In an increasingly high-stress world where it’s getting harder and harder to disconnect, Americans might want to take a cue from South Korea, where people are actually shelling out money to partake in a mindfulness activity called "hitting mung." A slangy phrase that doesn’t have a precise English translation, hitting mung may best be understood by Americans as spacing or zoning out.
For an average of just several bucks, you can buy time in a distinctly non-bustling environment such as a cafe or even a movie theater in Seoul. There, you’ll turn off your phone, take off your shoes and take a seat in front of a wall-long window looking out onto the lush serenity of the Seoul Forest, or if in a theater, perhaps watching footage of clouds passing by. You may enjoy a cup of tea while the images of nature pour over you, or you may sit in silence. But the goal is to allow your mind to wander without judgment.
Like the U.S., South Korea can be fast-paced and high stress
Isa Kujawski, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the D.C. metro area, is half-Korean and lived in Seoul from 2011 to 2013 when she was stationed there as a Navy officer. From both her experience in the city and her familiarity with the culture, she can see why "hitting mung" is a hit in South Korea.
“Seoul is very busy and very congested,” Kujawski said. “It’s a lot like Manhattan in that there are a lot of people crammed into a small space. And there is so much pressure in the atmosphere: Pressure to work hard, play hard and to become successful.”
Hitting mung is conceptually similar to forest bathing
Kujawski learned about hitting mung when living in Seoul, and took interest in it because it reminded her of another meditative concept that she has come to cherish: forest bathing, or as it is called in Japan, Shirin-Yoku.
“Hitting mung — with mung meaning something like ‘emptiness’ or ‘nothingness’ — is similar to forest bathing, where you go out into the forest and immerse yourself in nature,” Kujawski said. “It feeds the soul, mind and spirit.”
Elizabeth K. Nisbet, an associate professor in the psychology department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, who focuses on subjective connectedness with nature, including how nature links with health and happiness, is also struck by the similarities between hitting mung and forest bathing.
“Hitting mung is a lot like forest bathing because it’s about taking in the experience of nature and experiencing it without distraction,” Nisbet said.
Forest bathing has numerous benefits, including the ability to improve one’s mood, reduce stress and lower blood pressure and heart rate.
But one substantial difference between forest bathing and hitting mung (as practiced in certain South Korean cafes and movie theaters) is that with the latter, you’re not necessarily physically immersed in nature. More likely, you’re looking out a window at natural scenery, or staring at a screen that’s playing relaxing images of a natural occurrence such as clouds passing or a log fire burning. Does the fact that it takes place indoors make hitting mung less potent an elixir than forest bathing? Possibly — but it may be an easy tool to soothe a stressed out brain.
Simply looking at nature can give our busy brains a break
“When you zone out while looking at nature, it helps you to relax because nature effortlessly gets your attention,” Nisbet said. “Hitting mung ties to the attention restoration theory, (which states that) natural stimuli can help restore all resources that get depleted in built environments,” Nisbet said.
Simply looking at nature gives our tired eyes and minds a replenishing reprieve from the material harshness of the modern world, but hitting mung is slightly more than just staring off into space. It’s also about intentionally investing time in it and doing so without having a phone or other technological device at the ready. It’s the commitment that makes it so meaningful.
“When you are intentional and goal setting, you’re more likely to be motivated to enjoy it,” Nisbet said, adding that paying to practice hitting mung, as is common to do in South Korea, makes that commitment all the stronger.
There’s also something to be said for the fact that hitting mung is pretty easy to do — wherever you are, so long as you have a window.
“You might notice a tree or a bird or the sky,” Nisbet said. “All you have to do is be mindful of it, which means simply being aware of it. Nature is everywhere, and noticing it doesn’t have to be complicated. Just take a break from technology and multitasking. And if you can be active in nature — even if only for 15 minutes — that will give you even greater benefits.”