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Boredom

A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, January 2, 2011)

(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

The speaker today was supposed to be Lee Lipp, who’s also one of the teachers in the online course, and unfortunately she wrote that she is ill with the flu, and so Gil asked me to give the talk today.  He sent me an email yesterday.

So, this time of year, many people begin the year with resolutions for their new year.  I’m curious, how many people made resolutions?  So, a number of you; okay, well, you know, we start out excited and determined by them, but according to most surveys they’ve done, it’s been found that only about ten percent of people ever keep their resolutions.  In fact, only about fifty percent keep them through to the end of January.  And one of the causes of this is the subject of the talk I’m going to give today, which is on boredom.

Boredom is such a prevalent condition that there’s even a medical term for when boredom becomes obsessive, and that’s called, “Thaasophobia,” not that you need to know that.  So, we often get excited by the idea of our resolutions; we think, ‘okay, I’m going to run a marathon this year.  It’s going to be so great!  I’m going to finally do this.’  The excitement might get us going, but on a day-in and day-out, the actual practice of jogging every day, miles every day; there’s a tedium to it.  That excitement no longer carries us through, and often we call that, “boredom,” you know, “boy, this is boring.”  Okay, so you put on your iPod and listen to some music, or maybe even better, a dharma talk, as you jog, and so you keep yourself going that way.  But this is something that happens with almost everything we do in our lives that’s done on a regular basis.

Boredom is a universal experience.  Anybody here, never had boredom, especially if you meditate?  Boredom can be defined as an unpleasant emotion, an afflictive emotion, which happens when there’s a lack of activity, either mental or physical; or we’re just uninterested in our activities or our surroundings.  It triggers the desire to do something about it; you want to get rid of that unpleasant emotion.  So, it might create a desire for exciting stimulation, or it might create a tendency towards lethargy:  ‘I’m just going to go to sleep; I’m just going to go be a little lump somewhere.’  Babies are attracted to anything new, right?  They want something new.  When there’s nothing new, they try to do something new with the old thing they have:  they stick it in their mouth, stick it in their ear, poke it in part of your body, something creative.

Boredom is useful in terms of survival.  It’s boredom that makes people really get interested in their environment.  There’s nothing to do; so, they go out and explore.  Being interested in our environment helped us survive.  That’s how we learn.  Even though it’s a beautiful spring day, instead of just laying there, maybe you figure out where’s a nice place to stay warm for winter, or where there might be some hidden food source that you might not need on a nice spring day.  So, boredom is something that keeps you wanting to learn something new all the time.  It’s kind of built into us; we look for stimulation, for a way to expand our ability to interact with the world around us.

We’re bored; so, we go talk to someone, which creates communities.  Communities help people survive.  It’s just been found that being part of a community, having a social circle, increases your chances of surviving illness by fifty percent.  That was in the news, I think today.  More than quitting smoking; so, having friends, having family, having people in our lives, having Sangha.

So, sometimes we reach out to each other because we’re bored, and so there’s a certain essential, a wisdom in boredom; but, having said that, boredom causes us a lot of suffering also.  Boredom can also be, in a society like our current culture, where we’re so constantly, not just stimulated, learning new things, but we’re over-stimulated.  We’re continuously having input from every source.  We don’t have a moment of quiet often.  Between the computer, the phone calls, the emails, the little constant beeps and things trying to get our attention, we’re actually, as a culture, we’re becoming less and less in touch with what it is to just be and to just be quiet.

We can break boredom up into three kinds of boredom, and I like to think of it as:  boredom based on greed, boredom based on hatred and boredom based on delusion.  For instance, boredom based on desire or greed is the kind of boredom you feel when you’re waiting in line.  You want to be somewhere else.  You’re on your way to make a dinner or you want to have dinner, and now you have to wait.  It keeps you from getting what you want, which is you want to be home for dinner; so, you consider that waiting a waste of time, and so you’re bored waiting.  Or, maybe in gridlock, you’re trying to get to the party and there you are stuck in gridlock; so, you’re not getting what you want.  That’s one type of boredom.

