Dear Listeners, welcome to a special joint episode between Beyond Asian and The HubCast - my newest podcast project on co-living in an intentional community in Berlin.
This episode features Sylvie Shiwei Barbier, the co-founder of Life Itself - an organization striving for a radically wiser world. Our interview takes us on a journey from Sylvie’s Taiwanese-French origins to the role of suffering in growth, to home and belonging, to founding Life Itself and the Hubs.
We finish with a lightning round on The Hub Knock Life - an up close and personal sharing of day to day life in the Bergerac.
Chapter 2: Relationships, Suffering, & Collectivism
Sen: Aside from the fact that you didn't speak French when you first arrived in France, when did you recognize that your perspective was just different from the other people around you.
Sylvie: It's not like a event, I was French and Asian and Taiwanese, but also evolve in various social classes. So I grew up in the migrant poor neighborhoods, but my mom was ahead quite a bourgeois, well off friends and some of my family was also well off. And it was just constantly an experience of people not understanding the Verity of life experiences.
It was very rare for me to have a sense of belonging. And when I started to have maybe with some people, a sense of you understand me was often sometime with other, in Chinese, you say Horton shirt who were also French in Taiwanese, who also understood what it's like to be French and Taiwanese.
And how do you make sense of all of that? Yeah.
Sen: And for the listeners who don't know what wants you is mixed blood, which is a pejorative term, it's like what they say in Harry Potter, like a mud blood and you're like, blood is
Sylvie: blood, yeah. But if you think we're all mixed blood, because I could never feel like I belong to one place like French or Taiwanese, or even the Huncho, because among the horn shoes, some of them were very bullish while others were not like, so I was like, one thing that we all have in common, we're all human.
And so trying to find belonging and understanding if, what is universal to all of us no matter where I go.
everyone will eventually have the experience of loss of grief. Of death of birth. And so I started becoming very interested in human condition. What is not special to me, but universal to all so that I could be able to relate and find home in (HOME AND BELONGING) any human being.
Sen: You know, We're talking about home and belonging. What do those things mean to you today?
Sylvie: I think a big thing of tribe for me is related to a sense of home. And the big thing is I never felt that I had to try and so I was like I'm going to try to create my own one. , so from various travel experience and maybe one on more specific to the Sahara, that to really have a sense that you belong to the whole universe or all of it.
Sen: You have to experience that sense of belonging in a community, in an actual tribe. It's very hard to be like, I belong to all of it when you don't experience safetyness
Sen: real people.
Sylvie: And that's still what I'm exploring and creating yeah, that sense of trust, that sense of belonging, and then once you really have strong relationship and you feel secure in your tribe, then you can feel secure.
we can say that, Oh, I belong to all of it. And it's conceptual. It's not a lived experience. Like I'm am one. If you kill me, I am one with all I'm okay with it because there's no, I like it's often a concept.
Even for myself, it's mostly lived as a concept. I think the access to experiencing that as a true human experience is partially to recognize our differences like that they are borders that borders are neither good or bad in the sense that it's also a certain group of people wanting to define who they are, what they believe in their tradition and respecting that so that they can have a sense Of self and it's, I think it's in a way almost if you have to have a strong sense of who you are to be able to really open up. And if you don't give the opportunity for people to really determine, and really have a sense of who they are, then asking them to open up without that is a great violence.
I would say
(RILKE - ROLE OF SOLITUDE IN RELATIONSHIP)
Sen: There's a, this German philosopher random Maria Rocha. He has this passage where he says that there's this convention in society where two people who are still immature and unformed or half formed. Throw themselves at each other in an effort to become whole.
And when you're immature and only half formed, the only thing that can come out of such a union is another mess. Because you don't know who you are, you don't know where you end and the other person begins. And he says that as mature individuals, The role that you have in each other's lives, as as partners is to be guardians of each other's solitude and to help protect the other person's boundaries and to help them preserve the entity that they are And for them to help you preserve the entity that you are so that you can be two pillars still individual, but a and separated by a space.
