Author and filmmaker Helen Iles has travelled the world documenting how different intentional communities make things work. In this delightful conversation we discuss the art of deep listening, what it is, how we can do it and how it might just be the glue that holds strong relationships together.
Because this conversation takes places while we are in quarantine due to Covid19 we spend time considering what the collective invitation is here, how we might respond.
We also cover mental health, enoughness, moon circles and many other beautiful topics!
LUCY: Helen, can you tell me a little bit about the community that you are living in right now?
HELEN: That is a big question. I’m currently living in a—you could call it a community. We are a community of nine little houses that live up a mountain in Spain that is not far from a wider community or I might say set of communities because where I live there’s quite a strong expat community of multinational people with English as a common language. There’s also a local Catalan community that’s very strong. And there’s also a sort of double layer of Spanish-speaking or immigrant Spanish, Argentine, Mexican, kind of South American and even other places in Spain community.
I think that my community that I built over the last four years here runs across all of those. I feel committed to all of them actually in their own ways. They might express themselves in different ways, but one of the things I had to try really hard to do was to build community around me because I felt very lost when I came here. I started to offer some meditation because I wanted to meet people in an intimate and meaningful way. I started doing women’s circles so that we meet on the land around fires and gazing at the moon, and now I have a particularly strong group of women around me who are very intentional.
LUCY: That’s really great to hear from you about how much intention you have had to bring to forming community in your life right now because often we think it’s just going to happen. We just need to turn up and be a good neighbour. But in my experience actually, whether you’re living in an intentional community or just simply trying to form deep connections with people, you do need to be quite dedicated to it and actually show up in practical ways in order to build community. It’s not something that in this moment in civilisation can just naturally happen and flow and that kind of thing. Hopefully, we get to touch on that a little bit more over the next few questions.
I really want to, by way of an introduction, have you speak a little bit about your experiences over the last few years because you’ve really made a study of intentional community. I’ve enjoyed hearing your stories in your book and your documentaries about your experiences with monks living in intentional community and the aboriginal people of Australia to the Welsh activists that you lived with, and now living in your tiny village in Spain. It really feels like you’ve dedicated a huge amount of your life. I’m trying to understand why people would move in to community and how they are making it work. I’m really interested to hear from you about why you were originally drawn to make to a study of intentional community.
HELEN: I think I traced my back my interest into having a deep connection to the land that I grew up on and lived in and around. I somewhat took that for granted, and at some point I sort of learned that we’ve been pushed off the land as common people, and that we’d kind of lost connection to it. We’ve moved into towns and cities. We’d lost that connection, and I wanted that back. I moved with my young son into a land-based community really, and we lived very close to nature sometimes uncomfortably so. For most of his upbringing, we lived there, and it was during that time that I made a lot of films as well about other intentional communities in Wales. I was also very ecologically interested again on that nature connection and the way that we express that connection to land through our relationships with each other, I suppose. So that led to me to look at eco villages and visit low-impact projects and people who were building natural homes and expressing all of that connection as animals really through land and being together.
LUCY: I really get that impression in your book that you don’t make much of a separation between our kinship with the earth and our kinship with other people in your book. It really feels as though you treat both of those sets of kinship. I tend to sort of say kinship with earth and kinship with others, but for you it feels much more like just an expression of a deeper, authentic, maybe animal self
HELEN: That’s very nice that that comes across, isn’t it? There’s a lovely author whose name (7:40)—during the reading of that book, I learned that the expression kith and kin, which we assume to mean the same thing as family is not all about people. The kin of the people and the kith is the land just around our home, kind of half a mile around our home—that’s our kith. So in ancient times, we were actually—maybe not so ancient, maybe 200 years ago in the UK anyway. We lost our land as people. We lost common land. We lost our connection with our kith, with the land immediately around us. It was during living in (8:25) Hopesville, during that time of living very closely to the land, and I live quite closely to the land now as well, I’ve remade that relationship with my kin.
LUCY: It’s quite amazing. The power of words and really getting to the root of what the different words mean. You’ve done that with some Welsh words in your books. So obviously your book is called Hiraeth. Am I saying that right?
LUCY: Completely irrelevant, but I basically say this word as many times a week as I can, but my favourite Welsh word is the word for microwave oven. I don’t know if you know it. Oven is popty, and obviously a microwave oven makes a certain noise when it’s finished cooking, so the Welsh word for microwave is popty ping, and I love it. We don’t even have a microwave, so we don’t get to say ‘popty ping‘ very often in my life. I just had to squeeze ‘popty ping‘ into this conversation.
HELEN: Of course, the other beautiful Welsh word that I will mention is ‘cwtch‘. Of course, cwtch means like a cuddle, and people like saying that a lot.
