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.