What Matters Most

I have had this article since 2008 and used bits of it here and there. Recently I had the notion that I wanted to reprint this interview, so I wrote to Newsweek and they promptly and kindly gave me permission, gratis, which I appreciated. I think it is an important question, even more so as I live longer. I hope you find it thought provoking too, within its simplicity.

What Matters Most?

That simple question can play a powerful role in healing our lives.

Dean Ornish M.D. – Newsweek Web Exclusive Feb 27, 2008

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”


Rachel Remen, M.D., has spent much of her 40-year medical career helping patients and doctors find their why. A colleague of mine at the University of California, San Francisco, and founder of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, she has been a pioneer of integrative medicine, exploring the powerful ways in which our emotional, mental and spiritual states may directly affect our health.


Dr. Remen is also the author of the best sellers “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal” and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (both from Riverhead Books). I spoke to her recently about how understanding and pursuing what matters most to us can help to heal both body and soul.




Dean Ornish: There is a lot of suffering in the world right now, and it’s experienced on so many different levels—a lot of edginess, anxiety and fear. You often describe how suffering can be a catalyst for transforming our lives. In what ways?


Rachel Remen: Very negative experiences, including anxiety and fear, have the potential to cause us to question the way we’ve been living. They’re a wake-up call. They make people think more deeply about things and ask themselves questions like: What’s important? What really matters? How do I want to spend my time, my money, my energy? How do I live more deliberately according to the things that are important to me? Just a very simple two-word question—”What matters?”—can change your life and the lives of people around you.



Because most of us live by habit. We often spend our time and energy on things that, if we were to ask ourselves, “Is this really important to me?” the answer would be, “Not very.” But we don’t usually ask ourselves this question. We’re not living our lives closest to what has meaning and passion and value for us.


Why not?

We get distracted. There are lots of pressures in life. We’re multitasking a lot of the time. Many of us have become disheartened or depressed. We tend to want to numb ourselves out rather than go deep inside and find the well of renewal that is in every person. We spend a lot of time in front of the television set, maybe we tie one on over the weekend. And we’re often looking for comfort rather than What Matters Most and those are two different things.


What’s the difference?

Comfort is a temporary Band-Aid. But whatever you are trying to numb yourself from usually comes back. Renewal is healing. If you go deep within and look to live your life with greater integrity, closer to your genuine and authentic values, according to what is really true for you, then you permanently diminish the pain. You don’t just numb it temporarily. Food is one of the ways we numb ourselves. Or we drink too much, or we go from relationship to relationship, constantly seeking something new.


A patient once told me, “When I get depressed, I eat a lot of fat—it coats my nerves and numbs the pain. It fills the void.” Another said, “I’ve got 20 friends in this package of cigarettes. They’re always there for me; nobody else is.”

In the effort to heal our pain, we often numb it so we don’t look at our lives. The real healing comes from asking ourselves what really matters and having the courage to let go of what doesn’t matter and take hold of what does.


When people are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, they often realize this, as well.

Yes. There is a moment of clarity where you know what’s important to you. And it often isn’t the way you’ve been living your life but something different than that. I’ve worked for years with people who have cancer, listening to their stories—the view from the edge of life is a lot clearer than most of us have.


In all those years, nobody ever said to me, “If I die of this disease, I’m going to miss my Mercedes.” What really matters is who you’ve touched on your way through life, who has touched you and cared deeply, and what you’re leaving behind you in the hearts and lives of those around you. We’re so busy that we may not be present in our own lives. We don’t see. We don’t connect. And it’s all here in front of us. Many are starving in the midst of plenty.


What matters most is love. And the things that matter are very simple—they’re very old—and they’re very, very important. These things that can’t be measured are the foundation of our lives. There is meaning in everything we do. Most of us live far more meaningful lives than we know.


How so?