LUCY: Yeah, it’s such a great word. We say cwtch a lot. In fact, my husband, we share our farm with another family. Our farm sits in a beautiful little valley. We’re surrounded by native forest and then we’ve got this little farm nestled in, and everybody who comes down says it feels like you’re really being embraced by the forest. We’ve been here for five years now, but we haven’t named our place, and all of our friends are like, “You’ve got to name it because it’s so hard. We have to say all eight of your names when we say where we’re going to hang out that afternoon. So, can you please give it a name?” So, we’ve been thinking about what to name it and my husband has been gunning for naming our place cwtch because it’s such a perfect word, but we can’t quite convince the others that it’s got any relevance in a New Zealand setting sadly.
HELEN: I’m not sure. When I was travelling in New Zealand, I met an awful lot of people who were from Wales and Scotland, so I’m sure that there’s quite a strong thread of Welsh-ness there.
LUCY: I have often wondered what it is that drew me to New Zealand when I was 18 and just immediately made me say, “This is my new home.” I think it’s because the land here speaks so loudly. It’s still really quite wild in lots of places, and it seems to have a very audaciously loud voice calling into our animal nature and our own wildness, and a little bit of me wonders if there is this kind of resonance between New Zealand and Wales because of the way that the land is able to reach us a little bit easier than in other parts of the world or other parts of Britain. I would love to hear you talk about one of your favourite Welsh words and why you called your book Hiraeth.
HELEN: Well, hiraeth is known as an untranslatable word, and the Welsh like to think of it as untranslatable. And so I grabbled around or hunted deeply for what I understood by it when I chose to use it as a title, and I came up with our longing for belonging, which maybe goes a little deeper than what might be quite a flippant translation, which is nostalgia or just missing one’s homeland really. So, it can be as simple as missing home and family and place. But I wanted to suggest, and I do suggest that it’s something more ancient, something about our separation really from our divineness, our divinity, our god-ness, and the myth of that that we get caught in, and that when we’re trapped in this duality and we think that we’ve lost connection with our divinity, then we have the sense of deep loss and being lost that we might call hiraeth.
LUCY: Wow, thank you. That really kept such a richness of that word and such a kind of resonance, and I know that I have certainly experienced that before in my life. You speak really vulnerably in your book about your experience of that and your mental health journey, and navigating through a darkness that you described as feeling like an ever-present cloud. In one really poignant chapter, you write—I don’t know if it is actually your partner writing or you writing through your partner’s perspective, but it’s him describing the shock in seeing you, usually so fearless, seeing in your face such a fear. Are you able to share a little about your journey through that and out the other side?
HELEN: I think I see it now as a journey to the underworld. I think as a spiritual practitioner, we are familiar with times where we meet something difficult and we meet it intentionally. We choose to meet it and we gather tools, and we might gather support to meet that difficulty, and we’re aware that there’s a time when things are not clear and it can feel like we’re in a cloud. And then when we come out the other side, there’s a clarity and a brightness, and a sense of “I wouldn’t go back to that place before the cloud, even though I know it was difficult to get through it. I wouldn’t go back to who I was before that because I’ve grown.”
And I think at this particular time, because of a certain mid-lifeness in my body and the moving to Spain, which really was a rupture in my relationship with land, place and language, I just fell in love and couldn’t really get myself out of it. Looking back at it, I realised that this was me breaking and that actually it was a good thing. It did reach a vulnerability that I had never been able to reach in my life before. When you mentioned “husband”, that chapter was written by me in his words, but he did approve it as his experience, if you like, which talked about his experience, and he said that was quite accurate.
I think it was because of the quality—I’m going to tear up a little bit—but it was the quality of his love and support and holding that enabled me to actually break because I think I was brought up in quite a stoic household where we didn’t break. We would hold on forever and we would not break. But the breaking enables us to see that we are really not this. There was really something else that wants to be known, and that enabled me to know that other thing much more intimately and deeply.
LUCY: And that other thing being connection or aliveness?
HELEN: Aliveness is a good one.
LUCY: I’ve got all of the shivers happening right now. It feels really poignant having this conversation and actually starting this podcast all about community and how we grow together and love each other right in the middle of a global pandemic. My parents are over from the UK at the moment. They’re going home back to the UK in two days. And just last night over dinner, we were just talking about how in their entire lifetime, and they were raised just immediately after the war and they’ve been through nuclear threats and all sorts of other health epidemics, but never have they experienced something like this where people are self-isolating, where whole countries are in lockdown, where it feels like we’re actually under a collective shadow or an intense collective fear. Nothing has felt this intense before.
So, it’s interesting hearing you speaking about the underworld and that point of breaking. And I guess I have a little bit of curiosity around that and whether there are things to draw out from that individual shadow, dance, or a journey that can be applied to this collective shadow that we’re all walking through. We should be doing it together, but there’s such a call for isolation that we’re not really able. Maybe you’ve thought about this?
