The Last Time

I’ve recently started a meditation course with the app called “Waking Up” by Sam Harris. It is the most thorough and practical guide I have found to mindfulness meditation, complete with guided meditation sessions and theory lessons to integrate into the practice. One particular theory lesson, called “The Last Time”, really struck me. Sam Harris discusses the notion that everything we do in our lives we will do a finite number of times. There will come a point when even the simplest experience or action will be felt or done for the last time, and we rarely even realise it’s the last time in that moment.

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Thinking about death is difficult for me to do because it seems so remote, but the reality is we never know when it is coming. It doesn’t have to be morbid either, the stoics believed that one should ponder one’s death in order to gain perspective and live life fully.

Sam Harris explains how knowing that there will be a last time changes your experience of that moment by using the example of his daughter growing up. When she was a baby she would wake him up numerous times in the night, and although this was an unpleasant experience, thinking of the possibility that eventually there will be a last time makes that moment precious and priceless. She still pronounces the word “animal” wrong, but he doesn’t correct her because he knows he might miss that when she eventually grows out of it.

Perhaps even more poignant is the idea that we don’t realize until after the fact, sometimes even years later, that it was the last time. Sam points out that we often spend our time just trying to get through things, to the end of an experience, robbing ourselves of the possibility to truly connect with what we’re experiencing in our lives. I can think of more than a few occasions in my life that were the last time without me knowing it at the time, and how I wish I would have relished them more fully. So how can that sort of attention to the moments we are experiencing in the present change our experience of them?

“Everything represents a finite opportunity to savour your life.”

-Sam Harris, “Waking Up”

After many months in lockdown, I’m starting to feel the weight of missing so many things I could do before without a second thought, and all those things I’m missing were “last times“. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but did I savour them as much as I should have?

The last good bottle of wine I’ve had:

Madonna IGP Umbria Bianco 2016, Feudi di Spada- 100% Chardonnay

I had high expectations for this one as it was an aged chardonnay from a winery that makes very good wine, and we had been saving it for Sunday lunch. My first impression was that it was rather unsubstantial, a beautiful golden colour but quite timid aromas and mellow taste. The first aromas I smelled where typical of most white wines, golden apples, white peach, some fresh flowers, wet grass. On the palate it was dry with a good level of acidity, well-balanced, but nothing remarkable. Maybe it was too cold, I thought, so I let it sit in the glass for a while. I came back to it when the meal was ready, fried baccalà I think it was, and between bites and bits of conversation I realised that the wine had completely changed. There were still those fresh notes of flowers, wet grass and acidity, but the fruit had become more tropical, more luscious, and notes of lemon macaroons, almond paste and chamomile emerged. It had also become more intense, rounder, sweeter with a lovely grassy finish. It was like being at a French wedding in spring, silly I know, but that’s what it reminded me of! Alas, the bites and bits of conversation chimed in and it was only but a fleeting moment of ecstasy.

The last winery I visited:

Il Colle Del Corsicano- Castellabate, Cilento Coast

It was just at the end of summer and we arrived just as the sun was setting. We were quite a large group of people, two who worked in agriculture, one of which helped the enologist look after the grapes, and other friends and wine enthusiasts. The wine tasting consisted of three wines: a Fiano, a Rosato from 100% Aglianico and a red blend of Aglianico and Primitivo. It was accompanied by local cheeses, salami, some small home-cooked dishes and the olive oil the winery produces as well. As we tasted the wine and snacked we talked about the wine and shared our experiences: What is the true character of Fiano, it’s always so different from producer to producer? Should Aglianico be made as a rosè wine? How much does this small percentage of Primitivo change the overall character of the wine? When will the grapes be ready for this year’s harvest? Do you get more value for money in the North of Italy? Are wines from the South more idiosyncratic? Finally, once the air had cooled we drove down to another site where the winery has vineyards on the coast of Punta Licosa. Words can not describe the calm and majestic beauty of walking through vineyards hugged by the seashore at sunset. It absolutely takes your breath away.

