Making Boredom Your Friend

Jay Michaelson
August 28, 2018

"There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration."
                                                                                 - Susan Sontag

Here’s the truth: meditation is often boring. And so is life, sometimes.

Fortunately, boredom can actually become your friend, whether you’re meditating or just, you know, living your life, waiting in the dentist’s office, being bored.

First, at the very least, boredom is a useful alarm bell. When you’re meditating, the mind often races around, thinking thoughts without your permission. And yet, at a certain point, it gets bored. That is a nice little insight right there: just noticing that the fascination you had with an object, person, thought, sensation... disappears. It’s heartening, maybe even enlightening, to see that we can get bored of just about anything. The mind’s had enough! All things pass.

Second, boredom is a privilege, right? Your essential needs are taken care of, even your essential wants are taken care of. You might even feel grateful for it. What percentage of people in the world even have the luxury of boredom? And even if you’re fortunate enough to be bored, most of us are so busy, with work and family and life and traffic jams, that boredom itself becomes a luxury even for the fortunate. That’s often true for me, anyway. When I feel bored, I’m thrilled that I’ve had the space to feel it.

The most essential point, though, is this: Normally, when human beings get bored, we’ll do just about anything to make the boredom stop. Our minds and our bodies fight desperately to push the boredom away, sometimes restlessly, other times angrily, sometimes apathetically. In fact, this is exactly why we’re bored: because we’re trying so hard not to be.

What’s needed at that moment is not an additive, but a “subtractive.” Try this, the next time you’re bored: just surrender, get mindful, and see what happens. Drink in the boredom, taste it, come to know it, let it just wash over you in waves and waves of dullness. Let yourself get really, really, really bored. See what happens. Explore the sensation. Do not try not to be bored. 

What, after all, is the difference between “boredom” and “relaxation”? It’s not what’s going on outside; it’s what’s going on inside. Boredom is not about the lack of interesting things going on. If you’ve ever gone on meditation retreat, or just gotten into the “zone” while meditating, you know that literally watching paint dry (or watching the breath, for that matter) can be fascinating. It’s not about the stimulus – it’s that our minds are so used to being busy, that when there’s nothing interesting (we think), we get really irritable. So irritable that we’d rather have something unpleasant in the mind – like reading bad news on Facebook – than nothing at all.

So try a subtractive instead of an additive. Do just a minute of your favorite meditation practice. Just breathe. Give your mind a (metaphorical) bubble bath. Give up. See what’s going on right now: breathing, sitting, the weight of your body, whatever. Just notice it for what it is, without trying to make it interesting. Build those neural pathways in the brain that allow you to just enjoy any ordinary, boring moment without making it into something special. 

Special moments are great, after all, but you’re likely to encounter more boring ones. Learning how to be at peace with them, even enjoy them, is thus at least as useful as learning how to have awesome experiences like Burning Man or a Caribbean cruise. 

Bored and meditation is the last thing you want to do right now?  This one’s for any moment when meditation sounds like torture - even if you know it would help.

Try 'I Don't Want to Meditate' (in the app)

Have a boring day!

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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