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FEATURE - September 2015
Excerpt from Nothing Left Over
By Toinette Lippe
Some years ago I was invited to attend a conference on inner science at which His Holiness the Fourteenth 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.
Nowadays people tend to look for distraction, any distraction that will take their mind off whatever they don’ t want to think about. This tends to take the form of “entertainment.” People will do almost anything in order to avoid being where they are, doing whatever it is that needs to be done. Sometimes they are seduced (by themselves) into thinking that whatever anyone else is doing is bound to be more interesting than what they are doing. This assumes many guises, but all of them make us restless and discontent, unable to settle down to what we really need to do, and usually unable to enjoy it.
There is one small rule that can be of enormous benefit to us, not only when we are engaged in work but also throughout our lives, and it is this: Do and say nothing unnecessary. In order to observe this rule, we need to remain in the present or we will not be able to tell if something is necessary, so right from the start it can be seen that this is a useful thing to do. This maxim also implies that we will do whatever is necessary to accomplish the task at hand, while giving up what is not germane.
One of the places where it is important to recognize what is necessary and what isn’ t is in our own homes. I remember reading a proposal for a book about this many, many years ago. It suggested that you sit down and make a list of the things that you actually do at home most of the time and then plan your furniture and its arrangement around them. It pointed out that many people buy a three-piece suite simply because they believe it is the thing to do. But how many people actually sit on a sofa at any given time? Usually one. People feel a little crowded if they have to share a sofa with someone else. So in my living room I have two small love seats rather than one big sofa. Love seats are more intimate and more practical. I like to put my legs up when I read, so I have love seats with firm, straight backs to support me, and when I have guests, I encourage them to take their shoes off and put their legs up just the way I do.
What each person needs in a particular room of the house will differ, but the trick is not to take into that room anythingthat isn’ t really necessary. “Necessary” will, of course, include beautiful things and not just useful ones, but the fewer of (each of) these there are, the better. Avoid clutter of all kinds.
All this talk of what is unnecessary raises the question: What is necessary? A very big question. I once gave a talk to the twelfth grade of my son’ s school, and the teacher who introduced me asked how I would describe the kind of books I published. “Necessary books,” I replied. “ I have to believe that the world really needs a book before I will take it on.” This caused him to ask me to write an essay for the school magazine on “ What Constitutes a Necessary Book?”
At the time (1985), I consulted my dictionary and discovered that necessary was defined as “needed for the continuing existence or functioning of something; essential; indispensable,” and to those definitions I added “useful; a tool.” On reflection, I realized that what I try to do is supply readers with something vital to body, mind, or heart, and what I see as my function is to supply this something in its most appropriate form to all those who really need it. When someone picks up a book, the title and subtitle, the color and design of the jacket, the copy on the flaps, the choice of typeface and interior design, the paper, and the binding should all inform the prospective reader of the writer’s intent. I believe that the physical aspect of each book should be a reflection of everything that is within it. Because I am writing this in 2001, I must add one more thing: In publishing during the 1980s all you had to do was produce the book and float it out into the bookstores where it would find a ready audience. Now that so many more books are published each year by companies large and small and even by individuals, it is no longer enough to manufacture books; you also have to find a way of bringing them to the attention of customers, which is a much more difficult proposition. But if you cannot do this, your books will have no chance in the marketplace, and all your effort will have been for naught.
The principle behind all this is not to waste precious energy where it is not needed. We do tend to fritter it away if we are not aware of what we are doing. Sometimes this takes the form of a nervous tapping of the foot or drumming of the fingers. I notice that television cameras often focus on people’ s hands and what they are doing while they are making speeches or testifying, so I am not the only person who has spotted this. I catch myself walking down the street with my hands clasped in front of me. Usually I am walking in order to get some exercise, and the best way to achieve this is not to restrict the body in any way. Let the arms swing. I don’ t know how I started this unfortunate habit, which creates tension rather than relaxation and has the opposite effect from the one I am hoping for, but perhaps by keeping an eye on it now, I will be able to let go enough to just walk and not clutch.
There is one thing I must record here because it was the impetus for this book: When Joel suggested that I write this book, I asked him what would be in it, and he said, “ Well, when you go to make yourself a cup of tea, you just boil one cup of water.” “Doesn’ t everyone?” I responded. “Of course not,” he said. “ Well, then, they are wasting not only water but time and energy too.” He smiled and nodded. Since then I have spoken to quite a few people about this. It turns out that I am not the only person who fills the kettle with exactly the amount of water I need, but there are enough people who have never even given it a thought for me to tuck this advice into the book. Small note: It’ s not that I measure the water in the kettle exactly, but from years of experience I know how heavy the kettle feels when it has enough water in it for one person.
Asking yourself what is truly necessary can make an enormous difference in your life. Ask it in all kinds of circumstances—when you are tempted to criticize or gossip but also when whoever you are with is silently crying out for something and you are not noticing it because you are filled with your own thoughts.
Born in London, Toinette Lippe had a long and distinguished career at Alfred A. Knopf. In 1989 she founded Bell Tower, where she
published seventy books that nourished the soul, illuminated the mind, and spoke directly to the heart. Her second book, Caught in
the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing was published in 2004. After fifty years in publishing Toinette abandoned editorial
work and devotes herself to East Asian brush painting, which she taught at the Educational Alliance for four years and now teaches on
the Upper West Side of New York City.