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The Last Time Meditation: A Window Into Stoicism

We came across the idea of the “Last Time Meditation” while listening to a class on Stoicism by William B Irvine. Irvine is known for his deep expertise in Stoic philosophy and he has an engaging way of explaining its key tenets.

For most of us, most of the time, our mind is ceaselessly toggling from the past to the future, without pausing in the present moment for very long. There is an evolutionary explanation for this: we evolved to think about the past so we could learn from it, and to project ourselves into the future so we could plan for it. These are the capabilities that allowed humans to survive and prosper. 

Today, we are not exposed to the same threats, but our minds continue to bounce from the past to the future and back. Unfortunately, this constant churning can take a heavy toll on our mental wellbeing.

The purpose of the “Last Time Meditation” is to help us bring our mind to the present moment and focus more intensely on whatever it is we are doing. It does so by inviting us to consider the idea that this might be the last time we get to perform this action. 

For everything you do, there will be a last time that you do it. Since it is inevitable that you will die some day, by definition there will be a last time that you go on vacation, eat chocolate, and laugh out loud. Most of us go through our days under the assumption that many more are to come. The result is that we end up taking many things for granted. 

Being aware that we have a finite number of days left increases the chances that we will extract the full value of those days. 

Just look back in your own life and think of the last time you did something. The last time you skipped rope, played hide and seek, or climbed a tree. Did you realize at the time that it would be the last time you would do these? Had you known that it was to be the last time, would you have savored it more?

Alternatively, consider the difference in experience of going to your favorite restaurant knowing that you will be coming again and again, with the experience of going on the night the restaurant is slated to close for good. The second experience would likely be more memorable. You won’t take that last meal for granted.

Some people find this line of thinking to be too gloomy or fatalistic. But it can be quite the opposite. One of the great psychological insights of the Stoics was that, by allowing ourselves to have this type of thought in a controlled manner, we can be more appreciative of the life we are living, which in turn can make that life more enjoyable.

What Can I Do

To try this for yourself, periodically throughout the day simply pause to consider the possibility that there will be a last time you do whatever it is you are doing. Then go further and contemplate the possibility that this IS your last time doing it. You will likely notice that the value of the experience is enhanced, maybe greatly so. Very low effort can cause a dramatic change in your perspective.

By thinking in last-time terms, you simultaneously invest an experience with special significance and focus your attention on that experience more. As a result, you might find yourself living more in the moment.

You can also practice this in reverse: look for opportunities to reset the last time you did something by doing it again. For example, next time you walk by a swing, take a minute and hop on it. You will get a special kick out of bringing the last time you did that activity into the present moment.

Go Deeper

Learn more about Stoicism and similarly effective mediation techniques by reading Irvine’s book, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.

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