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Jay Michaelson

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Boredom: A Gift for the Soul?

Posted: 05/16/11 07:00 AM ET

There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. -- Susan Sontag

As I've traveled to foreign countries, sat for weeks in silence, pored over ancient mystical texts, and dabbled in indigenous shamanic practices, I've sometimes had the impression that spirituality is something far away, esoteric, exotic and secret. This sense has guided me to some interesting experiences.

But boring spiritual practice has been much more useful. Seeing clearly, engaging with the "present moment" -- all that neo-Buddhist stuff is mundane, but in my experience, much more liberating than the secrets and tricks. Great big waves are neat, but the wetness of the water is everyplace.

Meditation in particular is often very boring. It's not like, when you sit for six weeks, you're in an altered state, or visiting always with angels. Sometimes those things seem to happen, but a lot of times, you are just like you are now. Only with absolutely nothing to do.

Boredom has gifts, though. Here are five of them.

First of all, at the very least, boredom is a useful alarm bell. It lets me know that I've had enough of whatever it was I used to desire. This may not have much to do with 2012, but it is a really helpful thing to notice, and, I think, it helps check some of the over-enthusiasm of magical thinking. At some point, fascination with an object, person, sensation disappears.

It probably goes without saying that most of our lives are spent either desiring certain things or really not desiring others. These things may be material objects, or mental states, status, or love -- whatever. It's heartening, maybe even enlightening, to see that we can get bored of just about anything, no matter how great it is. Eventually, the mind's had enough.

Boredom is also a privilege. Its presence means your essential needs are taken care of, even your essential wants are taken care of. What percentage of people in the world even have the luxury of boredom? Let's get real and get grateful.

And of course, most privileged folks make ourselves so busy, impelled by imperatives to achieve, outshine, succeed, enrich, that boredom itself becomes a luxury. That's true for me, anyway. When I feel bored, I'm thrilled that I've had the space to feel it.

Third, boredom has a lot to teach us. Normally, when we're bored, we'll do just about anything to make the boredom stop. Our minds and our bodies fight desperately to push the boredom away, sometimes restlessly, other times angrily, and sometimes with an apathy that makes life seem barely worth living. Then again, sometimes it's just irritating. And this is exactly why we're bored: because we're trying so hard not to be.

Because boredom is really restlessness. What, after all, is the difference between "boredom" and "relaxation"? It's not what's going on outside; it's what's going on inside. Boredom is not about the lack of interesting things going on. With enough meditation, literally watching paint dry can be fascinating. Even if it's already dry. Trust me, I've done it. Boredom is about too much energy, not too little. Take a look next time you're bored. Is your mind too relaxed, or too tense? Maybe you can even check out your heart rate -- when I'm bored, my heart is almost always beating faster than I expected.

In other words, most of us have boredom exactly backwards. Our minds are so conditioned to be always busy and interested, that when there's nothing interesting (we think), we get really irritable. Sometimes maybe even nervous. Personally, my next step is try to find something interesting to do, or watch, because who wants to be worried, bored, or irritable? So I'll put more information into my head "in order to relax." Sometimes it's not even pleasant information; I find there are times when I'd rather get stressed out about some future plan than just be bored with the present. In any case, the usual response to boredom is to put in something interesting, to get rid of it. But this has the true nature of boredom backwards.

Fourth, being with boredom can literally change your brain. According to the neuroscientists, meditation forms new neural pathways, which in experiential terms means changing the way your "gut reaction" responds to stimuli. For five years, you've been conditioned to tense up when your boss comes over. No amount of talking yourself out of it will work. But since meditation changes the structure of the brain, it can work. Boredom is a pretty moderate form of unpleasantness, so it's the perfect place to practice and build these new relationships. Use it as a training ground for later, when these skills will count a lot more. Boring spiritual practice can thus be much more helpful than interesting spiritual experiences.

Finally, boredom can be a gateway to the big E: Enlightenment.

Zen teacher Genpo Roshi likes to ask his students to act from their "non-seeking, non-desiring minds." Try it now. Stop seeking anything, stop desiring anything: not a snack, another web page, an interesting experience, love, victory, relaxation, or anything. It may take a little work, because you have to actually let go of any desire for this moment to be any different from what it is.

Life suddenly gets very boring. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. But remember, boredom is restlessness. It's wanting something to be different. So let that go too. What's left? Well, I'll leave it to you to enjoy. Really, it is what it is, which is what YHVH said back there at the burning bush, and wise people have said around foliage for thousands of years. Tibetan Buddhist texts speak of this state as "old man, basking in the sun" because it's just vast awareness, with no agenda. It's where you go when you get bored, more bored, and then finally allow yourself to get so bored that you don't want anything other than this lovely blissful boredom, peaceful, quiet, radiant awareness, mirror-like mind, gazing, gaping, just hanging there, doing nothing, non-seeking, non-desiring.

And from naked awareness flows a natural loving-kindness, more genuine than anything cultivated by oughts and shoulds. Helping others, and other beings, becomes natural; this is not narcissism, after all, since self-centered desires are precisely those which are surrendered. Sounds resonate. Nature vibrates. Even the mechanical dystopias of modern society are somehow, mysteriously fascinating. Boredom liberates.

I wish someone would have told me this years ago: Stop trying to have special experiences, or be more virtuous, or speak in a spiritual tone of voice. Stop beating yourself up, stop achieving, stop working so hard, stop worrying. It's simple: boredom plus surrender equals enlightenment. Did I just miss the memo?

 
 
 

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