Recognizing that we are all connected and, because of that, we have the power to make a real difference in the life of a total stranger without even knowing their name. We often feel powerless in today’s society–that you have to be wealthy, or educated or somehow more than you are in order to make any kind of significant difference in the world. And the reality is that we’ve already made a far greater difference than we know, we have changed the lives of many more people than we realize because there is a web of connection between us.


You’ve written that our stories connect us.

They do more than connect us. They help us find meaning. Stories are about why we’re here. They are the container for meaning, and they remind us of the power of being human. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.


You created a course called “The Healer’s Art,” now available in more than 60 medical schools, that focuses on the human dimensions of practicing medicine. Why?

Facts are important, but they just give us information. Stories help us retrieve our lives. There are tales that help us to live well—to recognize that nobody is alone, and that we all have far greater power than we recognize. You don’t need to be on television in order to change people’s lives. The meaning of medicine is not just science; it’s service, to befriend life. One of my students said, “You know, I discovered that I can heal with my presence and listening what I could never cure with my science.


“We have a culture that values celebrity over compassion; that values notoriety over caring. What can we learn from all of this? The entire advertising industry is based on the idea that if only you buy more, get more, do more—then you’ll be happy.

Well, it’s never enough because it will never fill the emptiness that only a sense of meaning can satisfy. At the end of life, when people look back to see what mattered for them and brought meaning, it’s not about what they bought and what they owned. It’s about what they did to help other people to live and how they related to other people and grew in wisdom. It’s all about the love they gave and received, not anything else. One heart at a time.


Note 1:) As Covid-19 ramps up I hope you all take care of yourself and others. May you stay safe. It might be a good time to think about a new hobby or renew interest in an old one. Something that can absorb us and provide satisfaction and meaning, through the oncoming winter. Especially helpful, I think are things we do with our hands. There are many creative outlets online, many of them free.

Note: 2) Ottawa is already bursting with colour. Cycling along the canal and river system  is nothing short of spectacular. Everyday, more brilliance.

Note: 3) There are readers of this blog who are suffering terribly. I quietly hold you in my heart.

Note: 4) I am honoured that you read my blog. There are so many wonderful things to read and limited time. I do not take it casually that you choose to show up here every week or so. A deep bow to all of you. Please take care. Warmest greetings, Trudy


Blind Spots

Blind Spots

This is an old post from two years ago. It is a topic that that intrigues me and I wanted to post it again. I hope you will indulge me.


One afternoon, according to an old Sufi tale, Nasruddin and his friend were sitting in a cafe, drinking tea, and talking about life and love.

“How come you never got married, Nasruddin?” asked his friend at one point.

“Well,” Nasruddin said, “to tell you the truth, I spent my youth looking for the perfect woman. In Cairo, I met a beautiful and intelligent woman, with eyes like dark olives, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no interests in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something missing. Then one day, I met her. She was beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind. We had everything in common. In fact, she was perfect.”

“Well,” said Nasruddin’s friend, “What happened? Why didn’t you marry her?”

Nasruddin sipped his tea reflectively. “Well,” he replied, “It’s a sad thing. Seems she was looking for the perfect man.” 

Source | Rick Fields,  Chop Wood, Carry Water, page 35  And in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy, pages 430-431


This little fable always makes me smile. I suppose because I so readily see the irony in our tendency to detect the imperfections in others while overlooking our own. I find the subject of “Blind Spots,” absurdly funny and tragic at the same time. Let’s face it, it is so easy to see what our mate doesn’t see, or, for that matter, other family members, friends and co-workers. If only they would tweak this or stop doing that they would be so much better off.

What we mean, of course, is that it would suit us. We would prefer them to be at least a little different than they are. And when they point out our short comings we leap to our defense because we had a reason, several in fact, for why and how we behave. And at the very least we are trying to improve, unlike this person standing in front of us.

I guess I am intrigued because I have several blind spots of my own. (well, at least, one or two :-))) Even at that, I don’t see them the way my daughter, son,  colleague or friend might see them. No sense checking with my Mother because her blind spot was that she thought I was perfect.  Now that is funny.

