Seoul Life

Part of the stream that runs through the central area of the city

Part of the stream that runs through the central area of the city

My friend's dog and his admirer

My friend’s dog and his admirer

Me, taking a 'Selfie' by the river

Me, taking a ‘Selfie’ by the river

Korean women wear heels everywhere, even the pool

Korean women wear heels everywhere, even the pool

This dude looks thuggin' in his thong

This dude looks thuggin’ in his thong

In traditional costume, ready to charm passersby at the stream

In traditional costume, ready to charm passersby at the stream

Young lovers enjoy some 'privacy' at the stream

Young lovers enjoy some ‘privacy’ at the stream

Sunset over the river that separates north and south Seoul

Sunset over the river that separates north and south Seoul

Sunset on the other side of the river

Sunset on the other side of the river

The phallic monument at the War Museum next to the U.S. military base

The phallic monument at the War Museum next to the U.S. military base

Swallow the Red Pill

neo-matrix“This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill: the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, it is the now fabled dialogue from the first Matrix film in which Morpheus entices Neo to take the red pill.

Full disclosure: I only saw the first film in The Matrix trilogy and most of it went right over my head. In fact, if I’m perfectly honest, I only watched it because Keanu Reeves is so incredibly easy on the eyes.

However, I cannot remain ignorant any longer. More than a decade after this film made waves by forcing a mainstream audience to consider the nature of reality and question their own lives, it has become entrenched in both our psyches and popular culture (including rap music – holla Kanye!). How do I know this? Because I hung out a little bit with my good friend Google, and also my human friends keep making obtuse Matrix references in conversation. And I kind of get the gist of what they’re saying, the point they’re making. But I wanted to explore the notion of the pills a little further.

So, recently, I was hanging with my friend, who is also foreign, along with two Korean university students who have never left Korea. We were talking about traveling. Both my aforementioned friend and I have traveled. A lot. We encouraged our Korean friends to go and expand their horizons beyond their own borders. Then, my friend said, “But do it at your own peril. It’s like in the The Matrix, you take that pill and you will never be the same. Your life will change. It won’t all be good, either.” I piped up, “Yes, and you can’t put the genie back in the lamp, or squeeze toothpaste back into tube.” (Which, incidentally, was completely lost on them with their limited knowledge of English).

Anyway, according to Wikipedia, “The blue pill and its opposite, the red pill, are pop culture symbols representing the choice between the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue) and embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality (red).”

Everyday, we must decide which pill we will take – whether we want to be ignorant little hamsters running around on our wheels, or if, instead, we want to keep questioning, examining, searching for the truth, ripping off the veil of illusion and striving to understand how the world really is. Rabbit hole, anyone?



10 Warm-Fuzzy Things to Know About Fear

Jaws-SpielbergI recently read Jaimal Yogis’s The Fear Project, a fascinating foray into the nature of fear and how it influences our actions, both in positive and negative ways. If I could summarize the book in one sentence, I would say that through a range of expert interviews, scientific research and personal experience, Yogis’s main message is that like the great white sharks he swam with, fear is much less threatening and nefarious than we would ever believe, as the following points demonstrate.

1. Lie detecting: He interviews neuroscientist and psychologist Rick Hanson, who states that, “Just because there’s that funny feeling in your belly doesn’t mean that there’s any threat. Our internal signals are pretty much bullshitting us all day long.”

2. Memories: Beat anxiety by recalling memories of times when you felt strong in order to solidify a positive neural network.  Yogis summarizes Hanson’s work by stating that, “What makes people fearful is a combination of the appraisal of the world and an appraisal of their own capacities. So, if on a zero-to-ten scale, you appraise your capacities as a two, and the issue in the world is a three, you’re going to be kind of scared. Whereas if you appraise your capacity as a seven or eight and this thing, broadly defined, in life coming at you is a three, all right, you might be a little nervous about it, you’re on your guard, but you’re not going to freak out.”

3. Optimism: Yogis interviews his friend, top ranked MMA fighter Urijah Faber, who is a proponent of focusing on the good. In Faber’s words: “So much of it is the power of the mind and how you perceive things. An optimist, even when life beats you up, you find something good that you did. I have a real ability to focus on the good thing.”

4. It’s all in the mind: Yogis, something if a Buddhist himself, brings in the Buddha’s perspective. Thoughts, emotions, perceptions exist in the mind rather than existing outside of us in a concrete way. Fear, therefore, is not something that exists out there. It’s like a wave in the mind, rising and breaking. Its impermanence forces us to question its substance and realize that, oh wait, it doesn’t have any.

