A Buddhist Response to Boredom

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A Buddhist Response to Boredom

Topic at a Glance:

  • People tend to prefer even pain over boredom.
  • Those of us recovering from an addiction may be more likely to relapse due to boredom than something bad happening.
  • Boredom arises due to an ‘addiction’ to stimulation – if our only response is to ‘stay busy’ we may be just feeding this addiction.
  • The Buddhist anecdote to boredom is curiosity.

Even Electric Shocks are Preferable to Boredom

Image by Daisuke Tashiro

Most people when given the choice between sitting alone in silence or receiving electric shocks would choose the electric shocks. This was the conclusion of a study from the University of Virginia where participants choose mild voluntary shocks over being alone with their thoughts.

This preference for pain over boredom is something many of us will have experienced for ourselves – at least I hope it isn’t just me. I clearly remember back in my school days jabbing a compass point into my hand because I was so bored in class. Even more embarrassingly, as an adult, I got a rolled-up ball of paper jammed in my ear because I put it in there for something to do.

What is Boredom?

Boredom is the subjective feeling that nothing interesting is happening in our current environment. It is a lack of stimulation that triggers negative thoughts and low mood. Feeling bored is unpleasant, and it is understandable that we would want to escape it.

Boredom is a Common Relapse Trigger

I remember in my first rehab being told about the dangers of boredom for people like me. My usual response to ‘having nothing to do’ was to pick up a drink, so I needed to keep myself busy. It appears most of us who quit drugs are more at risk of relapse due to boredom than something bad happening.

What works for us at one point in our life doesn’t necessarily suit our needs further down the road. The advice to ‘keep busy’, helped me get through those early days of life without alcohol, but it wasn’t much of a solution to boredom. I was addicted to stimulation in much the same way I had been addicted to the booze. Keeping myself busy was like treating my addiction by continuing to drink.

Addiction to Stimulation

It’s sometimes hard to remember a time before mobile phones. How did we ever manage without 24-hour access to games, videos, music, email, and social media? How did we get through sightseeing trips without spending most of the time taking photographs to upload to Instagram? Did people really used to have family dinners where each member of the family wasn’t regularly updating their Facebook page?

We are now used to the constant entertainment provided by smartphones and other devices. Many of us are addicted. We develop a tolerance for stimulation in much the same way as we develop a tolerance for drugs. This means that it takes increasing levels of stimulation to prevent us from experiencing boredom. Feeding this addiction doesn’t work in the same way as feeding any other addiction wouldn’t work.

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal

The Importance of Being Able to Experience Stillness Without Distraction

Not only does boredom trigger self-destructive behaviors (such as substance abuse or sticking rolled-up paper balls in our ear), but our inability to sit quietly means we are missing out.

Some of the benefits of being able to sit quietly include:

  • It means we can see things more clearly.

  • Creative ideas are more likely to arise from a still mind.

  • Our brain is more likely to cough-up a solution to a problem if we just sit in silence (this is far more effective than trying to think our way out of a problem).

  • It allows us to relax and let go of tension.

  • Sitting in silence subjectively slows down time – this gives us the space to take a breath and appreciate our life.

  • If we want to gain insight from meditation, we need to be able to tolerate lack of stimulation.

A Buddhist Understanding of Boredom

From the Buddhist perspective, boredom arises due to the habit of the mind to label experience as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This labelling is referred to in Buddhism as ‘vedana’  or feeling tone.  Boredom arises when we are in any situation where the most obvious feeling tone is neutral.

It is important to stress that there never is anything inherently boring in anything we are experiencing. It is just the feeling tone that is being currently triggered. The label the mind chooses in any given situation depends a lot on our conditioning. For example, some people will see a football match on TV, and the feeling tone will be pleasant, for other people the feeling tone will be neutral or even unpleasant.

A Buddhist Response to Boredom

To be able to overcome boredom, we need to see beyond the conditioned feeling tone. We do this by becoming more interested in what we are experiencing at this moment. Curiosity is the magic sauce – it forces the brain to reevaluate its application of the ‘neutral’ label. Over time, we begin to see that anything we give our full attention to appears interesting. Even something as simple as the breathing becomes a wonderous experience when we approach it with curiosity.

The key to beating boredom it to become curious about what we are experiencing rather than to try to change the experience.

One of the nice benefits of regular meditation is that we train ourselves to find lack of stimulation interesting. Because of this, we start to experience deep states of stillness that soothe us. We get a taste for peace. We realize that it is this stillness that we most deeply yearn for and not the tension of being constantly stimulated.

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