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Giving others our full attention is such a simple thing, and yet how often do we do it? Whether the person we are with is dying or living, attention is one of the greatest treasures we can give them.

It is only when you bring all your senses to bear on whoever or whatever is in front of you that you will know how to proceed. We tend to approach most things with preconceived ideas. We carry forward whatever we noticed on earlier occasions, in the belief that it will be useful this time. There is an unspoken assumption that we do not need to pay much attention this time, because “we’ve done it before.” But no two situations are exactly the same, and this habit can be very costly. Centuries ago Heraclitus pointed out that you cannot step twice into the same river, and hardly any of us have taken his observation to heart.

When you are faced with a physical task, you need to put your attention on the place where the work is happening. For instance, if you are hammering a nail into the wall, you may think that you should focus on the head of the nail. However, the work is actually taking place where the nail is going into the wall, so put your mind right there, while you watch the hammer hit the nail. This will enable the nail to go straight in. If you are trying to unscrew a recalcitrant jar, let your attention rest in the space between the metal and the glass as you twist. You may think that there isn’t any space there, but obviously there must be, or the two would be glued together.

We are always anticipating that something better (or worse) is about to happen, but it is good to keep in mind that wonderful Gahan Wilson cartoon in which two men are sitting on cushions in the zendo, and have obviously been there for some time. Then the monk leans over and whispers into the ear of the novice: “Nothing happens next. This is it.”

In order to see what is going on in any given moment, we need to have our attention out, rather than in (which, unfortunately, is where it is most of the time). Instead of being carried along by the flow of events, or retreating from it, we need to be right here. There is just this moment. Being present is the only way to appreciate the divine. I don’t know how we got it into our heads that whatever is going on right now is probably not that important, but it is a very pervasive view, even though in 1242 Zen Master Dogen observed, “Each day is valuable…. Do not compare it with a dragon’s bright pearl. A dragon’s pearl may be found. But this one day out of a hundred years cannot be retrieved once it is lost.”

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Toinette Lippe was born in London, where she began her publishing career. In 1964 she came to New York City “for a year,” worked at Simon and Schuster for three years, and then at Alfred A. Knopf for more than thirty years as reprint rights director and editor of the Feng/English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman’s How Can I Help?, and other spiritual bestsellers. 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 own two books, Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life and Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing, were published in 2002 and 2004, and reissued as ebooks and paperbacks in 2014.

Toinette began to study brush painting in 2001. Her paintings, cards, and signed copies of her books can be viewed and purchased at She taught ink painting at the Educational Alliance on New York’s Lower East Side from 2007 until 2011, and now offers small classes and private lessons on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The first book she has illustrated, Gunilla Norris's On the Wing--a book of days--was published in December 2016.

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This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Toinette is a teacher sans pareil! She is patient and kind and has a knack for seeing and responding to what people seek to learn.

  2. “I don’t know how we got it into our heads that whatever is going on right now is probably not that important,…” I will be pondering this question all day, probably missing what is right in front of me as a result. Or maybe not! Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  3. Toinette clearly lives what she writes. It is evident in her paintings. That is why they are so full, even where they are empty. Even the spaces, or perhaps especially the spaces, say “Nothing happens next. This is it.” Toinette shows us the relationship between Beauty and Attention.

  4. Toinette reminds us that the internal chatter of chores and concerns serves
    little purpose other than keeping the body alive. The real event is taking
    place right under your nose. This very moment is all you will ever have to
    direct change and move mountains. How fortunate we are to have this
    opportunity all day and every day. Russ Paul

  5. Very true Toinette, I believe we need to give our full attention to every living thing or person we everyone. Not doing this is insulting and disparages the person. Everyone has something to say, the measure of it’s important is not our business. In 2004, my only son was killed, after his funeral people avoided me like the plague. No one realizes that parents of murdered children have a deep need for someone to listen to them, talk about their child that passed away. My son taught me how to be present, in the here and now; I appreciate that Toinette. Thank you for such an excellent piece of love which, I could tell came from your heart.

    Great job!
    Elizabeth Sifuentes

    1. Thanks for your wise observations, Toinette. I would like to pay more attention to
      whether my attention is out or in! Helen Cohen

  6. I’m reminded of a time when I was painting a bamboo stalk. Even though I was aiming for a straight line, my brush only seemed to paint wavy lines. When I ask Toinette (my painting teacher) why, she said that I’d lost my focus. I was too involved with the what was going on around me (and inside my head) and not fully focused on what was in front of me . . . the blank sheet of rice paper. So I’m smiling now to read this essay by Toinette, and nodding Yes! It’s so true. When I’m not in the present moment, I’m like that wavy brushstroke line. Thank thank thank, my teacher/my guide. Vivian Eyre

  7. Toinette has a unique way of looking into life and sharing with clarity and humor…the insights she finds in her quite, focused attention. She is a living blessing!

  8. Dogen writes: “Without being discussed as two pearls or three pearls, the whole body is one right Dharma-eye, the whole body is real substance, the whole body is one phrase, the whole body is brightness, and the whole body is the whole body itself. When it is the whole body it is free of the hindrance of the whole body; it is perfect roundness, and roundly it rolls along.” Pearls, dragons, hammers and nails, the rest, on we roll! Thank you!

  9. Beautiful Toinette – Thank you so much for sharing!! Inspired me to be more present and honor myself and others, honoring this moment even more … and also to LET GO of all the thoughts of the future in my future busy-ness 😉 … that I’ve just been focusing on for two hours.. : ) thanks again

  10. Thank you. Yes giving attention from moment to moment, it is the pure life, the experience, as another moment will it not be exactly the same.

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