Haemin Sunim has degrees from Harvard and Princeton, over a million Twitter followers, and an internationally bestselling book to his credit. Released by Penguin Books in 2017, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been published in 30 countries and has sold three million copies in South Korea alone. Having a personal fascination for masters of enlightenment in any religion, I was excited to meet Haemin, and he didn’t disappoint. But I instantly realized that what sets him apart from the cacophony of self-help gurus and accounts for his popularity is not only his message, but his accessibility.
We met to talk about his new book, Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection. Haemin is a fan of the quiet mind: “When you suspend the chattering mind, you can appreciate happiness,” he tells me. He adds, “We can’t see the present moment, only the past, so we come to situations with preconceived notions which prevent us from feeling love.”
Haemin came to the U.S. to study, first at Berkeley, and after getting his Ivy League degrees, worked as a teacher for seven years. “I didn’t have the courage to pursue my heart,” he says, but in 2011, while on a fellowship at Seoul National University, he became aware that he “needed to make connections with people in order to serve.” He began meditation meetings that included time to listen to each other not only about daily stresses but also about joy (while drinking tea). What started as a group of 60 people grew to 500. That success encouraged him to start his School of Broken Hearts in Seoul, where people can come to heal from all kinds of broken hearts: bad relationships, illness, family problems, work problems. The school now involves social workers and therapists, but the original premise was simply about being heard—to talk and have another person listen compassionately.
In Love for Imperfect Things, Haemin says the message he introduced in his first book goes deeper: “I’m more mature,” he says. The opening chapter is “Self-Care,” and his advice is to be good to yourself first. “I only ever worried about what other people thought of me,” he says. “I had never once thought properly about caring for myself, or loving myself.”
Haemin’s editor at Penguin, John Siciliano—recently promoted to executive editor for Penguin Books—(with whom I’ve shared a broken heart), was reading the magazine Korean Literature Now, when the title of Haemin’s first book caught his eye. Agnes Krup, scouting director at Sanford J. Greenburger, put him in touch with a contact in South Korea who put him in touch with Haemin. “I spoke with him on the phone, and he was so interesting,” Siciliano says. “He has a foot in both cultures, studied in the U.S., speaks perfect English, is prominent on social media, and has a universal message. He was a media star monk!”
Siciliano bought world rights for the first book on the basis of a few pages and loved the completed book when it came in. He’s even more enthusiastic about Love for Imperfect Things. “There’s been a boom in self-help/self-care titles,” he says. “It seems a category that has caught fire since the election.” For Love, Siciliano again bought world rights. It didn’t cost him that much, he says, because in South Korea the focus is on royalties.
To date, the title has sold in a dozen territories. Haemin translated the book with Deborah Smith (the translator of The Vegetarian by Han Kang). Siciliano found the artist for the U.S. edition of Love, Lisk Feng, and selected the illustrations. “This book embodies the self-care movement,” he says. “Our culture is so polarized, with a mean-spiritedness on social media. This book is a sanctuary.” The eight chapters in Love cover everything from “Family” to “Courage” to “Acceptance.”
Penguin is publishing Love at the end of December 2018. Siciliano expects to tap into the New Year as an opportunity for change. Haemin will come to the U.S. to promote. “There’s an interest in ‘wisdom from the East,’ ” Siciliano says. “It’s a culture of order where ours is chaotic.”
“The advice in Love for Imperfect Things is to help people deal with failure and despair,” Haemin says. He tells me that the last page is a poem: “I could give it to you now,” he says, ‘but then you wouldn’t have the pleasure of reading it yourself.”