On Boredom

For many or even most people, boredom is an evil to be avoided at all costs. Young children wail, “I’m bored!” at their parents, expecting them to drop everything and provide them with entertainment. During my years as a college teacher, I knew that the worst thing I could do was conduct boring classes. Students want to feel “passionate” about their work, and resent anything that is repetitious or empty of the kind of content that can engage them personally. When they leave school, they want to move into exciting and meaningful careers. Older people encounter midlife crises, which are above all else a rebellion against sameness, routine, and boredom. They quit their jobs, leave their marriages, and reinvent themselves in the hopes of reigniting that same passion their younger selves expected out of life. And finally, retirees face the challenge of finding activities that can fill the otherwise vast emptiness of their days.

These are all ordinary, middle-class people who seek entertainment, excitement, and meaning at every point of the life cycle. People who fall outside of that demographic, people who are unemployed or stuck in jobs that offer no intrinsic value, not to mention people who suffer from the kinds of illnesses or disabilities that make it impossible to work full time, face even more acutely the challenge of boredom. For many of them, the poet Mary Oliver’s famous question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” appears as nothing more than a mockery of their situation. People without options can neither plan nor do.

With so much at stake, it pays to ask ourselves what boredom really is. Buddhist teaching treats it as a form of aversion, alongside the more vivid manifestations of hunger and thirst, pain, terror, and hatred. At first glance it appears not even to be that powerful of an aversion. It’s obvious that being tortured is far worse than sitting through a monotonous lecture on the structure of the Cluniac order of monks, or being forced to endure an afternoon visiting one’s elderly great-aunt. Yet boredom can be as deadly as outwardly worse afflictions if it hardens into depression. Ordinary, prosperous people whose lives lack variety, interest, and meaning, and whose relationships with others are characterized by superficialities and one-sided obligations, can be driven to despair if there seems to be no escape.

If we pay attention to it rather than push it away, we can discover that boredom manifests in the body in recognizable ways. For me there’s a dull headache, probably from tensing up the jaw and neck in frustration. There is also a weird metallic taste in the mouth, as if boredom were something I would like to spit out. Finally, while we tend to think of boredom as putting us to sleep, its initial effect is agitation, as the mind casts about for anything at all that can relieve the tedium. When we eventually fail, we fall asleep as a way of getting away from it.

Boredom is so hateful that most people actively prefer emotions that would otherwise be considered painful, such as anger or even fear. Talk radio or just ordinary news broadcasts are appealing because they stimulate these feelings, as does watching violent entertainment. People become embroiled in long-standing feuds with coworkers, family members, or former friends and claim that their adversaries are making them miserable, yet they can’t disengage. If they were completely honest with themselves they’d have to admit how seductive these unresolvable conflicts are. Long gossip sessions with allies are deeply satisfying; unfortunately without the common enemy the satisfaction would dry up at its source.

What is it about boredom that makes it so awful? To begin with, boredom is not just a lack of stimulation, but rather a form of suffering, which includes resistance to a situation. Furthermore, what provokes it varies according to individual taste. What one person might find hopelessly boring—the lecture on monasticism or the company of the great-aunt—another might find interesting and valuable; some people love loud parties, while others might find them miserably boring. In any case, however, a person could choose to let go of expectations and allow the experience to unfold in whatever way it does, without suffering. Yet simply deciding to do this is next to impossible for most people. We need to go deeper.

To unlock the secret of boredom, we need first of all to look at the resistance. Part of the frustration of a boring situation is that it is beyond our ability to control. We can’t just get up and run out of the room, or find something more interesting to do. We are stranded, robbed of agency, powerless. This is a more serious threat to well-being than simply not having enough to do; in fact, being powerless is a threat to our very survival.

Even worse, a loss of agency in an unstimulating environment offers an unwelcome window onto a truth that we do not want to face: the fact that we are hurtling through time to an unknown end; that as sure as we are born we are going to die, and when we do, we will no longer have power over anything. Our relentless activity and stimulation allow us to forget about this fact, or else they give us the illusion that we are doing something either useful or pleasurable with however much time we are given. Even spending hours mindlessly surfing the internet can keep such demons at bay, until we look up from our obsession hours later and realize we have lost an afternoon.

These kinds of escape-hatches are ultimately unsatisfying because they must end sooner or later, leaving us feeling empty and unhappy with ourselves. It’s not that there is no point ever in watching a video or reading the news, but doing so over and over as a way of killing time is a recipe for depression. Even the satisfaction of a task well done is limited by the fact that as the moment passes, we are left where we were before. But if these approaches all fail us in the long run, what are we to do?

One of the most satisfying experiences people can have is a flow state. People experience flow when they are creating something, exercising their talents, out in nature, jumping out of an airplane, or skiing, depending on their inclinations. People love the activities associated with flow states, and seek them out. But what if you could be in a flow state regardless of what you were doing—what if you could get flow just watching paint dry? What if a lot of people could do that? Talk radio hosts would be out of a job, while gossip would be reduced. There would be far fewer blog posts to read (such as this one!), or “likes” on Facebook, or videos to watch.

