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.


Commitments, Contradictions and Experiential Learning 101

Article by Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Well, it’s been a few months. Since my last post, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate in Jordan and spent my summer first working on a permaculture farm on Denman Island, then on a small start-up organic farm in Armstrong BC (where, in fact, I remain quite contentedly for the moment). I started off charging forward with the joyful prospect of heaping permaculture skills onto my academic background in evolutionary ecology. Heady stuff.

I just want to run out and do everything at once: designing sites, building swales and hugelkultur beds, harvesting water, and basically getting down-and-dirty adding hands-on work to my list of experience. As many of us do, I tend to fall into the classic trap of trying to do everything at once; and to just keep adding skills and experience(s) rather than develop existing ones.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at  permaculture course in Jordan.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at permaculture course in Jordan.

This summer was no exception. While I did add a heap-load of skills to my repertoire (and work on some muscles and a tan), I’ve been struggling to process what the few months have meant to me in terms of learning, personal growth, professional growth, and so on.

Some themes keep re-emerging::

 1) Test what you “know” by doing things. Do something. Do anything. The learning is in the doing, not in what feels like “learning”. As a scholar I’m great at getting caught in this trap: the potential for further learning is endless. It’s the doing that needs to be plugged in to make the learning stick.

2) Commitment. Choose something. Anything. But do it, keep moving forward, and all the things you were trying to choose between will either fall away, or fall into the framework of what you commit to. I kept getting hit over the head with this one this year. Everyone from my friends and family to distant voices of past exes to a radio show host used words and phrases like “making a commitment”, “setting down roots,” and “choosing a focus.” I learned a little more about why these phrases keep resonating with me; but also that sticking to an overarching commitment can result in conflicts between the minor goals (e.g. stay in one place and build on basic farming skills, versus drive across Canada and the US on a 6-week road-trip to learn about some alternative approaches to food security and production). And that contradictions are okay. Which leads to . . .

3) We are all full of contradictions. Recently CBC radio host Brent Bambury was discussing with director Errol Morris his documentary “The Unknown Known” on Donald Rumsfeld. Morris was reflecting that Rumsfeld seemed to have little comprehension of the magnitude of his decisions or influence during his time in office; that he seemed to frequently contradict himself without any awareness of having done so. Bambury goes on to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” He then rephrased this to: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and to know and acknowledge that you are doing so.” I guess that tells me I have a great mind, because I can never seem to move forward for the number of contradictory thoughts guiding my decisions! But recognizing the contradictions, and choosing which is more (or less) important to you, is part of life and successful learning.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

4)    Understanding is dependent on the perspective you choose from which to view an experience. For example, looking back on the last few months, I could choose to view them from a perspective either of success or failure. First, I learned a lot, made some wonderful friends, spent a lot of time working outside, ejected some logistical fallacies and developed a much greater sense of practicality. On the other hand, I didn’t gain any financial ground, and feel like I’m about where I started in terms of gaining security, stability, forward direction, and so on. Either point of view could be taken as equally valid. Holding those two contradictory possibilities in mind is important so that I avoid deluding myself into a false sense of security that “everything works out” (sometimes it just doesn’t); or into an equally destructive sense of failure that “nothing ever works out” (sometimes it does, it just takes a little longer, or comes about in unexpected ways). Reality is a slippery fish!

Looking back I recognize the optimism of someone with a lot of ideas – and ideals – and not a great deal of time spent putting those ideas into the ground. In all honesty, after more than half a year, I still don’t have any kind of feeling like I’ve “gotten it together” or am ready to offer anything like a usable product to the world – but I do have a more grounded understanding of my own knowledge and experience gaps.

Along with that understanding came a greater humility, and simultaneously a greater confidence in my willingness to try things, watch them fail, try again, and keep working on learning. Things happen more slowly than we’d like them to. Our ideas, and ideals, exceed our abilities. That’s the point.  Otherwise we’d be stagnating. Physically putting our ideas and experience to the test is ultimately – for me, at least – the only way to go.