Remind Yourself of the Impermanence of Things
“When giving your child or wife a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’” – Epictetus
Change is a universal law of nature. Things are changing constantly.
Life is ephemeral—people we care about may be snatched from us in a snap, without warning. This is why Marcus Aurelius often reminds himself of the time as a river metaphor, in which everything flows past:
“Think often on the swiftness with which the things that exist and that are coming into existence are swept past us and carried out of sight. For all substance is as a river in ceaseless flow, its activities ever changing and its causes subject to countless variations, and scarcely anything stable.”
Things are in constant change, they flow past—new things come... and flow past.
Therefore, we should remind ourselves how precious our loved ones are—they may soon flow past, too. Let’s appreciate what we have now because it might be gone tomorrow. Life is impermanent.
Keep in mind that you are lucky to be able to enjoy the things you have, and that your enjoyment might end abruptly, and that you might never be able to enjoy those things ever again. Learn to enjoy stuff and people without feeling entitled to them, without clinging.
With the river metaphor in mind, you reduce attachment to what you love, and you diminish the fear of things you’re averse to. Because you’re aware that all is in constant change, also the things you dislike. You generally reduce the perceived importance of external things.
Knowing that nothing lasts makes you less attached and it becomes easier to accept when things change or when you lose what you love. Epictetus reminds us that when we’re attached to a thing like a crystal cup, we should keep in mind what it really is, so that we won’t be disturbed when it breaks. He continues:
“So should it be with persons; if you kiss your child, or brother, or friend . . . you must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not forever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” – Epictetus
The next time you say goodbye to a loved one, silently remind yourself that this might be your final parting. You’ll be less attached to them and if you see them again, you’ll appreciate it much more.
Many things that happen to us we cannot change. But we can adopt a noble spirit to bear up bravely with all the changes nature sends our way, and bring our will into harmony with reality.
When there are no figs, there are no figs.
Things are in constant change. Become aware of the smallness of this present moment when you’re reading this. Whoop, and gone. Compare this moment to the whole day, to the whole week, to your whole lifespan. Things change, you change. Imagine all the people who lived before you. And all the people who will follow when you’re gone. Broaden your perspective to the whole history of the human race . . .
See? Things come and go. Nothing lasts.
This is one of 55 Stoic practices in the second part of my upcoming The Little Book of Stoicism.