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.