As a child, Anna Bruen had an unusual hero: Rachel Carson, the marine biologist who wrote Silent Spring, the startling treatise that alerted the nation to the dangers of DDT.
Now 30, Anna finds herself working her dream job in a field not far removed from Rachel Carson's. As the new executive director of a non-profit that helps Iowa communities improve their economy, conservation and quality of life, she has emerged as one of the state's youngest leaders in the sustainable community movement.
Yet despite taking a leadership role, Anna also finds time to teach yoga, perform in local dance theatre productions, and serve on the boards of two non-profit organizations.
How does she stay on top of a cutting-edge profession—with energy at the end of the day to follow her many creative pursuits?
Ironically, Anna says her super-active lifestyle has its roots in silence.
Anna Bruen—Community collaboration for energy efficiency
Learning to Cultivate the Silence Within
Anna grew up in Fairfield, IA, and learned the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique at a young age. After graduating from high school, she decided to attend Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, an accredited university where students, faculty and staff practice the TM technique twice a day.
The Transcendental Meditation technique is a systematic and scientifically verified means of developing inner peace and wellness. It allows students to enliven the most creative, powerful, and intelligent level of their own awareness, pure consciousness. As a result, students report that it's easier to study, that grades improve, stress and fatigue diminish, creativity and leadership skills increase, health improves, and social relationships are easier. Scientific research backs up these personal experiences—as reported in more than 380 studies published in peer-reviewed journals throughout the world.
Even as an MUM student Anna had varied interests, pursuing a major in sustainable living with a minor in business—and another minor in improvisational movement.
She was also a student government representative, was actively involved in planning eco-fairs and movie nights in the sustainable living department, and performed as a dancer in a number of variety shows and student performances throughout her four years.
''I remember one of my friends asking me, ''How are you doing it all, and you still find time to do your TM!'' says Anna. ''I remember saying, 'I don't think I could do everything without the meditation practice.'''
Anna says that the solid routine of meditating twice a day actually freed up time, so there was time for everything.
While that sounds contradictory, Anna explains, ''I think my practice of Transcendental Meditation gave me a presence of mind so that when I was doing the different activities that I was involved in, even if I was multitasking, or running from one thing to another, I had more capacity to be present with those different areas of focus.''
She explains further, ''When you experience that calm settledness in TM, then you can bring some of that with you into your activities. The ability to bring that calm silence with you allows for more enjoyment and greater capacity to get things done, because you can filter out the extra noise that gets in the way when you're not feeling settled inside.''
Serving Human Needs Instead of the Bottom Line
Anna graduated from MUM in 2008 and worked in several different sustainable businesses.
But a desire to serve the community motivated her to enroll in a dual degree program at Iowa State University, earning a master's in community and regional planning (MCRP) and an M.S. in sustainable agriculture in 2014.
With her two master's degrees, she immediately was hired as a watershed coordinator and environmental planner at Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), a regional non-profit based in her hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, but serving surrounding areas.
''We primarily work in six counties, but we work statewide when needed on community economic development and natural resource conservation,'' she explains. ''We're mostly grant-funded. We receive funds from our member counties and we do have some services that we charge for like grant-writing, project development, meeting facilitation, strategic planning—those are all for-fee services—but we also get government and private grants for various projects.''
Recently promoted to executive director of Pathfinders, Anna's job continues to draw on her multitasking talents. Some days she might spend the whole day in the office researching, writing, and managing her staff. Other days she is traveling around the state to meet with experts, producers and local leaders on a variety of initiatives—from a watershed management plan for Scott County to organizing solar energy fairs to visiting conservation projects on abandoned mine sites.
''I really enjoy my job,'' she says. ''It's a great fit for my background in sustainability, community planning and sustainable agriculture . . . it kind of weaves together my interests in community development and doing good things for people and the planet.''
Anna is satisfied with her choices, having left business for community development. ''My experience with community development has been—yes the dollars always matter, and there's definitely a bottom line—after all, we have to keep our lights on, we have to keep our doors open. But at the heart of it, it's not about the dollar, it's about the people and the environment. It's about the community. And that is what really drew me to this kind of work.''
Developing Internal Motivation
Does Anna find that practicing TM gives her an edge in her work, just as it did in college?
''I'd say it's more about not having an edge,'' says Anna. ''When I'm able to be regular in my meditation practice and stay rested, the need for an edge disappears. Then the work is not about getting ahead, or competing, or meeting goals and targets or measurable impacts. It's more about what really matters—which for me comes back to the people in the community. When I'm able to more settled in myself I have more internal motivation.''
Internal motivation causes her to create better quality work, Anna feels. ''So maybe you produce more quantity if you're letting anxiety drive you, because anxiety doesn't let up. But I find when I'm settled from meditation, what I produce is more applicable to the situation. Let's say I'm writing a 78-page paper. When I'm able to act from a foundation of rest and silence, to be more internally motivated, then the content of the pages is more streamlined and relevant to whatever the topic is, or the project.''
Anna continues to pursue her interests (''I'm learning to hula hoop at the moment,'' she confides). She also continues to serve her community whenever she can, as a member of the Board of Directors for Maharishi School, where she graduated from high school, and as a board member of the Women Food and Agriculture Network, an eco-feminist nonprofit based in Ames, Iowa.
She describes eco-feminism this way: ''It's about engaging women in building a just and ecological food and agricultural system through individual and community power. It's about creating space for women to share reciprocity, boldness, nurturing, and cooperation in the development of healthy food systems. And for me personally, it's about bringing these principles and approach into the entirety of my community development work.''
As a young woman who is leading others to create a more sustainable built and social environment right here in her home state of Iowa, she is certainly living her ideals. But Anna tends to deflect praise, whether talking about her work or her lifelong practice of Transcendental Meditation. She also laughs when she says that people who first meet her describe her as serene and calm.
''It's not that I'm super focused, or that I don't sometimes feel scattered or stressed,'' she says. ''But growing up with a foundation in Transcendental Meditation creates a baseline of equanimity, and that's what stands out.''