HELEN: Oh, absolutely I’ve thought about this. One of the things I did tonight was I just posted on my social media that I’m offering a retreat time during this lockdown time in Spain. So, I’m in Spain. We’ve just had news that we’re all to remain in our homes for the next 15 days, and yet in other places on my social media feed, I had people mentioning the word “retreat”. I thought at other times in my life I’ve deliberately locked myself away for 15 days or more, and if we simply reframe that maybe there’s access to something else in there. And so I’ve decided to offer something in support of that because I understand and I know that space, and there were lots of people who are going through this: A, who don’t understand that space or, B, who just need a lot more support than I do right now.
I’ve been through my bit of hardship in the last few years and I’m in quite a good place. I’m in quite a stable place, and I’m able to offer and I wanted to. But I feel like as a planet, as human beings on the planet, it would be really good if we could break and go, “Oops, we messed up.” We really need to reset that course because we’re going to just drive off the edge. We’re going to drive a soul off the edge, and yet our leaders that we have in place right now just won’t do that. They just won’t admit to mistakes. Actually, in New Zealand, you probably have one of the few leaders who will admit mistakes, and I would have to suggest that quite a feminine way to be able to go, “Oops, messed up there.” And we’ve gone so far down the masculine path—both men and women, I have to say, have gone so far down the masculine path that we’re very scared to say, “I was wrong. I need to just have a think about that and come back at it from a different angle.” Also, we’re going so fast that there’s no time for that.
So, the idea that we all could be locked down for a couple of weeks to sit back and think about it, and think about our lives and the way that we lead them, and what we really want from them and what we want every day, and maybe our days simplified, maybe we make some changes during these two weeks that we want to keep in place. I was actually sitting there the other morning looking at into the forest and thinking, “Wow, everybody slowed down to my pace for a while. It feels really nice.”
So, I think there’s a lot we can learn and I’ve heard that in China during the lockdown, people started cheering birds for the first time in years and the smog above the city cleared, and who knows what will happen to emissions once all the planes come out of the sky for a while. And it just feels like we really need the space and time, and we’ve been gifted it by what looks like a disaster, but who knows.
LUCY: I think it’s in a blog post that you were perhaps speaking about the climate and ecological crisis, and you were talking about the need for radical rest was the term you used. It feels very counter-intuitive in a time of crisis. It feels like, “Oh, we should be panicking. Panicking is fuelling our business, and keep going and fix it—fix, fix, fix.” But instead, in a time of crisis, that is the time to actually stop and really consider and really tune in to wisdom and see what needs to change and how to move forward. That really does feel like an incredible and important invitation for this time right now.
Not to do a Polyanna and be like, “Oh, everything’s fine. Global pandemic—well, you know it’s just a radical rest.” But actually to see that it is terrifying. It’s truly terrifying and being vulnerable is always terrifying and having loved ones dying before their time is obviously horrible in a huge real-life grief time. But also saying within this terrifying time, there are some invitations, and if we can just allow ourselves to stop, that we’ll be able to see those invitations. Yes, for me, it feels like a huge spammer in the works of capitalism that is constantly saying we are not enough, we have to keep busy, keep going, keep cranking, keep producing. Right now, we can’t do any of that, and it’s a very important chance to reassess everything and reassess our relationship with capitalism as a collective.
I’m quite interested—just curious really—if there are any lessons you’ve learned from your experience with your time amongst intentional communities. Are there any lessons that you’ve learned about fear or navigating the shadows from your time there that we could possibly apply to this time now?
HELEN: I think what comes directly to mind is deep listening. So, deep listening came to my attention when I was living in Australia as an aboriginal word which is the dadirri from the northern territories. It also resonates through the permaculture movement as listening to land, listening to each other, and listening deeply to ourselves. And I think I tend to add a fourth now which is listening to spirit or listening to that aliveness—something invisible and unnameable. So, when we live in community with each other, we need to have ears, eyes, and hearts, and all these kinds of listening and paying attention to all of that in order to deeply know what’s going on and in order to align ourselves with ourselves, with other people, and with the environment that we live in.
That just makes such deep sense for me that after learning about that and trying to make a film about it, I felt like I really wasn’t finished. After making the deep listening film, I wasn’t finished and that’s what gave rise to starting to write the Hiraeth book, and that journey didn’t end up really being finished for another five years or so, having gone through that breaking, and then an editor one day saying to me, “You really need to finish now, Helen. You need to come to a conclusion,” and going, “I don’t know. A conclusion? Who am I to do such a thing?” But people tell me there is a conclusion in the book. And I guess if I were to sum it up myself, it would be something around that enough-ness that you mentioned, that if we can bring ourselves almost back to a place where, “Oh, this is enough. I have enough. I am enough,” then we can rest. We can rest with that.
