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 3: Life Itself, Belonging, and Hubs
Sen: I wanted to take us through this journey that you've been through. And understand what motivated you to first of all, start life itself. And then what motivated you to to form the Berlin hub?
Sylvie: Ooh, that's a good question. 2015, I, the previous year, couple of years, I spent quite a bit of time in the Sahara and it was so peaceful and healing, and I felt like there was a lot of wisdom there. And before that, I also lived in London and Taiwan. And I also felt there was some wisdom in the towers goodest point of view of Asian people. Things that, the old grandma will say, it's like, Oh, you met this boy and it didn't work out it's because here's your homework, you need to learn something from it. And, That's quite a wise thing to say, no, French grandmother really say that like your friends don't really say that. They're like, Oh, he's an asshole. And he's your whole, and so I was like wondering where, could you bring those engine wisdom tradition to a modern way of life . And I had just created a conference called Epic failure, inquiring about, what to learn from your failures and to not be afraid to fail. Cause we're a society really obsess about success and because we're obsessed about success, we're also obsessed about failure to not fail.
yeah, it was a junction of my life. And I had no idea what I would look like, what I would really be. And I just met Rufus at that time. And one moment where I really fell in love with Rufus, or I knew he was like really my life partner, who was like, he said that he was really in inquiry about what wisdom is.
And that was always my quest in life. And my strange experiences that when I met people, that was not what they were in inquire about life. And I was like, Oh, I met another one. There's one more human being up there. And gradually for Rufus. I met Liam and at that point I was becoming closer again to a childhood friend of mine called Nino, which squad and yeah, at that time name it I named it art earth tech, and we named it like that.
Sen: Then. we created a kind of gathering of saying what is wisdom? And
Sylvie: people could do project and who would want to live with us and go on with this venture. And then nothing really happened that first year. So it was kind of a very slow, long process of also this friendship and the relationship.
And I think for me, yes, it was always a question about. what is wisdom and how to be wise.
Sen: What does that look like in the everyday life and on the global scale on
Sen: collective side?
Sylvie: I don't think there's an answer like wisdom is X, Y, Z.
I think there might be principles such as. Don't kill really basic ones, there's also things such as compassion. There was also a fusion of East and West. For example, for the West, we'd like to be like, if I understand this, then I can do it.
And in Asia, for example, with calligraphy is like, there's no point explaining you just keep doing it. And then as you do it, you will understand it. And I like to say that life itself is a little bit of a mixture of that, which is. There's a part that is okay, we want to understand what are our blind spot?
What has been holding us back in society? How does our human consciousness work? Like a whole part of the Western and the wonderful part of Western philosophy and culture, which is from understanding you can do. And I think there's another part which is, and I would say that's maybe.
What the big vision conversation is coming from. The research is coming from is, deepening our understanding, but understanding something does not mean you can do it. It's like I can understand how the bicycle function does that mean I can ride a bicycle though. And being able to ride a bicycle does not mean you can explain it.
For example, I'm a quite good salsa dancer. I'm a shit teacher. So I think the hubs for me are a little bit that in the sense that, we do know that living as individuals in the Western world doesn't work anymore. So
Sen: we want to form microculture. that would be
Sylvie: a different culture and a dominant culture and
Sen: a space for exploration and experimenting.
Sylvie: And it's by doing it that we learn that we find maybe some principle behind and the two meet one another to, to learn from one another from the practices. From the experimentation, you get some understanding from the research and understanding you apply some practices
Sen: and hopefully a big shebang happens from that.
Sylvie: That's a kind of very short reduction of it. Yeah. There's
Sen: a sense that you just started and it will, as it evolves, you will understand what it's trying to become. Almost like you start to paint something without really knowing what you're painting. And then at some point the painting tells you what it is.
Sylvie: I think there's a strong sense of the stand of the direction it is, but you don't yet know what it is. I dunno, maybe like Michelangelo is like yet David came out of the stone. He just had to remove everything that wasn't David, but I think he also had a strong stand in him of he's getting David out.
So it wasn't just, Oh, I'm going there. And then I'm going, fair enough. I'm going there. So you still need to have a sense of what is the direction we're going for? We are going for creating a microculture that would embody. The contemporary sense of, I don't know, like to even use the word wisdom, but an inquiry and a space for that.
Some people call it teal, or God knows, who cares, but really a sense to inquire that because I don't think no one can ever claim that you've got, you really got it and you never get it. It's alive. It's alive. It's constantly alive. And if it's alive and one thing you can be certain of is that you're uncertain about it.
Sen: Everything , anything can still happen. Yes.
Sylvie: You have to give it this face to become. And being a control freak and saying that is a contradiction and a paradox in itself.
