Grief and Cultural Transformation

Acknowledging the distance between vision and a more beautiful world

By Alla Guelber

As I sat in a session at Living the New Economy, a five-day gathering of leaders in articulating and developing the emerging new economy, hot crocodile tears streamed down my face.

All of a sudden, everything that I had been feeling hit me like a raging torrent.

During this exciting, inspiring conference, my dear mentor and friend Mark Lakeman, architect and permaculture designer, as well as founder of the City Repair Project shared not only his vision for the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” (to borrow a phrase from Charles Eisenstein), but the reality that he experiences in his day-to-day life in Portland, Oregon.

As Mark spoke, in the inspiring overtones of a great orator, he took us all on a journey like a raft on a river, coming across magical and inspiring possibilities for a different way of being in our modern, industrialized cities, stopping for a brief interlude at the world’s first 24-hour solar-powered T-Station, then perhaps over to the Cat Palace, a little meander to the chicken coop shaped like a lovely, giant red-beaked chicken, and back over to the beautiful mandala painted in the middle of his neighbourhood intersection, acting as the universal cross-roads where people meet, interact, and foster strong community ties.

The Block Repair activity looks at ways to create more connectivity and connection on the neighbourhood level. Mark Lakeman is in front. (Taken at the Living the New Economy, 2014)

The Block Repair activity looks at ways to create more connectivity and connection on the neighbourhood level. Mark Lakeman is in front. (Taken at the Living the New Economy, 2014)

These brightly-painted amenities are not merely interesting art installations or functional public infrastructure. Through the dialogues that lead to their creation and ongoing upkeep, the development of these interventions have resulted in tangible improvements to quality of life, safety, and community integration in the neighbourhoods where they were created, and expanded to influence the overall culture in Portland and beyond. Find out more about the Planet Repair Institute in Portland.

This time, as I absorbed Mark’s stories and reflected on my own experiences with community building, it hit me, with ever-increasing intensity: the wide chasm between my reality and the world that I yearn to live in.

I took in the presentation with two other dear friends – Lindsay Meads of reGenerate Design and Kym Chi of Giggling Chi Tree. Earlier in 2014, along with urban designer Natalia Zoldak, the four of us had hosted Mark in our home city, Calgary, for five days of inspiring workshops on urban placemaking and permaculture through a grassroots project, City Repair Calgary.

The poster from all of the learning engagements that City Repair Calgary hosted in July 2014

The poster from all of the learning engagements that City Repair Calgary hosted in July 2014

All this to say, I had already been deeply steeped in exploring alternative possibilities for urban living and in many ways had my finger on the pulse of creating this more beautiful world that my heart knows is possible.

And yet, there is still a chasm between my day-to-day reality and the world I want to live in.

As I say this, I’m quick to try to minimize my pain, to reframe this experience and start listing all of the people, opportunities and amazing examples of community that I have been truly blessed to experience in my life (for a few links, see below). The opportunities to travel and study in Oregon, work directly with a visionary like Mark Lakeman and bring him to teach in Calgary, have all been life-changing opportunities.

To have the time, opportunity and access to information that allows me to imagine this different future is an immense privilege, and I constantly remind myself of the many gifts I have received in my life. But that is not the point in this instant.

When grief comes, there is a reason.

This way of life that I envision emerges from what we know in our hearts, in our bones, in our cellular memories – or in many of the great ancient cities that we fly to visit on vacation. This is the way people are supposed to live. This is the way we have lived for millennia in towns and villages across the world. Where neighbours know each other, where families live in close proximity, where the wellbeing of each individual is a crucial contributor to the wellbeing of the entire community.

And it was in this remembering, and in the grief that comes with a sense of alienation and disconnect, that I broke down and let the torrent of tears cleanse my heart.

“Grief is an act of transformation.” This was one of the key ideas that emerged on a panel of strong, inspiring women on the Remembrance Day panel hosted at that same conference in 2015.

On that panel, four visionary women from across British Columbia shared the different ways that they have experienced the need to move through the powerful emotions we experience as we go through the storm of sociocultural transition.

Mark and his colleagues, friends, and collaborators have instigated a powerful cultural transformation in their city. The oft-parodied experience of Portlandia isn’t just about pickling strange objects or ironically putting birds on things.

The underlying reality is that there is a major experiment going on with a radically different way to engage with communities and neighbours in all manner of life interaction. And no, Portland (or Victoria, or Vancouver) isn’t some magical fairyland, but there are many things they are getting right in those cities. Not solely based on the quirkiness of the city’s residents, but by design. And, increasingly, major transformations are starting to take place in Calgary’s urban landscape as well, creating more opportunities for community interaction and citizen empowerment.