LUCY: You also speak about deep listening. You say that you can really tell deep listening is happening in an interview often when you’re so in tune that questions are being asked and answered without actually being spoken and you’re just talking. It’s very interesting because there’s been quite a few questions that I’ve just had to skip because you’ve just totally answered them immediately. I was going to mention the bird song and Wuhan as a question around invitations, and then I was going to talk about how the conclusion of your book seems to be around enough-ness. It’s just really beautiful that you are telling me these stories that I’m hoping to draw out from you, and it does feel like quite a mystical thing can take place when you’re really in conversation. It’s almost like a heart-to-heart connection, and apparently, I’m experiencing, it can happen through a Zoom call, which is pretty awesome.
HELEN: It is totally amazing, and that’s another thing that we could know at this time of a global situation that you and I are literally on opposite sides of the planet, but literally we couldn’t be time zones further apart. It’s your early morning and my late evening, and we couldn’t be further apart in some ways, and yet I feel that connection as well, and I feel that connection with other people around the globe as they experience pretty much the same thing. We’re all fearful of the virus meeting our loved ones, our more vulnerable loved ones in our community. We’re scared of being carriers ourselves. We’re fearful for, I guess, just having enough ourselves during this time that we’re separated from our usual daily lives or our source of income. We’re all meeting the same very human situations, and it makes me think of something that I read from a writer who had noticed that when he looked at pictures of people now in the news, a lot of them are wearing masks which eliminate a lot of the features that we discriminate people on.
So, a lot of the racial or skin colour, cultural features are omitted by the mask and we just could see a shadow of a human being if you like, but we see a human being. And there’s something about this virus that is inviting us to connect these human beings despite all the authoritarian governments who are asking us to see each other as often less than human beings and to hate on each other on that basis. And instead there’s something about this that is really going, “Nope, we’re all human. In fact, we’re all animals.” Because there’s something in us as well which is asking us, “What shall we think about the way that we’re treating animals in this game as well? Shall we think about the way we’re treating the environment?” It’s really all in there. We’re being asked to deeply listen actually.
It’s kind of a fear of mine whether we’ll actually manage to do that. I think a lot of people will. Maybe they’ll be a leak in global consciousness that would be really lovely to see. I’m sure that a lot of the leaders aren’t going to give up that easily. But that could be a quantum leap in global consciousness and practice, and everyday living that people go actually, “Whew, I’m done with that. I’m not going back to that.” I bet like, when women went to work during the war and then never went back into the house and they just said, “Actually, I like working. I want to stay there please.” And they never really went back to where they were before. So, there could be something that wakes up that just won’t go back to sleep.
LUCY: Because that feels like a really magical thought. This idea that this is a global collective pain that we’re experiencing and there is a global collective remedy for it that goes deeper than just the physical disease. But it could be transformative for generations to come if we actually rise to this challenge as species and yet do what we need to do here around the connection. That’s it really. That word, connection, I think feels like the best with the words I’ve got to draw around it. It is like that’s what being asked of us is we’re being told to isolate, but actually we need to find ways to open up our hearts and dismantle the walls that we’ve built around our hearts to all the different people on earth and learn how to reach out in a heart-to-heart way. And if we can do that and never turn back from it, that could be the biggest gift ever to receive from something like the Corona virus.
HELEN: That would be my wish.
LUCY: How can we rise to that challenge of it? Are there any practical things that jump out at you as you observed this with the monks. They did this in Australia and that was really powerful. Is there anything really practical that after this podcast I can immediately activate to try and really rise to that challenge? Does anything spring to mind immediately?
HELEN: I think you just said meet the challenge, did you? And I was thinking meet in the sense of what we often do when something is difficult is try to skip around it or get past it before we meet it. And I think it’s time we have all the tools now to really begin to meet those difficult things. And what I’m thinking about in terms of tools is we’re really starting to understand trauma in the system and I think when we understand that our responses to trauma or traumatic situations can be unbidden, that we don’t have a choice, and that when we meet that kind of challenge, we need help; we need support. This is when it’s too much for us. But there are many things, once we have those tools—and meditation is one of those tools—when we can meet the difficulties in mind, when we can meet sadness, when we can meet grief, when we can meet anger and move through it rather than trying to go around it, or get to the other side or ignore it, or suppress it, then I think that being is fully heard and fully integrated. We don’t leave bits of us behind that want to be known.
I think it’s there in this virus as well. We need to meet it. We need to meet the challenges of it and not just want it to go away. We are almost being forced to meet it. All these lockdowns that countries are choosing to place on their citizens, we’re being forced to go back into ourselves, if you like, back into our spaces, and we have the tools. We have a lot of online stuff that’s available for us. We have online support. We have social media. We have each other. We’re not alone actually in our homes. So, what are we going to do?
