Breaking Through Boredom
by George Pitagorsky
Probably, everyone has been bored at one time or another. Though, these days with handheld devices bringing a continuous flow of distracting attractions, to say nothing of the unlimited capability of the mind to create distractions, maybe boredom will become a thing of the past. We will become adept at switching from a conversation or meeting discussion to email or chat so every moment is filled with "interesting" if not meaningful things to do.
Sometimes when I talk to people about meditation their first reaction is, "Oh I couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes, it's so boring." As we get more and more moment to moment stimulation from media and our electronic toys, we are likely to find moments without distractions, hard to take. This gets in the way of optimal performance.
What is boredom? It is an unpleasant emotional state we experience when we are not interested in whatever is taking place in or around us. It occurs when we are not sufficiently challenged by or attracted to current conditions. Sometimes it occurs when we don't understand a topic and lose interest in it, other times it arises because we understand it too easily. Boredom is characterized by anxiety. Boredom is unpleasant; there is a natural tendency to find a way to eliminate it. Boredom fuels the continuous search for something (anything) to do.
Often, we say that some object or phenomena is boring. It might be a book, a meeting, a movie or a person. But, it is not the object that is boring. We are feeling bored.
The object is not intrinsically boring or interesting; just about anything can become boring after a while. Have you ever experienced having an object that was very pleasing and stimulating become boring over time? Perhaps a person you know at first seemed so interesting, but after a while you discovered that their stories have become old, repetitious and boring. Has a song or movie become boring over time as you repeatedly heard or watched it? Boredom is relative to your internal conditions rather than the nature of the object itself. The person, song or movie doesn't change; your relationship to it does.
Boredom is a complex of feelings and thoughts. Like any emotion, it manifests as physical sensation, most often felt as unpleasant. Where in your body do you feel boredom? What happens when those feelings arise in you? What kind of behavior or thoughts do they bring out? Are you able to focus your mind in the present moment?
Boredom, it can be argued, results from wanting things to be different than they are. It may arise from anxiety in response to the sense of aloneness and emptiness that appears when the mind has nothing to grasp onto. What do you want when you are bored? What expectation is not being met? Maybe you want action, stimulation, an escape from boredom. You turn on the music, fantasize about something pleasant, twiddle your thumbs, etc.
But, what happens if you sit with the feelings? What happens if you can't do anything? Will you explode? Will you cease to exist? Or, will you see the source of your feelings in the desire to escape from feelings that are coming to the surface because you are not being distracted?
I remember being trapped in a hot crowded room listening to an old Tibetan Lama going on and on about something I really didn't understand or even care about, in an accented English I could barely comprehend. I could have escaped but it was a small room and it would have been disruptive and disrespectful to stand up and walk out. I was miserable for the entire talk, wishing I could escape into a blissful state so that I wouldn't have to be there mentally, but none of my techniques were working. It wasn't until I fully accepted the situation with all of its discomfort that I was able to feel a sense of relief. I would like to say that I reached that point quickly, but I didn't. I did learn that mental and non-destructive physical anguish are survivable. I did not perish, I was not permanently damaged. Yes, I felt great relief when the talk ended an hour and a half later but there was some learning about my own ability to not just grin and bear it, but to transform the experience.
That is the challenge that boredom, or any of the negative emotions give us. The challenge to simply accept what is; give up the clinging to some state that we have made up in our mind and projected outward as the way things should be.
Make the boring conversation or the repetitive mind numbing task an object of intense interest by concentrating on it as a Zen practitioner might focus on the minute details of an activity that she has done ten thousand times. When you do, you will find that boredom is replaced by calm. You become open and are better able to make the current experience, if not to pleasant, at least acceptable or, even useful.
Rather than escaping, stay with the boredom, make it an object of interest and you are no longer bored. This is a particularly courageous approach. It requires a resolve to experience the unpleasant feelings and go into their root causes, not intellectually but experientially. Then, boredom becomes just another set of feelings in the continuous stream of changing phenomena, not driving us to have to act in one way or another to get rid of it but instead to choose what to do to optimize the current situation.
© 2012 Pitagorsky Consulting