If there is one thing the pandemic has taught many, it is possibly this idea of living more slowly and being grateful for whatever we already have. These philosophies aren’t new, and Haemin Sunim, a South Korean monk turned teacher, has been practicing and preaching about them for a while now. His first book, Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, became an instant international bestseller, followed by his second book Love for Imperfect Things, which also saw the same success. During this pandemic, his books and teachings have found more and more recognition as more and more people are realising the need for self-care and pressing pause. There is a comfortable and peaceful simplicity to Haemin’s writing, which tackles some really heavy notions and yet makes it easy for any reader to understand. He is also the founder of the School for Broken Hearts, a non-profit organisation which aims to provide a safe and caring space for people going through a difficult stage in life or interested in spiritual and emotional growth.
We connected with Haemin to know more about his journey, spirituality, books and his advice on how to deal with the pandemic.
How were you led towards the path of spirituality and monasticism?
When I was young I felt like I was thrown into this world without any kind of guidance, without a manual. I wanted to understand why I was here, what was the purpose of it. Some philosopher described this sensation as waking up in a movie theatre after the movie has been playing for the past ten minutes. This led me to explore different religions and philosophies. Overtime I realised that I wanted to experience these ideas first hand, which led me towards monasticism and that is how I became a monk.
What is the story of creation behind your first book Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down? What inspired you to write the book?
Back when Twitter became a new social media sensation in Korea, I was trying to connect with people. I was lonely by myself in the United States, where I was teaching students, and I just wanted to see what’s out there. At first I wrote like the way the famous people did, like what I did today and who I met today, but soon I realised how boring and irrelevant it was. So I changed my mind and thought to myself that, maybe I could share some kind of messages related to meditation, especially after observing any pattern in my own mind. So I would just write about these things and people began to respond really positively.
As I began to have more and more followers, I decided that I should have an offline meeting. I invited everyone, whoever wanted to meet for a meditation session and for heart-to-heart conversations, because we all feel isolated even over social media sometimes and this was a great way to connect further. People actually began to show up! At first it was around 60 people and over a period of one year the number grew and people from all over the country began joining in. As I was meeting all these people, I was really inspired and I was constantly writing about it. At some point a publisher from Korea approached me and asked if I wanted to write a book. That’s how the book came to existence and it ended up being a bestseller, selling over three million copies in Korea alone.
In your follow-up book, Love for Imperfect Things, you turn towards a different philosophy from the previous book. What sparked your interest in the notion of imperfection and its appreciation?
I think it started with the way I was brought up. At school I was always a good student. I would always listen to what the teacher was saying. I would always follow my parents’ instructions. I was always trying to please everyone. I tried to become perfect as per what society imposed as perfect, while actually neglecting myself. I had been forgetting my own needs. I also realised that imperfect things about oneself can also be beautiful. You look at the trees outside and you’ll see that not all trees grow perfectly. And this kind of journey is very natural and beautiful. So I began reclaiming my imperfections, in order to make peace with them.
What was your creative process like behind the writing of these books?
Usually, I receive some inspiration while talking to my friends or talking to people over social media. Also people I meet during public talks, who ask me questions post the talk because they really make me think about certain ideas. So that is pretty much what my process is, I like to engage with the real world issues, not just philosophical and transcendental topics, and then I usually walk. I really love to walk, especially in nature. I would just walk around and then think about the topic, which gives me some idea about how I should write a piece.
I always hope that whoever reads my book, they come to accept themselves, and find goodness in themselves. I am hoping that they come to realise that they are wiser than they think, and they are much bigger than what they imagine themselves to be. I wish that they can identify that they are much bigger beings when they identify with their feeling and emotions, and that greatness lies within.
What are the kind of challenges you face when you write?
Whenever I sit down to write, I don’t actually think about writing as my self-expression. I think about whether my writing will serve my readers. Whoever is spending the next five or ten minutes of their time on an essay by me, I am hoping that they will get something out of it. I try to write with this intention of helping others. So whenever I begin to forget this, it can become really challenging.
You’re now widely famous for your books and also for the healing centres, Schools for Broken Hearts. I am sure success comes with its own set of challenges. How do you strike the balance between living slowly and appreciating imperfection, while being so busy in your own life?
First of all, you know, I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work all the time. Whenever I see people coming to the School for Broken Hearts, and they get help, and then when I read their testimonials, I feel very moved. Second of all, when I feel like I am working too hard, I try to stop and give myself some time to reflect and rest. What I usually do is create what I call these small moments of happiness. So, rather than pursuing big moments like when you buy a house, or get your university degree, or get married, I think we should also pay attention to smaller things. I intentionally create these small moments of happiness and I put it on my Instagram. For instance, I suggested that call your friends on their birthdays. If you could put all their birthdays on your Google calendar and call them, they are so happy to hear from you. This increases your happiness. I also love to make coffee so I really like to enjoy the whole process. So these are very small moments, which you can create and collect, and will help you strike the balance.
We are in the midst of a rather baffling and challenging period in human history. How have you been coping with this pandemic personally?
It was quite challenging, especially in the beginning, because there was a lot of fear about how it is spread. Soon after, however, I began investing in a new routine. I was working from home and I started doing more things that I had always put off, like reading books that I really love and connecting with my friends, not just in my city but around the world. I would FaceTime with them and try to catch up with them. Also I do regular morning exercise, it is sort of like a habit now and it really helped a lot. I think when the situation changes and there is nothing we can do about it, the only thing we should do is change our attitudes about the situation. It is not a very good situation, but you should try to find some silver lining, because we shouldn’t victimise ourselves. We should try to make good decisions and changes, even with limited options.
If you could only give one advice to everyone facing this collective challenge, what would it be?
I hope that this moment becomes a moment to slow down, to hit the pause button and reflect how far you have walked in this path of life. Appreciate all the success, big and small. If you compare yourself today with yourself from ten or fifteen years ago, I am sure there have been many good changes in your life, so celebrate those changes. Show some gratitude and then you can plan ahead about what kind of life you want to lead and things you want to accomplish.
What do you envision the new normal would be like for the world when this crisis is over?
I sincerely hope that people become more aware of the climate change that we’re facing. All the cruelty that we’ve been practicing. I am hoping that we are awakened and realise that we have to put environmental issues first. After the pandemic, people in Korea actually saw blue skies, because there is a lot of air pollution their. It really makes you recognise the dangers of over-production. So I sincerely hope that the new normal can be more about these issues, and also about being able to pause more periodically, and connect with ourselves and those who love us.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
I just actually finished my third book because the pandemic I became very productive. So I am hoping to publish it soon. I am also trying to do more work for my blog and connect with people more through social media.
Text Nidhi Verma
Photograph Sehyen Jo