Another type of boredom is the boredom based on aversion, on dislike, when you don’t like what you’re doing.  Some people dislike housework, maybe washing the car, doing the yard, or different things; most people have something they dislike.  And so there’s a boredom when there’s a tedium of doing the same thing, unstimulating, of something we judge as not really being worthwhile.  An example of how much of that has to do with our idea or the story we tell about our activity, for instance, if somebody said to you, “if you do these dishes I’ll give you $10,000.”  Okay, how interested would you be in doing those dishes?

I remember my father-in-law was turning seventy years old, and what do you give the man who’s not interested in anything but money?  That’s what excited him.  He loved the lottery.  That was what got him excited, and so we bought him seventy Scratchers.  But, if somebody gave me seventy pieces of paper that I had to scratch out tediously, that would be such a tedious job, and most of us would be bored, be totally spaced out before we got halfway through.  Well, he was so intent on every single one, it was exciting, each one like the first one, “I might win this time, I might win this time.”  And so, the activities that we do have nothing to do with whether we’re bored or not.  It’s the idea and it’s what we think about what we’re doing.

Another example of that, I had a friend of mine, she had a four-year-old son, and she used to vacuum, and he used to take a stick (I think) and walk behind her as if he was vacuuming too.  He was just delighted, just loved doing it.  But she would be saying, “oh God!  I hate vacuuming.  I wish I didn’t have to vacuum.”  And, it’s really interesting how quickly he lost interest in the activity too.  Now, if she’d said to him, “oh, you can’t vacuum until you’re older,” it may have had a different effect.

The third type of boredom is boredom based on delusion, and I don’t know, I’m sure many of you have experienced this:  when we feel too restless to engage in anything.  For instance, on the internet is a perfect example, where we’re continuously changing sides, going from one place to another.  It’s like you start getting into something and then you’re into something else, just jumping around, like nothing quite engages you, you just keep going from one thing to another.  Or, the remote control on the TV, people use that.  We don’t like what we’re feeling and we want it to go away, and generally when we feel that way, we respond in one of two ways:  we either do something useful or we do something not useful.  Changing channels or constantly going from one thing to another on the Internet are examples of the unuseful.

Another unuseful thing people do is they start arguments; they start fights.  You watch young kids sometimes in school, and if they’re bored they misbehave because that’s more exciting.  Even if they get in trouble it’s still more exciting than sitting there.  And so, we are often the same way.  Sometimes in relationships, if you look really carefully, what sometimes triggers an argument is the fact that just not much is happening.  People want some more juice, and getting into an argument creates some juice, it’s more interesting.

In meditation, when we get bored, we start fantasizing or obsessing on stuff that’s sure much more interesting than being bored, obsessing on a problem, on some psychological issue.  One of the practices is a Japanese therapy; it’s called Morita therapy; I don’t know how many of you have heard of that.  One of the things they do is they put you in a room for one week and you do nothing.  You don’t talk to anyone, nothing to read, no meditation techniques by the way, and at the end of the week you can’t wait to do something.  Cleaning the toilet is really fun; anything is really fun.

I’ve experienced that on retreat, ‘oh good, I get to do my Yogi job.  Great!  I get to chop some vegetables.’  When you really have to face that boredom, you can really begin to see that desire to do something arise.  The other thing we do when we get bored, besides doing something skillful or unskillful, is we go to sleep.  Some people, they get bored, they just tune out, lethargy.

As I said, in today’s world the mind is in the habit often of being overstimulated.  Many of us don’t go for walks without having our Bluetooth attached and having conversations, or at least a cell phone interrupting our walks.  There’s no such thing as the pleasant Sunday drive of the fifties and sixties, where you just kind of go for a ride.  It’s a time to talk on the phone and be productive, listen to the radio, do something else.  Exercise requires music, requires something.  There’s very little in our culture that we do without doing something else.  There was an article recently written that was based on Woodside High School, around here, and there was a young girl who, in the course of an afternoon, she texted four hundred times.  So, it’s become quite a different new world, that we live this way.

