Having a “mission” in life is good for us. So they say. Being “present” is good for us too. So they say. But having a mission and being present both come with challenges, and the two ideas don’t always get along.

A mission is an aim or objective that gets us out of bed in the morning, an overarching goal that we’re always striving to fulfill throughout our lives. 

Being present means staying receptive to each moment as it comes, immersing ourselves fully in the here and now – remaining aware of our own bodily sensations and the details of our current environment – without clinging to the past or being preoccupied with the future.

What’s the problem with having a mission? One problem is tunnel vision. When you have a mission you might be tempted to view life in a divided way – there are things that further your mission and things that don’t. A binary view makes it hard to “be present” for situations and experiences that fall outside your mission. You’re waiting for such annoyances to pass so you can get back to work on what really matters to you.

Another problem with having a mission is over-identification. You see your mission as the essence of who you are. When your mission isn’t going well, you might feel that your whole life is a failure. As much as missions bring meaning and the possibility of fulfillment they also cause stress and eventual burnout.

And what’s the problem with being present? Of course we can’t always be present – we need to plan for the future and reflect on the past. And some circumstances are so painful that being fully present for them would cause us to suffer unduly – there’s a case for numbing ourselves to severe pain or tuning out what we simply cannot bear. But the main “problem” with being present is just that it is so hard. If we could always control our attention and bring it to the current moment, then we wouldn’t be so consumed with worry, we wouldn’t procrastinate so much, we wouldn’t fight as much, we wouldn’t feel so stressed. But a world where everyone is in charge of their attention and able to manifest presence all the time – that’s only a hypothetical world.

So, if missions are complicated and presence is complicated and the two ideas often work against each other – but they’re both supposed to be good for us – then what about a radical solution? What about choosing presence as one’s mission? What about actually saying, “My mission in life is to be present for each moment”?

Would presence be easier to achieve if we truly considered it as the most important thing in the world, the most valuable thing we could possibly pursue, the very aim of our life? And would “having a mission” be easier if the mission were a thing we could actualize at any moment, a goal that brought calm instead of stress? Could we experience the benefits of “having a mission” and “being present” simply by combining those ideas? 

To find out, we could do an experiment, accepting “presence” as our provisional mission in life – just for a day – and seeing how it feels to hold this particular mission. If it felt good we could continue the experiment; otherwise, no harm done. But there are some challenges to doing such an experiment.

The mission of “being present” sounds like it would be easier to pursue than a mission like “ending hunger” or “protecting the environment” or “creating art” or “raising a family” – but what specific technique or approach should we use to “be present” when that’s so hard for so many people?

A person who is already mission-oriented might find it difficult to give up whatever mission they’ve been pursuing all these years and really think of presence as their new primary mission in life, with the other goals now secondary to that, even if they’re only trying this out for a day. Presence might seem trivial or worthless in comparison to what they’ve been pursuing. The simple fact of being present – does it help others? Does it change the world? Does it achieve anything significant?

A person who’s not mission-oriented might have trouble getting on board too, for much the same reason. What is so exciting or compelling about “being present” that they should finally dedicate their life to it when no other goal has inspired such dedication? 

To do the experiment of accepting presence as our life mission we might need to prepare for the experiment. We might need to get into the right mindset to take the experiment seriously, and we might need to gather the tools to enact it.

Meditation is a good way to prepare because when we meditate we’re essentially practicing being present. We’re treating presence as important enough to make it our exclusive focus for the twenty minutes, sixty minutes, or two hours of our meditation session – important enough to do such a session day after day. 

When a person first starts meditating they might consider it as a break from normal life, a stress-relieving activity to be performed from time to time, like going on vacation or getting a massage. When asked what their life is like, they might reply that there’s lots of stuff going on, and occasionally they step away from it all and meditate.

But as they build a meditation practice, the way they think about meditation’s place in their life might change. Meditation could come to seem as an anchor, a pillar, a center. What’s their life about? They’re meditating again and again. They’re returning to their center again and again. The rest of their life is what happens in between meditation sessions.

As meditation becomes increasingly central in a person’s life – as it brings more rewards and even creates what might be called “peak” experiences – it can begin to seem “mission worthy.” That’s to say, a person might entertain the idea that their mission in life is to meditate. Indeed, there are people who accept this mission and become monks.

But there’s another way to respond to meditation’s increasing significance in one’s life. Instead of carving out more and more time for meditation, a person might aim to carry the presence that meditation cultivates, more and more, into the rest of their life – so that they are doing something like meditation even when they are not explicitly meditating.

In meditation, we learn how to “connect” with our breathing – to keep bringing our attention back to the sensations of each inhale and exhale – allowing thoughts to pass through our mind without pursuing them. We make it easier to do this by removing distractions, sitting still in quiet space. But in the rest of life, there are countless distractions happening all the time. How do we practice presence when we’re experiencing the hustle-bustle of life, full of its noise, complexity, and chaos?

The idea is to stay connected to our breathing – retaining an awareness of the physical sensations of each inhale and exhale – as all of the other distracting, stressful, difficult things go on around us. How should we remember to do this? That’s hard, but it’s easier if we consider it as our mission in life: “By breathing and staying aware of it, right here and now, I am fulfilling my mission in life.”

