them. However, we can give our attention to only one of these activities. If the walking is going along fine by itself, it is easy to look in a window. Yet, if we stumble, knock into someone, or hear a screech of brakes, our attention immediately leaves the store window and is drawn to whatever requires it. It goes there instantly and the window is forgotten. Most of us walk down the street with our attention neither on the activity of walking, nor on the windows of the stores we are passing; not on the architecture of the buildings, nor on the behavior of the drivers a few feet from us; not on the clouds or planes in the sky, and probably not often on the people walking alongside us or approaching us. We are simply lost in thought, rehearsing something which happened and we wish it hadn’t, or something that we would like to happen, going through a mental checklist of things that need doing or people we hope to see. Anything but giving attention to where we are and what is taking place. These mental conversations that we have with ourselves are generally not very fruitful since we cannot rewrite history and, if we are scripting a future conversation, the chances are that other people will not be aware of their cues when the time comes. And while this energy-consuming activity is taking place in our heads, the world is turning and we are missing so much that is taking place. It seems sad not to embrace the fullness of the moment in which anything may be revealed.

 

Surrender

Sometimes, when we experience particular resistance to an idea we need to understand, the rug is pulled out from under our feet, and we no longer have any choice but acceptance. In the summer of 2001 I made a pilgrimage to Konya, the city in western Turkey where the thirteenth-century mystic poet Rumi lived most of his life and where he found and then lost his beloved friend and teacher, Shems-i-Tabriz.

I should explain that I am not someone who is comfortable with full prostrations, be they Buddhist or Muslim. At Shems’s tomb (he was murdered and his body never found, but this is the place where his coffin stands and where he is eternally remembered) I prostrated myself with the other women, but it made me uneasy. Later in the day, when we returned to our hotel, I missed my footing on the two low steps at the entrance to the restaurant. Before I knew it I had been catapulted face down on the ground and could not get up.

People rushed to my aid and carried me to a chair. Quantities of ice arrived, someone administered jin shin jitsu, and our ever-cheerful bus driver, who spoke no English, sat beside me and held my hand in his firm grasp. I had never had an accident in my life, and here I was completely immobile. People were asking if I thought I’d broken any bones and whether a doctor should  be called. Since I was able to wiggle my toes, I didn’t think anything was broken, and I assumed that it was just a bad sprain, which only rest and time would heal, so I didn’t opt for a doctor. What I really wanted was a strong Scotch, but this was impossible because the hotel was strictly Muslim and therefore dry. My whole system had received such a violent shock that my torso shuddered for about ten minutes. I drank two whole bottles of water instead of the longed-for whiskey.

After dinner (to which I was carried by our driver and our guide), five dervishes arrived to give us a private demonstration of “turning” or “whirling.” As I sat watching them, it came to me that Shems, or perhaps Rumi, had heard what was reverberating in my mind and had responded: “You don’t like to humble yourself before Allah? Who cares what you like or don’t like? Down you go without more ado.” I had, it seemed, finally got my “come-downance.” I am reluctant to participate in rituals, and the evening promised to be one where we were expected to join in and learn how to perform zikr, or “remembrance of God.” I observed rather ruefully that it was amazing the lengths I was willing to go to, to avoid surrender and give up the tight control I try to exercise over myself  all the time! Yet wasn’t the whole point of the pilgrimage to Turkey (and, indeed, of my life) the remembrance of God?

The usual translation of “Islam” is “surrender,” and the implication is that the surrender is to God. But in his novel Abandon, Pico Iyer describes how, if you see surrender in terms of a surrendering of rather than surrendering to, it becomes clear that what has to be given up is everything. We are such nitpickers—perhaps willing to give up this or that (for now, but probably not forever). But giving up everything? This is a tall order. When I was taught Transcendental Meditation, someone told me that nothing should come between you and the Divine, not even a mantra. Eventually even the mantra must be surrendered for there to be complete union. In India, around the third century B.C., the sage Patanjali wrote in his Yoga Sutras of aparigraha, or “not grasping or claiming,” and of ishvarapranidhana, or “surrender to the Lord,” two requisites, he said, for living a life of purity and devotion. Later, these ideas of nonattachment were developed by the Buddha. The question is What do they mean for us in the twenty-first century? The basic human condition has not changed, however much loot we have accumulated in our closets, our minds, and our hearts. How can we divest ourselves of all that we cling to in each and every moment of our lives?

