Sunday, 7 October 2012

Mindfulness and Boredom

"A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men." - British Philosopher Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (London,1932), p65.
"Boredom is the root of all evil - the despairing refusal to be oneself." - Soren Kierkegaard.
"...boredom is time’s invasion of your world system. It puts your life into perspective, and the net result is precisely insight and humility. The former gives rise to the latter, not a bene. The more you learn about your own format, the humbler and more sympathetic you become to your fellow-beings, to this dust that swirls in the sun’s ray or that already lies motionless on your table top." - Joseph Brodsky, ‘In Praise of Boredom’, in On Grief and Reason (New York,1995).
"Boredom has to be accepted as an unavoidable fact, as life’s own gravity." - Professor Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), p154.
 "To endure is the first thing that a child ought to learn, and that which he will have the most need to know." - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Our unexciting way of practice may appear to be very negative. This is not so. It is a wise and effective way to work on ourselves. It is just very plain. I find this point very difficult for people, especially young people, to understand." - Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p58.
"Mindfulness meditation can feel exciting and illuminating at times, but it can also feel downright boring, especially in the early stages, until we learn how to work with mind states and feeling states such as boredom." - Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p229.

When I began meditating mindfully, I started to see what habits had been nurtured in me - an addiction to exciting stimuli, and appetites which numbed my awareness. When I began to lower my consumption of exciting and numbing stimuli, boredom began to rear it's ugly head more often than ever before. Dealing with boredom became (and still is) a big feature of my mindfulness practice, and so the following is an investigation of the existence and effects of boredom in society, and how mindfulness meditation teachers engage with it.

Lars Svendsen,  professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, Norway, says in his book, 'A Philosophy of Boredom', p142:
"it goes against every fibre in your being not to try and shrug yourself free of boredom."
and, p23:
"we cannot face tackling time that is ‘empty’."

Professor Svendsen uses characters presented in the novel 'William Lovell' to illustrate the state of extreme boredom quite nicely:
"William demands that the world satisfy him and be interesting, but he can find nothing of interest, and his daily complaint is that he is bored to death; the world as such is a vast prison. He conceives the world and its inhabitantsas lacking all originality or capacity to fascinate him. From time to time he reaches a temporary state of euphoria or ‘lustful intoxication’, but this always rapidly passes away. Man as such no longer ‘interests’ William, and every single face ‘bores him’." p65
 And so what comes out of such a state? As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his book, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p64:
"If the mind says, "This is boring," then before you know it, the body is up and looking around for the next thing to do to keep the mind happy. [...] If the body feels the slightest discomfort, it will shift to be more comfortable or it will call on the mind to find something else for it to do, and again, you will be standing up literally before you know it."
He also mentions how children react to boredom in unhealthy ways, p417:
"Many children are addicted to TV and don't know· what to do with themselves when it is off. It is such an easy escape from boredom that they are not challenged to find other ways of dealing with time, such as through imaginative play, drawing, painting, and reading."

Immersing oneself in the huge ocean of media on the internet also doesn't seem to solve our problems. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes,  in his book The Sun, My Heart (1988), p39:
"Contemporary music, literature, and entertainment do little to help with healing; to the contrary much of it compounds the bitterness, desperation, and weariness we all feel."
So what are the standard, more healthy approaches for tackling boredom? Svendsen, when discussing methods of neutralising boredom writes, p141:
"In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig simply recommended sleep as a means of combating boredom. Obviously, this must work, but the effect is unfortunately only temporary, and hardly relevant for anything except situative boredom. ... one cannot just sleep all the time."
This forces us to consider what the effect on society is, as individual people, driven by such suffering as outlined above, interact and send ripples out across the world. Without any way of accepting their pain as part of a necessary process of letting go of unhealthy appetites, it seems people cause more suffering for others as they run away from their own suffering. An American sociologist called Robert Nisbet, in the  chapter titled 'Boredom' in his book Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA, and London,1982), writes, p.28:
"Boredom may become Western man’s greatest source of unhappiness. Catastrophe alone would appear to be the surest and, in today’s world, the most likely of liberations from boredom."