LUCY: This comes up both in your documentary and in your book where you are talking about conflict in community and people’s responsibility and that when people are cross with each other or annoyed because somebody isn’t really doing their job and being responsible. At one point, somebody in your film says, “All of our dharmas boil down to this one which is what direction you are looking, and you should always be looking this way.” And then she points to herself and you explored that a little more in your book where you described that that is the job of deep listening, and something you have to give yourself first before you can give it to others. And it’s like, if you’ve got a problem with someone out there, we are first invited to look at what is going on for us inside. And with this rising to the challenge of coronavirus and fear, and isolation and grief, and death, turning to ourselves first and giving ourselves what we need and exploring what is going on inside.
So, just to get super practical. I guess that might look like really taking the time to express either through journaling, or through talking, or through art, or some kind of body expression. However, it’s people’s best process to really ask themselves the questions and name the feelings that they’re feeling at this time to write the truth, to speak the truth about their feelings here even if it feels maybe that they’re a little bit numb. Because that’s quite real, I think, in this time. And then once, we’ve turned inward and looked in that direction, then turning outward and asking if there is a way for me to hold space for other people to do this work of coming to terms of their feelings and expressing their feelings. Is it that sort of thing? I’m trying to be very practical.
HELEN: Yes, I think so. There’s a little voice in my head going, “It doesn’t mean that other people’s behaviour isn’t unacceptable sometimes.” People don’t get a free pass just because I’m taking responsibility for my responses. Some people’s behaviour is unacceptable and some of my responses, like I mentioned a little while ago, are not my choice. If there’s trauma there, my choice is not available to me sometimes. So I want to just say that otherwise you fall into victim blaming a little bit.
LUCY: That’s very true.
HELEN: I don’t want to do that, for anybody listening go, “Hey, I didn’t really have a choice in that situation.” We often don’t have choices, but we can make more space and more time to know ourselves, to know our reactions, to understand our motivations and our intentions, and to come from the best place we can. I think when we start to do that, we also grow better boundaries and we learn to bring all of ourselves into a really grown-up space. We grow all the way up, if you like, and we bring all those “lost child” selves into full adulthood, and then we can stand up properly for ourselves. When we can stand properly for ourselves, we can also be good allies for others. Until we’re able to stand up properly in our own skin, in our own place and for ourselves, it’s very hard to advocate for others.
LUCY: This feels very important, just around that victim blaming thing, because that’s absolutely true. That’s a very toxic thought, that “everything begins and ends with me” because that’s not really true in that there are people overstepping boundaries and being very toxic. They have problems that do impend on me. But I guess the first step is to look in perhaps. It’s about this process of firstly going, “What is going on for me? What is the truth of my feelings about this?” Then that kind of enables you to say, “No, that is 100% absolutely not okay,” and then address that and be really clear on your boundaries and really coming from a place of truth rather than coming from a place of being triggered or something. Am I getting it?
HELEN: I think so. Yeah, it makes sense to me.
LUCY: I love that thought that when you do that processing, that kind of turning inward and asking “What is going on here?” and then you do get really clear around your boundaries and consent, then you are advocating for your inner child and the parts of you who are long time ago and experience a total lack of concern and a total overstepping of boundaries. As a 37-year-old, I had quite a strong experience of this a couple of months ago where I stood up and walked out of something, and I spent the first couple of hours really embarrassed and shocked at my behaviour. And then I totally reclaimed the incident because I recognised that I had a very similar incident when I was 13, and I was just made ashamed of how I stood up and walked out, and I felt as a 37-year-old woman, I’ve just stood up from my 13-year-old self and brought some healing to that moment a long, long time ago. By doing that act—and it was so beautiful because I really reclaimed that whole thing and retold that story and changed the narrative for myself. It was a very beautiful moment.
HELEN: I congratulate you. It does sound like healing. I think shame is something that we do live with a long time, I want to say particularly as women. I think women are shamed in every aspect of their lives, and we carry it around perhaps forever. It’s quite a difficult thing to shake off in my experience, and it’s very deeply rooted. One to watch out for.
LUCY: It is, isn’t it? Actually, that deep listening and that listening to each other and creating space for people to talk and to share their shame stories is so powerful. I know you’re in a women circle and that’s really dear to your heart. Same for me, too. My third book is called Moon Circle and it’s all about how people can start a circle and the power of them. For me, I really recognise that one of the most powerful things of a circle is that it’s a chance for you to safely share your shame stories because shame can’t exist when it’s brought to light. The act of telling your story is like you’re exposing it to the sun that eradicates the darkness of it and in telling those stories, that is one of the most crucial ways we can get rid of the shame that we’re carrying.
HELEN: That’s a nice thought, and it links right back to the virus really because this coronavirus doesn’t like sunlight either. I’ve been deliberately spending quite a lot of time outside. I’m lucky enough, even though we’re told to stay at home, I have access to space, air and sunshine around me. It’s quite like that analogy. I’m going to meditate on that one.
