Boredom. Tolstoy defined it as a “desire for desires”. You want to do something, anything, but nothing is compelling. And then there’s the awful restlessness. If you could be simply bored and sit there with equanimity you’d be a guru. But you’re not. The emptiness/restlessness combo is maddening. Lars Svendson, in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, notes that it afflicted primarily the upper echelons of society, those with time on their hands. Watching The Downtowns, a Netflix series concerning an aristocratic family coming to terms with modernity at the turn of the last century, you could see that the daughters were all seeking a cure for their boredom. The philosopher, Heidegger, describes the experience of a dinner party: “There we find the usual food and the usual dinner conversations. Everything is not only tasty, but very tasty as well. There was nothing unsatisfactory about the occasion at all, and yet, once home, the realization arrives unbidden, ‘I was bored, after all, this evening'”. Too much leisure time thanks to capitalism? Maybe.
But I read that even monks in the 3rd century got bored. It was called acedia, a kind of spiritual laziness that found the brothers staring endlessly out the window, and getting neither their work, nor their prayers accomplished. Seneca, a Stoic philosopher of 1st century Rome called it taedeum vitae, loosely translated as tedious life. ” How long will things be the same. Surely I will wake. I will sleep. I will be hungry. I will be cold. I will be hot. Do all things go in a circle?”
I’m less interested in run-of -the-mill boredom, the kind that can actually be generative. This is a kind of mental fallow, during which the seed of a new possibility is germinating. Many psychologists believe that today’s children could use a little more of that kind of boredom, as an antidote for the electronic devices and over scheduled lives. I get it. But chronic boredom is a different animal. It’s a close cousin of depression.
“Vanity, vanity all is vanity” says the writer of Ecclesiastes. Then he goes on to outline the uselessness of various activities. He tracks through the moral life, the pursuit of wisdom, the “good life”, riches, family, and ends up shooting holes in the worthwhileness of pursuing any of these things. He’s tried them all and he’s done with them all. Granted, the writer didn’t have Netflix. Then again, the fourth season of pretty much any series becomes, well, predictable. Okay, except for Breaking Bad.
But the writer is on to something. He’s captured the feeling of boredom. Round and round it goes. And it ain’t going nowhere, never does, never will. Give up your hope that any of it leads anywhere. In a state of boredom it all feels pointless. (In the end, he uses this negativity as a rhetorical device to elicit obedience to the one, true G_d as the only solution). Still he nails the sense of futility most of us feel at some point with doing anything.
The author sounds a lot like French existentialists in fact, who concluded that life is absurd, that “there is nothing new under the sun”, a tale told by an idiot. All is absurd and pointless. The poet W.H. Auden wrote this cheerful ditty:
“Put the car away;
when life fails,
What’s the good of going to Wales?
With these guys, there’s no religious out. It’s Waiting for Godot, futility all the way up and all the way down.
Life failure is as good a description of boredom as any I’ve come across. The late literary critic and lay psychologist, Colin Wilson, was convinced that assenting to this state was, well, lazy. He never tired of railing at the likes of Samuel Beckett, Sartre and Camus who accepted what is actually an unnecessary state of consciousness as just the way things are. Wilson does sound at times like a scolding mother with her bored children.
We have two minds, says Wilson. One is the robot that takes over mundane tasks so we don’t have to think about them while we’re doing them. The robot mind is meant to free us up to tend to more important things. We can go on automatic while we’re driving a car for example, arrive at our destination, and have very little memory of how we got there. The robot took over. But the robot can colonize our whole life, and when it does, we’re on cruise control. When the robot colonizes our life nothing registers as significant—even making love. That’s because we’re not in it. We are “out of it”.
The key to getting back in our lives, says Wilson, is focusing our attention on pretty much anything: you could use ice baths, rigorous tennis, counting coins, gardening, colouring in a colour book (it’s worked for me), remembering peak experiences in life (even if they happened decades ago). It could be anything, but the critical hack involves wresting control of your life from the robot. Remember, robot good, colonizing robot not so good.