And it's a space that keeps you strong together in a relationship. And I think about that all the time. And I think about how I was in my twenties, throwing myself half formed at other half formed people and wondering why it was such a drama all the time, and then when you separate, it's also another drama because it also comes from, a mess going from one mess to another.
Until at some point, you learn and and then you spend a lot of time figuring yourself out. And I don't know how it's been for you, but periods of long solitude, like aloneness and quiet and doing things like silent meditation retreats have been so instrumental to me in understanding who I am has, have you had your own journey through that?
Sylvie: So I was single (ROLE OF SUFFERING & PAIN) most of my life until I met my now husband. And I would say that I was. Go hard, burn hard, like pretty intense. I had to learn really quickly. Cause my suffering showed up really strongly really quickly. It was just something that I still discover now.
That actually, maybe my sensitivity, is higher probably than average. So therefore my tolerance for suffering, I experienced my suffering very quickly and other people's suffering very quickly. I can't stay in a shitty situation for very long, because my tolerance is really low because my experience is really strong very quickly.
Yeah. So I would say that in my life, it was more like I fell in love, hit the ground, got back on the floor. Did some therapy hit the ground again? Like It was quickly like. I'm in so much freaking pain, and then I discovered Buddhism when I was 21.
And for me it was mind freaking blowing that. Someone like the dialogue was capable of so much compassion for the Chinese government. And I was like he's human. It's not coming from the heavens, he's a guy like me.
So if he is capable of that level of. Compassion serenity. Then I have it in me too, because I can find home in every human being. Therefore I can find a home in wisdom in him. And that means I have those seeds of wisdom, compassion, and capability of forgiving this in myself.
And I had no idea what meditation was. I was like, what's the thing, meditation. They talked in the book and I was like, still didn't understood, , I think I was always really keen on looking at where my responsibility lies when things didn't work.
And yeah, I think like suffering has always been my greatest teacher and to not be numb to it, you're in pain, really feel it. Or like you're dissatisfied really look at how the satisfied you're, I'm still sometime dissatisfied. I'm like, fucking hell you have all of it. And you still, the satisfied, like this is really part of human condition to be dissatisfied.
And there's a path. There was a path beyond that. for me, I see suffering like a pain in the ass, but what a gift, because it's the thing that makes me want to get out of it. You know? Like it motivates me to work on myself.
Sen: Yeah. Suffering has been my greatest teacher as well. And part of the things that I've learned from suffering is that there will always be suffering.
On some level and it's a lesson of life to learn, to be at peace with the fact that there will always be suffering. I don't expect that I will attain a light, put a Buddhahood in my lifetime. And so
Sylvie: I've accepted that somehow
Sen: one can always practice and one can always aim towards it.
I think that anything can happen
Sylvie: exactly. Be open to it. it has to be willing to be open to it so that it can show up. I think I really hear what you say is I think pain, we can never avoid pain. Like you might die. You will get ill, but suffering, I think suffering is part of being human.
I would say I want to be open to be like enlightenment is not reserved to the Buddha. Buddha was a human being like you and I, and if he could be enlightened, then I hold a Buddha nature to experience and become that way of being too. And I don't know if that's going to happen, but I want to be open so available for it.
I'm available. I like that. Yeah,
Sen: because what's the point of practicing. If you don't think you're ever going to get there. Exactly. Yeah. That's a good point. Yeah.
(STORY OF THE TOOTH)
Speaking of suffering I wonder if you would share this story with the tooth, because I feel like that embodies so much of your character and the nature of the suffering that you were going through.
Sylvie: So the story of the tooth, I was 22, an artist who arrived in Taiwan and. I wanted to have a great image of myself, both so that if I say something, I will be my word. So one day I said that, Oh, I would love to make a necklace of my own teeth to this guy. I was dating Because I had this idea that, I'm the type of girl.
