The Boredom Bug

boredom: an emotional state experienced during periods lacking activity or when individuals are uninterested in their surroundings.

While listening to NPR the other day, I was surprised to hear a segment on the topic of boredom. Naturally, I turned up the volume. Talking about boredom has always been somewhat taboo, right? People can say, “Wow, that person is boring” and no one thinks twice about it. But try saying, “What I do bores me” without someone looking at you sideways and telling you that you simply need to engage yourself more in your work. Callers even dialed in to NPR to express their thoughts on the topic: if you’re bored, get a hobby. Try knitting, join a run club. How about ballroom dancing?

My own boredom stems from my job…that place where I spend 40 hours of my week. “Boredom” was not a word I would have used to describe my sentiments about work. Words like “anger” and “frustration” seemed much more appropriate. Until I listened to this NPR segment.

While I wasn’t able to find the transcript from the program, I did come across Jay Michaelson’s The Gift of Boredom. In it, he explains that boredom is similar to…wait for it…enlightenment! It confronts us with the challenge of sitting with our restlessness without resisting the “nothingness” of our experience.

Hey wait a minute. Isn’t “nothingness” the very goal of meditation? I think I’m starting to catch on here…

“Fortunately, boredom is not a failure of character. It has many gifts. And it is a sign that you are very, very close to “getting it.” This is because “it” cannot be gotten at all, and in that mind-emptying, vacuous state of boredom, you’re really close to getting nothing. The only trouble is, the closer one gets to nothing, the more one wants to fill it with something. Because nothing is really boring. Get it?”

While I understand that many would love the privilege of being bored, I now understand that boredom is nothing more than a signal that things are about to change. And while I was so quick to blame my boredom on my job (you want me to unjam the printer again?!), the truth may be that my boredom is a result of having done the good work in my life (e.g., yoga, meditation) and then assuming that things would stay the same in other areas of my life. In that sense, boredom becomes a rite of passage. It’s a threshold we need to cross over, much like depression or euphoria, in order to get to the other side…the side where we can be engaged in, and truly passionate about everything we do. 

This is part of the maturing of spiritual practice. Early on, it’s very important to have amazing things happen. But at a certain point, getting spiritually high turns into a sort of dead-end. Unless you’re very fortunate, you can’t stay high all the time. ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry,’ as Jack Kornfield says. So, spiritual practice starts to be about the rest of the time — the laundry time. So, allow the boredom. Learn to feel completely content, happy, and bored, all at the same time.

Okay, so maybe boredom isn’t all that bad. That reminds me…I’ve got laundry to do.

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