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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm in a Busy World
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Publisher: Penguin Life
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With more than one million followers on Twitter and Facebook, Haemin Sunim – which means “Spontaneous Wisdom” – is a new type of spiritual guru. Known as the “megamonk,” he has the status of a K-Pop celebrity in his native South Korea, and a cultlike following in the West, as evidenced by his multimillion-copy bestselling debut book, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down.” Translated into 30 languages, the book offers “bite-size Buddhism” through brief essays, even briefer anecdotes and numerous haiku-like homilies. Get ready to hear a few of them!
According to a famous Buddhist saying, “everyone appears as buddhas in the eyes of the Buddha and everyone appears as pigs in the eyes of a pig.” The saying suggests that “the world is experienced according to the state of one’s mind,” and that, rather than being objective, reality is subjective, conditioned by the individual’s perception. Think of it this way: when you squeeze yourself into a subway car and people crowd all around you, you can either get annoyed or think it’s fun that you don’t have to grab a handrail. Based on your interpretation of the event, the same situation becomes either unbearable or funny.
So, rather than being just the observer, your mind actually participates in the creation of the world. If a tree falls down in a forest far from you and you never become aware of this event, does the fallen tree make a difference to your world? Of course not. Because your world is only what your mind is aware of. You cannot live in a reality of which you are unaware. For example, people who hallucinate think their hallucinations are their reality because their mind tells them so. So, just as your mind depends on the world as the subject of its awareness, the world depends on your mind in order to exist in a certain way.
The idea that “the boundary between the mind and the world is actually thin, porous, and ultimately illusory,” is one of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism. “It is not that the world is objectively joyful or sad and produces a corresponding feeling in us,” explains Sunim. “Rather, feelings originate with the mind projecting its subjective experience onto the world. The world isn’t inherently joyful or sad; it just is.”
Just as well, the world is not busy in itself – it’s simply your mind that makes it seem that way. If you are living a busy life, it’s because you’ve chosen to move quickly through it, because you’ve filled your mind with busy thoughts. The good news is that you are not powerless – you can always fight back! Starting now. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and stop thinking about anything but your breathing. The world should suddenly stop being busy. Because, as Sunim sagely remarks, “when our mind is peaceful, the world is, too. Knowing our minds is just as important as trying to change the world.”
Feelings are born from “a matrix of conditions” beyond our control. You see someone you like, and almost instantly, a soft and warm energy overflows your heart and surges toward your head and limbs. Something bad happens to you, and your disposition suddenly darkens, your chest tightens, your shoulders slump forward. How do you control something that happens so fast and seemingly on its own? In short, you don’t: you just observe it.
Whenever we sense a negative emotion coming on, our first impulse is to resist it. This is probably why we use expressions such as “managing anger” or “overcoming hatred.” Both phrases imply effort on our part and suggest that when dealing with things such as anger, hatred or jealousy, we are dealing with some external threat, a feeling foreign to our mind and inner self. After all, you rarely hear people talking about “managing” or “overcoming” joy, love, kindness or happiness, do you? Since they are positive feelings, we feel that they are not threats and that we can allow them to overwhelm us. Being overwhelmed by anger is not a risk anyone is willing to take.
The problem with this logic is that “anger” is just a word, a linguistic label that denotes different levels of raw energy. Even though the energy behind the levels constantly changes, the label remains static. “If you peel the label off and get in touch with the raw energy,” explains Sunim, “you soon realize that the negative emotion is only temporary, one that changes without your efforts.” Just like you cannot control the movement of the clouds in the sky, you cannot control the feelings in your body – both are just passing through. The good news: both dissipate on their own as well.
So, the next time you deal with a negative emotion – just don’t! Instead, befriend it. Become a dispassionate observer of the energy levels concealed by the linguistic labels and let the feelings transform on their own. A strong negative emotion is like mud swirling inside a fish tank. Try to push it down, and more will churn up. The only way to get the mud to sink to the bottom is by taking a step back and becoming a dispassionate observer of its natural movements. Don’t be afraid to do this, because, as Sunim writes, “you are neither your feelings nor the story your mind tells about you to make sense of them. You are the vast silence that knows of their emergence and their disappearance.”