LUCY: That’s definitely one of the invitations with the coronavirus and with self-isolation because obviously we can be self-isolating but still be in the garden or under a tree and connecting with the kinship within the community of living things around us. Even if we can’t be holding hands with our friends, we can be touching in with the other life around us.
HELEN: I think that’s super important. We’re part of our community garden, and we were able to spend time there today. Even though the police we’re moving people on from public spaces, we were able to go there and actually hang out at a distance from each other. We had a little barbecue and we were having a little picnic, and people were working on their gardens quite silently actually. I felt it as very healing. On the way there, both husband and I recognise some butterflies in our stomachs and our solar plexus. I don’t know if it was all ours actually because the whole region, the whole country has just gone into lockdown, and so there must be (47:32) both energy of “Wow!” going on, and a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty. The fear we picked up on all of that, but we went to the garden and we played with the plants a while and fiddled about and sat on the ground. I did feel quite tired after, but deeply healed. So I think it’s very important during this time that we do keep our connection to nature in what other way we can.
LUCY: Thank you. This podcast is supported entirely by my community of Patreons that I have, and I always give them the opportunity to ask a couple of questions. They were primarily interested in the real practical side of deep listening. I’m going to ask you a couple of their questions now around that. One asks, “What do you find tend to be the biggest barriers to deep listening?”
HELEN: What comes to mind first is that we seem to share a reluctance to be wrong. I want to say it’s quite a masculine trait and that doesn’t mean that it’s only for men. It just means that I find the feminine to be a bit more fluid, and the masculine to be a bit more rigid. And so, if we already think we know everything and that we’re right, there’s less room for the other to persuade us. If we’re really going to listen to the other, we need to leave space to be persuaded.
LUCY: It sounds very counter how we have conversations. Do you ever feel like you’re in a conversation and it feels like it’s just egos talking, and egos just trying to tell the best stories, and egos trying to slip in cool things they’ve done in their lives and really cool people they know. It’s cringey to listen to. Sometimes you fall into it, and you come away feeling really depleted and inauthentic or something. I don’t know. Have you had that before?
HELEN: Yeah, sometimes I catch myself saying something, “But I know that already. Why don’t I just shut up and listen to the other person?” Because I already know what I think.
LUCY: Yeah! But do you think it’s also because we’re trying to make conversation, and we are trying to fill a space and also attempting to connect by talking.
HELEN: Yes, I’m sure it’s not because we’re bad people. It’s just that our minds run away with us, don’t they? I talk a lot actually, but it’s just my mind running its mouth off. It’s just bouncing ideas around really.
LUCY: I loved when you just said, “Why am I saying that? I know that already.” We can be really quite boring to ourselves, I think, in conversations, and maybe that’s why after those conversations you feel quite depleted because you’re like “I just told a story that I’ve told a hundred times before, and I haven’t really learned anything new. I missed an opportunity to really do that heart-to-heart connection.”
I can remember a book – I can’t remember what book it is. I read way too many books to actually remember. But it was somebody’s experience of going to a different country and living there for a while in this community. She would go into the home, sit down and immediately start talking and asking questions. Then it would go silent again, and she’d be like, “God, they don’t really know how to have a conversation.” So she’d start asking questions again. After about 2 months, her friends sat her down and said, “You need to really know how we have conversations here in our community. We do it through silence. So when somebody comes in to our house, it’s really common to just sit down for several minutes and be in silence with each other, and in that space that’s where you do the most important connection. From there, you can then begin to speak because from there you’re listening.”
HELEN: That sounds like a lovely household to be in.
LUCY: But can you imagine trying to do that in our life right now? You’d have to give people a good warning. I’m trying this thing where we spend our first few minutes in silence.
HELEN: I think so. People are very uncomfortable with silence generally. In our culture, we don’t really teach silence except in a meditation context, I think.
LUCY: Maybe I should start every one of my podcasts with a few minutes of silence.
HELEN: That’s a really interesting thing because in radioland it’s dead air, isn’t it? So people will stop playing with their computers and think that something has gone wrong. I mean the music might be a way of filling that space, but I think the radio listener and the podcast listener would be so unused to listening to silence that it might be counterproductive for your podcast. But it does remind me of a meditation teacher that told me that for him listening to someone else — he did interview after interview with participants on the retreat. When he said what he did was he tuned his dial to the other person, it was like, “Now, I’m going to listen to Radio Helen. Now, I’m going to listen to Radio Steve, and now I’m going to listen to…” He would consciously tune in the dial to listen to that person in a way tuning completely away from himself.
