The Lost Art of Boredom
The best thing my mom ever did was ground me from church. Wait, that’s not true. The best thing my mom ever did was adopt me and my sister and show us unconditional love and positive regard. The second best thing she ever did was ground me from church. (Fast forward 20 years and I’m getting a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies, studying psychology and comparative religion and spending months at a time on meditation retreats in the Rocky Mountains.)
The third-best thing my mom ever did is the subject of this blog. When I was a kid whenever I said I was bored, she would say, “If you’re bored you’re not paying attention.” And then she would remind me of a couple things I could do and leave the rest to me to figure out. That led me to be creative, curious and resourceful. Again, fast forward a number of years.
My first real foray into boredom was during my first dathun or month long meditation retreat. If you think about it, people who sit in caves for 3 years at a time might have a thing or two to teach us about what to do when we lose Wi-Fi, don’t have her phone with us, or can’t watch, Netflix, Amazon Prime or YouTube on our flat screen TVs. To be clear, none of these are bad. But the anxiety we have when we don’t know what to do with down time, and free time, might be.
At first, the boredom of sitting 8 or more hours a day was tough, with waves of distressing panic and pure intolerability. After briefly being relieved by, romanticizing and the being repulsed by the technique, within a couple of days into the month long retreat I, along with many other first timers, started to believe the thought and solidify the experience and question, “What was I thinking? How am I ever going to do this? Maybe I’ve already learned what I need to learn.”
Some got up and left. Left to smoke, walk in the woods, talk with others who were “having a tough time”, etc. Others left left. Left the retreat for good. Others sat. Those who sat either had developed the ability to sit with their hot boredom and move into the cool boredom. They understood clearly that this was part of the teachings and part of the experience of a real mindfulness practice, and is an essential part of the human experience that we need to know and embrace to not be running from or fearful of the discomfort of the experience of “being bored”, like many of us were when we were children.
The longer I sat with and through the “boredom” the more unflinching my response became in just noticing and experiencing. Over time, the boredom shrugged off the label and become simply and starkly reality, unfolding. The thought and label was an unnecessary elaboration. More often than not, what I found at the end of the experience of boredom was the pure, unimpeded, vivid joy of the present moment.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks of the six types of boredom. He breaks them down further into three types of hot boredom and three types of cool boredom. Hot boredom is uncomfortable, irritating, makes us want to get up, drop the practice, use, do anything to displace the feelings of this kind of boredom. Beyond that, as eluded to above, you’ll find the experience of settling into cool boredom. An experience beyond the attempt to change anything. It is a relaxing into what is and an acceptance that the efforts to change things is futile.
Zen arts are an expression of cool boredom, from calligraphy, to zen gardens, stacking rocks, flower arranging, etc. In boredom you can develop the capacity to attend to your own emotional, mental and physical states. You can attend and attune to others in your environment during a practice session. If you are a therapist who has a practice, you can be even more open to attending to the stories, narratives, the silence, the tough things your clients might be going through. You have also developed the capacity to “hold your seat” and to not be shocked by your client’s stories and experiences because you’ve cultivated that ability to relate to your own intense emotions, physical discomfort and thoughts in a similar way.
If we learn to tolerate, and lean into states like boredom, loneliness, and sadness we can learn to tolerate, explore, be curious about them. They lose their power over us and they can become just another flavor of the taste of our human experience. We can begin to see over time that we don’t have to solve anything or change anything. If the ultimate continuity is change, then all we have to do with any human experience or emotion is sit down beside the stream, or in the stream depending on how compelling the experience is, observe and be curious, and watch it bend and turn. We watch the knot of sadness, frustration, bitterness, jealousy, and boredom untangle itself. These experiences, over time, build contentment in us that allows for the good and the bad feelings.
I don’t really think we are at risk of ever being without boredom – but there can be an art to it. If we are able to approach boredom, or the space in between things, thoughts, entertainment, etc., then we can a better way to relate to this common, essential and fruitful part of being human. And the better we will be for it. Boredom, wandering and exploring, and simply being curious, rather than simply filling up time and space with entertainment and technology can bring with it a simple and refreshing, Bob Ross “happy clouds” kind of joy. We often notice things we likely would not have noticed otherwise. Cool boredom is a gift we can give ourselves as well as talk to our clients and kids about as well. In this way, boredom isn’t a distraction from the path of joy, it’s the initiation onto the path.
See Mom, I have been paying attention. Thanks for the tip. xo