If I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do something. So if I say I'm going to make a necklace out of my wisdom tooth, I'm going to do that. And then fast forward, probably like a couple of months, I go to a dentist and I asked him if he would remove my wisdom tooth and he's like, your wisdom teeth are perfectly fine. There's no need to take them off, but if you really want to I'll do it. And I was like, okay, yes! I booked myself an appointment and fast forward I'm on that surgical dentist table. He put the anesthesia and then he's starting to drill and pull my tooth out and I'm like, Sylvie,
you are crazy nuts. Just because you said you would do that, you are putting yourself through so much excruciating pain, have your wisdom to remove, when you're perfectly healthy, just to look good to yourself, you look good to that guy who does not give a shit. If you're going to remove your two for now.
Sen: I think that he probably did give a shit. If he was a person who cared about you and I wonder if that would actually look good to him, or if it might send a different message.
Sylvie: Someone who loves you or cares about you I don't think it would be like, Oh, I don't want to date you if you don't remove your teeth, yes. And, And on the, on the flip side
Sen: to look at this person who you care about and see them going through such extreme measures to fulfill the word, I wonder if he might've said something trying to discourage you, or if you knew about it,
Sylvie: I think he had no idea what was going on in my head.
I alone was not even aware of what was really going on in my head. All I knew was I'm on that freaking table. Someone's drilling for my tooth. And I'm like you doing that to yourself, girl, like you are pulling that teeth out of your mouth, just because you said you would. And I really started realizing.
What a control freak. I am, to myself and to others, like the harshness, what I will make myself go through, just because I said I would like, because I'm so attached to be a woman of my word, and that shows up everywhere in my life. And that relationship fell partially also because I use force on myself like drilling your tooth is a use of force physical force on yourself, but I often use force on myself mentally, but also on others.
Rather than then being really authentic, trying to manipulate, trying to make myself be something that I was not doing that year. I lost 13 kilos who looked like the perfect Asian slim women who had long hair and et cetera. Like I would just make myself go through hell to be an idea of myself. And just be myself and to please, to make someone fall in love with me.
Rather than just being myself and they're in love or they're not in love. And my thing, that's still something, I kind of say that I was a dysfunctional control freak, and now I'm a functional control freak, still a control freak. And I have to be gently reminded.
Sen: And what would you say is the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional control
Which, I can totally attest to myself because I would, these
Sen: days categorize myself as a more functional control freak, occasionally trending into dysfunction.
Sylvie: Y one, I don't know, chop wood tow because I said I would Just that there's less excruciating suffering in my life.
Like the way it used to be, that I would cause out of projecting an illusion, being in an illusionary world that I would try to make happen into reality. I also know that if I was this way and I had that tendency is because it has worked for me to center an area. Like I am someone, if I say I'm going to do some thing, you can pretty much count on me that it will happen.
Like I used to have a friend who's like silver, you're extraordinary. I'd making dream happens. If I have that extraordinary capability and willpower but you have to see that can be a talent, but it can be, as I said, also quite forceful. If you try to make people who they, they're not trying to change people, change yourself rather than.
Discover people inquire about who they are inquire about who you are, discover what you are capable of. And that's what I would say. I think I use force a lot less on myself and on others. And give more spaciousness too, to this discovery. And yeah, I just find myself a lot less in like crazy situation, either a dentist table or calling to Switzerland to lose my virginity.
Like crazy stuff like that. I don't do that anymore. Okay. So there's a story there too, for sure. There's a story there too, but before, before we go there,
Sylvie: happened with the tooth? uh, the tooth is a necklace. I do rarely wear it because I'm actually not so proud of that, but sometime I will, re-air it.
As a reminder of how much of a control freak I can be at some times. Yeah.
Sen: It's a talisman
Sylvie: of the past. Did you ever present it to that guy? Yes. It was like, wow. I think I had a romantic idea that I would give him my tooth and he can, would like understand it.
That was my act of love, artists are a bit crazy. You have to be a bit crazy to be an artist,
Sen: what about this flying to Switzerland to lose your virginity?