Sen: And it's interesting, because necessitates like holding a certain tension within yourself. As you watch this thing become if we use the David being released from the marble, Some point it's just a piece of marble.
It doesn't really have any life. And then there's a moment where the life comes into it. And all of a sudden you can see that it starts to take its own direction. and then there's like this moment where you're like, how much do I still need to be? Guiding this experience and how much do I now allow that experience to guide me kind of what we were talking about before, first you create the thing and then that thing creates you back.
And it's such a beautiful, delicate dance of containing, but also allowing,
Sylvie: And coming to that with Berlin hub, One thing is, I think I was very blessed by my mother and my parents. They were always very positive about me wanting to be an artist or my mom is my biggest fan.
I have a delusional sense that whatever I'm going to do, it's going to work. because every time it doesn't really work. The first shot, like it's very rare, but that makes me a great delusional, optimistic, which gives me a sense of like, yeah, I'm going to go for things.
Sen: I think that's what Steve jobs was too. He had a reality distortion field.
Sylvie: Yeah, God knows. So similarly with Berlin hub, I was like, okay, we want to form micro-culture Let's just do it. And you think it's so simple? Well, It's so hard.
Sen: So what's been the most surprisingly difficult thing.
Sylvie: Well just it's like the innocence of it. It's like, yeah. I'll just find those people who want to do this great adventure with me and we'll be best friends and it will just be easy. And you're like, yeah. Oh, actually, how will you find them How do you know if this is it, Oh, and money plays in part and Oh, and
you need to furnish it. And you need to like all of those pragmatic, concrete things that you think it would just be easy and it's never that easy. And now you meet these people and they're wonderful. And you're like, Okay. And so what now Yeah, we're here, what's the mission.
And then it's Oh, great. And then you're like, what now? I don't know. Cause I, yeah, it's just, you don't know. And it does take a little bit of a life for itself and I, myself, And I think you might have different answers from different people. I do say that this is the Sylvia answer and think you wouldn't have a different answer from Rufus and probably a slightly different one again for me, but on myself and am an inquiry.
I don't have the answer and I am in an exploration and I do have a sense of what I am standing for. But yeah, having never seen it before, so it's not like I've seen a cat, then I can say this is a cat or this is not a cat. I have a sense of what it looks like, but I've never seen one before.
Sen: That's such an interesting analogy. I was thinking something very similar yesterday because of this emergent quality of something that's being co-created and how. We don't know what it looks like, because nothing like it has ever existed before. And there's, there's like an intuitive drive to make something that's different and you're kind of like, Maybe I'll recognize it once I see it, but until I see it, I won't know exactly if it's that it's like it might be a cat might be a tiger.
It might be something that's like a rhinoceros, but it's definitely not a crocodile. And the more that we go along and maybe the more different examples of things that we see, the more we were like, okay, it's definitely this. And it's definitely not that it's a little bit like this and in the direction of that mixed with this other thing.
And at some point, in the distant future, people will look back and say, Oh, obviously they were talking about this thing. They just didn't know what they were talking about at the time, but in the future, we already accustomed to those concepts.
Sylvie: Yeah. I liked the metaphor that you use.
Sen: if we think back about Michelangelo and the David sculpture at some point you know, he recognizes, okay, this is David, and now I'm going to release him from the statue. When you think about your role maybe as the coast sculptor of this statue, what does the statue look like?
What is the vision that you're starting to capture it and starting to release from the marble.
Sylvie: I imagine a strong sense of authenticity is, really. A key ingredient, I would say solid base of practicalities and pragmatism. That's why we often say, we're say we're pragmatic utopians in the sense that well, if you can't pay the bill, you want ain't surviving winter and your utopia never going to show up, yeah, I'd say authenticity, pragmatism and the willingness to dream, to suffer. That's why I said they're like, from what I mentioned a bit earlier of not be afraid to get hurt, because what is a dream worth being hurt, and I think if you're not willing to get a bit hurt, you never going to see something really extraordinary appear.
I would say to not just dream as by myself in my corner, but to dream together and to form together and to radical, like the acceptance of our humanity, that it ain't something perfect. The willingness to be messy.
And that if you are taking something so big, and that it's never been done before and we don't know how to do it, then of course it's going to be messy. And so that, that kind of willingness to face uncertainty and unfamiliarity, and I think for that, you need to have a great dose of looking at where each person plays a responsibility in that giving yourself to something much bigger than yourself, I think that's where a lot of meaning comes from. I don't think meaning comes from always oh, I like doing this or, but it's really comes from giving yourself to something a lot bigger than yourself that makes the washing the toilet meaningful.
Sen: you know, I've, I've always thought about this in the sense that when I'm clear about what vision I'm working towards, it's really not so important.