LUCY: I love that, and that really resonates to me because that’s what happens for me in a moon circle. We get together between 5 and 12 of us on a new moon and we really honour the talking piece that we have. When that person is holding the piece, they are speaking, you’re not thinking about what you’re going to say at all. You’re just 100% listening to that person, and it’s a no feedback zone. You’re not allowed to offer solutions or give any feedback whatsoever. We actively hold that space and will quite awkwardly say, “Oh, just a reminder that we don’t feedback. It’s only for that person to speak and only for us to simply be there and bear witness to what they’re saying.” And on those Friday nights, it feels like it’s a superpower. I’m literally doing that. I’m dialling into everything that person is saying, both with their words, but also their body and their mind. I’ve often thought, “Gosh, I wish I could do that outside of the circle, but I think I’m just a little bit too hyperactive to do it.” It really helps me to have the structure around that says, “Nope, you cannot feedback on this.”
HELEN: I mean it is a cultural context, isn’t it? It might be a little bit weird if we start to do that. I suppose people might think they’re a little bit like in therapy. I noticed that myself because I do that deep listening in circle and also in one-on-one sessions with people. I noticed it’s kind of a register. It’s like another dialect that you use, but if I use it too much with the husband behind me making his dinner, if I use it too much with him he feels like he is in therapy. But having said, there’s a time where even within a family, you can give each other that concentrated listening space. I think that’s quite valuable for building relationships since we really know what’s going on with each other.
LUCY: Actually that is another question from a Patreon: What are some of the tools or practical ways that you’ve seen really working to help facilitate this kind of deep listening? Would you say it’s in creating a circle-style space and that could be done potentially anywhere?
HELEN: I think it can be done anywhere. It’s interesting you mentioned a circle space because the circle is significant because nobody is at the head of it. I guess if we’re thinking about how we facilitate that kind of listening, there’s an egalitarian quality to it. Even in a one-to-one I would say, “I’m not the therapist. I’m equal to that person listening on all levels.” The same may be with land and the same may be with children, and the same may be with animals that we may just bring that humility actually, that we recognize the aliveness in all of that and meet the aliveness first perhaps. Maybe that’s what the silence would facilitate is that first we meet each other’s aliveness.
LUCY: Wow, that’s such an exciting thought and maybe that can be done in another way. I mean not right now with the coronavirus. Because hugging is a sort of ritual that we do often, I think, in lots of different communities around the world. You’ll greet somebody with a hug, and maybe that’s the way that you can do greet somebody’s aliveness and make space just even momentarily for aliveness.
Last night I met up with a friend, and she came. I haven’t seen her for a long time and we’re like, “Oh, hi!” We had a big hug, and then about seven minutes later, I was like, “Can we just do that hug again?” because I really want to be present to that hug. We had a slower hug where we sort of tuned in to each other’s bodies and then after that we went so deep in our conversation and in our catch up.
HELEN: I think in that tuning in again, maybe the hug won’t be appropriate for all beings in all situations, but certainly that time and place for tuning in seems to be a significant part of that.
LUCY: This is the last one from a Patreon. He’s really curious about how you get comfortable with the discomfort of conflict, and I think this is a great question for you because you do write in your book about how you don’t feel like you’re the best at conflict. You’d rather hide away from it and not deal. How have you managed that?
HELEN: I’m so glad that you named it, and you said that I’m not so good at it because there are some relationships in my life that I haven’t been able to heal. I just can’t let it go really. I just can’t let it go forever and ever. I feel like I’m still working on it. I’m still looking for doorways, still deeply being with my own discomfort about it, and whether that’s I still feel angry or still feel confused, or I want answers, I do take the time to look within myself for those answers and maybe just acknowledge that it’s going to take a whole heap of time and maybe it won’t get resolved in this lifetime. But I sort of don’t give up on it because I think that maybe these things don’t work even in a human time scale or something, but I guess to hold a wish for harmony in my heart might be one of my strongest intentions in life. And so even if I haven’t been able to facilitate or even want healing in some relationships, sometimes I’m still holding those people at arm’s length for my own sense of safety. There’s still something deeper in me that wishes it was resolved, and so I hoped for myself that I hold on to that wish for it to be resolved, and that goodwill towards myself on that basis, and I wish to have goodwill for the other even if I don’t have it right now.
LUCY: I love that answer, Helen, because it speaks to the deep listening. You are deep listening to yourself. You’re not just aiming for a fix-up. You’re not aiming to just fix that within in you, and it feels so self-compassionate to go, “Yeah, this is tricky. I’ve got an underlying value and desire, but I’m finding it tricky here. This is uncomfortable, and I’m actually gonna be okay for now just sitting with that rather than being like, ‘Right, how I can I fix it?'”
I read something last week. The title says the whole thing, but it was like you can’t heal your humanness. I loved it because there’s a real danger in that we can get so fixated on self-help and being the better version of ourselves that we’re just constantly trying to fix ourselves rather than recognising the double thing going on where we do want to be the best version of ourselves, we do want to be our most compassionate and our most alive. But the truth is, as well as being alive and divine, we’re also very human, and aiming for perfection is not really going to get us anywhere. Certainly, it’s not going to get us closer to that divinity. There is a sense in which we do need to make peace with our own humanness in having areas in our life that are like almost intentional flaws or something.