 

Each Moment Is a Hologram

Whenever we look out at the world, we do so with a certain perspective. We are never in a position to see everything all at once; each take on the universe is just one point of view. But this is as it should be. This is the bounty of diversity. On the other hand, there is nothing that cannot be seen in whatever we look at, if our gaze penetrates deeply enough. Each moment is a hologram and our attention is the tool that illuminates everything going on there—or not. Emerson understood this. In his essay “Spiritual Laws,” he wrote:

The object of the man … is to make daylight shine through him,

to suffer the law to traverse his whole being without obstruction,

so that on what point soever of his doing your eye falls

it shall report truly of his character,

whether it be his diet, his house, his religious forms,

his society, his mirth, his vote, his opposition.

I find this when I am on the subway, looking at the other passengers. You can learn a great deal about who they are just by observing their dress, their posture, the quality of their attention. You don’t need to go and visit them in their homes, although that would reveal even more.

Enough

Here is the epigraph at the beginning of Nothing Left Over:

“Experience is the fuel: I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”

May Sarton wrote this in her book  Plant Dreaming Deep, and it has been a constant thread in my life ever since I came across it.

It was my friend and original publisher, Joel Fotinos, who dreamed up the idea for the book in 2000. The thought would never have occurred to me on my own. We were having dinner one night and I was telling him of my plans to leave full-time employment and he instantly suggested that I write a book for him with this title. Once I had got over the shock, the notion seemed irresistible. When I stopped to consider it, I realized that everything I do is governed by the principle of not having anything left over. Still, I’m baffled that he was able to size me up so accurately.

I realized that living economically and wanting to be of service to other people and share with them whatever has come my way has always been a theme for me. When I arrived in the United States, I met with the head of the fledgling New York philosophy school, and she asked me, “What do you want from us?” I was taken aback by this question because both at home and in the school’s parent organization in London, I could not recall anyone ever asking me what I wanted. As far back as I remembered, I was simply told what to do and usually I did it. I don’t wish to imply that I was a yes-person. I certainly challenged authority a great deal but this took a certain amount of courage because challenge was not considered an option by Those-in-Charge. (This was England fifty years ago. In the United States there are always so many options…)

For a moment there was silence as I tried to collect my thoughts, and then I said, “I just want to be useful.” I understand now that this desire has characterized my whole life. I like things to be put to good use. For me, economy is all. I never buy or cook any more than is necessary. I am always going through my closets to see what I can pass on to someone else. I feel guilty if I am not using whatever I own—books, sweaters, shoes, you name it. And when I went through my files to see if I had ever written anything on the subject of economy, I found that quote by May Sarton, which I had squirreled away five years before. Come to think of it, none of this should have surprised me, since I began my training at a place called the School of Economic Science! (The school had begun by teaching the economics of the American Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, and had gone on to add philosophy to its curriculum. I never found the economic aspect of what was taught there very appealing. Or so I thought until Joel asked me to write a book. I’d always been under the impression that I had gone there for the philosophy.)

As I thought about it, I realized that the result of gathering about you only what you need and relinquishing everything else is self-sufficiency—a lack of emotional neediness. This is another way of saying that it is wise to be satisfied with what you have. Lately, I have been mulling over the word “content.” I find it wonderful that it means both “that which is contained” and also “being satisfied.” Both meanings come from the past participle of the Latin verb continere. Contentment is a peaceful and unruffled state but nowadays it is all too rare.

So everything you read in the pages of Nothing Left Over is an exploration of how to live so that supply does not exceed demand or consumption; how to share whatever you may have with everyone else, not holding anything back in a miserly way; and how to trust that the universe will respond to you in the same way that you respond to it.

The Sound of the Bell

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The pure sound of the bell summons us into the present moment.

The timeless ring of truth is expressed in many different voices,

each one magnifying and illuminating the sacred.

The clarity of its song resonates within us

and calls us away from those things that often distract us–

that which was, that which might be–

to That Which Is.

I wrote the lines above in 1989 when I established the Bell Tower imprint at Harmony/Crown, and over the next twenty years I published seventy books I hoped would nourish the soul, illuminate the mind, and speak directly to the heart. Many of those books live on and you can see some of them on my website at http://www.toinettelippe.com/books_edited.html.

In 2002 my own first book, Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life was published, followed two years later by Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing. Both were written with those lines in mind. And now, in February 2014, these books have been newly released by Monkfish as ebooks and paperbacks, this time with my own paintings on the covers and as frontispieces. See http://www.monkfishpublishing.com/

Over the months ahead I plan to share with you some of the insights that came to me as I was writing these books, and I hope that you will be moved to share  anything you feel will illuminate for others ways in which we can return to That Which Is. I look forward to these conversations.