May 29, 2021 | The Washington Post
▲ Participants in the annual Space Out Competition in a forest on South Korea’s Jeju island. (Washington Post photo by Min Joo Kim,).
JEJU, South Korea – Organizers of South Korea’s annual competition to be the best at doing nothing – seriously, nothing – needed just the right spot for the work-from-home parents, remote-learning students and others weary of the pandemic.
So what could be better than a “healing forest” on the southern island of Jeju? The woodlands are known as a site for other therapeutic programs.
Twenty-eight pandemic-battered competitors gathered under the leafy canopy Wednesday for the Space Out Competition. The premise is simply: zone out for 90 minutes, with the winner having the lowest and most stable heart rate. Spectators also cast votes for the top three who displayed the best Zen. (A Jeju-based hair stylist, who barely moved during the 90 minutes, won.)
South Korean artist Woopsyang created Space Out in 2014 as a pushback against South Korea’s fast-paced and high-pressure society. It has since spread to other places such as Hong Kong and the Netherlands.
“The pandemic-hit world needs Space Out more than ever,” said Woopsyang, who goes by one name. “We have a lot of downtime at our homes but we spend that time stressing over the virus and feeling anxious.”
The competition made an in-person return this year. Last year, it was online.
Experts say the pandemic pressures can put the body and mind into a virtual “survival mode.”
“Facing unprecedented threats of the virus, people find it hard to stay still and keep worrying about what action to take next,” said Shin Dong-won, a clinical psychiatrist at Seoul’s Kangbuk Samsung Hospital.
“But what the brain needs during these unusual times is a moment to space out, take a mental rest to break free of the self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety,” she added.
The Washington Post spoke to three South Korean participants on why they came to the forest to space out.
– Lee Ji-won, 24, college student. Her 90 minutes at the Space Out Competition is the longest time she spent doing nothing in a while.
“The coronavirus opened up a lot of free time for me, but I felt pressured to use those time effectively,” she said.As a college senior majoring in social work, Lee is prepping for South Korea’s hypercompetitive job market, which is getting even tougher as many job opportunities dry up in the wake of the pandemic.
Lee’s days are heavily loaded with screen time, which has gone up further since the pandemic with online classes. And, yes, there is also lots of YouTube and “doom-scrolling” through news and social media.
She forced herself to take a break, and flew to Jeju from the mainland city Gwangjufor the competition.
“This time I could really let go of myself,” she said as she walked out of the Healing Forest. “I felt very refreshed.”