Splendor, by Albert Bierstadt

The Last Time Meditation: a Stoic Tool for Living in the Present

How many things have you done for the last ever time, without knowing it was the last ever time? Here’s a quick mental practice for returning to (and appreciating) the present moment.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  April 2024


When did you last climb a tree? Swim in open water? Sled down a snow-covered hill? When did you last run barefoot across grass? Perform a cartwheel? Walk around your hometown? When did you last laugh with a particular loved one? Watch the sunrise? Hear a chaffinch sing?

How many things have you done for the last ever time, without knowing it was the last ever time?

Of course, we cannot know the future, and so there is often no way of knowing — in the moment — that we might be experiencing something for the final time.

But, if I had known it was going to be my last ever cartwheel, then I’d have made absolutely sure to savor every topsy-turvy second; instead, dizzily preoccupied, I let it pass me by…

Oliver Burkeman writes about this in his 2021 book, Four Thousand Weeks:

Our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son — a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty — there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend…

Given the impermanence of our lives and everything in them, however, it is not just ‘big’ activities or events; there is a sense in which every single moment is a ‘last ever time’.

Never again will I fill my lungs with this oxygen, hear this exact soundscape, see this particular pattern of light…

Yet, as with the cartwheel, rather than heed such fleeting finality with reverence, I usually allow myself to be preoccupied, and miss the whole show.

As Burkeman puts it:

To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.

Indeed: which moment could possibly be more significant than the one occurring, for the last ever time, right now?

A tool for returning to the present: the last time meditation

Wresting our attention away from preoccupation and back to the present moment is a recommendation common to many ancient philosophies, including Buddhism, Daoism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.

A particularly useful tool comes from philosophy professor William Irvine, who draws on the Stoic practice of negative visualization in his 2009 book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. (He also explores it further with a dedicated series in the Waking Up app, which you can access free for 30 days ​via my partner link).

Popularly dubbed the ‘last time meditation’, Irvine suggests that when going about our days we proactively call to mind impermanence to better appreciate the precious precarity of all that occurs. He writes:

By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.

In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson offers a complementary idea, pairing the ‘last time’ meditation with a ‘first time’ meditation:

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’

Irvine and Carson urge us to cut through the scatter-brained frenzy of daily life to find pockets of rapture in the humdrum.

Sunlight through tree leaves. Onions sizzling. The sound of rain.

For, if we cultivate our attention to face up to the impermanent nature of all that exists, if we practice valuing what’s before us right now, perhaps on our deathbeds we’ll avoid the regret put so well by Seneca in his essay On the Shortness of Life: that life

passed away before we knew it was passing.

We might avoid, too, the regret that we took for granted the people and things we hold dear. As Epictetus puts it in the Enchiridion:

In everything which pleases the soul, or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to add this to the (description, notion): What is the nature of each thing, beginning from the smallest? If you love an earthen vessel, say it is an earthen vessel which you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being whom you are kissing, for when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed.

Epictetus’s claim that we “will not be disturbed” by impermanence may seem a little strong…

But if our default mode is preoccupation, or the frantic ticking off of to-dos, the first and last time meditations offer a quick way to return with proper reverence and gratitude to the scene right in front of us, flashing for a moment with light and color and sound, never before seen and never to return.

As the great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it,

The present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

And as the Buddha fittingly advises, in what are reported to be his last ever words,

Everything is impermanent. Strive on with awareness.

What do you make of this analysis?

  • Is there a particular ‘final moment’ that holds resonance for you?
  • Do you think the first and last time meditations are useful for cultivating reference and gratitude?
  • How do you try to stay anchored to the present?
  • Or do you think it’s perfectly reasonable to use certain moments as stepping stones to others we deem more important?

Learn more practical wisdom from philosophy

If you’re interested in learning more of these kinds of thinking tools from Stoicism and Buddhism, then a wealth of practical philosophy awaits you in my How to Live a Good Life course, which distills the best wisdom from these and 5 additional philosophies for living (including Aristotle, Existentialism, Confucianism, and more)... join me and 350+ members discussing philosophy inside.

You might also like the following related reads:

Finally, if you enjoyed this article, you might like my free Sunday breakdown. I distill one piece of wisdom from philosophy each week; you get the summary delivered straight to your email inbox, and are invited to share your view. Consider joining 12,000+ subscribers and signing up below:

About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
Philosophy Break

Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

If you enjoy learning about humanity’s greatest thinkers, you might like my free Sunday email. I break down one mind-opening idea from philosophy, and invite you to share your view.

Subscribe for free here, and join 12,000+ philosophers enjoying a nugget of profundity each week (free forever, no spam, unsubscribe any time).

Philosophy Break

Get one mind-opening philosophical idea distilled to your inbox every Sunday (free)

Philosophy Basics

From the Buddha to Nietzsche: join 12,000+ subscribers enjoying a nugget of profundity from the great philosophers every Sunday:

    ★★★★★ (50+ reviews for Philosophy Break). Unsubscribe any time.

    Philosophy Basics

    Take Another Break

    Each break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your philosophical curiosity.

    Compatibilism: Philosophy’s Favorite Answer to the Free Will Debate
    Stormy Sea at Night, by Ivan Aivazovsky
    The Sun, Edvard Munch (c. 1911)
    Storm in the Mountains, Albert Bierstadt (c. 1870)

    View All Breaks