Indeed, if “presence” is too vague or abstract a concept to embrace as a mission, we can be more concrete about it: “My mission in life is to breathe and keep an awareness of how my breathing feels throughout every situation, starting with the situation I’m in right now.” To be clear, the goal is not to practice deep breathing, conspicuous breathing, or beautiful breathing at every moment – it’s just to stay “connected” to one’s breathing, to “be present” for one’s breath in whatever form it takes at the moment.

Accepting this mission will create some informative and novel experiences, we should expect. All those moments that we hate – all those situations that feel annoying and meaningless, when happenstance seems to be working against our interests and goals in life – now there’s a new possibility inside them. We can go into the experience and know that right then and there, amid all the confusion and difficulty, there’s a chance to do the thing that we’ve accepted as most important. We can breathe and stay aware of it – we can be present – we can actualize our life’s mission. If we suddenly died this very moment, we would have died in a state of fulfilling our mission.

And that brings up a second way we can prepare to do this mission experiment. We can contemplate loss – the losses we’ve experienced. We can think about the people who meant the world to us and then disappeared. We can remember our loved ones who have left this world. What about everything they were working on, everything they cared about, all of their hopes and dreams? How can we make sense of their own missions coming to an end? Does death render all of their effort and aspiration meaningless? How do we contemplate the idea that they didn’t get what they wanted or didn’t live long enough to enjoy it?

We can begin coming to terms with loss when we remember that our loved ones were here, they were present. They had good times, they had bad times, they breathed the air, drank the water, heard the birds singing, felt the heat and the cold, saw the sun and the moon and the clouds. No matter how sad the ending, we can find consolation in knowing that they experienced presence, the only thing a person can really “have.” They partook of presence just like we are partaking of it now. They had what we have. 

If the idea of presence can make us feel better about the lives of those we’ve lost, then the idea of presence can make us feel better about the finitude of our own lives as well. To be afraid of the end of our own presence would be to not be present. So, to achieve our mission of presence we’ll have to release that fear, disengage from it, let it pass. To be fully present means overcoming the fear of transience, the fear of endings, the fear of death. If presence might seem trivial in comparison to other life missions then perhaps it’s not so trivial when framed like this.

To accept presence as our life mission does not require abandoning other pursuits, only subordinating them to presence itself. Would an artist have better creative results, would a scientist make more discoveries if they identify art, or science as their primary mission, or if they identify presence as their mission, with art or science as endeavors to be undertaken under the umbrella of a larger mission of presence? That kind of question is for anyone to contemplate and experiment with as it relates to their own life.

Here’s a concrete way to go about the presence experiment. Whenever you find yourself in a situation that’s complex, where you’ve lost connection to your breathing, and where your mind is racing into the future or plunging back into the past or simply chattering and evading the present, ask yourself “What is this situation like? What are the parameters? What’s going on? How does it feel for me?”

Then ask, “What is preventing me from being present for all of this?”

Finally ask, “How could I overcome those specific obstacles to being present if I viewed overcoming those specific obstacles as the most valuable thing I could possibly do – as the most important thing in the world – as my mission in life?”

An example: I left on an overnight trip with my partner last Thursday, staying at a friend’s house Thursday night and planning to return home Friday. But Friday morning, there was talk of extending the trip by another day or two into the weekend. The uncertainty about when I’d get home started causing me stress. We went for a hike late Friday morning, when the new plans were still up in the air, and I found myself in a beautiful Vermont forest, full of moss and tall swaying trees, and welcome cool breezes on a hot summer day, but I was fixated on “having a plan,” knowing when I’d get home and what transport we’d use. Whether it would be tonight or tomorrow or the day after, I didn’t care so much, as long as the details were pinned down.

I loved being on the trip, I loved the hike, I loved the company, but I also needed time to prepare for a busy work week ahead, and I wanted to write this very essay on presence. (If I don’t finish an essay when the momentum is there, it might never get written, and I’m afraid of that.)

So the birds were chirping and the frogs were jumping and a cool stream was bubbling against the rocks, but I was thinking about when I’d get home so I could do other stuff. 

I asked myself what was preventing me from being present for the birds and the frogs and the stream?

It was this essay on presence. The horror story of this essay not getting written.

It was a mental image of a busy Monday morning at work where I was feeling frazzled and stressed because I hadn’t planned my week, because I had gotten home too late. Another horror story.

It was the idea that I needed a plan. The idea that I needed to know when I’d be getting home so I could build my expectations around that certain fact. The idea that the current uncertainty might drag on forever. Another horror story.

Normally this would have been one of those situations that I just accept as stressful for me. I give up on applying any of my better skills and just accept that I’m going to have to suffer through my discomfort. I’m not going to be at my best until the plans are pinned down, oh well. Or perhaps I start demanding that the others involved cooperate with me to finalize a plan ASAP.

But the idea that presence was my “mission in life” changed everything. I told myself:

My mission in life requires forgetting my essay for the time being.

My mission in life requires forgetting my busy Monday morning for the time being.

My mission in life requires relinquishing my need for a plan.

My mission in life requires listening to the birds, listening to the trees as they creek and sway in the wind.

And so I had an experience that was new for me.

In a situation where my mind would normally have been full of racing thoughts and trepidations about imagined future difficulties, I was able to recalibrate: to be present for that forest, and to be present for my hiking companions.

There are some actions you might only take if you accept them – even experimentally – as furthering your mission in life, nothing less. And when you practice doing this in low-stakes situations, you build habits that might serve you when the stakes are higher too. ■

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