What I have learned is this. No matter the situation, we do better when we don’t waste our energy trying to get someone else to be different than they are. As long as I am alert to that and even to the notion that I have blind spots of my own, I can cultivate some compassion both for myself and the other. I can cut “the other” some slack. I can pause my reaction default and see if we need a difficult conversation two days from now. The delay allows me to choose my response and to focus on the things I can do something about. Speak my mind. Express my concern. Sometimes, there is nothing to be done. Sometimes, there is a great deal.

As we deal with illness, acute or chronic, we often read or hear that we are frequently surprised disappointed, by the response of certain friends. As well as surprised  blown away,  by the generosity and support from people we least expected to hear from.

We don’t know the full story of why people are the way they are. While being clear that bad (not just thoughtless) behaviour by anyone is not to be condoned or endured, what is true for me is as follows:

With some exceptions,  I believe that people  are doing the best they can, with what they know, in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Do I believe that at every moment I am doing my best? No. What I mean is that over time, I manage, to fall down and get back up again, over and over. And I think most others do the same. There is no such thing as perfection. As Shunryu Suzuki, used to say to his Zen students: “Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”


Note 1:) You may want to look for some humour in that characteristic you find annoying in the other. It would be funny to see if it also occasionally resides in you.

Note 2:) Our weather person, here in Ottawa, announced good news: a beautiful autumn continuing through to the end of October. A sigh of joy. Even if he is wrong, I am in love with the possibility and if it doesn’t work out I can handle the disappointment. For now I am enjoying every beautiful day and actually getting moodling time in, for those who read last week’s blog post:each day at least an hour of  cycling or walking; photography, and a little daydreaming…

Note 4:) These photo’s I took in Japan six years ago in the fall. The trip of my lifetime and although it seems like yesterday, it also feels like a lifetime ago. This path was part of the five day walk I did with friends.

Note 3:) A big thank you for opening this post and taking the time to read it and write to me.  See you next week. Warmest greetings and much appreciation, Trudy


special moments

In Praise of Moodling Time

I am currently interested in cultivating moodling time. Naturally, the reason I am thinking about this is because I have forgotten how to do it. Let’s start with this poem:

Hurry by Marie Howe

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry–
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

In Praise of Wasting Time

I got enthusiastic about this topic after a friend shared a book she was reading: In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman, an MIT prof who is both a physicist and a novelist. Since I was creating themes for my Wellspring Webinars I thought this might be worth exploring. Besides, it took me back to my 40th Birthday when I gave each one of my birthday dinner friends a copy of Brenda Ueland’s book If You want to Write: A book about Art, Independence and Spirit

Brenda wrote this book in the 1930’s and it was where I learned about the value of moodling. She was the ultimate encourager  that everyone is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say. (writing is her metaphor and for writers this book is always on the best writing guides list, but as she says it applies to any art form or creative act that interests you.)

And how do we find our gifts, our inspiration, our muses and so forth? Through moodling, of course. Sure you can turn up at the work bench everyday using will power and critiques of yourself but she is a believer that inspiration for creativity and living well comes through moodling. Moodling is slow, quiet time. Doing nothing important, by the world’s standards, at all. Simply day dreaming at your work bench or spending an hour watching the leaves flutter in the wind.

One of her moodling practices was taking a solitary 5-6 mile walk everyday. Another was listening, really listening to favourite music and so forth. She was insistent that this was part of the plan to get better at whatever you do, in the same way that she was also insistent that if you want to write that you do so everyday.

A chance:

Illness gives us a chance to experience our life in a different way.  We can, if we choose, re-examine all the things we took for granted and possibly decide to try new things, or do old things in a different way.  New ways of eating, moving our body, how we connect with others, work, hobbies, every aspect of our life is suddenly under a wide angle microscope. We get forced downtime which can be hard to deal with at first, yet, wise people in the world, from the oldest traditions, to our contemporaries in science, business, medicine and the arts all speak of the need for quiet and reflective time.

