October 8, 2008

Being vs. Doing, Spirituality vs. Activism? One gal’s search in NYC, an upstate ashram and the natural products industry.

As the grays of winter began to settle in, I retreated to Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York, just about an hour drive from my home in Brooklyn. I was a few weeks into a national product launch for the natural products company where I work. While I’d been inspired—we were working to bring some righteous superfoods to market, healthy snacks that support small organic farmers—I was burned out, and ready for a break.

At lunch one day on the retreat, a fair-trade activist friend was giving me sales advice for an upcoming business trip where I would introduce our brand to grocery buyers. I was concerned about presenting so many things that we do—organic, fair-trade, the triple bottomline—in a way that made sense, that was inspiring, that got personal traction with whomever I was meeting. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility and uncertainty: could I do it?

A fellow yogini saw my near tears of anxiety. She said, “You gotta learn to stop worrying so much about what you can’t control, and just take care of your inner state of mind.”

I’d been contemplating just that for some time: the importance of being versus doing. Which one held more sway in my life? Upstate, I was enjoying meditation sessions and watching deer walk gingerly just a few feet away through the snow. But a few days later I was back on a business trip, stuck in traffic in a not so pretty snowstorm, in Chicago. “Okay, this is tough…but it’s the way that I am going to make my mark at improving the world,” I thought to myself. As I hurriedly made important appointments, my cab passed a billboard advertisement for a furrier stating “Save the environment! Keep it cool and wear fur.” What a time we’re living in.

In my quest to do my part, I had worked in varying sustainability-minded industries. I analyzed spreadsheets under the buzz and hum of Times Square for a socially responsible investing business. I held meetings under the leafy shade of a Brooklyn park for a non-profit that works to educate us about the urban environment.

My new position held opportunity for growth in a business modeled for social change. Still, I questioned how I was spending my days. Do I care more about my work in the world or how genuine I am in my daily interactions with others? With myself?

I was making a subtle yet crucial mistake: I have always thought of being and doing separately. Doing good work advancing fair-trade and organic in the world, fomenting a peaceful revolution…is useless if I’m not walking the talk. If I’m wrapped up in neurosis and confusion, if I’m not myself coming from a place of peace and cooperation. 

But if all I do is work to develop myself, my own happiness and peace—that’s selfish. Life is about being and then doing—both. Carrying what we’ve learned about life into the world and inspiring others with what we’ve been given.

So sure, there are times when I focus on my computer screen so hard, for so long that my eyesight gets blurry. And there’s other moments when I count my breaths, sitting on a meditation cushion. But most moments are a combination of action and being, with the two playing off one another.

It’s such a critical time for our world, I want to do something great. But what if I just did something great in this moment? Isn’t it all of these little moments that create our shared world? At Virayoga—the yoga studio/haven in Soho where I spend hours focusing on being—my teachers have helped remind me to breathe deep before falling into a knee-jerk emotional response. People can sense your state of being. Happiness and care for oneself can be contagious is as contagious as speed and aggression. How falling out of “bird of paradise” pose so many times makes that happen I don’t even know, but it does.

So I work as hard as ever at my job, while being gentle with myself—because that is one thing I know I can control.

Lindsey Wolf works with Kopali Organics. Kopali’s vitamin A-filled organic goldenberries are her favorite.

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