I can remember my second day in Korea down to the finest details.
It was pouring rain. The kind of heavy, riotous deluge August in Korea is famous for.
The day was humid and sticky. I was seated at a cafe relishing the arctic blast of an air-conditioning unit and sipping an iced coffee. Rain streamed down the windows in rivulets and tiny rivers. My umbrella leaned against the window and dripped rainwater onto the floor.
At the time I was nearly overwhelmed with a sense of adventure and discovery. Asia! Korea! I wasn’t in Kansas City anymore!
Just making a trip to the grocery store was an opportunity for adventure.
Earlier that day I was at my local market and had to wait in line behind a trio of Buddhist monks. Real-life, honest-to-Buddha monks! I was stoked. Buddhist monks weren’t the sort of thing this mid-west boy had any experience with. It was all so exciting!
Sitting there at the cafe I wrote “I want to carry this sense of discovery with me wherever I go” in my journal.
That was five and a half years ago.
In the ensuing half decade I lost — sadly, unsurprisingly — much of that sense of adventure I’d reveled in back at the cafe on that sweltering August afternoon.
You know how it goes: Exciting new routines slowly ossify into the daily grind; familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a stultifying boredom.
And all the while I was dogged with a sense of sadness, of loss.
Those words I’d written in my journal stayed with me and felt like a rebuke. They haunted me. I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d let go of something precious along the way.
And I had…so I decided to get it back. I decided that all the joy, excitement, and discovery that defined my first year in Korea wasn’t going to be a “one and done” phenomenon.
I decided to reconnect with that initial sense of discovery and the results of have been amazing.
Here’s how I did it.
Mindfulness as a concept and practice has strong ties to Buddhism, but I believe it’s something all of us have experienced — and benefited from — at one time or another regardless of our spiritual or religious leanings.
At its most basic, mindfulness is about being aware of and engaged with the present moment.
Professor John Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally.”
I love that.
When I first arrived in Korea every little thing was a source of wonder. I couldn’t not pay attention to all of it!
As the years rolled on those little things lost much of their flavor — they became drab, boring, unremarkable.
Or so I thought.
But I was wrong.
It wasn’t that the things themselves had changed — kimchi was still spicy and delicious; the mountains outside my apartment still invited exploration; the magpies in the trees still sang beautiful songs — I had changed.
More specifically, the way I regarded — or disregarded, really — these things had changed.
I had allowed familiarity with the world around me to dull and deaden my experience of it.
How many bored babies or toddlers have you ever encountered?
I’m guessing you could count the number on one hand…without using any fingers.
Babies and toddlers aren’t bored because they aren’t encumbered with thoughts and illusions about the past and future. Babies and toddlers aren’t bored because they’re experiencing their world for the first time.
Mindfulness — being engaged with the present moment in a nonjudgemental way — has restored the excitement, joy, and wonder I felt when I first arrived in Korea.
I feel like a baby out here again.
And it’s wonderful.
Being Content with What I Have, Who I Am, and Where I’m At
Unless I keep an eye on it, I’m basically the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of The World when it comes to “If only…” thoughts.
If only I had the newest Kindle, iPad, game system, or [insert gadget fetish here].
If only I was a better husband/writer/teacher.
If only I’d travel more or change careers.
If only, if only, if only…
What a vicious, self-defeating feedback loop! The thing with the grass being greener on the other side of the fence is 1) well, it’s not always actually greener, and 2) even if it is greener there’s always, always another fence to tempt you.
Is the alternative simply accepting the status quo and calling it a day? No. I’m not advocating for complacency here. Sometimes it’s fine, even necessary, to feel discontent with the way things are going. That discontent can spark positive change.
The problem is most of us are way out of balance. Complacency isn’t the issue. The issue is that we no longer remember how to be content.
And no wonder.
The gears of modern consumer culture — both in Korea and the west — turn on our discontent, doubts, and insecurities. So we’re told day in and day out that no matter our circumstances EVERYTHING would be better if only we bought this, experienced that, traveled there, or looked like him/her.
Why be content with your 8 month old iPhone when this new, improved model features, what, a few more pixels of resolution? An incrementally faster processor?
Hell, you may as well throw that outdated, obsolete 8 month old model into the trash!
Thanks but no thanks.
I choose contentment.
Is my life perfect? Far from it. Is that okay? Absolutely.
There are plenty of ways in which my life could experience positive change. And I’ll certainly work towards realizing some of those changes.
What I won’t allow is an obsession with future happiness to rob me of the joy and contentment available in the present moment.
Being Receptive to Everyday Adventures
Let me tell you a story.
It’s summertime and my wife Jinah and I are out for a bike ride.
Riding bikes is one of our favorite summer pastimes. We love hopping on our bikes to explore the neighborhood and enjoy the lovely weather.
On this particular day we were riding from our apartment to a burger joint on the other side of town.
I was hungry, and eager to get where we were going.
You know that old saying about how it’s the journey and not the destination that’s important? Yeah, good stuff…except when visions of perfectly seasoned beef patties are floating through my head.
At that point I’m all about the destination. The journey is just one more thing standing between me and my meal.
Such was my frame of mind (and stomach) when my wife suggested we take a brief detour down a wooded lane.
Now, I’d ridden past this street maybe one hundred times and hadn’t given it so much as a glance. And I sure didn’t want to waste any time on it that day — not when we were on our way to eat hamburgers!
But Jinah insisted and I (eventually, begrudgingly, tearfully) relented.
And what followed was an experience I’ll remember forever.
Seoul, Korea has one of the highest population densities of anywhere in the world. I’m talking crowds of people that can make New York’s Times Square look like a ghost town in comparison.
You’ll find a lot of incredible things in Seoul — but privacy, quiet, and solitude are not among them.
So when we turned off the busy, congested highway we’d been riding alongside and down this tree-lined street what immediately struck me was how quiet it became. Silent almost, save the wind in the trees and the chirruping of birds.
The farther we rode down this street the deeper the quiet grew until the sounds of traffic disappeared into the rushing of the wind. And that’s when we saw the deer. Two small, beautiful roe deer were grazing next to a pond in a clearing on our right.
In all my years in Korea that was only the second time I’d seen deer out in the wild.
As we continued our journey we saw cranes, frogs and lizards, and a nesting pheasant with chicks.
We also discovered a large estuary that neither of us even knew existed.
We parked our bikes and sat at the edge of the estuary. The sun burned brightly so we cooled ourselves in the shade of a bamboo grove. Cicadas whirred noisily from their hiding spots in the branches above us. A turtle rose to the surface of the water, took a breath, and then dove back into the murky depths.
All of this beauty, just minutes from our home, and in one of the most crowded places on earth.
It was a truly wonderful moment…and one that I could have easily missed out on.
Korea and America are wildly different in many ways. But they share this important similarity: Both offer up everyday adventures for those who are receptive to experiencing them.
Don’t let a hectic schedule, family responsibilities, or chasing after the “Next Big Thing” (or burger!) blind you to the big and small adventures all around you.
Our lives are short. Meaning should — and can! — be found in every moment.
These three ideas are hardly a comprehensive list. What do you do to ensure that life remains fresh, engaging, and joyful?
Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
And if you found anything in this post helpful do me a favor and share it. Thanks!