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On Boredom

“That's why I drink when I come home, because I'm so damned bored.”
  -Michael Douglas, US Drug Czar, from the movie Traffic

What exactly is boredom and why is it considered a negative emotion? Boredom is apparently the scourge of a self-satisfied society that has reached a certain goal of financial independence, (such as in middle to upper class America). We no longer have to spend most of our waking lives struggling for our survival – this is amply taken care of in the traditional forty-hour work week (though many of us work much more...or feel like we're working much more!). Freed from a certain level of economic slavery, we have time, money, energy to spend in our pursuits of happiness and enjoyments.

But in societies such as in America, where plentifulness abounds (for some of us, at least), the endless rounds of pursuing interests, hobbies, passions, addictions, goals, plans, diversions, distractions and a whole lot of TV couch-potatoing often leads to periods of boredom and angst, an uncomfortableness that just won't let go. Somedays, nothing is satisfying or enriching – the drive for diversions is just not there and one is stuck with oneself, and that is suffering. Big time. You just can't get it up for anything, and it all seems so empty (wink, wink, nod, nod!).

So the popular conception of boredom: that it is about a lack of something, (such as fulfillment, peace, satisfaction, etc.) is misguided – it is more about the fullness of something and that is the fullness of the experience of the pains of one's own mind forms, and the inability to distract oneself from them. There is a fidgety, unsettled feeling that often characterizes boredom, a sense of wanting to bolt, to be anywhere but where one is exactly standing in the moment. So really, nothing is actually lacking; simply stated, one is full of the torture of one's own karmic patterns, in the form of mental anguish, and uncomfortable and unsettled bodily feelings, to one degree of another. (Of course, wanting to bolt out of one's life situation is not a monopoly of boredom).

Many years ago, a friend's brother did a retreat with a Buddhist group. He was instructed to meditate in a small booth/cabin that had nothing in it, save a meditation pillow. And he had to spend a long, long period of time in this structure. The instructor told him, “You're about to face what is driving you crazy”.

It can be said that the entire thrust of people's lives is precisely the avoidance of being faced with their own karmic patterns, the endless rounds of distractions brought on by a commercialized and entertainment oriented society that keeps people's attention on all sorts of pleasurable objects, be they movie stars, sports heroes, the latest high tech gadget, etc. And whether a person is an active participant in hobbies, interests, passions and diversions, or a passive TV watching observer, the underlying strategy of avoidance of one's own painful karmic burden is exactly the same. We are all burdened not only by their physical weight, but subtle weights of all kinds that often seem excruciatingly heavier than our physical burden. Simply stated, boredom is just another face of suffering, limited to a certain portion of the human population in industrialized countries for the most part (animals seemed to be spared of boredom simply by the nature of being an animal). Boredom is a reminder of the prison of self-contracted, karmic existence, and we do not want to touch that at all, the third rail of high society. And as long as there is a core belief inherent that there is a substantial self in which to be bored, boredom will surely occur, among other things!

On the other hand, boredom can be characterized by lack, and this lack is different based upon one's position in the spectrum of consciousness. For most folks, boredom arises from the lack of distractions, when one's attention is no longer entranced into concentration and identification with pleasure objects of perception (or even not so pleasurable objects, if one gets off on sadism or masochism, for example).

And that is why for many spiritual traditions, slack time is vitally important – one is given time to simply become sensitive to one's own patterns of suffering, via meditation, to confront boredom face to face by placing oneself in situations that are free from distractions. Boredom is a very large and menacing lion at the gate of spiritual progress and freedom – we all must face it, and either bolt for a box of See's Candies or sit with it until a transformation takes place. And this may take months, years, or decades, perhaps.

"31 percent of the American people wonder if heaven will be boring."
 -William Shulz, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

So in a sense, boredom can be an ally, a tool, and certainly a barometer of one's condition. When boredom arrives, notice what form it comes in, what exactly are the physical, mental, emotional and other subtle feelings or forms that you are labeling as boredom. Simply be aware of what arises and is imputed/assumed as boredom. But don't try to do anything about it – notice that 'it too shall pass' into some other state. It is the noticing, the awareness of it, and the non-violent stance of simply being with it, not trying to change it or transform it, that is often the most direct and powerful way of transforming it.

But done as a goal, even if successful, it is a limited form of self-manipulation, which may serve to actually empower boredom (or any other 'negative' state) and guarantee its eventual return. You can end up with an even greater fight on your hands. So if you are truly committed to spiritual growth, you will eventually see that winning little battles in order to feel good is a limited strategy – one has to take a stance just like a long-term investor in the stock market – just ride the ups and down, don't get too neurotic about it. You're in it for the long haul. Take the long-term view. Ups and downs come and go, ad-infinitum ad nauseam, and as you go along they're less of a concern, for you begin to understand that it's not about perfecting 'you' – it's (initially) about the wisdom of seeing that there is no substantial, solid and independent you to prevent from being bored or unhappy. Seeing that the propping up and perfecting of a 'you' is a folly is a doorway to freedom.

Boredom can also be defined as the inability to simply sit still, to rest at any one time – the desire to be somewhere or someone else is one way to point to a larger than life icon that is boredom. And the appearance of boredom may be considered a grace, a boon – you no longer can be trapped, entranced, identified or distracted by objective forms – it may signal the time of spiritual initiation, when you now have the opportunity to transcend your forms, and simply Be.

Boredom can be expressed in terms of the lack of native freedom, the capacity to enjoy Being, simply Being without any particulars of attribute or characteristics. Of course, this capacity does not come overnight (except for the exceptional among us). But eventually it is possible to simply be, without the necessity of distraction. And when that occurs, the scourge of boredom may be finally put to rest. Enjoyment of the nature of existence replaces the avoidance of one's patterns in existence.