In Praise of Boredom

Good morning everyone,

For today’s Dharma talk I would like to talk about boredom. As a matter of fact, I want to talk in praise of boredom. The title for this talk was inspired by a great book about Chinese philosophy regarding life called “In Praise of Blandness”. A fascinating and rather subversive book in our contemporary society.

So why a Dharma talk on boredom. Well, there are three things that inspired this talk. The first is my oldest; my 4-year-old has finally arrived at the boredom stage. As of late, I have heard those two words that all kids sing as their chorus, I’m bored. Really a 4-year-old?!   And I am perplexed at where he learned that phrase – maybe it is some form of genetic inheritance given to all Homo Sapiens.

The second that inspired this talk is a familiar experience of new meditators and even seasoned meditators. How many of you have set the intention to sit, fluffed up your cushion, set your Insight Timer for 5, 10, even 20 whole minutes, lit your incense and rang your bell and closed your eyes…

Oh god this is boring!

This is the first barrier many of us experience in a meditation practice and one that can be persistent. The sometimes pervasive feeling of boredom can even keep some from continuing a regular practice. I think for many, the anxiety and discomfort of boredom, that can be present in sitting meditation, makes some think and feel that they just can’t meditate. It can be really difficult and the thing that makes it difficult is our relationship with boredom.

From the time we are kids, boredom is an unwelcomed and at times oppressive guest. This is nothing new – writers and philosophers have been talking about boredom for 100s and 100’s of years. The great existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called it the “root of all evil” Schopenhauer considered it a particular kind of misery and that life was simply an endless pendulum swinging back and forth between desire and boredom – and both were unpleasant.

During medieval Christianity is was thought that someone was bored there were morally flawed, Wendell O’Brien a historian has written,

“If God, God’s world, and the life God has ordained for you seem boring to you, there is almost certainly something wrong with your soul, something you had better hasten to fix.  “


Boredom: A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives

Maybe they were on to something – I think our issues with boredom go back even farther. Maybe the truth behind the Adam and Eve story wasn’t that Eve tempted Adam at all. I can just see it. Adam says to Eve,  This garden of Eden is sooo boring. Eve says, “Oh darling only boring people are boring – go find something to do” Looking for any way not to be bored he found that pretty tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “Yeah God said something about not eating it but I’m so bored and it looks so yummy.”

How many of you have heard that before, that only boring people get bored? It is rather insidious. When we say that, we are saying it is the other person’s fault for feeling bored.  Who here wants to be known as boring?  It is a judgment and kind of an insult, isn’t it? And yet we say this to our kids or our friends?  It is as if we are so afraid of boredom that we need to blame the victim of boredom. But being bored is one of the most common human experiences or well at least it used to be. We will talk about that more in a minute.

We don’t like boredom, just google, boredom and read the majority of links – even some Buddhist links! Evidently, it is not a good thing to be bored.  Bored is Bad.  I even found one Zen Link that implied a good practitioner should NEVER be bored. Other links were sure to tell me that if I am bored, it is because you are ungrateful, lazy or in need of medication! I think that when we have these kinds of judgments about boredom, it is saying more about our own relationship with boredom than anything about boredom itself.  And I must admit that from time to time, I have bought into this kind of logic and blamed myself for being bored.

So I want to ask you, what is your relationship with boredom? Take a moment to think about it.

I think for many of us, we have a blind spot when it comes to our relationship with boredom. I know I did.

The last thing that inspired this talk was sitting on TRAX and seeing a train full of people transfixed by their phones and myself trying to just sit with nothing to do. If you haven’t noticed public transportation at least in Utah is pretty boring.  How many times did I instinctively reach for my phone any time I would get the twinge of boredom.

 Heidegger the German philosopher writes that …

We ourselves are asleep in our everyday pastimes in our actual life. We like being asleep. We like lives of slumbering distractions. We seek to be occupied because it liberates us from the emptiness of boredom


Boredom: A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives

This is not surprising since social media is the new bulwark, the new fortress we have built against boredom. In our contemporary vernacular.

Build that wall!

Our modern society has tackled the scourge of boredom like we did the polio virus 60+ years ago. With a thousand TV channels, movies and games on demand, with an endless smorgasbord of novelty and distraction. We keep ourselves inoculated against it. A thousand things a day demand your attention, our smartphone is like the sirens of ancient Greek myth whose enchanting singing sailors could not pull themselves away from till they were dashed upon the rocks. Our smartphones were designed for that. It is brilliant if you think about it. By understanding our longing for novelty or as Tolstoy described boredom by understanding our desire for desire, they designed a little machine to do just that. Our modern society is designed to keep boredom at bay.