And what happens is that when we’re in the habit of being so constantly stimulated, for many of us, meditation is the first time that we’re actually left alone with nothing to do; and if we are not used to that, that, ‘nothing to do,’ can feel really challenging.  It’s a lack of knowing who we are, a lack of having an inner life, and so we sit and we come face-to-face with our boredom.  Anyone who’s ever meditated has to deal with this.  There’s a tendency to think that we’re bored in meditation because nothing much is happening.  How many of you have had that thought, ‘oh, there’s nothing happening, I’m bored.’

But the truth of it is, is that there’s definitely something happening, and it’s unpleasant, and that’s what we miss:  we miss the fact that that feeling, ‘oh, there’s nothing happening,’ it’s not neutral.  It’s something we don’t like.  It doesn’t feel good, and that’s what drives us to want to do something with it, and in meditation the last thing we tend to want to do is turn around and look at the boredom.  Our tendency is, ‘okay, let me get more concentrated on my breath, maybe something good will happen, maybe I’ll feel better.’  There’s an actual fear of that feeling of boredom.

So, one of the things that I like to do when working with boredom is to use the question, ‘what is it that I don’t want to feel right now?’  Boredom is a complex emotion; it’s made up of a number of things.  The cure for boredom is attention, or interest or mindfulness.  For instance, you might glance at this glass of water and just not think twice about it; it’s not an object that’s got your interest.  But, if I ask you, really look at this glass; this glass holds the key to your enlightenment.

Okay, so now really look at it.  How much water is in it?  How tall is it?  Really give it your full attention.  And suddenly, this same glass that was completely irrelevant to you becomes interesting.  This is how we can work with boredom in meditation, is to make our boredom interesting.  How do we make it interesting?  How do you explore those feelings of boredom?

What’s unpleasant in that boredom?  Is there a feeling, a low level of anxiety?  It’s one of the gifts of boredom in a way.  When the mind is really chaotic and crazy you’re not bored, right?  You’re just really restless and crazy, and it’s really hard to pay attention.  It’s moving so quickly and so chaotically we don’t know what’s going on.  But, when we’re bored the mind’s kind of quiet; so, when the mind’s kind of quiet and we’re bored, the anxiety actually can be seen much more clearly because things are slower.  We can give it a little bit more attention.

And, a little bit on that anxiety, philosophers have written books on boredom, hundreds and hundreds of boring pages on boredom.  But, some of it’s interesting, right, and really it’s that, there’s this very deep existential angst.  We spend so much of our life overcoming obstacles:  ‘okay, I’m going to work really hard so that I can finally retire;’ or, ‘oh I’m going to get through this week for Friday, can’t wait ‘til Friday.’  You overcome your obstacles and then you have rest, but then if you really have rest and there’s nothing to do there’s boredom.  What does that mean about ourselves, that when there’s nothing to do, nothing to overcome, that we feel this feeling, this anxiety of, ‘not enough.’  This is right at the heart of where our meditation practice takes us.  It takes us to really go into that, through boredom, into being, into going past whatever it is we don’t want to feel, whatever we don’t want to experience.  It’s only through going through that, that we can really be at ease with who we are, with just being enough, just by being, without having to do.

Motorola came up with a term called, “microboredom,” which refers to the time that you’re standing in line for a latte without your BlackBerry.  Also, it’s been said that thirty-one percent of Americans wonder if heaven will be boring.  Because everything’s supposed to be good, it’s all taken care of, right?  What’s there to think about, what’s there to do?  So, being in heaven, where’s the challenge there?  But you can see how much that can give rise to problems, to unskillful behavior.  You know, ‘we don’t want to be in heaven, right, if it’s going to be boring, gosh!’

