On boredom

81220002
Waiting area, Bradley International Airport, 2010 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

 

I recently had a discussion with friends about boredom, which I must admit (with a hint of humor) was wonderfully interesting. It started with one of the women, who is a Montessori teacher, explaining how a young student at her school kept approaching her to simply say, “I’m bored.” A series of suggestions sprung forth from others involved in the conversation, some of which included: pointing the student to new study topics, giving her a craft project to do, and telling her to observe the light on the wall, among other things.

I waited until others had given their suggestions before sharing mine because I knew it was a bit different from the rest. My suggestion was, “why don’t you just ask her, ‘What’s boredom like for you right now?’ instead of trying to help her get rid of it?”

Everyone seemed intrigued by this suggestion in an enthusiastic way. I imagine this was because it was countercultural guidance that differed from the other recommendations, which all sought to change the student’s state of being.

I went on to explain that I didn’t think boredom was a bad thing, and that teaching kids to sit with the initial discomfort of “having nothing to do” can, in the long run, be very beneficial for their emotional and mental wellbeing. This is obviously a bizarre take on boredom by modern standards. In a society where we’re expected to be human doings instead of human beings, we’re constantly told (either explicitly or implicitly) to make ourselves useful by filling our time with “activities”, whatever that term actually means. Our sense of self-worth is directly related to how much we do nowadays. It’s gotten to the point where whenever we don’t have anything to do, we automatically take our phones out to mindlessly go through our series of apps (emails, texts, Facebook, etc.) instead of resting within the present moment. I admit to doing this very regularly.

Some of my favorite commentaries on boredom come from the novel Wise Child by Monica Furlong, an incredible children’s book that’s now out of print. It’s about a young girl who becomes the apprentice of a wise woman/healer named Juniper. One of their interactions goes as follows:

“I don’t like cleaning or dusting or cooking or doing dishes, or any of those things,” I explained to her. “And I don’t usually do it. I find it boring, you see.”

“Everyone has to do those things,” she said.

“Rich people don’t,” I pointed out.

Juniper laughed, as she often did at things I said in those early days, but at once became quite serious.

“They miss a lot of fun,” she said. “But quite apart from that — keeping yourself clean, preparing the food you are going to eat, clearing it away afterward — that’s what life’s about, Wise Child. When people forget that, or lose touch with it, then they lose touch with other important things as well.”

A little later on in the book, another brief but poignant conversation about boredom ensues between Juniper and Wise Child:

“I thought if you were educated you didn’t have to do boring things,” I had said to Juniper the day before.

“There are people who think like that,” Juniper had said. “Such a pity. Boredom is so valuable.”

And lastly:

“Why is everything so dull?” I grumbled.

I think the dull bits are often the best,” Juniper said. “Too much excitement is very distracting. You just need it now and then to give you something to feed off.”

These passages speak so beautifully to the deep necessity of boredom and the importance of “boring tasks”. In the same way that color contrast makes it possible to see and differentiate things, we need those spaces between the excitement of our lives to come to greater clarity about everything we do and experience.

I won’t pretend to be an expert at sitting comfortably with boredom, but for me, that state of being is often the tight, uncomfortable portal that leads to new and deeper layers of meaning about a particular situation. Being bored is a process of squeeeeeezing through the constricting belief that I need to constantly be doing something in order for my time to be “well spent”; boredom is like a tight tunnel that ultimately leads to a more spacious realm if I just stick with it for a bit. Instead of giving in to my ego’s desire to “be productive”, I sometimes choose instead to rest in the initial weirdness of doing little. In that process, give the slower, sleepier parts of my being an opportunity to awaken and rise to the surface of my consciousness.

This exact process happened the day after my conversation about boredom, ironically. I had already scheduled that day to be a personal Day of Mindfulness, which I practice every few months. During that time, I don’t speak and I move slowly, read spiritual texts, rest lots, and abstain from checking email (and my phone, for the most part). It’s essentially a psychological detox: I’m getting rid of the mental/emotional gunk that accumulated over months of “doing” through a flush of nothingness, if you will.

