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What are we doing here, exactly?

Laura McAlpine, Principal

A resurgence of unrelenting anxiety in Fall 2014 finally got me energized enough to take a meditation class at the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago. I knew about the Buddhist temple since my mid-20’s in the 1980’s when low-level anxiety shifted into panic attacks and my naprapath and friend, Larry Felts, who was a practicing Buddhist, suggested I try it. I didn’t follow through then, and found other ways to manage with medication, exercise, yoga and throwing myself into social justice activism and nonprofit work.

It was thirteen years ago that I decided to start a nonprofit consulting firm. By that time I had worked at seven nonprofits, along the way being the Executive Director of one, and the Policy Director of another. So when a career consultant gave me the suggestion to go out on my own, I jumped at it, with very little anxiety. In fact, the early days were quite relaxing–no people to supervise, no six-digit budget to make, no board or collective to answer to. Just me, and my determination to make a difference by helping nonprofits grow.

Using my social work background, I listened, researched, planned and advised my way to a peaceful, purposeful work life. It felt like cheating because I was making money at what I loved, and people loved working with me. At the same time I was able to work at home and be there for my middle school-age daughter when she came home in the afternoons. I became absorbed and lost the anxiety that always crept up in my days and nights.

But now at 54 years old and three years into menopause, keeping multiple balls in the air stopped being manageable with the convergence of transitions–moving the business and my home; expanding into new practice areas; staff changes. My thinking started swirling into these types of questions as I tried to figure out how to lower the anxiety: “What makes me happy? Are we just a collection of molecules? Does our life matter? Will something happen because we have been born, lived and died? Do we advance as a species, and for what purpose? Does it matter if we influence anyone’s life if we are all just molecules? Are we stuck here?”

And then shifting to the work questions: “Does working matter? What makes me feel productive? Do I need to keep earning what I have earned in the past? Do we have enough clients? Too many clients? Are my co-workers happy or bored? Am I a good consultant? Should I be strategizing differently? Do I have too much to do this week? Will I meet my deadlines?”

The launch of a new year in 2015, and the fatigue of fighting the anxiety for four months, was a push. And I suppose twenty-eight years was enough time to see if I really wanted to get serious about embracing what happens when you sit silently on a pillow, mindfully breathing in and out for 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes at a time. An article on January 5, 2015 in the New York Times helped shift me to act:

“….But I know that one day my doctor is going to come into the room with a very dark look on his face and news that no treadmill or repudiation of onion rings is going to make better. And then the only thing I’ll have to turn to will be all I’ve done when going nowhere – and everything I might have stored in some less visible account.”

— Healthy Body, Unhealthy Mind by Pico Iyer

I’ve now meditated for just about 100 days since starting the class in January. Ironically, my Zen Buddhist teacher suggested a mobile app to support the practice, and I happily downloaded it, while amused to be using yet another tech device to do something that is essentially about unplugging from it all. The app sucked me right in with colored milestone stars to achieve, “friends” to make, groups to follow, posts to read, and comments to write.

When I set up my meditation app profile page, we were given the opportunity to have a tag line with our photo. Most people don’t put a tag line out there, but some give you a sense of who they are with their statements. I find myself reacting to many of them:

“To live and love to the fullest is true freedom.”
So, if I’m not living and loving to the fullest, I’m not free?

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Just ask my mother if there’s anything wrong with me.

“The present moment is my favorite place to be.”
Clearly anyone who thinks the present moment is their favorite place to be has never had a panic attack when wondering if they left the gas on under the teapot at home.

“We share in the beautiful field of infinite possibilities.”
That field with infinite possibilities has me feeling exhausted.

“What are we doing here, exactly?” became my tag line.

On my app, people tell me that they like my question, yet no one has attempted to answer it. And when I ask this question to friends and loved ones, they get a bit squirmy, and say things that give color and description to the following: “To be of use,” “To make a difference,” “To enjoy life.” My partner says, “There is no answer to your question. Don’t worry about it.”

Yet my question is meant to start at a different point that perhaps doesn’t follow linear time. I have made a life of “doing” that I enjoy deeply and find to be of use – nonprofit worker, social justice activist, runner, gardener, cook, dancer, traveler, spa day aficionado, mother, family member, partner. I want the answer to the “Why here, exactly?” part, not the “doing” part. More along the lines of “Why was I born in 1960, why on earth, why this body, why human, why birds, why Lake Michigan?”

And it takes me back to a question I’ve thought about and been afraid of since childhood in Catholic school, looking at the large statues of saints at Queen of Martyrs.
What is eternity, exactly?

And now the consultant needs to continue to take her own advice. I encourage nonprofit board and staff to use organizational crisis and stress to ask themselves strategic questions about their mission, their vision and their values. Our firm takes them through a nine-month process to explore these deeper questions and give themselves structured time to get to the 30,000 foot level and out of their day-to-day to find a way to turn things around. And we encourage work/life balance for nonprofit workers – suggesting they find their creative self and pay attention to how they sleep; how they exercise; how they have fun.

Answering my own questions will take awhile. Picking up The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, who articulates my current interest “…to take on a task at once profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy….philo, love; sophia, wisdom…a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.” So when I’m not meditating or “doing”, I will be studying Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Socrates, Hawking, Einstein, Curie, Ehrenreich, Hildegard of Bingen, Buddha, Rumi, Thict Nhat Han, Dali Lama, Chopra, Oprah, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Smith, and Zadie Smith, to keep answering my questions.

Stay tuned to how I sort out eternity, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s quiet in my office. I’m writing, listening to classical music and happy to be trying something new by sitting on a cushion once a day.

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