The last dinner with friends I had:

Ragù with wild boar and Borolo

As my boyfriend works in agriculture, he’s prone to receive unordinary gifts, such as an entire wild boar, “cinghiale” in Italian. While wild boars have been known as a threat to vineyards in the area, they are also a part of the local cuisine (I wonder if the two are connected?). One typical dish is pappardella pasta with a slow-cooked ragù sauce, a heavy dish with a decisive flavour (not for the faint of heart). As we did have an entire wild boar to cook, it was natural that a few friends and cousins came round. One friend brought a bottle of Borolo and when the sauce was ready we all sat around the table for the main event. Unfortunately, the Borolo was corked, but someone else had brought Montepulciano d’Abruzzo which ironically had an illustration of a boar on the label. Needless to say, we ate, drank and were merry to our hearts’ content. That was three months ago, and who knows when it’ll happen again.

What about you? What’s your last bottle of good wine, your last winery visit, your last dinner with friends?

9 Comments

  1. Well done you on the meditation course! I recall doing something similar 23 years ago, seems strange for someone who was “already” a Buddhist, but I could never match my wife’s powers of concentration into total mindfulness and a personal tragedy was “eating me”. I knew all of the principles, but what I needed were meditation exercises to distract my wildly fluctuating mind, simple things that would go beyond the Vipassana breathing exercises, or classic mantra repetitions. In those days I didn’t have a tablet or smartphone, so I found a “course” which was a box containing a book and a cd. It worked, I battled my way through every exercise over several weeks, but it helped considerably with the grief and mental anguish.
    Now, on a more positive note, today I am reasonably able to meditate in the classical ways, breath observation, simple mantras and contemplation of the Buddhist 4 Noble Truths and 8 Fold Path. But there is one exercise that has stuck with me, “my safe/favourite/peaceful place”. It’s in Kathmandu, the Swayambhu temple, and in my mind I can go there, walk around the stupa, spin the prayer wheels, smell the incense, hear the monks chanting their prayers. A total mental distraction.
    I suppose thinking of “the last time” as part of a meditation is a kind of distraction too, but I also suppose it’s main use is as a lever on mindfulness, making us focus on the here and now “as if” it were the last time we would experience that activity. But there’s a dichotomy here too, because looking back and mentally considering something in the past isn’t mindfulness, in Buddhist terms it is “attachment”, attaching to something that cannot be repeated, something that has gone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having good memories, as long as they serve or remind us to be totally mindful of the present.
    It’s also quite strange that you’ve written this at present, because this is the month every year when Champa and I reflect lots …… and I’m currently writing something for the blog about how “ mindfulness” and associated Buddhist and Epicurean views have saved our mental health across the whole of 2020. Enjoy the conversation with your dad. 🙏😊

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    1. I’m glad meditation has been so helpful for you. I’ve practiced it on and off since university, my end of the year project was actually a performative meditation, but I guess you could say I felt like doing a course to deal with some big changes in my life. I listened to Sam Harris talk about “the last time “ as part of the theory of mindfulness, and so it led me to think about past experiences and ask if I was present in those moments in order to have a deeper understanding of how to be more present now. Is reflection on the past in order to better understand the present attachment? Is distraction mindfulness?

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      1. I think that imagining that this could be the last time you experience a particular event “might” contribute to mindfulness, but it does seem a morbid way to be mindful? Whether reflection helps an understanding of attachment I’m unclear, but I know that writing my Ego Integrity posts earlier this year was a very beneficial experience. I’ve turned them into a personal book I’ve had printed for my daughter. Not sure if you saw them but easy to find.

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      2. I don’t think it has to be morbid, it’s the idea that things are finite so we should not take them for granted. The most extreme case is death of course, but there are also experiences like a visiting a new place or doing a hobby or meeting someone, which for some reason or other, circumstances in life, aren’t likely to happen again even though you go on living. And it was the stoics who said we should not fear our death, we should contemplate it in order to appreciate our lives now and live more fully. Haven’t seen your Ego Integrity posts, but I’ll have a look!

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      3. To be fair I think it was the Stoics or Marcus Aurelius specifically who advocated reflection at the end of every day. I tried it for a while and kept a diary and it was good for short term learning and planning.

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