5. Ninja training: The author’s wife Amy grew up in a family of high powered lawyers – great stress models, apparently. According to Yogis, She seeks out obstacles, knowing that’s what makes her grow, what makes life exciting. And if she doesn’t feel like she can handle something, she trains like a ninja. Whenever she has a big board meeting or a speech about something she doesn’t understand, it’s almost as if she goes into a trance and emerges calm.”

6. Making lists: Yogis consults a top sports psychologist who advocates writing down a list of fears and crossing off the fears you have no control over (because there’s no point worrying about them). He writes that, “For the fears I did have some control over, I would script out an action plan for each one. Not only would this improve my training [to surf at an incredibly dangerous spot], it would remind me that I’d covered all my bases and would keep me from overthinking what my body already knew how to do.”

7. Our plastic selves: As Yogis writes: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that nature has selected a whole variety of traits for us – some good, some bad, and some a combination of the two. But the brain and the mind and the body have more plasticity than we ever imagined. We are constantly evolving. We learn from events, from one another, from our own emphases and awarenesses. A single thought changes the very structure of our brains. Think about that for a moment. A single thought moves matter. And that’s a good thing if we use that malleability wisely. We can take this biological mess of wild impulses, hormones, ferocious emotions, and sharp intellect that we’re saddled with and do something worthwhile – maybe something beautiful.”

8. Fear, death and love, in Yogis’s words: “And it’s love that allows us to move, to act, even in the midst of fear. We’re all different. But maybe the point is, if you start to understand what is driving you, the script that has been written into your genes and your collection of memories, you can begin to mold your life a bit more. It will be scary, but every stressor, every fear, is really just a sign that those boundaries are stretching. I think we have to keep confronting our fears and keep telling one another the stories that come from doing that. Stories mold our brains, our selves, our future. So we have to choose our stories wisely: the ones we write, the ones we consume.”

9. Fear transforms: “Tensing won’t help us perform better, at least not in high doses. But it can help us prepare better, which will help us relax and have faith when it’s go time. If we freeze, and let fear simply spin our internal wheels, we’ll stagnate. But if we harness fear as motivation to prepare, invent, train – one of its true purposes – then the fear transforms from villain to hero.”

10. The final word: “If we can understand fear rather than demonize it, reframe fear as a natural part of our biology rather than avoiding and repressing it, stretch our comfort zones just a little every day, and walk peacefully and courageously into those scary memories of embarrassment and trauma, we will gradually learn to transform fear into focus and compassionate action, and our sons’ and daughters’ world can be better than the one we live in. Will we collectively freeze, fight and stagnate? Or will we learn and act?

Tea Time

Chillin' at a teahouse

Chillin’ at a teahouse

One of my very favorite things about Seoul is the traditional rustic teahouses that are dotted throughout the old central area of the city. So, on Friday afternoon, which was another beautiful sunny day, my coworker and I conspired to skive off work early and head into the central area to have dinner and sip on cinnamon and pear tea.

Most traditional teahouses are made from wood and are decorated with Korean motifs, such as ancient wooden chests, masks, lamps, low tables, as well as satin cushions and pictures that yearn for a simpler time, when most Koreans were farmers and lived in the countryside, surrounded by jagged, lush mountains.

Usually, most tea shops have an extensive menu that includes homemade tea (without milk) made from fruit, flowers and herbs. It is claimed that some of the teas have medicinal properties, although its up to each individual’s experience to decide whether that is folklore or reality. There are also a range of sugary rice cakes and biscuits for sale.

Tea for every taste

Tea for every taste

My favorite teas are ginger, citrus and cinnamon. Often, they are served in handmade ceramic mugs or bowels and come with a few floating pine nuts, either hot or iced. Other popular teas are pear, chrysanthemum flower, lotus flower, and of course, green tea.

Visiting a teahouse should be a priority on every travelers’ visit to Seoul. Both the tea and ambiance are worth the $6 you’ll expect to pay. In fact, one of the nicest things about these haunts is that they are populated mostly by locals, giving you a quintessential Korean experience.

Unfortunately, due to the rising popularity of coffee and the fact that large chains are mushrooming up all over the city, the traditional teahouses are being elbowed out, and while they maintain their presence in the traditional area of Insadong, those in the suburbs have not fared so well, falling like dominoes. The ever-increasing presence of homogenous coffee chains is putting small business owners out of business, made worse by the fact that the products available at said cafes (you know which ones I’m talking about) are generally gross and unhealthy. Unfortunately, it seems that these boisterous, crowded spaces are popular because they represent something modern from the west. I can’t imagine anyone would go there for the quality and uniqueness of what’s on offer.

So, if you are planning to visit Seoul or already live here, my advice is to visit these increasingly endangered teahouses – the tea is incredible and you’ll be supporting local business, and ultimately helping this important cultural tradition to flourish.