Book Review: The Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down

I wish I could remember how Haemin Sunim’s little gem of a book, The Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down, first crossed my path – it’s probably something banal, like it turned up in a newsletter from the publisher. But however it came to my attention, I knew, immediately, that it was a book that I wanted.

I’m not one for blind ordering a book without having held it in my hands or flipped through its pages, especially when it’s a book devoted to the subject of mindfulness. Mindfulness – an important concept in Buddhist traditions – involves bringing our attention to focus on the present moment, with the intended aim of increasing our awareness of self, and the wisdom gained in the practice of mindfulness meditation should serve, ultimately, to alleviate suffering. The practice of mindfulness meditation has gained much attention in the West, introduced by practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, and has been studied by scientists as a means to developing programs such as The Mindful Way, in which Dr. Zindel Segal (and others), a clinical psychologist and distinguished professor at the University of Toronto, combined the benefits of mindfulness meditation with cognitive psychology practices (a program known as MBCT, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) in order to help those suffering from depression. So, we know, scientifically, that this ages-old, well established practice of mindfulness mediation has much to offer those of us dealing with the stresses of our fast-paced, intense, information-overloading world.

Haemin Sunim’s book is divided into chapters dealing with such things as: rest, mindfulness, passion, relationships, love, life, spirituality, and the future. Each chapter opens with an essay on the topic at hand, followed by a series of pithy, short messages – the kinds of things that Haenim Sunim (his name translates, apparently to “nimble wisdom”) shares in his Facebook and Twitter feeds. These are, in essence, meditation prompts, designed to allow you to sit and reflect on the thought they contain. Many of these are, I freely admit, not particularly deep, and occasionally not particularly original, in the sense that many proponents of mindfulness meditation often draw from the same thought-well, so the same ideas and prompts come up again and again – which, in a sense, stands testimony to both their presence in our lives and the need to explore them. But where Haenim Sunim differs, I think, is that many of his mediation prompts have arisen out of his encounters with those he meets, whether in real life or on social media, and are in response to their questions and concerns. This is something he addresses in the Prologue to the book, where he discusses how he has frequently been asked for advice. He mentions enjoying social media, which he sees as a medium for allowing him to establish connections with people.

I read the book in one sitting in order to write this review, but I think the book is best used as the author himself notes: as an opportunity for reflection, taking the time to read a little bit, even just one of the meditation prompts, and sit and think about it. Lately, I leave the book on my night table, taking a moment in the morning upon waking or at night before bed to dip in and read a thought.

One of the best things about the book, in my opinion, are the exquisite, delicate artworks by artist Lee Young-cheol (이영철) about whom, sadly, I could find precious little on the internet – one of the downsides, I think, of not being able to read Hangul. Thanks to a link to his website in the book, I did find his Instagram account and a reference on Goodreads to a book that Lee has himself written and illustrated (in Korean with English translations), and I hope to be able to track that down and perhaps review it at a future date. Haenim Sunim suggests that Lee’s illustrations are “intended as calming interludes”, to be reflected on in the same way as his pithy prompts. They are quite pretty, indeed, and do a wonderful job of being a counterpoint to the text.

Those looking for a more formal approach to mindfulness mediation might not find Haenim Sunim’s book helpful – but as an adjunct to an established mindfulness practice, or just to dip into in those moments when you need a break to pause and reflect, to slow down in our fast-paced world (indeed, the subtitle of the book is “How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World”), it truly is a little delight, like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: dip in the box, take one piece, savour it, and come back when you need another bite.

Just the facts

  • Title: The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down
  • Author: Haemin Sunim
  • Translator: Kim Chi-Young (김지영)
  • Illustrator: Lee Young-cheol (이영철)
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Year published: 2017

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