Category: Mindfulness

A peaceful awareness of one’s body, emotions, and consciousness; a supreme attention to yet detachment from one’s surroundings and experience

Healing the Korean Psyche: Jeju Olle

[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]

Jeju Olle and the Korean psyche:

Healing minds and hearts

▲ There are over 400 kilometers of Olle walking trails to explore around the island. Photo courtesy Jeju Olle Trail.

Jeju Olle is helping to heal the minds of Korean people.

A post-conflict, post-colonial society with an ongoing threat of military aggression from the North and an unprecedented rate of development, many local experts and average citizens agree: Korea is in need of healing.

Indicators of a society under stress include Korea’s high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and divorce, accompanied by long working hours, extreme competitiveness in education and elsewhere and a rapid-pace lifestyle with little concept of leisure.

When a staff member at Jeju Olle was asked about the healing effects to be found in walking these trails, she began with, “I’d like to tell you my personal story.”

“I came to Jeju on the advice of a friend who was volunteering for Jeju Olle,” began Lee Su Jin, “at a time when I was physically exhausted, in poor health, and facing a very difficult situation in my life. I walked one trail each day for 10 days in a row,” she continued, “and by the end of that time, I felt truly healed.”

Lee subsequently changed her life, moved to Jeju, and began working with the Jeju Olle team.

“In the beginning of your walk,” she said, “you look at the beautiful scenery and interact with other people. After a while, your thoughts turn inward and you begin contemplating your own life. And finally, your mind empties completely, and you feel refreshed, and whole again.”

“In the end, you meet yourself,” she concluded.

Suh Myung Sook, the visionary who saw both the need for and the possibility of this remarkable trail system at a time (just a few years ago) when local officials were skeptical of Koreans’ interest in such an endeavor, has had much to say about the healing power of Jeju Olle.

Referring to Korea’s recent experience with war and poverty, she has said that Koreans react strongly to minor setbacks, compete with one another for resources and societal position, and “have forgotten how to relax” and handle challenges in a healthy manner.

“Our society is exhausted and stressed,” Suh relayed in a December 2010 conversation, reiterating her belief in a meeting just this week, “with a need for contemplation.”

The notion of healing can seem foreign to Koreans upon questioning. “We don’t typically use this concept” was conveyed by both Kim Jeyon and Han Youngsook, a sentiment echoed by others.

Speak of the “well-being” and “slow” movements which have emerged in the past few years, however, or of the need to relax or feel more comfortable or develop a leisure culture, and everyone agrees.

Korea, like many regions in Asia but perhaps even more so, suffered multiple traumas throughout the 20th century. During the 35-year period of occupation by Japanese armed forces, two successive world wars and numerous regional conflicts swirled around this tiny peninsular nation.

Immediately following Korea’s liberation, the country was thrust into several chaotic years during which it attempted to set up forms of governance never before experienced, resulting in numerous episodes of mass violence on Jeju and throughout the mainland, multiple casualties and wounded survivors, and a country divided. Soon thereafter, the civil war that ultimately involved outside players ensued.

Reeling from the years of this war during which Seoul was flattened three times, many children were orphaned, and poverty and starvation were the norm, Korea entered a period of nation-building which was to include a globally unprecedented rate of economic development. According to Ewha University international studies professor Brendan Howe, this too represents a profound stress.

“When post-conflict nations develop too rapidly,” Howe, a specialist in the area of human security, said at this year’s conference of Korea International Studies Association last month, “it may be good for their economies but it is a great hardship on their psyches.”

Indeed, the types of large-scale mental illness and social problems caused by the trauma that conflict – and colonization, instability, state-sanctioned violence, authoritarian regimes and repression, and extreme poverty – can bring are exhibited in Korea’s skyrocketing rates of suicide, divorce, depression and anxiety.

Intergenerational transmission is a well-acknowledged phenomenon in trauma research, indicating that the wounds borne by a society do not stop with the generation directly affected.

Enter Jeju Olle, and founder Suh.

“At first, the local officials scoffed at my idea,” Suh said in our conversation last year and reiterated this week. “Koreans typically travel like they live – in a rush, consuming but not enjoying, not contemplating. Local government thought that no one would want to travel to Jeju just to walk on nature trails.”