At many points, I was bored. I kept wanting to surf the Internet, check my email, and read books to fill the void. And yes, I did give in a couple of times. But what happened during the evening after an almost-full day of this nothingness was incredible. As if a stop-plug had been removed, a gush of writing topics sprung forth into my consciousness. It was like my mind was consumed in a creative fire that ultimately led to the creation of this very blog. Instead of going to sleep that night, I stayed up until the wee hours writing reflective essay after essay after essay. It felt so. Dang. Good.

Yes, I ended up being incredibly productive at the literal and figurative end of the day. But that was only possible thanks to the intentional pausing — the intentional boredom — that I let myself sit in prior to that. If this can happen after a mere day of (arguably boring) stillness, imagine what multiple days, weeks, or months of it could yield from a creative/spiritual/introspective standpoint. No wonder it’s the monastics of various spiritual traditions who repeatedly gleam the deepest, longest-lasting, and most unshakeable truths of our nature.

(I’m catching my words veering ever so slightly into the “productive mindset” here, which is ironic, so I’ll clarify that I don’t believe it’s helpful to use boredom and stillness for the purposes of achieving an end product. It’s entirely about the journey. By the same token, something tangible to show for your adventures into the abyss of boredom is a potential — though not guaranteed — by-product of one’s engagement with nothingness. This is why so many artists take time away to simply “be”. As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, argues, you have to “fill [your creative] well” by regularly distancing yourself from your usual happenings/doings to let your muses speak to you. That said, it’s obvious that not every episode of boredom yields intense creativity; many disengaged high school students can attest to this.)

When pulpy orange juice is left untouched for a period of time, the clear liquid rises to the top and the chunky pieces float to the bottom, allowing us the see the true nature of the beverage more clearly. Our beings and minds work the same way. When left to sit in stillness, which can include letting ourselves feel bored, our mind is able to separate its various thought patterns from one another. As a result, we can act on our own impulses and thoughts more clearly.

For me, a day of stillness (which included a very healthy dose of boredom) allowed me to clearly see that my being wanted to create something. In my experience, though, when I don’t let myself sit in stillness long enough, this creative energy regularly gets confused with its complimentary cousin, consuming energy. More often than not, boredom is my being’s way of stating that it wants to create something and that something is simply struggling to be brought forth. Unfortunately, because I don’t often give myself the time to visualize what is being called forth, I simply consume something to quell the weird feeling I’m experiencing through the high of acquiring something new. While consuming is a great relief in the short term, it’s not very gratifying in the long term.

Letting oneself rest in the discomfort of boredom actually helps us determine what’s seeking to become manifest in our lives. It lets the gunk get separated from the clear waters of our beings so we can see a path forward. While remaining still in this way may result in some kind of “end product”, boredom’s ultimate goal is not to accomplish that thing; you can’t skip over boredom to get to a potential end product, so the journey through it definitely has a purpose. As my friend Sandra likes to say, “the only way out is through.” To experience the fruits of boredom, you must feel it fully; only once you’ve let it slowly show you what you’re meant to create will it release you into forward motion.

Boredom is thus similar to gestation, to pregnancy: if you try to birth a child too soon, you hurt it and potentially ruin all hope of it manifesting in the world. We must let the parts of ourselves that require longer gestation periods to take the time they need in order to fully grow. To do that, we must rest in boredom every so often. I think we could all benefit from letting ourselves explore what boredom feels like in our physical and emotional bodies when it hits instead of trying to “do/consume something” to make it go away.

If we let ourselves feel the initial, figurative birth pains surrounding our lack of “doing”, we’re more likely to encounter a whole new experience that’s been waiting patiently for us.

 

For further reading on a related topic, see my post On rest.