Attention is the remedy for boredom, right?  You get interested in it.  Knowing boredom is transforming boredom.  I like the expression, “you bore deep into the moment.”  One of the things we’re doing is we’re training our minds to pay attention.  It’s not something that comes naturally.  It does come naturally to pay attention for a short period, right?  We do it all the time, but to have a steady attention, that’s what our mindfulness practice does, day-in and day-out, we develop that capacity to be with what’s in front of us.

We develop our capacity to be with what we don’t like.  One of the things I like to say about mindfulness practice, it increases our capacity both for pain and for pleasure.  We’re able to be with pain when it’s there with a lot more ease, and we’re able to be with pleasure when it’s there with a lot more ease.  People sometimes can’t handle too much pleasure, too much excitement, just like they can’t handle too much pain and discomfort.  Mindfulness brings an open spacious mind to either, ‘oh yes, this is pleasure; this is pain.’  There can be a peace, a way to hold whatever experience brings us.

Sometimes boredom comes from unresolved issues.  It’s not just about a low stimulation and these little uncomfortable feelings, but some very deep unresolved issues.  Sometimes boredom comes from our addictions, for instance, if you’re addicted to the Internet, which is getting more and more common.  I read last year that six boys died from Internet addiction.  One, in particular who was profiled, basically, he just went in his room playing games, and the parents never noticed that he never came out to eat, he never came out to do anything else; and he died.  But that’s addiction.  Or, addictions can be so strong that when we sit in meditation they create this pull towards these addictions, whether they are sex addictions, gambling, drugs, whatever addictions there might be.

Another thing that can really trigger a lot of boredom also is, it’s a learning issue.  When I was in college, one of the things that was really transforming to me in college was someone taught me not to go past a misunderstood word.  They’ve found that if you’re reading a paragraph and there’s a word you don’t know, pretty soon you lose interest, and I found that to really be true for myself.  I found if I’d be reading, sometimes you can make do, but often you actually lose the thread of what’s going on.  And so, sometimes what happens in meditation practice is that we have little questions.  There are questions about the practice that we have that we don’t address; we get into a little conflict when those things arise in practice, and we get bored because we can’t learn; there’s something we don’t know.  So, it’s really important, if in meditation there are things you don’t understand or you wonder about, that you talk to someone about it, to clarify it, so that you feel confident in what you’re doing.  There’s nothing for kids to get more easily distracted from than if they don’t understand.

The other side of it is, ‘oh yes, I know this so well,’ and you get complacent, right?  For instance, one of the things that I found for myself, I had a lot of physical pain in mediation practice.  And so, I always had to negotiate the pain, and it kept me very interested.  And then, at some point, I learned how to deal with my physical pain.  It was no longer an issue, and for the first time in years of practice I found I was getting sleepy, I was getting bored, and it was a whole new area for me to have to deal with.

At first, I was just complacent, ‘oh, this is so great, no more pain to have to deal with.’  I felt really happy, at first, but then I saw that I wasn’t bringing the aliveness and attention to it.  So, we can become complacent.  We struggle with stuff, and suddenly we don’t have to struggle.  Then there’s a new layer of practice.

And the other thing that’s interesting about boredom, and see if any of you identify with this, is that we often are only interested in things in our life that increase our sense of self.  For instance, if you’re having a conversation, and they’re talking about themselves incessantly, do you get bored?  If it’s not about you, it’s about them, and them, and them and them; do we lose interest?  Even if somebody’s being critical, it’s not desirable, but boy it’s interesting, right?  Somebody’s criticizing you, you’re mind’s very attentive; it wants to know what they think.

And so, the reinforcement of ourself can be positive or negative.  It doesn’t really matter.  Often what we’re interested in is a life that is always referencing ourselves, ‘how does that relate to me?’  Now, is there a way to live our lives without always self-referencing, where that’s just not the issue, you are not the issue?  That shifting away from our own needs, ‘I need this, I want that; I want to feel this, I want to feel that;’ to what’s here, is quite a transforming direction away from boredom, because things don’t have to be any particular way.  When you don’t need things, when you don’t want things to be a certain way, they don’t have to be any way.  You can just be interested in whatever there is:  whether it’s nothing, whether it’s people, whether it’s what you’re doing, it doesn’t really matter.

