Making Friends with Boredom
Boredom is an interesting beast. I don’t know if it is who I hang out with, but few weeks go by without someone complaining of “feeling bored.” They’ll scratch the itch as best they can, usually by finding something to distract them, but boredom’s irritations never appear to be far away. If it is such a constant and uncomfortable visitor, how about getting to know boredom a little more intimately instead of pushing it away?
“Suffering is wanting things to be other than they are.”
You are sitting at a desk at work. What you are being tasked to do is beginning to suck big time. You are finally getting round to some overdue DIY work at home, and already your mind is feeling like a sludge pit as it day dreams and tries to figure out ways to be elsewhere. In both cases your productivity starts to plummet precipitously. Time seems to slow down. You wriggle and squirm, picking things up, putting things down, walking around just hoping for time to pass…what to do?
Discomfort is a big part of the human condition. There is always something for someone to complain about. At times life seems to be about dealing with what we don’t want. American Buddhist monk and meditation teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, put it well when he said,
Though to compound things, that suffering is mixed by our ego driven pursuit of pleasure over pain. Holding to this way of being we find ourselves blown this way and that by the vicissitudes of our feelings.
If however discomfort is part of the human condition, perhaps another question to be asked of boredom is, “Why shouldn’t I feel like this?” To take this further, what would it mean to stand our ground and embrace whatever is arising right now? From that position we can move away from being concerned about how we are feeling and instead get curious about the feeling itself. I’m not suggesting that we go looking for problems in our lives, but when they do manifest don’t go fighting them, rather dance with them. Make friends with the enemy and see what happens.
American Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chödron offers this reflection,
“A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet.” ~ The Pocket Pema Chödron (Shambhala Pocket Classics)
Boredom is real and it is not pleasant when it hits us. It seems to drain the joy out of life and we just want to be somewhere else doing something else. However, Pema Chödron gives us the invitation to not fixate on whether the current feeling is good or bad - one or the other is guaranteed in life - but rather use whatever is arising in this moment as an opportunity to get to know life and so ourselves in a deeper way. In doing so we are not swayed by what life brings to us but can flow more easily with it. We stand more solidly on the ground beneath our feet, more sure of who we are.
Meditation is the tool that can be used to be with boredom and explore more deeply what is actually going on within us. I invite you to explore for as long as you are comfortable with and then step back and take a rest. First let’s explore boredom within a formal sitting meditation session. What we want to do is to have a visceral experience of boredom. To make this happen there are a couple of approaches.
One is when boredom is quite naturally arising while we are meditating, say while the concentrating on the breath. “Yes” we can get bored while we are meditating. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not a bad meditation. You are simply acknowledging what is arising in the mind in that moment. If you find boredom arising during your meditation, just allow yourself to experience it independent of reacting to it. Feel and be with your discomfort and wish for something else.
Or two we bring to mind a time when we have been bored in our everyday life. First allow the mind to quieten by watching the breath. Then when you are settled think of that time that you felt bored. Go into it. Relive the experience. Remember it in detail and allow the sense of boredom to fill your body.
With you now experiencing boredom, don’t get up from your cushion but allow yourself to go towards the actual experience of boredom. Feel the urge to squirm, the wish to be somewhere else. Explore and try to find where you sense the boredom is located. Watch the boredom. What does it feel like? Is it static or moving? Is it made of anything? Does it have a colour or shape? Does it smell or have a taste? How does your body feel, tense or relaxed? Do you feel excited or dull? Just be with the boredom and be honest with your experience of it. There is no right or wrong experience, just your experience. Initially you might only be able to hold this presence for a short time, we are not use to being with such an unpleasant colleague, but that will ease with time.
Meditation allows us a safe place to explore our boredom. We are doing so in the security of our own home. There is no one else around. We have the room to be gentle with ourselves and explore this uncomfortable feeling in our own time. Look on this time as a rehearsal for your everyday life. As you become more familiar with your own boredom, you will start to transform your experience of it and how you react when its presence arises. We contract less when boredom occurs, and realize that we have something that is workable. You develop the confidence to know that in time it will pass. Our world starts to open up.
Our everyday life experiences is where the rubber meets the road for our meditation. Our experience of boredom in life can be more challenging to be with because there is probably a lot more happening around us. It is because of this that our meditation time becomes even more important. Regular quiet time spent being with our mind starts to change our habits.
So when you find yourself getting bored, try and resist the urge to wriggle. Bring to mind the experiences of your meditation and try and find the space to just be with the boredom. For introverts, with our tendency to being quiet, this is an ideal time to make use of this strength of ours. Just watch the boredom. Breath into it to calm your mind and body. Feel it. Notice how it changes. Squirm when you need to, fidget and distract your mind, don’t keep yourself in a straight jacket…and then go back to the boredom.
Familiarity, patience, self-compassion along with commitment will bring change. With time you can change your relationship with boredom and with that the effect that it has on your life. Boredom moves from being a roadblock to something that is pliable.
I’m not suggesting that we will welcome boredom with open arms, I can’t lay claim to that myself, but it will not stay as such an obstruction in your life. Instead of seeing it as something unmovable and stuck, you’ll see it as more transient. It is workable and you know in time that it will pass. Just by your more relaxed hold on it, through becoming more familiar with boredom, its stranglehold is no longer so strong.