As we move from the old economy and the new, we experience periods of grief and we need to create opportunities to let ourselves feel those feelings. It is not a smooth, linear process. There are set-backs, confusion, reflection, regrouping, and an eventual re-inspiration to head back out into the fray. DSC_0483

As I started to process my experiences and posted about them on Facebook, comments started coming in from my friends and colleagues.

“All the words and facts in the world won’t change a thing until people move from guilt to grief to gratitude. Cultural transformation will have to happen out of love and compassion not guilt and fear,” added one friend.

“Grief is necessary to keep people humble and remind them of things that cannot be changed and remind them of things that can,” expanded another.

Grieving Rituals

One person who has helped me learn about the transformative power of grief is Sarah Kerr, of Soul Passages, a death midwife and ceremonialist.

Sarah has great gifts in helping people who are ill or near death prepare for crossing over, and creating the appropriate rituals and ceremonies that help both the individuals who are dying or experiencing a major loss and their families to be able to embrace the change they are going through with grace and humility.

While I have not experienced Sarah’s rituals in the context of death, I regularly attend her New Moon Rituals and recently joined the Community Healers’ Council.

Sarah teaches that the more we are able to transition gracefully between all of the smaller starts and ends to the cycles of life, the more gracefully we will be able to handle the ‘big ones.’

Attending the New Moon Ritual is about letting go of the previous month, and any challenges or impediments might have arisen, grounding in the experience of the present moment, and setting intentions for what might happen in the coming cycle.

Grief and gratitude come from the same place.

Only when we truly experience the deep grief of human experience can we return back into our hearts to experience the emotion that sits on the other end of that spectrum.

As the heart breaks, the heart breaks open.

Joanna Macy is an elder in the movement to create a space for grief as part of the essential process for reconnection and “coming back to life”. She calls her process The Work that Reconnects. Writing, teaching and facilitating extensively over the past 50 years, Macy has created a powerful framework for moving through personal and societal transition. (More on her revolutionary work in future blog posts). She writes:

“In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to suffer with is the true meaning of compassion. We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind, and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our world as lover, world as self.”  Find out more about The Work that Reconnects.

Back to the day-to-day

Gratitude for the beauty and abudance of nature is important in the process of recovery.

Gratitude for the beauty and abundance of nature is important in the process of recovery.

I experience chronic pain and fatigue on a daily basis. Some days are better than others. Some days I feel far too tired to go on and I am mired in a fog of sadness and despondency about the difficulty of this physical existence. My mind can leap and run far beyond the constraints of my challenged body, and I am often at odds between the thoughts, ideas, plans and projects that my mind cooks up and the very real constraints imposed on me by my physical limitations.

Other days, my heart brims with gratitude for even the shortest experience of vitality and energy. I am able to connect to the infinite source of energy and love that exists in this universe, and step outside of the false perception that my physical experience of this reality can limit me in any way.

These polarities exist within my own body, and they exist within our shifting world.

We all carry the grief of what we have lost and the grief of what’s broken in our world. We also all carry the deep propensity for love, hope, healing and interconnectedness.

Whether it’s the shooting pain in my hip, or the deep pain of witnessing polluted waterways and overloaded landfills, there is palpable sadness in the ways that so much does not work or flow in my – and our shared global – present reality.

And this sadness, this indescribably deep grief, needs to be felt.

I have learned, when working through my chronic pain, that in the body, physical and emotional pain is not separate.

Emotions, when not expressed as feelings, can become lodged in the body in the form of physical pain.

Could it be that all of the immense and senseless ugliness that we see in our external environment is an outward manifestation of all this unexpressed, unprocessed inner grief?

It is only through truly deeply feeling the grief of the world can we start to transform these intense emotions into tangible actions that lead to larger-scale change.

Deepening the understanding of grief as a process of transformation

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in Without Going Crazy By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible, and other works by Charles Eisenstein

The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel

Inspiring people and organizations

Mark Lakeman, Planet Repair Institute and The City Repair Project (Based in Portland, Oregon)

Joanna Macy and her work (Based in Berkeley, California)

Living the New Economy Conference (Based in Victoria, BC)

Healing Cities Institute (Based in Vancouver, BC)

reGenerate Design (Based in Calgary, AB)

Giggling Chi Tree (Based in Roberts Creek, BC)

Using trauma to fuel the journey ahead


By Susan Cousineau

It’s a kind of unexpected irony that those who learn to look after themselves first end up able to offer more to the world, knowing that their needs will be looked after. It’s those of us who are trapped in a wheel of trying always to give, give, give and end up with nothing left for themselves and nothing left to give, end up needing to draw from the world their sustenance and energy. Build stability and security into your life first – whatever that means to you – and the rest is more likely to follow.


The Permaculture Life Map, designed by Susan Cousineau. The large white arrow cutting through the right side of the map indicates a significant traumatic life event.

