The Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim has become something of a popular sensation. His book, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down (Penguin 2012), has become a global hit. After just a few years, the book had been translated into countless languages and sold millions of copies around the world.
His advice draws from Buddhist wisdom, but distills it into small, approachable bites. Every section is written in a kind, direct tone that connects directly with most readers. And if you don’t find one section helpful, you can quickly move on to the next.
Beyond being a book of beautiful words, it also has simple yet gorgeous art. The cover features a sprawling field of daisies, extending to a horizon of black. It is as if it is daytime on the ground and night in the sky. Within the book are more simple paintings, often similar to Japanese watercolors, but incredibly simple. A blossoming apple tree on a perfectly curved hill with a pure blue sky behind it. A tall, thin tree with new leaves towering over the figure of a man holding flowers. Next to this is another tall, thin tree towering above a woman leaning against the tree as if hiding from the man.
And on one page, a giant soup-bowl filled with bright yellow flowers—lilies perhaps—with two people standing in it and a yellow moon above it, high in the black sky.
Thanks to the cover and the interesting illustrations within, this is a book that my two and a half year-old daughter often brings to me at story time. “Read this,” she requests. Sometimes she opens it to a picture and asks me to read what is next to it. Usually she grows bored quickly, but this time, as I began reading, she looked attentively at the text.
Three Liberating Insights
Across from the painting of the bowl and moon is a section in the book called “Three Liberating Insights.” The section is short, just a bit over a page and a half. In it, Sunim notes three insights he had when he turned 30.
These are insights many of us have had at one time or another. But they are worth restating, as a deep grasp of them is almost certain to bring us lasting happiness.
We are not the center of the universe
Sunim’s first insight is that people are not as interested in us as we might think that they are. We are not the center of anyone else’s world. An exception to this might be when we’re first falling in love. But even then, just as our mind is often on other things, our romantic partner too is often thinking about things more immediate or important to him or her.
We tend to be the center of our own worlds, and this is true of others too. Furthermore, we will come and go from dozens, perhaps hundreds of other people’s lives over the course of our lifetime. Do I still remember my first love? Yes. Do I think of her often? No. I’ve had other loves, and friends, and neighbors, and fellow students, and bosses and coworkers. All of them, or at least most of them, have made an impression on me at one point or another. And many of them I still think about from time to time. But not much. This, too, is likely how I am remembered by so many of them.
And yet we can sometimes obsess with how others think about us. We cling to our last encounter or to a particularly emotionally-charged moment in our history. But if we learn to let it go, we can be more fully present and attentive to those near us.
Not everyone will like us
Sunim’s second insight is that not everyone will like him. This makes sense. We don’t like everyone. Perhaps we’d like to, but then we know that there are just certain things we really like an things we dislike. It’s okay. Perhaps we can learn to like girls with nasally voices and loud laughs. Or guys who obsessively talk about some nerdy hobby that we don’t share. Or perhaps not.
Again, we’ll come and go from so many people’s lives. We must know that the effort spent trying to like people might be better spent seeking out others we will already naturally like. Sometimes we dislike people because they sap our energy or they ignore us. If there are other people we know who give us energy and actively listen to us, why not spend more time with them?
And if we must be around people we don’t like. It’s okay. We can still be kind and courteous.
Much of what we do is primarily for ourselves
The third insight that Sunim offers is that most of what we do is kind of selfish. We do our work for the money or perhaps the fame or just the joy of doing it. If the joy, fame, or money faded, so would our effort. Sunim says even our tears over a lost spouse is mainly a reaction to the concern for loneliness. And even our deepest sacrifices for our children are out of the hope that they will grow up in ways that make us proud.
I am not so sure about these examples. In my life, my wife has become far more than just a loneliness eliminator. Our lives are interconnected. If I lost her, I would very much be losing a part of myself. And that would hurt very clearly and directly. The same is true for my child. I sacrifice simply for her joy and well-being. I have no notions of who or what she will grow up to be.
Perhaps, however, these examples of mine still fit within Sunim’s point. Perhaps I simply have a larger conception of my “self,” one which includes these two people I love very much. In that case, we’re in pretty complete agreement.
Either way, It is fair to say that much of what I do is based on a quest for security and joy and to see that these also drive others around us. A few people out there, true saints, will act spontaneously and effortlessly for the sake of others. Knowing this brings me happiness.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.