So at the end of your book you described a pop-up community that you attend, I think, annually in France called a Yatra. Is that right?
HELEN: Yeah. It’s in France and now in Germany. The one with Chris Titmuss that he leads is now moved to Germany since I attended that one in France.
LUCY: It’s like an activism deep-healing community from what I could gather.
HELEN: It’s a walk. Essentially, it’s a kind of meditation walk, and they have a lot of them in Australia as well. It really took off there and maybe in the States as well. But it’s essentially a way of being together quietly, walking in landscape. People hold it in different ways so I wouldn’t be too prescriptive about that, but I suppose a lot of that is an intention to listen.
LUCY: You described that an inexperience where you had where you’d put your back out and so you, for a short while, were only really able to receive, and it allowed you to have a deep sense of the completeness of community. It felt like a perfect karmic dance of everyone giving and receiving exactly as they are able, and it’s just totally working. And a deep of sense of enough-ness, I guess, which comes back to what you mentioned before both around the coronavirus and climate change, how a personal sense of enough-ness and “I am enough; I have enough.” It’s one of the invitations in the times that we are living in right now.
But at the end of your book, you asked the question, while you’re at the Yatra, How can I keep this vision of completeness within me when I head out into the outside world? To finish, I just love to invite you to speak about that, whether you have managed it, and how you manage it because I want to know your secrets.
HELEN: Well, I think your Patreon subscribers will have a good sense of this. I think one of the questions that I was talking about in that space was the idea of a gift economy, the idea of a shared reciprocity where we offer and receive with the same open-handedness and open heartedness. That’s something like what happens when the Patreon platform, as I understand it, is that you offer something and people offer something back. It’s a sort of bounce-at-you play together where everybody feels fulfilled, and I think that that doesn’t show up so much in a straight capitalistic exchange where it costs this much, I give you this, and we walk away from each other. That’s it. We’re done.
When this deep reciprocity happens, we build a relationship with each other, and when I offer in good faith and the people who receive from me offer in good faith in return, relationship builds, grows and strengthens, and trust develops. In a way, we grow community through our offerings in this way. So yeah, hello to your Patreon community. What a wonderful thing that they support this kind of deep inquiry.
LUCY: Yeah, it’s an amazing, challenging and beautiful experience having this. So I guess you might say that applying that to an everyday listener who might not be in a place where they’re able to do gift economy stuff, or they might not have that sort of work or something, do you think it might be around bringing some curiosity around what our gifts are and then just freely offering them to our community?
HELEN: What comes to me actually is kind of a similar thing. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it the practice of dana or generosity, and when I invite people to offer on a dana basis in whatever context or to just explore generosity, there’s a sense of when we freely offer something with an open hand, we somehow recognise that that hand is open to receive at the same time. But when that hand is close into a fist, it’s not open to receive, and we might give something over here and receive something over there, and we might not, in our mind, immediately put that together, but when we see the whole picture, we see that there is this balance that happens quite extremely magical actually.
And so, yes, it could be a gift that you offer. It could be anything really where you feel this open handedness or open heartedness, and then I would say keep an eye out — out of the corner of your eye — for that coming back, for that rebound karma, because it might come from the most unexpected place. You might not make that connection that you gave over here and received over there. That, in my experience, is pretty reliable.
LUCY: It also feels to me like very beautiful. It actually relates to so much of what we’ve been talking about because it relies on a surrendering to the unknown. And it feels to me like that these times that we’re in right now requires so much of that, of just simply having hearts open for receiving and giving, with the listening, with the sharing, with the vulnerability, with the practical gifts, with the love. I don’t know. I think that this just feels to me like being open to the mystery of that giving and receiving, and the mystery of being part of a community where you all are just playing a part and being open to loving, connecting and kinship… I don’t think that was a sentence that I finished with, but I couldn’t conclude it.
HELEN: More mystery, I would say, definitely. I agree — more mystery is needed. More love of mystery.
LUCY: More love of mystery and more love of love. More mysterious love of love.
HELEN: The facts must be a sentence
LUCY: Helen, it’s been such a delight speaking with you it’s been really beautiful and really helpful to me because I felt so many different feelings about this moment in time with the coronavirus and dealing with all of these. I actually really felt quite confused. This conversation has bought so much clarity, and so many provocations to me, so I’m really deeply grateful for you spending this time with me.
HELEN: Well, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. It is at the end of my day, and I was quite tired before I came on to speak with you, but I have felt enlivened by your own liveliness. It’s been a pleasure.
LUCY: Let’s do it again, but maybe let’s just be silent next time.