You can ask yourself a question, one you probably haven’t asked yourself before when was the last time you remember being really bored? Many of us are never bored because we will our lives up with so much “stuff”. At the first twinge we Twitter, we Tweet, we Facebook, we SnapChat we Tinder. we escape even the twinge of boredom. Filling our downtime spaces with busyness for busyness sake or with emotional, and psychological fast food we are only keeping ourselves asleep. In our attempt to cure ourselves of boredom we are working and entertaining ourselves into deepening alienation from ourselves and the world – the cure is worse than the affliction.

What do we lose when we vilify boredom? We lose an invitation to get to know ourselves “as we are” and to really experience “time”.  It is my suggestion that boredom is a gate we need to open and walk through as part of Buddhist Practice. Many of you have already experienced this in your mediations practice. I really love this from Nietzsche,

He who fortifies himself completely against boredom fortifies himself against himself too. He will never drink the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring.


Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche Page 295

I love this quote because I never thought of boredom in that way but then again how would I?   Many of us have never really paid attention to the boredom itself.   I rarely have except to endure it while doing sitting mediation.

I really appreciate this again from Wendell O’Brian.

Profound boredom can set us on the road to authenticity. When boredom works its magic, what is left is nothing less than Being itself and its meaning

Boredom.

Boredom is nothing more than desire for desire, as Tolstoy wrote. But isn’t that the idea of awakening to free us from our attachment to desire? 

Or is the pain that can be found in boredom is the ego self in a moment of realizing that it has been freed from desire and suddenly panicking? Shit I better desire something or what good I am for?

Is that why we run from it.

Instead of running away from boredom we should invite it, wholeheartedly, “come as you are”, we say to boredom itself. Come teach me your lessons. Teach me about the reality of time and about the shallowness of desire and about myself.”

I appreciate this from Josh Korda of the New York Dharma Punx

The Buddha’s practice with discomfort is to turn toward it, to investigate it, to look beneath it — to really take it apart and examine what’s present. The more we take boredom apart, the more interesting it becomes.

Boredom is Fascinating Tricycle Magazine August 2017

For me the most fascinating thing at the heart of boredom is reality as it is – pure and undisturbed by beingness.

Heidegger wrote,  

Boredom removes an illusion of meaning from things and allows them to appear as what they are: emptiness and nothingness. Who in her right mind would want to remove such an illusion?


Boredom: A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives

Boredom can, strip us clean of our stories so we can begin to see things as they are.

I want to share with you some lines from an amazing and piece of writing from Joseph Brodsky the poet – which I found while preparing this talk – Coincidentally, in his essay, In Praise of Boredom.

“When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. exact [a] full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

[Boredom] is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck of dust a swirl in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tocks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.

Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it is to teach you the most valuable lesson,

It puts your existence into its perspective, the net result of which is … humility. The more you learn about your own size, the humbler and the more compassionate you become to your likes, to that dust a swirl in a sunbeam or already immobile atop your table. Ah, how much life went into those flecks! Not from your point of view but from theirs. You are to them what time is to you; that’s why they look so small. And do you know what the dust says when it’s being wiped off the table?

On Grief and Reason – Joseph Brodsky Page 104-113

Boredom is interesting after all and this idea of experiencing time, of being in time, is a powerful lesson of boredom. When we are bored, we welcome the invasion, welcome the Bodhisattvas of Boredom who is helping us put our lives into perspective, by going deeper into our relationship with desire and time. It strips us of our stories and lays us bare and in our nakedness, we can discover a greater humility and compassion.

But we won’t if are unable to welcome it when it comes or keep it at bay so it never comes.

How can we welcome or even cultivate boredom? The first thing we want to do at the first subtle pang is to welcome it, to say, “come as you are ” and attend to it as a guest. Put the phone down, turn the TV off, shut down the computer.  I like this from Ed Halliwell and mediation teacher

When you find yourself attaching the label “bored” to your experience, ask, where in my body am I feeling this?

What thoughts are percolating in my mind—are there ideas of wanting to get away, wishing things were different, or am I identifying as helpless, unbothered, or restless?

Is Boredom All Bad –

For me, the restlessness is in the experiencing of time as it is. That is what I am exploring.

What is it in boredom that you want to explore?

I want to close with this from Chögyam Trungpa here is talking about the barrier of boredom that many mediators experience and how to engage with it.  

“…until the boredom begins to become cool boredom, like a mountain river. It flows and flows and flows, methodically and repetitiously, but it is very cooling, very refreshing. Mountains never get tired of being mountains and waterfalls never get tired of being waterfalls… It is a good feeling to be bored, constantly sitting and sitting. First gong, second gong, third gong, more gongs yet to come. Sit, sit, sit, sit. Cut through the artery until the boredom becomes extraordinarily powerful.”


The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa: Volume 3: Cutting Through Page 222

So as you go forward into your week, instead of running away from boredom invite it and wholeheartedly say to it, “come as you are”. Put the phone down and say to it, come teach me your lessons. Teach me about the reality of time and about the shallowness of desire and about myself.

Namu Amida Butsu

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