The Art of Boredom

Alain Delon perfectly bored.

In one of her podcasts, Tara Brach speaks about our reactions to pain. Typically, these are to fixate on the pain to the exclusion of all else, or to distract ourselves from it. Instead, she suggests we acknowledge, accept and explore the pain. I call this being with and going into the pain, and it is a principle I have discovered to be useful in other parts of my life, sickness, strenuous exercise, even as I accepted my floundering as a new teacher and thought about what worked, rather than seeing every mistake as a failure to be the perfect teacher.

The same might also be applied to boredom. Boredom is not pain, but, like pain it is an inevitable part of life which we would rather avoid. As it is though, I focus on the boredom by complaining about it or more frequently distracting myself, with my phone, the news, which is not so much distracting as deranging, by overthinking abstract problems, by giving free reign to my fears, large and small. Irresponsible drinking can provide a temporary respite from this self-induced anxiety, but is itself ultimately very boring. Rather than this self-destructive cycle, I need to go into the boredom and be with it.

This makes me wonder about mediation, Brach’s principle stock in trade. Is mediation not the acceptance of boredom, even a kind of active boredom? For those of us fortunate enough to have have escaped Hobbes’ notion of life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” life may seem to consist of prolonged periods of tedium punctuated by moments of intense terror and ecstasy. If our material and social needs are reliably met, which is certainly true for me, gainfully employed with enough left over to spend time eating with friends and not overly worried that I will not be able to do the same tomorrow, then I suggest accepting boredom is the wiser course, than overthinking and alcohol.

While terror and ecstasy focus our attention on the here and now, tedium makes us look to the there and then, disappearing into a bottomless abstraction, quite often for no good reason. For the banker there will never be enough money, that tool by which he meets his (and our) material needs, for the simple reason that there is always more money to be made. But what is money worth, if its enjoyment is never traded for pleasure? For the activist, freedom may very well be a constant struggle, but if she concludes perfect equality will never arrive in her lifetime or is an impossible ideal, what is her freedom worth to her? Must she conceive her life as a state of permanent battle?

Actual battlefields are supposed to be incredibly tedious. The photographs of Peter van Agtmael from Iraq show lots of hanging around in a state of readiness before orders are given. It is an interesting question how the military manages the frustration of troops who must, for periods of unknown duration, be kept in a state of hair-trigger readiness while surrounded by immense firepower. Thought of this way the surprise is not that fractious soldiers kill one another in “friendly fire” or abuse their prisoners, but that it does not happen more often.

This descent into bottomless abstractions, like money, equality, or security, inspires in us that most dread need, the need to do something, to judge and find fault, to interfere, or to fight imaginary terrors, none of which is terribly useful or necessary. The world, it seems to me, provides plenty of good reasons to be angry, to strive for the financial, physical, and political well-being of both ourselves and of others, but boredom is not one of them.

The equivalence between the banker, the activist and the soldier is not callous: there are indeed many people who have not escaped the Hobbesian world, but it is also easy enough to imagine the activist in Washington or San Francisco who cares passionately about inequality of wealth and freedom but who does not find the immediate circumstances of her job personally challenging or interesting. And this it seems to me is key; boredom is not an attitude towards the world, but towards one’s own life in the world. I am bored is not the same as a saying something is boring. Boredom it seems to me is the result of a fortuitous circumstance that allows us to say “This is my life, here and now, neither in terror nor in ecstasy.” The misfortune, perhaps even the tragedy of this life, is that too often I (and we) fail to perfect the art of boredom.

Peter van Agtmael. IRAQ. Baghdad. 2010. A soldier surveys the damage after shooting a target with a sawed-off shotgun. Frequent trips to the range helped battle boredom as the Iraq war wound down.