So, to finish this, boredom can be expressed as a lack of capacity to enjoy being:  being without having to be any particular way.  With practice we learn to deeply value being.  It’s through meeting boredom mindfully that we can get free, not by avoiding it or trying to get rid of it.  I really like this quotation from Gil, he said, “boredom is a stepping stone to realizing that life is enough as it is.”  It’s through actually facing those quiet moments of boredom, those unsatisfying moments of boredom, and really experiencing them, looking at them with what I’d like to call, “affectionate curiosity,” into those moments, those unsettled feelings of boredom.  And I’d like to end with one of my favourite poems, by Leonard Cohen.  It’s a short one.  It’s called, “Roshi;” it’s in honor of his teacher.

I never really understood
what he said
but every now and then
I find myself
barking with the dog,
or bending with the irises,
or helping out
in other little ways

So, thank you, and we have a few minutes, if anybody has any questions or would like to make any comments about your interesting boredom, or anything else about practice.

Student 1:  (inaudible) that word again?

Ines:  Oh, Thassophobia, the technical term for fear of boredom.

Student 2:  I was just thinking there are two quotations that I like.  One is by Andy Warhol, and he said, “I like boring things,” and the other is by an architect who said, “not innovating willfulness but reverence for the archetype.”  I think both those things are kind of pro-boring.

Ines:  Great, thank you.

Student 3:  Thank you for an unexpected and interesting talk on boredom, and I particularly respond to your phrase, “affectionate curiosity.”  When you bring affectionate curiosity to your own boredom, Ines, could you do a little mindfulness out loud?  You referenced early on, “a low level of” agitation, “anxiety,” and I wanted to explore a little bit, because low level agitation, anxiety, seems to infuse many of our aversive states; but boredom is a little flatter a territory; so, I’m intrigued to explore more deeply if you’d be willing to share your own personal exploration with this.

Ines:  “Affectionate curiosity,” is actually a phrase I got from Ajahn Sumedho; so, I just want to say that.

Student 3:  Thank you for being a vehicle.

Ines:  I relate to that feeling as if I was relating to a suffering child, and that’s how the affection comes into it.  I see myself, but it’s really the child inside me, the two-year-old or four-year-old that says, ‘I’m bored.’  There’s suffering; it’s real suffering there when they’re bored.  And so, there’s that affection to seeing that inside myself.  It’s like there’s this unhappy child.  So that brings that to me.

And what can I do to help?  That’s what the curiosity is:  ‘what’s going on here, what can I do to help?’  How can I find out what’s the problem here?  So that’s how.  I didn’t quite do it out loud, because my mind doesn’t work that way; it’s kind of this image that comes at once for me.

Student 3:  So, as you dive into the boring state itself, and you turn around—as you say, what we most don’t want to do is to actually dive into the boredom and explore it—apart from the “low level of anxiety,” which right away made sense to me, do other words?

Ines:  I see where you’re getting, yes, thank you.  What happens is that the experience of boredom has a physical aspect, okay.  So, I’ll see how my body is, how does that low level anxiety feel in my body?  Then there’s a flavor in the mind of boredom, or of anxiety, of a low level of anxiety; and what I mean by that is how do you recognize you’re afraid, how do you recognize you’re angry?  That’s a flavor in the mind.  You know, ‘oh yes, that’s anger; oh yes, I’m annoyed;’ it has a very specific flavor.  It’s hard to grab at, but if you think of it as an atmosphere, the atmosphere in my mind is one of anxiety, just feels kind of oppressive, tight.  That might be how I might explain it.

