Wholeness Is…

Ode to Mugwort


Wholeness is not a state of being, a place to be reached, but a practice.

Wholeness is:
A dream, rendering parts of the day and the mind and the life into one cloth.

The past, present, and future; like one body of water.
An alphabet, the beginning and the end.
A lifetime of speech, a single sentence from the first word uttered to the last.
A dream of thresholds, the continuous passing from one moment to the next, without seams or stitches. The universe, made mostly of empty space.
The earth, healing itself greenly after humans cease our relentless extraction and despoilment.
The ocean, repopulating.
Language, alive and reinventing itself.
A practice of remembering we are not alone, we are a collective enterprise of living and dying.

Ancestral Lessons

Sun Yung Shin. Photo by Sarah Whiting

This year, during COVID, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my ancestors and how they lived through worse: generations of ancestors who were likely peasants, for thousands of years, on the Korean peninsula. Ancestors who lived through decades of violent Japanese colonization and a terrible civil war that killed millions and decimated families, homes, villages, and cities. Decades that caused intergenerational trauma felt today, as Korea remains partitioned into two nations, families separated forever, behind the world’s most heavily militarized border.

In this time of COVID, enduring the relative isolation, I have thought about the lessons in patience and sheer endurance in Korea’s origin story.

The myth of Korea’s founding involves a tiger and a bear, a cave, garlic and mugwort, and endurance. A male tiger and a female bear pray to Hwanung, the son of the Lord of Heaven, to become human. He tells them to stay out of the sunlight for 100 days and eat nothing but the sacred food of 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort each. After 20 days, the tiger gives up and leaves the cave. The bear, named Ungnyeo, stays, and at the end of 100 days, she is married to Hwanung and becomes a human woman. She gives birth to a son Dangun Wanggeom, who would go on to build the state of Gojoseon (or Joseon), which would eventually become the unified kingdom of what is known in the west as “Korea.”

Though this myth is not very gratifying in terms of reproductive gender roles or patriarchal nation-building, it is quite common in terms of origin myths and demi-gods born from male gods and female mortals.

In an archetypal reading, I see positive meaning in the marriage of the spirit and the body to create the conditions for regeneration, and that patience and endurance may be required to prepare both the body and the spirit. In this, I believe there is a lesson for the practice of wholeness.

As an artist, I take refuge in paradigms of gestation and delivery. As a mother who has given birth twice, I know in my bones that creation takes time and sacrifice, and outcomes are always uncertain to those of us who live mortal lives, bound together with the fate of others. Together, we are whole.

신선영辛善英 Sun Yung Shin (she/her) is the editor of “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” three books of poetry including the Minnesota Book Award-winning “Unbearable Splendor,” and a bilingual children’s book.

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