They were wrong. Jeju’s Olle trail system has been consistently voted the favored destination, according to surveys conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization. The estimated number of participants has grown from 3,000 the first year to more than 800,000 in 2010, a rate anticipated to have risen significantly again this year.

Suh’s idea has proven to be exactly what wounded and stressed Koreans needed.

The ultimate goal of trauma resolution, according to scholars of psychology and related fields, is the return of trust, hope, and caring relationships. The healing powers of nature, mindfulness meditation, social relationships as well as solitude, volunteerism, empowerment and community integration are all well documented.

Each of these elements can be found in the Jeju Olle experience.

The message of Jeju Olle, expressed in Suh’s “rules” for walking the trails, provides an apt metaphor for well-being:

Walk slowly. Go at your own pace, enjoying the scenery. Do what you’ve always wanted to do. Interact with the local community, “grasping their willing hands.” All routes are “the best.” Walk lightly on this earth, with the least amount of harm to it – or to others. Talk to strangers along the way. Go green. Follow ancient footpaths. Maintain safety.

It isn’t only the walkers who benefit, however; each person potentially carries this message home to his or her local community.

Jeju Olle is helping to heal the people of Jeju as well. Referring to the island’s “scars,” Suh has suggested that peace is an ultimate and universal value, reflected in these trails.

“Jeju is my ‘hometown,’” said Jeju National University instructor Han Youngsook, who has walked every Jeju Olle trail, some of them repeatedly. “Maybe visitors who walk for many days in a row feel more ‘healing power’ – but after walking an Olle trail, I always feel happy and pleased with myself, stronger and more energetic, refreshed, with a ‘clear mind’ and the recollection of many good memories from my childhood.”

Suh Myung Sook, in recent efforts to integrate Jeju Olle with other trail systems around the world, now dreams of Jeju as the center for Asian eco-tourism.

In war-torn Asia, this may be just what the doctor ordered.


In a brief follow-up interview Suh Myung Sook, founder of Jeju Olle, had this to add:

Regarding Jeju Olle and the healing of Korea’s wounded psyche, what are your thoughts?

I believe that it’s a very accurate and insightful analysis. In fact, from what I’ve heard, Jeju Olle is healing the minds of many. In reality, nature has a therapeutic effect, often called “eco-healing.” Yet, why are so many people experiencing and talking about a healing effect after walking Jeju Olle? It’s because Jeju’s nature is not too big, not too wide, not too vast, yet still very beautiful and lyrical. Standing in front of vast and magnificent forms of nature, people are not only in awe but also daunted and intimidated, reminded of human insignificance. However, Jeju’s soft oreums and wide ocean nurse humans, and nurture their minds. That’s why Jeju Olle is a healing trail.

There seems to have been a recent ‘paradigm shift’ in Korean thinking and being, due in part to Jeju Olle’s influence. Would you share your thoughts on this?

Following liberation, for decades Korea has gone through a compressed modernization process on top of its scars from the war. This has resulted in magnificent achievement and developments, never seen elsewhere in the world, yet it also gave Korea a “hurry hurry” (palli-palli) culture and competitive society. Koreans have even experienced their leisure activities in the same way: the faster the better, and the more the better. However, we recommend that people walk slowly, resting and playing on the Jeju Olle. In that way, people can truly enjoy [internal] conversation with themselves and with nature. That’s why Korean people say Jeju Olle has changed the tour and leisure culture of Korea, from car trips to walking trips, and from a “tour culture filled with dots” in which people move from Point A to Point B, to a “tour culture filled with lines” in which people enjoy the process.

I and many others consider you a visionary, recognizing what Korean people needed when others couldn’t see it — and finding a way to make it a reality. How do you feel about this?

I’m a little shy to be called a visionary. However, in my journalist background, for 20~30 years I lived the most typical Korean life, chasing after success and developing my career at a rapid pace. As a result, I was physically and mentally exhausted. And in order to reflect and to heal myself, I quit my job and left for the Camino de Santiago [trail in Spain]. On the trail, I thought about making a trail in my own hometown, and my wish became reality with much help and support of so many people around me. In the sense that I once felt the pain that all Koreans share, and tried hard to find a solution in the midst of it, it could be a matter of “one who experienced [healing] earlier” or “the one to put [this dream] into action.”