One day, after one of his lessons, a person approached Sunim with a bottle of soy milk and a note, saying, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for listening to me and offering your advice to such an unremarkable, ordinary person like me.” Sunim was touched. But he was also grateful. Because he realized that the humbleness of this person should be his humbleness as well, and the viewpoint of every human being. Because, just like that person, we are all unremarkable and ordinary.
“No matter how famous or beautiful one is,” Sunim writes, “no matter how much money or power one has, no matter how many wonderful accomplishments one has had, we all have our share of setbacks, heartbreak, and loss. We have to face challenges we have no control over. Loneliness and the fear of death will accompany us to our final days. Everyone is on the same treacherous journey of life’s tainted glory.” Fortunately, there are ways to make this journey more bearable. The most profound among them is sharing the burden with each other. That’s what friends and lovers are for.
Yet, we invest so much time and money in houses, cars, beauty and knowledge – and so little in the relationships with the people around us. What is the point of having everything if there is no one to share it with? Just like a book doesn’t exist without its readers, people can’t exist without other people validating their existence, their highs and lows, their triumphs and pains. So, try to invest time in people, above all. Listen to them, talk to them, try to understand them. Be grateful to them when they show you your ordinariness and love them for their “unremarkability.” As the Dalai Lama said once, “Whether we like it or not, we are all connected, and it is unthinkable to be happy all by oneself.”
Being a warmhearted and sensitive friend often means shying away from evaluating and criticizing others. Though we may not think so, we often do this out of envy and with the objective of inflating our egos. Just ask yourself how many times you’ve disparaged someone or complained about something without offering a solution or an alternative. Now ask yourself the following: when such a thing happened, did you criticize the other for his benefit, for the benefit of the world, or just for your own satisfaction?
Every one of us has beliefs so fundamental to our beings that we cannot imagine compromising them. Whether these beliefs are political, religious or moral, they can often seem more important than the feelings of another person with convictions different than ours. Hence the bitter arguments, the anger, the disrespect and the lasting animosity. In a word, while attempting to defend our values and our integrity, we act against them. By trying to make it better, we make the world a bit worse than before.
“Trying to convince someone to adopt our views is largely the work of our ego,” writes Sunim. “Even if we turn out to be right, our ego knows no satisfaction and seeks a new argument to engage in.” Instead of gratifying your ego, renounce it. Stop taking your thoughts seriously and start taking the people around you as human beings not unlike you. In the words of Sunim, “being right isn’t nearly as important as being happy together.” Or, rephrased in a thought-provoking question, “isn’t it better to be happy together than to be right alone?”
One spring day as he turned thirty, Sunim realized three things and suddenly became aware of what he had to do to be happy. He refers to these three things as “the three liberating insights,” and says that they can be immensely helpful for anyone who is overly self-conscious.
The first is that people are probably not as interested in you as you might think. For example, if someone asked you what your friend was wearing or how her hair was styled a week ago, chances are you would not know. If you cannot remember this about her, why do you think she remembers similar things about you?
The second insight is related to the first one: not everyone has to like you. After all, there are so many people on this planet – from politicians to coworkers and even to family members – that you don’t like yourself. So, why should everyone like you? Remember this every time you’re tormented by the thought of someone not liking you. It should help you just let them be and move on with your own life.
The third and final liberating insight is that you are not as altruistic as you might believe. On the contrary, if you are brutally honest with yourself, you will probably realize that most of the things you do for others, you do for yourself instead. So, don’t bother with this too much. Try to be unselfish as often as possible, but be aware that you aren’t Jesus or Buddha and that you will never be able to abandon your deep-rooted preoccupation with yourself.
And you shouldn’t. Your life is yours and yours only. So, devote yourself to your dreams and do not let people’s opinions of you determine who you are. Just as well, do not be envious of the lives other people advertise on Facebook on Instagram. Most of them are lying. “Life is like a slice of pizza,” writes Sunim. “It looks delicious in an advertisement, but when we actually have it, it is not as good as we imagined. If you envy someone’s life, remember the pizza in the ad. It always looks better than it is.”
Full of insightful and practical advice, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” is both simple and profound – just like Buddhism.
If you want to reclaim your Zen, start here.
“Life isn’t a hundred-meter race against your friends,” writes Sunim, “but a lifelong marathon against yourself.”
Haemin Sunim is an influential Zen Buddhist teacher and the founder of the School of Broken Hearts in Seoul. Born in South Korea, he studied film at Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton, before receiving formal monastic tr... (Read more)
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