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, 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.
- 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 into a priority?
- 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 and 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.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of the bestselling Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 21 languages). Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers in Europe, North America, and Australia. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and U.S. News and World Report. His blog - Just One Thing - suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.