Turning Self-Help into a Bedside Reader: The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim

  • onJuly 22, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byNichole L. Reber
The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down
Tr. Chi-Young Kim


Many of us self-proclaimed sophisticated readers will miss out on The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World. Why? It’s been shackled with the self-help moniker. While it is geared toward those who understand an unexamined life is not worth living, realize the self-help part is just a category. This aspect of it is less like Tony Robbins and more like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Haemin Sunim’s book is visually and literarily breathtaking. In it he doesn’t promise readers the ability to reach samadhi (intense yet weightless concentration, a stage before Nirvana). Nor does his pen fill the 267 pages with highfalutin spiritual language. After all, this book got its start by Haemin Sunim’s tweeting much of its aphoristic content.

Let’s stop to consider aphorisms. They’re akin to Aesop’s fables, full of simple truths. Something far easier to suss out than Zen koans. The aphoristic rather than affirmative content sets this book apart from others in the self-help category. There are no promises of guaranteed heaven or even absolute peace in this lifetime. It discusses a variety of examples and ways readers might remember to slow down and notice the daisies (more about daisies later). The anecdotes may be short but they provide huge materials with which we might bridge the gaps of our lives.

One of these succinct life lessons comes from the chapter, “Why Am I So Busy?” In one section, he admits he sometimes wonders if he hasn’t overloaded his own schedule with Buddhist monk and professorial duties. In another section he reminds us that a person’s behavior doesn’t make us mad: it’s we who allow ourselves to become maddened by it. He writes:

People react differently to the same situation.
If we look at it more closely,
We see it’s not the situation that is troubling us,
but our perspective on it.

How true! How often have you adapted better to a situation by changing your perspective on it?

Haemin Sunim’s literary skill will also win over readers. He structures his aphorisms in poetic form, which he and Chi-Young Kim have deftly translated. The verses look to the eye as lovely as they ring to the ear. The white space surrounding these verses emphasizes their simultaneous simplicity and profundity. These aesthetic choices especially appeal to those interested in the artfulness of literature and spirituality.

These elements will keep readers piqued throughout all eight chapters about rest, relationships, love, appre-ciating divergent spiritual paths, and the liberating effects of forgiveness. Each chapter opens with a short personal essay in which Sunim explains how he learned the lessons he imparts. He teaches through example, sometimes mixed with Zen philosophy.

He writes, for instance, about how entrenched we become to our own beliefs and opinions as if they themselves were truths. In fact, beliefs and opinions are merely temporary, which history has shown by the coming and going of the rack, disco, and colonialism, among others. We don’t have to be entrenched in them, however.

“Maturity comes with experience. One lesson of maturity is that we should not take our thoughts too seriously, and must learn to curb our ego and see the bigger picture,” he writes. “Being right isn’t nearly as important as being happy together. ”Surely the content and its illustrations look happy together. Books of poetry and self-help guides often contain ersatz illustrations. Not true here. Thanks to artist Youngcheol Lee. From cover to cover Lee’s delicately painted images present a thematic journey of a man and woman, likely lovers, through a large field of daisies. Sometimes the images are Chagall-esque in their metaphysical approach. Sometimes they’re Impre-ssionistic. Always, they gorgeously represent the content on the pages.

Whether you are a fan of self-help, into Zen practice, a Buddhist, or none of those things, this book shows it’s all there for the taking: mindfulness, self-awareness, and a little daily peace. Sunim’s words ring true and good and pure. After all, as he writes: “The world is experienced according to the state of one’s mind . . . When your mind is filled with negative thoughts, the world appears negative, too. When you feel overwhelmed and busy, remember that you are not powerless.”


by Nichole L. Reber
Winner, Diana Woods Memorial Award in Nonfiction