What. Function. I have, as long as I'm contributing to the vision, so in the past, when I've done quite a number of these Vipassana retreats. And when you're a server out of the Pasadena retreat, you do everything from. Chopping onions at 5:00 AM to scrubbing the toilets, to bringing pills to people who are having a hard time.
And you know, it doesn't matter what you're doing because it's all in service to the greater vision. Of course, some people will have. Strengths in certain areas and it makes more sense for them to do those things. But ultimately, it's not so important. The times when I struggled the most are when I get overly attached to my function.
And it's because I don't see the greater vision and I'm serving mostly myself. I'm thinking about the advancement of my career, or am I getting credit for this? Or, am I getting paid the same as this other person? And things,
Sen: so clear when I know where I fit into this thing.
And so like for me the most important thing these days is trying to clarify what, first of all, my personal vision is, and also what the vision of this Collective is. And in that sense, it's happening already. We're starting to free the David and I'm quite excited to see what the rest of the sculpture is going to look like.
And also what things we're going to learn, as we go along, like what skills we're going to acquire what are the relationships that will be cultivated? What aspects of ourselves will be expressed through the scope? Sure. And then ultimately, what the sculptural will do and the greater world, what role would this thing have?
Is it going to be an example for other people? Will it actually serve a function even beyond simply existing?
Sylvie: It will probably take a life of its own. something that we're experimenting here is taking a lot of the things that the monastery life has and that has worked and trying to see which part do we want to take in our secular lives?
who's a member here. she keeps saying, becoming a monk is actually the easiest thing. Cause you don't have to think, you just do it, but you go and meditate. You go cook you clean.
There's therefore very little space for the noise in the head. And to have to think of your choice and your choice in your choice. And I just noticed, for example, like when we were doing the practice every day, doing the cleaning every day, doing the chopping. And when I just give myself to the practice and the community, I feel so held and safe because I don't have to think, I don't have to think of my work and et cetera.
And over the Christmas break. at the moment, there's no community members here. And I just noticed all the noise that just starting appearing in my head because I wake up in the morning and I suddenly have a choice. Do I stay in bed? Not seem bad, or I shouldn't stay. yeah, there's something about just, if you give yourself to the practice and how you cook the food and et cetera.
It starts holding you and you don't have to hold everything anymore. And so I think that's also one of the, on the question that you said earlier, what's the taste or the look of it or the feel of it. I think there's really something along the lines of taking Zen into secular living.
Sen: And this notion of the practices hold you, is something that I've experienced so much since I was here prior to moving in, I was living essentially on my own during the first lockdown. And when you talked about earlier, the freedom that comes from living on your own and being able to do whatever you want I was going to bed at four 30 in the morning drinking every night, waking up at 1230 and just thinking that's my freedom. That's my choice. And I was doing that for months on end knowing that it wasn't good for me, but I also wasn't quite able to shift myself out of it. And as soon as I arrived here, there was.
Running practice in the morning, there was yoga practice. There's our breakfast practices. There's the evening community practice There's meditation practice, there's reading practice. And all of a sudden these things framed the experience. And after a while of doing them, I didn't have to think, what do I do every morning?
It's every morning you do yoga and then you go running that's all. And that I could rely on that to carry me for the rest of the day. And. I feel like so much of the stuff that goes on in your heads can be quieted when we build those practices for ourselves. And we also co-regulate each other, that's something that's also.
Been such a big help for me here is the fact that we keep each other in check, that, I see one person getting up at six and making breakfast. I'm all of a sudden motivated to do the same thing tomorrow. Because you want to be as, supportive and as helpful to other people as they are to you.
And the power of routine and the power of habits is not a small thing.
Sylvie: No it's massive. It's really massive. I think here. So I'm rediscovering the power of sacredness. And we're starting to this, you know, rituals and vows, giving your word and actually really, this is the thing of the tooth, but there is something when you give yourself to the commitment.
And you have to stop thinking, can you pull out of it or not pull out of it? No, you just, you give your word, that's it. You don't think about it anymore,
Sen: Yes. Yeah. And of course, you know, you do your thinking before so that, you choose things that are actually doable and sustainable.
And then afterwards the choice has already been made.
Sylvie: Yes. Yes. It's is the power of commitment. And I think we're in a quite commitment-phobic era. like people, divorce, people change their mind. Don't stay at a job very long. And for me, commitment is awesome.
I don't have to think what's the meaning of my life anymore. I don't have to figure it out, I just do it.
Sen: Because that's the point of thinking is you think, and then you do so that you don't have to think anymore.
Sylvie: Yeah. Or the thinking will still happen, but I don't have to give into it all the time.