It is  important to build quiet moodling time directly into our calendars. You have no idea how hard this is for me. Not because I don’t want to and not because of lack of knowledge of its importance, but more from “if there is time left over” I will…and there never seems to be time left over.

So I am on my own mission to resurrect my  moodling time. For years I chose Sunday – the entire day- for the sole purpose of unstructured time. I got to read, bike, photograph, take long walks, write, visit with a friend, read poetry, and play the piano, daydream, and so on. Even though I am no longer the example,  I have the longing and motivation to keep trying.

Not surprisingly, my favourite yoga teacher and my meditation teacher emphasize the gentle art of yoga and meditation. Both of them recently reminded their participants not to be aggressive or push too hard but to be gentle and allow our emotional state to relax so we can benefit from the practice rather than pushing for results. And never ever to be chasing and  comparing ourselves to others, but just working gently with what we have and who we are.

Back to Alan Lightman, our MIT physicist.

He reminds us that focusing on the urgency of making every moment count has affected all of our lives, including crammed schedules, speed of appointments, jobs, getting and spending. (I will add ill health to that list) His experience and research demonstrates that we all need activities for fun and amusement. “Time to let the mind rest and daydream…mental downtime is having the space and freedom to wander about the vast hallways of memory and contemplate who we are. Downtime is when we can ponder our past and imagine our future. Downtime is when we can repair ourselves.”

He ultimately discovered, like many great inventors, scientists and sages,  “the need for unscheduled time, the need for an inner life, the need for space without time.” Wasting time engaged in self reflection, day dreaming, doodling, gazing at the ocean are all variations of moodling and it is not uselessness. “It may be the most important occupation of our minds,”according to Lightman.


1:) We are all different. I have no idea what is best for you. What I do know is when I make quiet time for myself and create spaces in my busyness I do better, feel better, and ultimately get more satisfaction and contentment in daily life.

2:) Thank you once again for all your encouraging words that you kindly send to me. You, dear readers, have held the course with me for several weeks. A deep bow to you all.

3:) I hope you enjoy these beautiful late summer and early fall days. This is my favourite time of all. Let’s not miss it. Warmly, Trudy


i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)i am never without it (anywhere i go) E. E. Cummings

Life brings everything –

and this year there has been more than a fair share of angst and suffering, around the globe, or so it seems.  Some of this suffering is personal to each of us.   I don’t refer to my Mother here. She was one of the lucky ones to live a long, healthy and meaningful life and she had the gift of dying before her children. There are friends and readers of this blog who are suffering the unspeakable. Pain that no words can heal. They don’t know what to do except to just stumble along. There is no solace; no combination of letters and words that bring relief. Diagnosis without a treatment plan is frightening. Death, out of the blue,  is a whole other matter. When it comes suddenly and unexpectedly and not by accident, we are confused. And when that person is  our young, adult child, we would prefer to be the one who died.  The last breath! There must be some mistake.

Consolation is impossible –

And no matter how accomplished, or enlightened or stoic we might be, we are not able to reconcile what just happened. We eventually will learn to live with the pain and loss but we are never the same. We never forget. Their absence is front and centre like never before.
And the loving friends who gather round throw themselves into the snowbank with us, because, what else can be done. There are others who will make the dinner and clean up the dishes. They too are there when our world collapses. And the others who can  hold the pain with us, and understand they aren’t needed to try and make things better, but to help hold up the sky. They are there to provide cover and a safe place to land when we collapse. To walk with us. To listen. To weep and never to use the words “at least.”