Environment ~ Women ~ Peace

Around the globe, many are concerned with issues of environmental degradation. Others fight for gender equality and an end to violence and discrimination against women. Still others are peace activists–or simply pacifists. (I think of my Amish and Mennonite heritage as an example of the latter…and my Quaker ancestors as the former.)

Is there a connection to be made?

The concept of Deep Ecology draws a line between (or perhaps, a circle around) environmental preservation and peace, in terms of the interdependence of all living creatures. A simple explanation: if we hold a deep reverence for nature, eradicating any sense of separateness or distinction from the natural world, then by extension we will also embrace peace and reject violence.

Ecofeminism associates women’s issues and gender equality with protection of our environment. Its central theme is one of a relationship between women’s suppression and ecological disregard, the reverse also presumed to be valid.

Some have further connected the concepts of Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism. Jeju Island, where I have the good fortune to reside, is the embodiment of these ideas.

Jeju’s indigenous peoples have inhabited the island for many thousands of years. Nature has until recently represented challenge and adversity to the people of Jeju; they often died at sea, and had difficulty growing food in the rocky soil and windy climate. Yet their relationship with the natural world is an extremely close one of interdependence, as evidenced by their mythology and animistic spiritual tradition, adaptive methods of making a living from both land and sea, and concept of afterlife as a beautiful paradise island on the distant horizon.

At present, Jeju is one of only 28 finalists (from an original 440 nominees) in the international competition to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. It is also the only place on earth which has received all three UNESCO designations: biosphere reserve, world natural heritage site, and geopark. Current multiple development projects, however, threaten Jeju’s once-bucolic natural environment, and there is a concern that more protection — and a remembrance of the earlier deeply felt relationship — is needed.

Jeju also has a longstanding matrifocal society. The term ‘matriarchy’ doesn’t apply, as women have not held equal positions of authority in the society or its leadership due primarily to the Korean legacy of Confucianism. Nevertheless, women have taken an economic lead and developed a strong collective character throughout centuries, based on a foundation of a mythology rich in goddess imagery — including a grandmother goddess as creator. Numerous efforts are underway today to achieve gender equality in Jeju society, though there is still much room for progress.

Officially referred to as an “Island of Peace” since 2005, Jeju has a strong focus on peace initiatives. Emerging from centuries of repression by early Korean dynasties, Mongolian and Japanese occupation, and 20th century military dictatorships of peninsular Korea, Jeju’s society has simply had enough of violence and suppression. This island culture now strives to not only maintain its own peace and further the healing from earlier trauma, but to share this message with the world through a variety of international peace initiatives.

The Peace Institute on Jeju ( strives to connect these three areas of concern. Its efforts include a World Environment and Peace summer program, Peace Forum (, Global Peace Tribunal based on Jeju women’s traditions of economic community, Island-20 initiative, and Peace Island publication, among others.  The Institute has the support of both Jeju National University and the Jeju Provincial Government.

Environment ~ Women ~ Peace. The connection must be made — for individual and collective health.

Ritual in a Modern World

What to make of ritual, especially the shamanic variety, in this 21st century world?

Jeju Island, off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and now my home, is often called the “Island of 18,000 Gods”. Its indigenous religion is animistic, inherited from Eastern Siberia and Mongolia with its own South Pacific cultural nuances, a dash of Buddhism, and marginal Confucian influence.

What makes it distinct even from the shamanic traditions of mainland Korea, however, is its mythology. Jeju has a creation myth in which the central figure is a Grandmother Goddess, and its mythology is rich in goddess imagery.

Seolmundae Halmang is the Creator of Jeju, and the archetypal image of the strong Jeju woman. (The island has gone by many other names in its history.) Jacheongbi is the goddess of love — and also, agriculture; Gameunjang Agi, a goddess of wisdom, governs destiny and fortune.

Many goddesses, including Seolmundae Herself, are depicted not in youthful, romantic ways, but as wise and loving grandmothers (the meaning of ‘halmang’, a term from the local dialect). Jowang Halmang is the kitchen / hearth goddess, ensuring family health. Samseung (or Samshin) Halmang manages the lives of humans, and is of particular aid in pregnancy and childbirth. Perhaps it’s more accurate to describe Her as one who determines fate.

Gopang Halmang is the goddess of prosperity, ruling over the granary and the success of the harvest. And for this island community, so dependent throughout the ages on the abundance of the sea even more than that of agriculture: Yeongdeung Halmang is the goddess of the sea, and secondarily of grain as well.