Sylvie: Always totally died. I was MSN, back then it was a messenger MSN messenger chat. And I was doing MSN messenger. Who's this DJ and I totally fantasize about him.
And he flirted with me. And at that point, like any crazy girl, God, I did see a therapist after that. Cause I was like, Sylvia, you're you have something, you have stuff to work on, but it was like, okay, you know, we'd love to see you. Oh. And then I got a place to go to study in London and he was like, Oh I might move to London too.
So I was like, okay, I'm definitely moving to London. Infatuated. The guy never moved to London. And fast forward. I still never met him after. I don't know of God, many months of exchanging and then come Christmas. He was supposed to come. He doesn't come. And I was like, fuck it. If I don't see him, I'm going to go crazy.
I need to meet him in person because I was aware that I was in my head, but the fact that I never met him physically had my head going fantasizing even more. So I just said, okay well, I'm coming. And I sent him a text and I booked myself a train to Switzerland with very little battery on my phone. I think I was about 20 years old and just send a text and another friend being like, okay, I'm going to Switzerland.
My phone doesn't have much battery, but I'll probably be back in about two days. Bye. And I went off to Switzerland and met this guy, lost my virginity and then came back and. Started being like, I think I should see it there.
I think it's interesting
Sen: to to have these moments of awareness, because I noticed that there's some themes of going to far away places for guys are going through like extreme act of affection or to demonstrate loyalty to guys. And I've done, not as much as that, but.
I definitely have my own, examples of that. And I think it's like, there's these moments where you recognize what you're doing and you're like, there's something about this. That's not okay. I remember once I was dating this guy and it was really a very turbulent relationship and we were in Canada, out in the country and Canada minus 35 in a cabin.
And we had this fight and I went walking in the middle of the night and minus 35 weather. And I got turned around in the forest and I just lay down in the snow. And I looked up at this starry sky and I thought, I don't need to be here anymore. And watching myself have those thoughts.
I suddenly realized I was like, that is not a normal thought for a healthy 20 something year old to have. And it was like right after that, that that I went back into the city and and I found a therapist for myself, but it's like, those moments where like, you can see yourself doing something and there's a higher level of awareness of the self that can tell you something
Sylvie: about this situation is not okay.
I'm, I'm very grateful for those moments of sudden awareness. Yes. Like in the willingness to ask for help, be okay to ask for help and not have it that you can figure it out by yourself. And I think that's what I mean by I was going hard for it. I don't think like me being a big, extreme pulling my two for going to Switzerland.
It was. So my extremity that allow me to recognize my own extremity and therefore the unwellness and the suffering. Or even like quite young, I would easily go and declare my love to boys and be rejected. But then you deal with the rejection and then you deal with how heartbroken you are.
And then you're like I am really heartbroken. and I think the other thing is asking for help. just not trying to solve it all, not have it that you have the answers You might find the answer within, but you might need guidance to find those answer within.
Sen: And I think that's what therapists are great at is, growth will happen anyway, but having a guide will accelerate the growth and perhaps save you some unnecessary detours into longer periods of suffering.
Sylvie: No growth happens anyway.
Cause I think sometime we just build up strategy to survive and to not get hurt anymore, but it's not great. Yeah.
Sen: It's survival.
Sylvie: It's survival. It's just, you be like, I don't want to get hurt, so I won't do that anymore. But does that growth? No, it's just, I don't want to get hurt. And I think growth is like, You still need to have the willingness to get hurt if you want to live.
otherwise you just have dead because zombie. And I, I think that's the thing of to help you have someone guide you to find a way to not be scared to not get hurt anymore. But to still find what is was in you that led you to be in that situation in the first place. and then from that, I think growth can really happen if we're willing to learn and still get hurt.
Sen: I think this is it right. Is it's almost like a trust in yourself that you will get hurt and you'll be all right from that. So much of the avoidance is the avoidance of potential pain. and we forget that we've been through pain and we've survived the pain and sometimes the pain is actually really instructional.