Maybe it is  like learning a new language –

Small steps. Simple words. We learn to walk and talk again. Until the day comes when we once again catch a whiff of  the eucalyptus tree or strain our ears to hear the trill of a songbird. Until that day comes we will simply keep each other company through the desert.
And we understand in a whole new way what suffering is. And how we must pay attention and never miss a moment to say thanks, or, I love you, while we can. And for all the pain and loss in my own life I have no way of knowing what it is really like to suddenly lose an adult child. I only know the impact on me, not the impact on my friend. I am writing about myself now, hoping in some way to express my  deep sorrow for my friend’s anguish. And the anguish of all those who have suddenly and with no known reason lost their beloved child at an age too young for us to fathom.

I do have a reason for hope, to which I cling –

Why? Because I have experienced it’s return again and again, and in its own time. I have also seen it in the lives of others. And even though we all know this, for the one whose heart is broken beyond repair,  this is not yet imaginable. So, we get to silently and quietly imagine hope for them: in our hearts, our thoughts and in what some of us call prayers.
All of us have been touched by death, by illness and by pain, in one form or another. The blessing is that we are not alone. May we all have the strength, courage and love to see each other through and to rise again, against all the odds.
With sorrow, love and gratitude to you all,

You Can do It

This was a favourite post that I wrote over two years ago and I think it bears repeating. 

Oftentimes when tragedy, illness, accidents or any manner of difficult things happen, well-meaning people do their best to soften the blow. Believe me, I have been enormously grateful throughout my life for the tenderness, kindness and practical help of loved ones. I needed the encouragement and I benefitted from it. There is, however, another aspect to caring and I was reminded of this in a story Jack Kornfield described in his book, The Wise Heart.

During a time Jack was living in a forest monastery in Thailand and studying with the meditation master Ajahn Chah, he contracted malaria like most others who resided there. Although he had received medicine it was slow to take effect and he was in his little hut feverish and wretched.

His teacher, Ajah Chah came to his hut to check on him and the conversation went like this.

“Sick and feverish, huh?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied weakly.

“It’s painful all over, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“‘Makes you feel sorry for yourself, doesn’t it?…makes you want to go home to see your Mother?’ He smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, it’s suffering, alright (he continued)…at least now we have good medicine’…he waited for a while, then he looked at me with the warmth of a kind grandfather.

‘You can bear it, you know. You can do it.’

And I felt that he was fully there with me, that he knew my pain from his own hard struggles. It took another day for the medicine to kick in, but his simple kindness made the situation bearable. His compassion gave me courage.”

I was touched by this description and it reminded me of an incident just before my surgery. A student in a workshop I was facilitating, who had been through a difficult cancer treatment, approached me and said something like, “I’m glad that it is you who got cancer, rather than someone else.”

“Please don’t be offended, she said,…I mean that you have the resources that will help you manage the cancer treatment. You can do it.” And then she kissed me on both cheeks.

At the time I laughed with her over the unusual way to express caring for someone who was diagnosed with cancer. In retrospect I understand the wisdom of her words. She had been through tough times herself and she recognized that we need strength to go through it. Her words stayed with me and they still give me courage. They remind me of my own strength and toughness, during difficult times.

Whenever others say the equivalent of “You can bear it, you know. You can do it;” their confidence and strength reinforce my own. I am most thankful for these tough angels in my life; they have made an enormous difference.

When we face the unexpected and the difficult, we all have resources to “bear it.” We need words of consolation, of course. We need all the help we can get. Yet never forget this important truth: as tough as it can be, you can do it. We all can.


Note 1:) I am thinking of those people I know, and others whom I don’t know, today, who with their loved ones are facing devastating challenges. My heart is with you.

Note 2:) I said yes to my friend, and here I am, on a beautiful lake, following a  wondrous and torrential rainstorm.  And before too long the sun came out, the sky turned blue and the crystal clear lake reflected everything in sight. Magnificent moments.

Note 3:) Treasure every opportunity to enjoy the last days of summer as we move along into the even lovelier days of September. (my bias) A giant shout out to all of you, my dear readers. Many thanks, once again. See you next week. Warmly, Trudy