The Virtue of Boredom
The fear of boredom often keeps people from meditation. I hear it all the time, “You mean I’m just supposed to sit there doing nothing? I’ll be bored to death!” We’re afraid there will be nothing to entertain us, nothing to hold our interest. In meditation, we’re isolating ourselves. First we isolate the body in a very quiet place with as little external stimulation as possible. We place it on a cushion in a very simple posture. Then we isolate our mind. We place it upon the breath and practice keeping it there. Eventually we reduce the number of thoughts. If we’re able to slow down and abide in our internal space, we’ll begin to appreciate the lack of stimulation in meditation compared to the chaos of normal life. But we will be bored at times, because we won’t always want to be where we are.
Sometimes boredom helps us enjoy the simplicity of meditation. At other times boredom is a threat to our practice, a no-man’s-land where we’re unable to fully experience peaceful abiding. Being bored may even incite us to walk away from the cushion.
There are several kinds of boredom. One kind of boredom has an undercurrent of anxiety. We’re not altogether comfortable with ourselves. When we sit down to meditate, we suddenly have no external amusement. Our senses are habituated to speed and stimulation. Without being stimulated, we find no way to satisfy ourselves. We feel stir crazy, like a child with nothing to do. The agitation wants to reach for something to fill the space. If we were waiting at the airport or the doctor’s office, we’d reach for a magazine, the cell phone, or a computer game. But in meditation there’s nothing to reach for. We try to cope by making our own entertainment. Instead of following the breath, we’ll amuse ourselves with a little sound or the movements of an insect. Watching others meditate in front of us can seem as interesting as a full-length feature film.
We feel awkward and uncomfortable. We’re wary of opening a conversation because we’re afraid of where it might lead. Just so, in meditation we’re fearful because we’re not accustomed to resting with no activity.
Another kind of boredom is rooted in fear. We’re afraid of being left alone with ourselves because we’re not able to relax with our mind. It’s like sitting next to an acquaintance at a dinner party, having heard that his wife has just left him and that no one’s supposed to know. We feel awkward and uncomfortable. We’re wary of opening a conversation because we’re afraid of where it might lead. Just so, in meditation we’re fearful because we’re not accustomed to resting with no activity. It’s too quiet. We’re not sure we want to know what will happen if we totally let go into the space. We want to maintain our comfort zone. We’re unable to go deeper with ourselves, and there’s nothing else to do. The result is fearful boredom. This fear comes from not being able to imagine the mind at peace.
These first two kinds of boredom contain a slight quality of aggression that keeps us from practicing properly. We want things to be different from how they are. We’ve been sitting there in meditation waiting for something to happen or not to happen, and we feel angry and frustrated at our predicament. We can take another approach by observing the boredom and letting ourselves taste it completely. This is a good way to gauge our progress. Look how far we’ve come: in the beginning we couldn’t sit still, we didn’t like our waterfall of thoughts, and we could barely fight the constant urge to get up and do something else. We thought of washing the dishes, making lists of what we needed to do at work, and of returning phone calls. Our mind was so speedy that our body wanted to get off the cushion to relieve the pressure. Now things move a little more slowly, and the impulses to move don’t seem as strong. We’re faced with the boring quality of meditation and it makes us want to quit. If we don’t give in to this impulse, we’ll begin to reap the benefits of boredom.
We start to do this when we settle in to our boredom. We’re stuck on the cushion where nothing is going to happen, and we know it, so we begin to just settle in. We may sink into ourselves and become somewhat glazed over. The world feels distant and fuzzy. Perhaps we don’t quite embrace our practice, but we are able to relax enough to experience the dullness without grasping at amusement or pushing away the space. We’ve begun to accept boredom as part of the landscape of the practice. That’s progress.
What are we bored with when we meditate? It’s not with our practice, even though meditation may be the trigger. What we’re really bored with is our repetitive thought patterns. Even though they’ve become predictable and transparent to us, somehow they keep arising. We see how we get hooked into chasing fantasies and schemes that have as much substance as last night’s dream. We discover that the thought, “What’s for lunch?” never tastes anything like the meal. We see that philosophizing about practice can’t hold a candle to being grounded in the present moment. After a while our boredom takes on a seasoned quality. It’s no longer needy; it’s spacious, comfortable, and soothing. My father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, called this “cool boredom.” This is a breakthrough. We’ve discovered that meditation isn’t going to fulfill our need for entertainment or fortify our comfort zone. In order to make that discovery, we need to be thoroughly bored.
My father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, called this “cool boredom.” This is a breakthrough. We’ve discovered that meditation isn’t going to fulfill our need for entertainment or fortify our comfort zone.
Being fully bored with our wild mind and continuing to apply the technique represents the point at which we personally commit to the practice of meditation. We see the tricks we play on ourselves with thoughts, emotions, and concepts. All of it is boredom—our need for entertainment, our fear of our own aloneness, any desire we have to gain something from meditation. This boredom is not a problem. It inspires us because we don’t feel trapped on the cushion anymore; we see how our mind works and we feel enthusiastic about developing an alliance with it. We can relax. Seeing the process of mind clearly is what strengthens our commitment to practice. A certain joy develops because we’re no longer resisting any part of the landscape.
Sometimes we just can’t settle in. If boredom starts taking its toll with the result that we want to avoid meditating, we need to do something to counter that pattern. We can start by experimenting with our practice. We can focus on different aspects of the practice at different times. One day we can highlight awareness of the posture. We follow the breath and recognize thoughts, but we pay extra attention to the body. At another time we can become intimate with the process of breathing. In the next session we can sharpen our ability to spot thoughts or to cut through a chain of discursiveness that’s taken us on vacation to the Himalayas. Then we might focus on the recognizing process—on spotting the tail end of a thought, for example. By emphasizing different components of the technique, we are strengthening mindfulness and awareness. Of course, another aspect of this mobility in practice is knowing when to return to the simple instructions and put precise focus on the breath.
Everyone has days when practice is difficult and boring. It can help to be aware of our state of mind before taking our seat. When we enter a session of meditation and can sense that we’re totally distracted, for example, we might try sitting down on the cushion and thinking away. We can think about whatever difficulty we’re facing and let the thoughts and fantasies play out. But we do it with awareness. Then after ten minutes of thinking, we place our mind on the breath.
Sometimes reason and antidotes seem to have no effect. During these periods we need to dig deep and find the strength to continue, or examine our life to see if the pain or the intensity we experience in meditation stems from difficulties elsewhere. Contemplation is not an endurance test, nor will it suddenly solve all our problems. But it does help us see how our problems arise, because it trains us in recognizing thoughts and emotions. It also trains us in letting them pass without acting on them.
Even when we’re bored, we can work with our mind. This helps us cope in daily life. Because practice has enlarged our perspective beyond identifying with our thoughts and opinions, we’re less likely to act from a tight, self-protected space. We have more patience, more tolerance. We’re more able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In this way, meditation matures us.
From Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham, copyright © 2003 by Mipham J. Mukpo. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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