And we get into this place where you forget how resilient you are as a person and that you can never predict exactly how the circumstances will unfold, but you've already made it so far. Why wouldn't you make it the next time and the next time?
Sylvie: I guess one thing I love, I had a coach when I was doing a program at landmark who said, don't go in your head and if you do go, don't go alone. Take someone with, because it's a dangerous place. And it was like, Oh my God, he's totally right. Just don't go in your head. It's a dangerous place. It take someone with you.
Who do you like to take with you when you go into your head? It's my husband, like I take him in my head a lot. Actually I makes me realize how much in my head I am and I'm not there. Yeah,
Sen: yeah. Yeah. Relate,
Sylvie: if you can all relate to that.
(INVIDIUALISM VS COLLECTIVISM)
Sen: I want to talk with you about individualism and collectivism.
That's something that I think our entire world society is struggling through right now where so much of Western society especially has pushed itself so far into the extreme of individualism. And now we're, we're seeing very clearly the problems of that, where we see everyone feels like their opinion is as valid as anybody else's opinion, regardless of, level of education or expertise.
And it's so much about boosting the self and boosting the ego and oppressing other people because you want to be the biggest and the strongest and the best And at the same time, we also come from this history of collectivism, coming from China, myself um, have seen really some of the very detrimental effects of collectivism gone bad.
And now we're at this place where we're trying to make both of those things more integrated with each other to form a healthier model. And you know, I know that you've done. Quite some work with that subject what, what are the insights that you've come through with that?
Sylvie: of China.
I don't know if it's in China with collectivism gone bad or authoritarianism, just usually go bad because, you know, for example, Taiwan is very collective and it's a democracy. And I think there are a lot of wonderful things about collectivism, like, anything with authority, like author to her,
Sen: Or authoritarianism.
Sylvie: Thank you, author attendants with the spirit of individual, that's a little bit like some of the feelings you started having, at the end of. November with Trump, America's highly individualist and Trump was becoming a kind of quite authoritarians figure and that goes wrong.
And the authoritarian with anything will go wrong, I would say. can you have collectivism and thinking for yourself, but without like really thinking for yourself, not like. My opinion is equal to anyone, but like, Oh, I'm going to really try it for myself. not losing yourself in the opinions of others.
Yeah, I think for me it's a difficult balance, but partially out of the experiment that we're doing here at life itself. That I'm gradually gone through, which is how much in the West were traumatized by the failure of the communist utopia,
and I think we partially confused. Maybe a dine, a dimension of trauma that the authority around communism, or And we're a bit community traumatized. And therefore we can never benefit from the beauty and the wonderful joy and the practice of community.
I saw a lot of my own shadows around community. Like I'm an individual. You don't tell me what to do. Like. I don't want to have to adapt to your rhythm. Oh, if I do that with others, that means I have to do Oh my God. And it's so painful to be an individual on your own. You're lonely.
No one to be there with you, but you're by yourself and you're are free. Okay. You might be free, but you ain't free from life. Suffering and free from greed. You're in free from death and you ain't free from all of that. You're free to have a big TV and you're free to have sex and rock and roll.
But when you read rock and roll books, which are on a pithany of the idea of freedom and individualism, They are miserable. They are miserable. They die young, they are heartbroken, they are addicted. but that was, the glamorous picture of the rock and roll, but there is no freedom, true freedom in that.
And I think there's a lot more freedom. If you can free yourself from loneliness. If you can free yourself from resentment if you can free yourself from being addicted to having to be bright, like there's freedom to have and there's freedom to be. And I would say that and maybe more towers, Buddhist, Asian culture, there's a lot of wisdom.
That has been lost for a while, but There's a lot of wisdom in community and that's something I gradually, you've been discovering my attachment to those Western ideal of, freedom and rock and roll to maybe a more combination of okay, I don't want to lose my capacity to think for myself and community really is a tool.
And then the access of transformation and experiencing my entire being and the joy of being at service. I think when you live in community, you have no place to hide. And so that means that, it's so vulnerable to be seen this way.
