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In South Korea’s ‘healing forest,’ the pandemic-stressed compete for the ultimate chill

Participants in the annual Space Out Competition in a forest on South Korea’s Jeju island. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

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 Gwangju for 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.”

Jwa Hyeon-guk, 40, restaurant owner

Jwa Hyeon-guk took a rare move: closing his restaurant in Jeju city for a day to take part in the Space Out.

During the pandemic, his pork-knuckle eatery switched to delivery and takeaway.

“My restaurant lost the hustle and bustle of diners and I had a lot of time to myself, but I could not spend that time in a chill manner,” Jwa said.

The restaurateur said he was staring at his phone for many hours, checking customer reviews of his restaurant on delivery apps and mulling over things such as how to improve takeaway packaging.

A bad customer review online could lead him to speculate all the things that could have gone wrong — what he describes as a vicious circle of negativity.

“It is hard not being able to interact with customers directly,” he said. “I miss keeping busy with customers who come to dine at my restaurant and having friendly exchanges with them in person.”

During South Korea’s third wave of the coronavirus in November and December last year, restaurant sales dropped by more than a third compared to the same period in 2019, according to South Korean government data.

Jwa said he is going to try to stop thinking about his business and simply stare into the void for the day at the competition. “It’s difficult these days, but I know the good days will eventually come.”

Youn Kyoung-won, 53, retailer

Youn Kyoung-won, who runs a business selling fruit compote, accompanied her daughter to the Space Out Competition.

Since the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea, Youn was spending too much time at home in Jeju feeling “trapped.” She ran her company from home while her 12-year-old daughter, Lee Ji-hyun, took online classes in her bedroom.

Balancing work and parenting was already a double burden for Youn. She “almost become a teacher” for her daughter, who had trouble concentrating on online classes.

“I was increasingly feeling stressed and irritable, and I found myself projecting my stress onto my daughter,” she said.

Her daughter suggested they take part in the Space Out Competition and have a moment to unwind together.

A 2020 study by South Korea’s Family and Environment Research found two-thirds of female survey-takers said the burden of child-rearing increased as family members spent more time at home.

“I can chill out here,” Youn said.

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