One of the many shamanic rituals, or ‘gut’ (pronounced ‘koot’), is the Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut. Held on the first day of the second month in the lunar calendar (this year falling on 05 March) at the Chilmeori Shrine (the meaning of ‘dang’ in Jeju dialect), this is one of the largest and most significant events of each year. It’s believed that Yeongdeung Halmang breezes into Jeju Island (as She is closely associated with the wind for which Jeju is so well-known), where she remains for two weeks; rituals are performed to placate Her and to gain Her beneficence for safety at sea and a bountiful fishing season.

A majority of Jeju’s shamans, not surprisingly, are female, though there are many male shamans as well. The Yeongdeunggut is distinct for its involvement of female divers, or ‘jamnyeo’, those whose livelihood of diving for shellfish and other sea creatures depends on the good graces of Yeongdeung Halmang. The profession of the jamnyeo (often termed ‘haenyeo’ for touristic purposes) is unique in all the world save for Jeju’s close neighbor, southern Japan.

What does all this have to do with the 21st century…and modern Jeju?

Tradition and cultural custom naturally contribute to the health of a society in its sense of community and collective meaning-making. There are many non-believers, of course, but even these typically view the shamanic rituals through a lens of cultural preservation, thus retaining their meaningfulness.

On an individual level, it’s well documented that a deeply felt connection to nature, or ‘deep ecology’, contributes to one’s mental and emotional wellbeing — and thus, to physical health as well. Further, ritual itself — whether one literally believes in the deities involved, or not — provides both meaning and grounding.

In this modern era, belief in all manner of religions with their gods and spirits abounds, providing comfort and direction for a majority. Those who deem themselves not religious, however, can still benefit from the sense of connectedness that tradition and custom provide. Even more, when viewed as metaphor, an animistic approach — viewing the natural world as one of manifest deity, with spirits to be found in every rock, leaf, or creature– can encourage a reverence for nature and efforts to preserve it.

Much of the disconnection felt by those in modern-day societies, as described repeatedly in scholarly literature and popular media, could well be healed by the inclusion of personal and community rituals which connect us to one another and to nature.

We can all learn, and benefit, from shamanic traditions such as those of Jeju Island.

Ipchun: The First Day of Spring

Spring has arrived! It may still seem like winter here in the northern hemisphere, but in early agrarian societies both in Asia and Europe, the spring season began in early February, the precise date determined by a lunisolar calendar and the sun’s position at what we today deem the 315° celestial longitude.

Spring has arrived. A traditional time of new beginnings, here on Jeju Island it is marked by indigenous animistic rituals and a large public festival. In this community of “18,000 gods” the proper deities are first invoked by shamans, after which all participants — shamans, musicians, celebrants, and spirits — form a procession through the streets from the preliminary site to the main stage, a grouping of official buildings from the Joseon era.

The primary ritual on the second day focuses on the shamans’ supplication to the gods for a bountiful growing season and the health and fortune of the community. Activities also include a mask dance / drama which tells the tale of a farmer and his need of the gods’ beneficence, a calligraphic artist’s work on a giant paper canvas to produce an ode to spring (traditionally, each household would produce such a poem on this day and post it by their door or gate), the making of ‘gime’ or shamanic paper art for the altar — and everyone eats special Ipchun noodles.

Spring has arrived. Despite the snow, ice, and frigid temperatures that remain in much of the northern hemisphere, this is the beginning of germination. Buds are already on the trees, swelling and preparing to burst open; seeds are sprouting and plants are sending up new shoots from beneath rotting leaves; migratory birds are returning and their song fills the air as they prepare to nest.

In the southern hemisphere, of course, just the opposite is occurring: in the lingering heat of summer, there is the first hint of coolness in the air, as the energy of earth — and humans — begins to turn inward.

But here in the north: Spring has arrived.

The metaphor is always one of hope and renewal. When it seems that winter is still in full force, when it seems that the cold and barren state of the earth might linger forever, signs of hope for new growth emerge. We can easily miss them if we are too focused on the discomfort and indeed danger of winter.

Look for those signs of spring. Look for them not only outside of but also within yourself. What are you germinating? What new project, creativity, innovation, idea?

As our own energy stirs, our metabolism quickens, and we begin to emerge from our incubation: what will we contribute to our lives, our communities, our world…as the light and energy returns?