Where people see you this way, and they're your mirror like you're grumpy, everybody knows you're grumpy and you have to freaking deal with your grumpiness.
Sen: And this morning,
Sylvie: I was just, when you
Sen: say you can't hide, I'm like, that's
Sylvie: exactly the word. The words that I
Sen: chose to describe, my experience here in the hub collective, where none of us can hide anywhere
Sen: ourselves or from each other.
And it's beautiful
Sylvie: and it's beautiful. It's beautiful. And it's a real practice and we in the West are so not used to that. We don't know how to do that. We have to relearn because the truth of it is in the West, we used to have community before industrialization, people did grow up in the same town and married in the same town and, run in the same garden when they were kid, but naked And we lost these kinds of sense of community and we have to relearn to live in community. And it's so weird because we're trying to re-engineer something that was so natural. you know, the idea of like you're single and you live in your own apartment. That's the dream is a very weird,
Sen: my dream is to be all isolated from anybody else to not see another human being, unless I really want to.
Sylvie: That's fucking fucked up. We was sold that dream for so long. They were like, this is the best thing to have. Really. I think it's a recipe for misery.
Sen: It's really interesting because I think often that the problems that we see today, or the solutions of some other problem yesterday, and I'm wondering what drove us towards That ideal something must have made it seem like that was more appealing. And I'm guessing that it might have emerged from a trauma from collectivism, where as you were saying that, previously, you might've felt like you were subsumed by your collective. That's how I felt when I was growing up in my family, where there were just so many people all the time and it was always, you know, do.
The thing that makes the group harmonious. And so everyone moves in a pack. When my family goes on vacation, it's 20 people all at once. And you know how there's like a little tour guide flag. My family has its own tour guide flag. that's what it means to me to be in collective.
And so of course I'm traumatized from that and I, you know, have taken myself far away to do my own processing. and I wonder if in the past, just all of these people. trying to feel who they were. And there's also like a collective evolution too, where you start to get more educated, you start to have different ideas and the more interesting ideas you have, the more.
Diverse perspectives you can offer to the world. and often people are recognized for the, their uniqueness, which is like something that was really a buzzword, back in the nineties or early two thousands, like be unique, be special. And that's why millennials these days are so criticized for being.
you know, the one snowflake that's not like any other snowflake. And I see so many of the repercussions of that. I talked to a lot of younger people now who are going through existential crisis because they feel like they should be unique and offer an amazing contribution that's original from anybody else.
And then they judge themselves so harshly when they see that it's not happening in the way that they imagined because their expectations are set so high. Yeah,
Sylvie: cause it's all on you. And it's such a heavy weight, too burden to carry for one human being. That's tough. I think I really liked some of what you just said about we've been traumatized by the collective and we created solution, but it was on top of it.
We didn't get to heal it. You know, And then it's running way. Yeah.
Sen: It's a
Sylvie: coconut. Exactly. You run away, but then you never dealt with it. And there's a real opportunity to deal with the trauma that we had about collectivism. And also some of the trauma that are now really appearing about individualism and to really strike a balance of not losing oneself or where do you stand Not what do I want about me? But what is your stand for the world? What is the things that really strikes your heart that you will stand for and not lose your critical thinking? I would say have moral in a way. To find that and to recognize the uniqueness of the individual and the contribution of giving yourself to the community I think the community is like an amplifier of things, if things are bad by yourself, while you watch TV or you distract yourself, but in the community or bad to get really bad, really like you feel it quite strongly, cause it's like bad for you and you when things are good.
Oh my God. It's so good. Cause like you shared a joy and it's multiplied and I think it really requires when you live in community for it to really fulfill on the potential to not just be a community for just hanging out. But with the intention of exploring and inquiring about what it means to be a human being together, what does it mean to be humanity together The purpose of being together is in this inquiry. And I think once you find your community and you greedy create that, that bond, that trust, like things come out of it, that can be Extremely powerful and fulfilling.