Spaces for Listening

By A Field Of Wheat


During our two-year research phase for A Field of Wheat on a walk along the Danelaw Way (link) south of Lincoln, we visited Brant Broughton Quaker Meeting House, a converted barn given to the Friends in 1701 by local farmer Thomas Robinson. Everything in the interior is whitewashed, with innovative hatches that mean it can expand if more people turn up, either taking in a viewing platform upstairs or backwards into the vestibule. It’s a beautiful, calm space to be in situated at the crossroads of the village. I’m imagining Sundays here in the past, a welcome pause from heavy work in the fields.  I know that Quakers sometimes met in fields before 1689 when they were legally allowed to gather in Meeting Houses, perhaps they gathered in some of the fields that we have walked through and spent time in near here.

Inspired by our visit to the Meeting House, an interest in the Quakers longstanding links with social and ecological justice and activism, and an experience of a Quaker Clearness Committee through the work of eco-activist and philosopher Joanna Macy, we started to investigate the systems Quakers use to gather and meet by researching on line and also speaking to Quakers and visiting other Meeting Houses.

For many years I’ve been interested in the communal relationships to silence. What is the different when we are in silence together? What happens to our attention? In Buddhist practice it is common to eat meals in silence.  What we see as a convivial time of chatter and catching up on the day’s events is seen as a time for ‘mindful’ silent reflection and the honouring of food and its accompanying sensations. Listening and sharing silence plays a large part in Field Sensing a slow walking practice that I facilitate in different landscapes, often in groups, which involves slowing down our movements in order to sense inner and outer landscapes more acutely. I’ve become interested in what we choose to communicate and how the rhythm of communication changes after periods of shared silence.

In A Field of Wheat what we want to explore is twofold: designing the spaciousness of silent and attentive listening into the structures we were creating for online dialogue and holding a level platform for sharing different perspectives and viewpoints and levels of experience in ways that honour diversity and develop our collective intelligence.

This feels particularly relevant for the Collective Enquiry an on-line and real time gathering of our collective that happens three times over the duration of the project, and which we have designed in order to share reflections on wider issues around wheat farming. Our Collective (currently 42 members) live across the world, have vastly different levels of knowledge and experience of agriculture and may never all be in one space together. We are keen to avoid adversarial, person centred debate and sidestep the patterns that often emerge on online conversation spaces where people pitch in (in a kneejerk way or without much thought) and discussion descends into dispute or assertion often straying away from the initial point of interest or enquiry. We want to try and make sure that each person had an equal chance to participate, even those who might prefer to listen and be attentive in silence.

Much of the essence of Quaker enquiry focuses around presence, people being in the same room in real time. This point was made by elders we met at the Brant Broughton Meeting House and by our Quaker collective members. However, we felt supported in trying to face the challenges that we all acknowledged are implicit in online communication.

Drawing from a number of online resources as well as experiencing local meetings we have drawn up some guidelines.  We want the participants to be aware that they are part of a supported (virtual) space) where the faciliitators (in this case Ruth & myself) are present and listening through the entire period of the Collective Enquiry (in our first Enquiry this was over a period of 20 hours). Each Collective member chose a thirty minute slot during the time to reflect on a statement we had sent them as part of the shared enquiry. At the end of the thirty minutes they sent their thoughts and reflections and these were posted live on-line. We had our first online Collective Enquiry in November (link) and look forward to two more, one in June and one in September. The third will take place at the Meeting House in Brant Broughton.

Facilitating the Enquiry is a really fascinating process.  This is the first time I have ‘held a space’ at a distance. Sitting quietly waiting for each contribution to be added every half hour made me really alert to the presence of each Collective member somewhere else in the world and my role supporting them. There are resonances here with my remote duet project with Miriam Keye, Transglobal Duets.

We have appointed a ‘ponderer’, someone from outside the collective, to attempt to distill something of the essence of the Collective Contributions.

(This is an adapted version of an article that was published by The Friend, the weekly Quaker magazine in April 2016)



Do you listen more closely when someone whispers in your ear?

I was hit by a slow wave of stillness when I walked into Brant Broughton Quaker Meeting House. A  small, well proportioned space, with a simpleness to its design, it was an invitation to sit quietly.  Some places do that, they somehow invite a stillness. If the proportions of that space were taller or wider or the chairs made out of metal would it have been so inviting to me?

Listening is an active process, It takes a degree of consciousness, but for the most part hearing  is something that happens to us, after all we can’t shut our ears. How we listen has always fascinated me, in my early twenties my ears were opened up by musicians and sound artists who explored, experimented and questioned what it was to listen and asked if we listened to sound, music and people speaking differently, I was taken by the writings of composer  John Cage talking about silence

TV demands both your eyes and ears, its all encompassing. Radio can sit in the background, I can still do the washing up and listen. Headphones can isolate us, telephones should be strangely intimate things, after-all someone is talking directly into your ear,  but they’re not. Amplification can make a difference, although shouting loud doesn’t always mean you’re being listened to. To make people listen more, oddly  you should turn the volume down a little, but speak too quietly and you’ve lost them.

Each mode of communication technology invites a new experience, set of behaviours, language and culture.  When ever I spoke to my Booba (my mum’s mum), on the telephone, she would cut the conversation short after only a few minutes and say her goodbyes, I always found that strange, especially as I couldn’t stop her talking when we were in the same room. But that was how she understood ‘the rules’ of the telephone, it cost money, you called, you said what you needed to say and you hung up, so even when we got the BT family deal and the call cost nothing, she couldn’t quite get out of the habit.

So how do you get people to really listen to each other over the internet, a place that has its own time and space, rules and behaviours, that gives anonymity and seduces you with the glow of the screen. Taking the quaker methodologies helped us create a framework and set of guidelines. We asked them to come to the conversation at a specific time, and gave them only a 15 minute window to share their reflections, in doing so we created a sense of occasion and offer a presence and of being observed, despite being far apart from each other, they are together live, at the same moment in time.

In our Collective Enquiries there is no contained physical space, there is no beautiful white washed creaking wood with a deep sense of history, there is no unspoken un-tangible atmosphere, there is no convivial tea and cake. Instead, floating in the ether there is an agreed moment in time, there is a sense of anticipation, there is a platform on which to offer and reflect and a promise of a community listening.



We are grateful for the support of the Brant Broughton Meeting House and quakers Peter & Ruth Allen-Williams and Valerie Wilkinson who are part of our collective.

Collective Intelligence and Quaker Practice

Brant Broughton Meeting House