Autumn Leaves

The Virtues of Boredom

I want to crow about boredom’s virtues. Boredom is the last best hope for life on earth. Boredom is the gateway to peace and ease.

“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” ~ Susan Ertz

There are many reasons why Dharma practice can feel boring and stale. Yet, it’s important to realize that whenever boredom pays a visit —nothing is wrong with you or your practice.

In fact, if you can stick it out with boredom, you’re Dharma practice will blossom.

We tend to flee boredom as if it were a hindrance. The practice is to stay with it.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ~Pascal

There are many reasons we might think boredom is a problem in practice.

One reason that boredom might get us down is that meditation does work. So, it’s easy to think something is wrong if one is bored on the cushion. It can seem like all those happy Dharma people are doing it right, while bored, frustrated me is doing it all wrong.

Another reason to think boredom is a sign of failure is that maybe no one told us that one day we’d lose our early infatuation with the foreign exterior of the Dharma. No one said that the robes, bells, and drums might lose their charming pizzazz.

To boot, as our disillusionment with Buddhism’s outer shell—be it Japanese, Tibetan, or what have you appears— we might also begin to notice that Buddhism simply invites us to train in a new way of living.  It only invites us to live harmlessly, to pay attention to what’s happening now, to be consistently kind and gentle.  And this is the case whether we’re at home, at work, at play, or at the zendo.

That seems a little boring to me.

Furthermore, though it works, this idea of “training” doesn’t seem exciting at all. There’s much less pizzazz than we first thought.

Another reason we may experience our own boredom as distress is because we may be confusing the charismatic public performances of a given teacher, maybe our teacher, with what living the Dharma is like.

It’s easy to mistake a teacher’s charisma for what they’ve gained from practice. And so when we’re bored rather than up-beat and snappy, we can think something is really off in our practice, especially when we compare it to the teacher’s.

Finally there are many cultural and social reasons for why any hint of boredom in our lives feels dreadful. As Josh Korda puts it,

“Culturally, boredom is shunned. It’s blamed for things like addiction and teen violence. We abhor it. If somebody says, “How’s it going?” and you say, “Meh, I’m a little bored,” you’re failing. You haven’t filled your life with enough… distractions and motivations.”

So, when it comes to boredom, what’s a child of the Buddha to do?

First and foremost, it can be quite helpful to remember that boredom is a place on the emotional spectrum between the intense emotional highs of fascination and excitement on the one hand, and the crippling emotional lows of lethargy and depression on the other.

And because most of us are conditioned by our go-go, super revved up work-life and culture, we feel most alive as we constantly swing between the highs of excitement and the lows of depression.

Still, contrary to our cultural conditioning, one thing that can be confusing is that Dharma practice asks us to moderate and move away from our ordinary emotional swings.

“Boredom is my great achievement. Isn’t that what you aspire to in your meditation practice? To be totally, fully bored with yourself, your practice, your life, your fantasies, etc. etc. etc.? No?” ~Carolyn Rose Gimian

In meditation, these emotional swings may be happening, but we give our interested attention to a thing that seems much less exciting than the gripping drama going on in our head or to our fascinating emotional swings. We give our interested attention to something that is much more, well, boring. We give our interest and attention to the breath.

One important aspect of learning to meditate then, is learning to let go of drama and to tolerate much less emotional turbulence in life. Learning to meditate is learning to spend more time in the more tranquil emotional space that rests all around our personal story  and between the intense emotional swings this story brings in its wake.

To put this bluntly, one aspect of learning to meditate is learning to be more tranquil and still, more at ease. Consequently, learning to meditate is learning to spend more time with emotional states and meditation objects that we ordinarily call boring.

One point of all this of course is that as we learn to meditate we are learning what it’s actually like to be at peace. And since we tend to be so utterly revved up, peace and ease can feel deadly boring at first.  So we have to move through this realm of generally unwanted and unappreciated feelings–an emotional geography we typically label as boring– as we acclimatize to contentment and peace.