The other day I was feeling bored. The lawn needed cutting. I didn’t want to cut the lawn. And the book I was reading felt like rehashed beans. But I forced myself to go into the garage, gear up, figure out how to re-thread the trimmer (took all of my attention). Then I cut the grass, and noticed that the garden needed weeding. It worked. I snapped out of it. That’s what Wilson is getting at. Some existentialists made a life philosophy out of their choice to stay on the couch and complain that life had nothing to offer.
Or let’s look at it from another angle. I wonder if boredom is just this process of skimming over the surface of everything hoping that something out there will draw us in and claim out attention. But what if it’s the skimming over, as opposed to actually digging in, and focusing our attention, that shuts down interest. The choice to focus is on us, not anything in the external world.
Maybe we don’t dig in, and get below the surface of things, because we’ve stopped believing that there is anything below the surface? The modern life can make it seem like it’s all surface, no depth. And it’s all one way traffic, from me to the world. There’s nothing coming back. I’m alive in a dead world. The indigenous way is different. The “other”, whether it’s an animal, a mountain, a tree or a plant is also beholding you. What if the world were alive, trying to make contact with us, but we look out and see only dead, inert matter. It might be beautiful, a pleasant backdrop to the really important action, which is me, but even this kind of inert beauty gets stale fairly quickly. A sunset is just another sunset to the bored. But what if that which we are beholding is beholding us, inviting us to listen, to come into relationship? More interesting? I think so, but we’re so steeped in scientific materialism that the world pretty much is dead to us. Breaking this spell take discipline, an unlearning that I still in the process of learning.
This would involve a re-enchantment of the world, or better, tuning into the always, already animated world absent the belief system of scientific materialism. Assume that the relational impulse is mutual. As though it’s what a universe is doing. Try it for five minutes. It’s a rigorous practice. This means, from your end, bringing curiosity, attention, and undivided attention to whatever is before your eyes. This is what Moses did in the desert when he “turned aside to see” and the desert lit up in the form of a burning bush. It’s the “turning aside to see” (exiting robot consciousness and shooting your attention toward an other like an arrow) that is the practice. But there’s another side to it. We also may proceed as though everything is a burning bush wanting to make contact with us.
Another tip: when you’re bored, check under the hood to see if the battery has run down. You have to have energy for life. If you are sleep-deprived, chronically under-nourished, and not exercising, chances are you don’t have enough juice to be shoot your attention out or to experience the world beholding you. A tired human is a dis-spirited human.
If you want a re-set you could try psychedelics, in a safe setting, with a trusted guide, and making sure you’re not on any contra-indicated meds. These plants and synthetic derivatives evoke what Wilson calls “intensity”, which he defines as a realization of the “absolute value of life”. It’s the antithesis of boredom and its antidote. You may see and feel with unwavering clarity that life is a mysterious gift, rarely easy, but worth every effort to live it to the fullest. You also see that it’s only pointless—and boring—when you lose contact with it. I remember on an acid journey, the mantra coming into my consciousness “it’s contact, not content”. That is, relationship, not ideas about relationship, or ideas about anything else for that matter. Although ideas about reality can also be fun. (Caveat: it’s a mistake to depend on tripping to experience intensity. It’s just a glimpse, and an invitation to spark your own agency to come into relationship with a living universe.)
A couple other things to consider from the field of trauma informed therapy if you’re chronically bored: First, if we learned too often that too few of our desires were being met, we may have given up on desire itself. Having learned that it’s hopeless to have what you want, it’s possible to lose one’s imagination, the capacity to negotiate a future that is not merely a repetition of the past. This is perhaps what underlies Tolstoy’s above mentioned observation that boredom is the desire to desire. You’d be surprised by how many people don’t know what they want or even that they want. Start with small things and work your way up to the Porsche 911—if that’s what lights you up. Remove desire and boredom creeps in. And with it, depression.
Second, when children tug at their mother’s pant leg whining that they are bored, nine times out of ten it’s a cry to make contact with her. The fix is not to tell the kid to go outside and play because s/he will take the desire for contact outside. If you were rebuffed chronically it may be that your boredom is a sign, albeit unconscious, that you want to make contact with somebody. Reach out to a loved one, touch them, be touched. Open your heart to your own sadness. Then go out and play!
A little boredom isn’t a bad thing in our fast-paced, list-driven, jacked-up-on-adrenaline culture. But as a permanent condition it is unnatural, and, if you believe Wilson, unnecessary.