Remember what matters most

fall leaves, arranged in order of color

In every life, reminders arrive about what’s really important.

I’ve recently received one myself, in a form that’s already come to countless people and will come to countless more: news of a potentially serious health problem. My semi-annual dermatology mole check turned up a localized melanoma cancer in my ear that will need to come out immediately. The prognosis is very positive – this thing is “non-invasive” – but it’s certainly an intimation of mortality. Hopefully this particular bullet will whiz by, but it’s an uncomfortably concrete message that sooner or later something will catch up with each one of us.

Personally, I am doing alright with this. It’s like there are three layers to my mind as I write here, just a few days after I got the news. The top is focused on problem-solving. Beneath that there’s a furry little animal that’s upset and wants to curl up with loved ones. The bottom feels accepting, peaceful, and grateful.

Naturally enough, after the bullet passes – maybe taking a bit of your ear with it! – you reflect on your life, both past and to come. Of course, you don’t need a health scare – which in my case is small potatoes compared to what so many people around the world must deal with – to consider what you care about most. Then you appreciate the things you’ve honored so far, and you see where you could center yourself more in what’s truly important to you.

While it’s good advice not to sweat the small stuff, we also need to nurture the large stuff.

There are many good reasons to do so, from simply enjoying yourself to recognizing the truth that one day you’ll have just A Year to Live, the title of Stephen Levine’s haunting book. You’ll never know when you step over the invisible line and the countdown begins – 365 days left, then . . . – but you can know, before and after you cross it, that you’ve remembered the big things.

How do we do this?

A Few Questions

In this life, what do you really care about?

Looking back, what has mattered to you? Looking ahead, what do you want to keep on the front burner?

Consider this well-known suggestion: imagine resting comfortably in your last few days and reflecting on your life; what do you want to be glad that you felt and did, that you made a priority?

Some Big Things

I’ll offer here some things I’ve been thinking about lately. See what fits for you, and add your own. Here we go.

You. The sweet soft vulnerable innerness upon which both the chocolate kisses and sharp darts of life land. Your own well-being. What you make of what the poet Mary Oliver has called “your one wild and precious life.”

Love in its many forms, from compassion and small acts of kindness to passionate romance and profound cherishing. The people who matter to you.

Tasting – with all your senses – whatever is delicious in this moment: a ripe banana, birdsong, the curve of a highway railing, the lips of a lover, being alive . . .

Practice. Helping yourself routinely to deepen in awareness and to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of your mind.

Karma yoga – a Hindu term that means skillful action toward wholesome ends, engaged as practice, imbued with a sense of union with whatever is sacred to you. This includes taking care of details that matter, and appreciating the power of little things to add up over time for better or worse.

Letting go. Exhaling, relaxing, changing your mind, moving on, disengaging from upsets (while also standing up for things that matter).

The thing(s) you keep putting off – perhaps speaking your mind to someone, writing that book, returning to the piano, making time to exercise, or seeing the Grand Canyon.

Being, making time for hanging out with no agenda. Rather than doing, the addiction of modern life. Doing crowds out being like cancer cells crowd out healthy ones.

Remembering to remember the big things. And to act upon them. Before it’s too late.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Sorry to hear about your melanoma. You are one of many writers that have been helpful to me in learning mindfulness in this year of upheaval. Last night I listened to your recording on “Sounds True” about our two options of doing or being.

    I was laid-off from work in mid-February, recalled to work in mid-August, only to be laid-off again last week from a place that I have worked at for over 11 years. I discovered mindfulness when looking for ways to handle the stress. My wife says I have handled unemployment much better than ever before. I find that simply learning “to be” or “to live in the moment” has been pivotal in this. I thank you and the other writers for your help in these times.

    In expanding my awareness of the present moment, I have come to realize that there are many others that have things worse than myself. Some people have been without work much longer than I and many have lost their homes. I also have not had any serious health issues (so far). This awareness doesn’t improve my situation, but immersing myself in self-pity seems wholly unbalanced. I am thankful for what I do have.

    “Doing” seems to be how we distract ourselves from facing issues in our lives, while “being” seems to help put things in a balanced perspective… thus helping to reduce stress. I do not know what I can “do” to help those less fortunate than myself at this time, but I can speak up and let you and the other writers know that you work is not wasted on this particular individual.

    Blessed be!

  • […] so simply ’remember what really matters most’….referencing another blog from wildmind, the question is […]

  • Hi Steve,

    I really appreciate your comments – and am sorry to hear about the ups and downs in your work life. You say very eloquently something that I keep trying to remember (as a major do-er myself), that it is in being that we usually find our deepest, most reliable refuge and refueling station – including when we rest in some sense in being as we engage doing.

    As to those who are struggling in this world that we cannot concretely help, to me it’s important to have compassion and to bear witness and to be a stand for justice: I have faith that this is worth being and doing in its own right, and faith that in ways largely unknown this will in fact be concretely helpful somehow some day.

    Anyway, warm wishes to you and to other readers of the wonderful Wildmind blog,


  • That inshigt would have saved us a lot of effort early on.


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