Further, as I suggested above when discussing wearing out our infatuation with Buddhism’s outward exterior, “bored” is often what we call the emotional state that touches us when we’re no longer fascinated or mystified by something that once held us captive.

Carolyn Rose Gimian helpfully puts it this way, “[I]f you commit yourself fully to your practice and discipline, you eventually wear out a lot of things—they begin to seem quite unnecessary and quite boring.”

Viewed in this way, I hope we can agree that boredom has its virtues. It is an emotional fore barer of contentment and peace in the life of anyone who has learned to live peacefully with much less drama and within the material bounds of enough.

Just imagine the peace that might reign in the world if all the generals and CEOs and the strivers after more stuff could manager to sit quietly alone in their rooms.

Finally, boredom can help us know when we’ve seen through something that once held us in thrall.

Here are a few methods from the teachings that I use to make friends with boredom.

First, I don’t try to get away from boredom, but rather, I give it attention. Make up your mind to simply sit with it when it’s on the scene. Try to set aside the natural inclination to give it a name or to label it “bad” or “dreadful” or in any other habitual way. Try to simply feel boredom to its bottom.

Tolstoy called boredom, “The desire for desires.” Is that what it feels like to you? Or does it feel more like a vast, empty wilderness, impersonal and indifferent?

No matter what your boredom feels like, is it just one monolithic feeling, or is it many feelings, like sadness, loneliness, and indifference all tangled up together? Is your boredom a living congress of changing feelings?

In any case, the decision to stay with boredom, and to experience it fully gives one a chance to see that boredom is just another, albeit initially unpleasant, feeling. And like all feelings, it has a beginning, middle, and end. Because it’s impermanent it will pass.

Over time, this approach to boredom demystifies boredom’s power to change my plans or to make me doubt the depth and efficacy of my practice. Here we treat boredom as just one more object of meditation, like the breath or the body or an itch.

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Ellen Parr

Second, we can train ourselves to pay curious attention to the simple things in life that we already have rather than giving our interested attention to nothing but the highs and lows in life. At first, giving interested attention to a fallen leaf, for example, might seem like doing something boring.

However, as I take interest in simple, ordinary things, they open up into a rich show of textures, colors, and aromas and I am seldom disappointed that I’ve taken time to be with a flower, a cloud, or cup of coffee.

As we do this kind of practice, we will be training ourselves in the absolutely necessary middle way of being content with whatever we have now.

One reason this training is a powerful antidote to the destructive accelerations in our go-go world is that it invites us to slow down and stop chasing the unnecessary things we don’t have. It asks us to rest and take an interest in the bounty and goodness we already do have.

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Finally, as a method for working with boredom, we can use the “in between” times in life, the times when we’re waiting and the times when were going from point A to point B, for example, to get interested in all that’s around us or to practice mindfulness or loving-kindness meditation.

It’s during these in-between times when I might tell myself, “Nothings happening now, it’s what happens after this that really matters.”

If I tell myself this, I’m treating this in-between present like a dead zone. Then my attention is mostly elsewhere and boredom springs to life. It’s at these times when I’m apt to forget that what I do with my mind makes a difference to the quality of my life and to the quality of your life, too.

So, it’s worthwhile to commit to making our in-between times prime times for Dharma practice. And if boredom comes while your waiting in line at the market, make it a theme for meditation.

If you’d like to read more about the interesting and significant place of boredom in Dharma practice, be sure to check out these articles at Lion’s Roar.

Boredom is Fascinating is by Josh Korda and offers more practical advice on practicing with boredom as a theme in meditation:

Karen Maezen Miller is a Soto Zen priest. She offers this poetic meditation on boredom’s place in life and in practice in her piece called Booooring:

To conclude, Corolyn Rose Gimian writes about boredom’s ability to cut through our self-deception in her piece called Being Genuine in Meditation:

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I hope your life goes well this month!