The Permaculture Life Map, designed by Susan Cousineau. The large white arrow cutting through the right side of the map indicates a significant traumatic life event.

Permaculture uses the concept of zones to design landscapes based on certain features (water, access, structures, elements). We first assess the needs and yields of individual elements, then position these according to how often we need to visit each element or feature for maintenance, repair, or harvesting. The objective is to increase the number and quality of connections that can be made between elements in a landscape. I wanted to adapt this concept to a map that could be used to understand the interactive roles of work, relationships, our own values and goals, and broad ideas, in relation to their importance in our day-to-day lives. Knowing the place that these aspects hold in our lives can help to place a past event or situation, which may seem overwhelming or profoundly negative, in a wider context.

A traumatic event or period (the large white arrow on the right side of the circle) cuts directly from the outermost realm of the unexpected and unknown, from beyond our comfort zone, directly to our innermost fears. This can profoundly shake up our internal sense of safety, security and capability in the world. We all cope with this differently.

In October 2013 I attended the Meaningful Work Retreat, The Quest for Meaningful Work: Aligning Passion and Purpose for the New Economy, in Canmore, AB. On the last night of the retreat, participants could host a discussion based on a topic related to our meaningful work journey through Open Space, a dialogue technology.

You choose your topic and a space in the building to hold the discussion, then go there and wait to see if anyone shows up. I wanted to know how people might have come to reference past trauma or difficulties in their own development towards meaningful work, and how these can be used in a meaningful, productive way that fuels rather than steals from the energy required to move forward. It occurred to me that the permaculture framework provides a starting point for understanding the potential value of unexpected or traumatic events in our lives.

During the discussion at the retreat, I used input from other participants to create a map of different aspects of their lives. While every map will be specific to an individual, we found a large degree of commonality in where we would place things like family, community, business, and abstract ideas. In a permaculture context, those things in Zone 1 (e.g. physical experience, spirituality, and relationship with and ideas about yourself) need to be looked after before you can do your best work on things in Zone 2 and outwards. It’s akin to building a solid foundation under a house or building. The key point, though, is that a traumatic event or situation brings in experience that we wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and as a result can provide insight, clarity, and wisdom that we could not otherwise acquire.

In rebuilding my own Zone 1:

  • In January I completed a 10-day course in a technique of silent meditation, called Vipassana. So far, after a month, I’ve been developing a habit of at least 30 minutes of meditation every morning. I’ll eventually get up to a full hour, but I work towards developing systems first, goals second. (See for example, Goals vs. Systems from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.)
  • Spending more time outdoors every day. Research, such as this Scientific American study, shows all the significant health benefits of time spent in the wild, and even impacts the core of our values.
  • Curbing my inherent cynicism and replacing it with actual questions, working towards curious inquiry rather than negative scanning
  • .Redeveloping a habit of budgeting and keeping better track of my financial situation. This has pushed me to align my day-to-day habits with my goals, and also keep track of potential income-generating opportunities.

One of the most concrete things that I’ve learned from this work over the last six months is that it’s better to deliver an imperfect product than nothing at all. I hope that this framework, even if imperfect and a work in progress, is useful to you in your journey towards meaningful work. I’d welcome comments and feedback on how to make it better or how you’ve applied something similar in your own life.

Blogs I find useful include:

A site simply chock full of awesome bits of history, inspiration, thoughtful reflection, her site is described as “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are.” Founded in 2006 as a humble email digest, with posts personally guaranteed to take no longer than 4 minutes to read, in 2012 Maria’s site was included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive.

See her lessons-learned story here:

  • Elephant Journal, A compendium of inspiring, thoughtful, and well-written posts from a huge variety of authors.
  • BrightCo, run by Rebecca Kantar, and an incubator/sourceboard for investors, entrepreneurs, innovators and their ilk
  • Team Pollenizer , An incubator for start-ups with a focus on building highly efficient, value-oriented operations.
  • Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits. I really appreciate Leo’s work on getting motivated, slowing down, living with less, and so on.
  • Ash Maurya/Alex Oskerwalder’s business startup canvas toolkit online scratchpad: The Start-up Toolkit.
  •  “Mr. Focus” Mick Liubinskas. I like his “What He Knows / What He Does / Who He Helps” style of header.


New imagineCALGARY Partner Redefining Meaningful Work

The Meaningful Work Project recently joined ImagineCALGARY as a partner. This profile was written by Patricia Marcoccia from Axiom News. The original article is posted here.

Ed Whittingham, Executive Director of the Pembina Institute, joined the 2011 Meaningful Work Retreat to offer his insights on running the largest environmental non-profit organization in Canada, and his personal journey toward meaningful work.