And then, I might look at what’s my attitude towards this experience.  Am I keeping my affectionate curiosity, or am I trying to push it away?  Okay, if I get really interested, it’s going to go away; so, how am I treating it?  Am I really staying open?  And then, depending on what’s going on, I might look at my thinking about it, like, ‘I shouldn’t be bored, I should be beyond boredom,’ etc.  ‘I’ve been practicing thirty years and I’m still getting bored, oh no!’  Those thoughts might be running around there; so, I make sure that I include them in the picture.

Student 3:  Thank you.

Ines:  You’re welcome.

Student 4:  Hi.  My question is, I’m always a little confused I think, and maybe this is so obvious to everybody; so I apologize if it’s really silly.  But, aversion and desire, when you have boredom that’s bordering on one, you used the example of waiting in line because you want to be someplace else; so that was desire for something else, but you have an aversion to being there.  It seems to me the two are always the flip side of each other, and so, if I have aversion to something that’s going on in my body it’s because I desire pleasantness happening in my body.  But that’s the part that I often wonder about, am I making too fine a distinction?  And the second thing is, when you talk about boredom that’s, what was the third one again?

Ines:  Delusion

Student 4:  Delusion, and you used the example of how you can see it manifest in people bickering and fighting, falling into fighting quickly.  Could you speak a bit more about that, because I have trouble understanding boredom as delusion.

Ines:  Okay, great, thank you, those are two really good questions.  The first one, whether it’s desire or aversion, it can be both, but there’s a primary way that in the moment you’re dealing with it.  You might be focused more on, ‘I can’t wait to get home,’ if that’s what’s going on in you in the moment that’s how you can pay attention to it.  In essence, you might want it because you don’t like the way you’re feeling, right?  So that might be aversion.  We just go with what’s useful in the moment, which one you can actually connect with in the moment.

Student 4:  So, it’s just more of a cue for you to become a little more aware.

Ines:  Yes.

Student 4:  Thank you

Ines:  Yes.  Sometimes I’ve dealt with the desire, let’s say I want to eat some sugar; I’ve got the desire for that.  And so, obviously that’s what’s happening in the moment.  I really want to go to the fridge and get that ‘whatever,’ but sometimes if I stay with the desire and just let it ride itself out, I might feel underneath some aversion I was having to the reading I had to do.  It goes back and forth, and one of the phrases I like to use is, “it nudges two sides of the same coin but three sides of the same coin, and the third side, the rim, is delusion,” which ties into your next question.

When you’re in line and you really know you want that line to go through quickly, it’s very clear to you what you want.  When you’re vacuuming and you have the whole house to vacuum, you really know what it is you don’t like.  But, a lot of the time we have no idea; we just know something isn’t good enough, it’s not right.  That’s delusion, we don’t know.  In all forms of suffering there’s some form of craving.  We want something to be different, we just don’t know what it is we want to be different; and so that’s why, we don’t know what’s wrong, but we’ll go start a fight because that’s more interesting, right?  Does that cover it?

Student 4:  Thank you

Ines:  You’re welcome.  We have time for one last question.

Student 5:  I heard you liken the sense of boredom to what children feel, ‘I’m bored.’  Okay, so what if you are with children who are just starting to meditate, but who still scream, “I’m bored!”  Any idea how to approach that?

Ines:  You make it playful.  I don’t work with children; so, I’m not around them very much, but you can make boredom a game.  Get them interested in it, you know, “well, how big is your boredom?  What shape does it have?  Does it have a shape?”  You can make it more of a play, “what does that mean that you’re bored?”

Depending on what age the child is, some people just say, “okay, so, does that mean you’re boring?”  People can play with it, depends on the kid, what kind of personality and everything.  How do you make it interesting?  Let them come up with the solution, “what could you come up with?  You’re a creative person.”

Maybe we could hear from someone who runs the family program.

Student 6:  What you just said is beautiful.

So, thank you all.  Have a very wonderful new year, and may you continuously keep making new resolutions, since all your old ones won’t last, the resolution to be present and to keep coming back to the present.  So, thank you.