In order for that to happen, people would have to confront the aversive state of boredom, examine it, and allow it to unfold. They would have to sit with things as they are, not as they’d like them to be, watching sensations as they rise and pass away, allowing the quiet and the inactivity to continue. Along with bodily sensations, thoughts would come and go, some of them pleasant and seductive, others of them distinctly unpleasant. This is insight meditation, and it is no easy thing. Beginners find themselves practically climbing the walls as the mind struggles to stave off boredom until it suddenly turns quiet and goes to sleep. Even experienced meditators will have sits in which they feel an overwhelming urge to get up and run out of the room! The difference is that over a long time and with experience, a meditator learns to work with these phenomena without reacting and without resistance–most of the time.

The long-term effects are an ability to watch paint dry without boredom, among other things. Every moment, without exception, is a banquet of experience that a person can observe and investigate. Even deeply unpleasant experiences can be allowed to be as they are. Our most painful and difficult emotions become accessible in a way that allows them to do their work and then dissipate. We would lose our fear of being stranded with nothing to do.

This is an ideal that is not easy to realize, but even steps in the direction of such realization can greatly alleviate the suffering of boredom. As we begin to take those steps, we learn to know ourselves in a way that allows us to feel compassion rather than impatience and condemnation. There is no single experience, even repeated regularly, that can compare with the benefit of knowing that at every moment, what is given is just enough.

The Three Poisons: Aversion

I am going to admit one thing right here: I am an aversive type. Figuring out one’s type tends to resemble reading about symptoms of various diseases on the Internet, in that a person can easily imagine being afflicted with all of them. Still, when I face up to my most basic reactions to the world, the answer is clear.

Aversion, or hatred, is the flip side of desire. People have a strong response to something, but instead of wanting to draw it close, the impulse is to push it away. Aversive types walk into a room and find the one jarring note, the flaw that ruins everything around it, while greed types find themselves wanting everything they see.

Each of us flavors our aversion in our own way. When I was younger, I hated noise: the sounds of other people eating, chewing gum (especially bubble gum!), laughing loudly, snoring, just living their lives. I was the annoying neighbor who would pound on your door and demand you turn the music down, or track down a radio outdoors and tell the malefactor to turn it off. I was the silly person who would come outside in her bathrobe at 7:00 a.m. and tell the guy to quit mowing the grass while I was trying to sleep. You get the picture, I’m sure. On and on it went. Barking dogs, crying babies, children playing, weekend parties, the folks in the apartment downstairs making love, everything. I say I used to do this because for the most part I’ve stopped. Until that happened, though, my life was always just one intrusive sound away from being bloody hell.

Then there were the quarrels. For pretty much all of my life I’ve had at least one person in my immediate surroundings who would drive me crazy. Usually, but not always, these people have been women. I’ve journaled about them, talked endlessly about them, carried on interior monologues about them, dreamed about them, and ground my teeth when around them. Exposure would mean fresh fodder for rumination, although absence brought scant relief. The only way of getting rid of an obsession would be to find another one to drive it out.

Typically, the objects of my wrath were colleagues, peers, co-workers. Often they were rivals. In most cases, the adversary would either initiate or at least participate in the hostilities, out of jealousy or a desire to gain dominance. Seminars and department meetings were excellent venues for carrying on a passive aggressive campaign, finding just the right weapons to inflict pain without anyone else knowing what was going on. For an academic, this would mean introducing subtle notes of disagreement to discredit the other’s point, undermining without appearing to do so deliberately. At parties and social gatherings, hostilities might escalate through subtle flirting with another woman’s husband.

After hours, I engaged in countless phone calls and coffee breaks with allies, in which we’d rehash the person’s misdeeds, stupidity, bad hair, or whatever. I tried bringing these things up with my husband, but he was not a satisfying sounding board because he almost always would signal either boredom or disapproval, precipitating a fight between the two of us. All I can say is, Stephen, I’m sorry, and I am eternally grateful to you for sticking by me through all this tedious nonsense!

Aversion frequently drives people to embrace causes, which in turn leads to admiration from like-minded people. I have an award plaque from our local AAUP chapter for having advanced the cause of academic freedom. What that amounted to in reality was declaring all-out war on the college administration, standing up in faculty meetings, sending out all-faculty emails, participating in a grievance procedure, and ruminating day and night on the wrongs perpetuated by the evildoers. I had a tight-knit group around me keeping the fire alive, all of us assuring one another that we were fighting the good fight.

My actions actually helped both individuals and the college as a whole, but underneath all of it I knew that something was off. I was exhilarated, but I was also miserable, for I had no peace. It took me years to understand what it means for seemingly virtuous actions to come from a dark place. I am grateful beyond words to have learned this lesson.