Ed Whittingham, Executive Director of the Pembina Institute, joined the 2011 Meaningful Work Retreat to offer his insights on running the largest environmental non-profit organization in Canada, and his personal journey toward meaningful work. Photo by Mark Unrau.

Alla Guelber knew after she completed her undergraduate degree in applied communications that a traditional PR career was not in the cards for her. But she didn’t know where or how to find the kind of meaningful work she was looking for.

What she did know was that she was passionate about the growing movement of the emerging “green” economy. While studying a master of arts degree in environmental education and communication, Alla saw many opportunities for employment in the environmental sector, but many of these jobs consisted of merely accounting for gaps in current systems as opposed to being truly innovative.

Alla opted to merge her interests into a master’s thesis called The Quest for Meaningful Work: Personal Journeys in Creating Occupations for People and the Planet. She has since expanded her inquiry into a grassroots initiative called the Meaningful Work Project (MWP).

“Meaningful work is a universal human desire,” she says. “I wanted to expand the definition of meaningful work so that it’s not only about that personal satisfaction and that sense of being of service to others but also being of service to the planet.”

MWP is a new imagineCALGARY partner. In its early stages, the MWP team is still figuring out what form the initiative will take. One of its most successful aspects to date has been an intimate, multidisciplinary retreat that brings together people on various legs of their own journeys to find meaningful work.

People often feel a sense of relief in the workshops, Alla explains, because they have the opportunity to share with others who are experiencing the trials and tribulations of this challenging transition.

“You’re going through a transition where your world feels upside down and nothing seems to make sense anymore, and you feel like you want meaningful work but you don’t know what that looks like,” she says.

“With the topic of meaningful work, people are reluctant to share what they’re really experiencing. There’s a stigma against people who challenge the status quo,” she adds.

Alla is compiling many of the stories she is encountering of people who are creating new paths to fulfill their personal and “planetary” ambitions. Danielle Carruthers, who completed the workshop in 2010, transitioned from her job in banking to starting a social business incubator called the Sedge. The team is currently spending the year working on incubation in Chile.

“What is it going to take to be able to transition all aspects of our society away from dependence on fossil fuels? It’s going to mean a massive reconfiguration of all that we do and the way we live our lives,” she says.

For more information on the upcoming retreat, Aligning Passion and Purpose for the New Economy running Oct. 25 – 27 in Canmore, AB, visit

To learn about becoming an iC partner click here. You can also share your feedback, thoughts and ideas on Facebook and Twitter.

Royal Roads article on roots of MWP & the LifeJAM

Thanks to Royal Roads University Alumni Office for their article on the roots of the Meaningful Work Project and the LifeJAM.

Student gets funding for LifeJAM

For Alla Guelber, it’s all about the power of the people.

The MA in Environmental Education and Communication student is in the midst of creating a facilitated process called LifeJAM that will bring together a group of people to help an individual explore, refresh, invigorate and create a vision for a project, a business endeavour or another specific decision related to creating meaningful work.

“LifeJAM is a coaching process that encourages social innovation and finding creative solutions,” explains Guelber, who recently won a third Co-operators Group IMPACT! Fund grant to develop and pilot the project. “Working for social and environmental change is the goal and we’re going to be doing that through a group process that has a multiplier effect. We’re tapping into the power of the community and creating mutually beneficial relationships through which people can share their skills and experience.”

Welcome Winter

News for the New Year!

Enjoy the wonder of winter! Happy Holidays from the Meaningful Work Project.

The Meaningful Work Project is one of 18 initiatives supported by the Cooperators IMPACT! Alumni Grant for Phase 3 of our work.

In the next 7 months, we plan to create and pilot a process called the LifeJAM that focuses on supporting the ‘how’ of social entrepreneurship. The grant funds hosting a series of LifeJAMs and the creation of a LifeJAM instruction manual. Finally, it allows the project to use professional facilitators to develop the program and train the Meaningful Work team to run it self-sufficiently.

A LifeJAM is a facilitated process that assists participants to gain more clarity around a specific topic of inquiry.  It is a space where a group of people come together to help an individual explore, refresh, invigorate and create a vision for a project, a business endeavour or another specific decision relating to creating meaningful work.

Find out more!

A story about taking chances

“If I could offer once piece of advice, it would be to always go to that presentation, or community gathering, or potluck, or workshop, or trip, or – whatever it may be – because you never know what it might lead to!”

Vanessa enjoys the campus garden's bounty

In 2010, Vanessa Hanel took a chance and signed up for the first Meaningful Work Retreat. That experience set her on a serendipitous journey into permaculture and sustainable agriculture with Big Sky Permaculture, then off to Cuba, back to study with Verge Permaculture, and finally, to work with Organic Alberta.

Check out her blog post: The serendipitous journey to meaningful work, part of our Meaningful Work Profile Series.