Is boredom a sign of weakness? Is it a statement on our inability to engage our imagination with the constituents of the present moment or is it a doorway out of the ‘now’ that we are too afraid to step through? When did we collectively decide to shun boredom and celebrate its cousin, stillness?
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” – John Berryman (The Dream Songs)
It is this very thought, repeated through the years of our childhood, that shackles our experience of boredom with a judgment on our esteem. Only a man of weak intellect, we believe, can be bored in a world that has so much to offer. We remember the great flashes in the sky but forget the many quiet afternoons that have passed over us, plain and modest. Why don’t those quiet afternoons count?
If there is one quality that unites the great thinkers, achievers, and geniuses of the world, it is that they were all able to handle boredom with grace. To tackle boredom, we must start by understanding it. Psychological scientist John Eastwood and his research team at York University define boredom as “being in a state of longing for activity but unaware of what it is that one desires and to look to the world to solve the impasse.”
When we indulge in a fresh new activity, the experience triggers the release of opioids in the brain. The effect of this release is pleasurable. Incidentally, the same neural receptors are responsible for the high we get from opiate drugs such as heroin and morphine. When the same ‘new activity’ is repeated, it doesn’t result in a similar high. This should explain why standing in the corner of a room is punishing whereas standing in the line for a concert is pleasurable. It is the anticipation of the new experience that makes it so. Being hard-wired for pleasure, we seek more from a task than it can possibly give us. We move away from boredom in the pursuit of newer and bigger experiences for the same reason an addict nudges forward constantly towards an increase in his dosage: to relive the pleasure that the first experience yielded. Boredom isn’t the weakness, running from it is.
Our relationship with boredom borrows its values from our relationship with time. The language we use around something reveals the nature of our association with it. I was barely a few years old when I was made aware of the concept of “wastage” in time. Indulging in this wastage in the pretext of being bored was an act of defiance. Sitting down and doing nothing was frowned upon in my childhood, but as an adult, this practice can have punitive consequences. The only way to escape the judgment of engaging in boredom is by calling it a different name: stillness.
Pico Iyer, in his praise of stillness talks of the Sabbath. He observes how it is the only word in the Ten Commandments for which the adjective “holy” is used. Sabbath is also the longest chapter in the Torah. But boredom differs from stillness in one important aspect: we often do not know where boredom leads us, while stillness has a perceived favorable outcome of calmness and well-being. A planned pocket of stillness in a yoga class is called meditation whereas the same stillness that visits us unplanned in the middle of a task is boredom. Isn’t that silly? Inner stillness practiced in trained segments of time is a good start, but it soon becomes meaningless when it is avoided the rest of the day. Rejecting boredom and seeking stillness is like rejecting thinking in the pursuit of knowledge.
In a society that values productivity over purpose, boredom has lost its sheen. But it is precisely for this reason that boredom needs to be embraced. We need to get comfortable with waiting, especially when we don’t know what we are waiting for.
Being comfortable with being bored prepares us for just being. When we are busy we are always ‘being something’. The formless unselfish act of just being is the first step in experiencing ourselves unshackled. It is in this way of being that we encounter the real reason boredom is shunned, for beneath our addiction to pleasure is a deeper addiction that fuels this discomfort: our addiction for meaning.
So boredom is an experience worse than a tragedy, for in both mourning and melancholy we still preserve the luxury of being able to derive meaning from the emptiness. Boredom is blunt, vacant and meaningless. We so abhor an empty experience that we crave to embalm it with any meaning that is close at hand and when we don’t find one, we strive to erase it completely from our lives. But as the great Psychoanalyst W.R.Bion so wisely posits, “Inability to tolerate empty space limits the amount of space available.”
Instead of looking out into the world to solve the impasse, these pockets of emptiness could be better used as opportunities to dive within. These are the times when we reflect on the world we see and the reason we see it the way we do. We seldom see the world as it is. We always see it as we believe it to be or want it to be. But in these moments of emptiness, this way of seeing becomes apparent. When we hit a roadblock and stop doing something, we stop the machinery that we have blindly surrendered into and in doing so, we award ourselves a moment of reflection. Boredom is a moment of approach, a time when we start disembarking from our perceived philosophy to meet the philosophy we are living. Not the one we ‘want to live’, but the one we have been living unknowingly. The one we cradle within our choices and silently proclaim with our decisions.
We are a culture of people who value doing more than being. But it is in the folds of our being where we find hidden the greatest truths of our lives. They don’t scream out to us the way deadlines or reminders do, but their calls are just as vital. This is what boredom facilitates through the necessary silence it bestows upon us.
When we inhale ourselves into a moment of boredom, we seldom come back from it unchanged. Perhaps this is why we avoid it so vehemently. It’s natural to be unprepared for change in the middle of a meeting or when pushing the shopping cart down the isle, but this is exactly how it hits us. If we would let it, boredom would come thundering down on us the same way inspiration does and we need to receive them both with commensurate reverence. Just like a bold new idea, a lived moment of boredom truly has the ability to transform our lives. For boredom and inspiration, are the waxing and waning of the soul.