A French author and WW1 soldier, Georges Bernanos, in his work The Diary of a Country Priest, writes:
" ...if the human race disappears, it will be out of ennui and boredom. Mankind will gradually be consumed ... Look at these world wars, for example, which apparently bear witness to a violent vitality in man but which actually prove its growing lethargy. It will end with vast numbers being led to the slaughter at certain times."
Professor Svendsen reflects upon this violent reaction to boredom in A Philosophy of Boredom, when he writes, p39-40:
"Boredom leads to most things appearing to be a tempting alternative, and it might seem as if what we really need is a fresh war or a major catastrophe. [...] Boredom gives a sort of pallid foretaste of death, and one could imagine that violent actual death would be preferable, that one would prefer the world to end with a bang rather than with a miserable little whimper."
It seems that the mind, feeling trapped in cyclical - turbulent - episodes of excitement, sedation, and boredom, desperately seeks a way out through a possible premature death at the hands of others - a kind of suicide by proxy perhaps. If life is intense suffering already, then death is not as daunting a prospect as it should be. Bertrand Russell emphasises this dimension in The Conquest of Happiness when he writes, p68:
"Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind."

Such a position is a far cry from what life - living, sentient beings - is apparently all about, however - the instinct to preserve and nuture life is present within all of us, and it longs to be satisfied, even though, of course, it must inevitably come to an end. It appears it was this dimension to human life that caused Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, to leave his comforts and his palace life and go in search of liberation from cyclical suffering. As the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh relates in his book, Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, p109:
"The king stood up and grabbed his son’s hand. “Siddhartha, you know how much I need you. You are the one on whom I have placed all my hopes. Please, don’t abandon me.”
“I will never abandon you. I am only asking you to let me go away for a time. When I have found the Way, I will return.”
A look of pain crossed King Suddhodana’s face. He said no more and retired to his quarters.[...] in the early evening, Udayin, one of Siddhartha’s friends, came to visit [...] Udayin had organized a party and had hired one of the finest dancing troupes in the capital to perform. Festive torches brightened the palace. ... Udayin had been summoned by the king and given the task to do everything he could think of to entice Siddhartha to remain in the palace. The evening’s party was the first of Udayin’s plans."
The party did not manage to entice Siddhartha to remain in the palace, however - his searching mind overpowered his appetites for entertainment, and he went off to seek liberation from the suffering associated with birth and death.

As part of his training under various teachers, Siddhartha Gautama constantly questioned the reality within and around him - watching his mind and body in the here-and-now. It seems it was this process which eventually gave him his deep insight. Following in Gautama's footsteps, Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p64:
 "If you are genuinely committed to being more peaceful and relaxed, you might wonder why it is that your mind is so quick to be bored with being with itself and why your body is so restless and uncomfortable. You might wonder what is behind your impulses to fill each moment with something; what is behind your need to be entertained whenever you have an "empty" moment, to jump up and get going, to get back to doing and being busy? What drives the body and mind to reject being still?"
There are apparently no clear answers as to why we feel bored at times, but I find that making contact with boredom - as an experience - is almost like a kind of exposure therapy - and it deepens my mindfulness practice. Professor Svendsen says in A Philosophy of Boredom, p132:
"Boredom does not lead us to any profound, encompassing understanding of ‘the meaning of Being’, but it can tell us something about how we actually lead our lives."
Kabat-Zinn, in The Mindful Way Through Depression, writes of boredom arising during meditation, p83:
"We might wind up telling ourselves that nothing useful or interesting seems to be happening; the mind is just wandering uncontrollably, even as we persist in bringing it back over and over again to a sense of the breath moving in the body, or whatever our primary focus of attention may be. "How boring," the mind says to itself."
 If boredom is something we fear and react to; something which causes us to jump up and busy ourselves, then it seems natural that if we can be 'OK' with boredom, then it will not cause us to react and give birth to  unhealthy behaviours. Soto Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in the chapter titled 'It's OK', in her book Everyday Zen (1997) says of seated mindfulness meditation:
"As we sit through it an understanding slowly increases: “Yes, I’m going through this and I don’t like it—wish I could run out—and somehow, it’s OK.”"
Regarding the therapeutic dimension connected to facing one's fears, in the book 'Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies' (2010), the authors write, p126-7:
"Supported by numerous clinical trials, and used daily all over the world, the principle of facing your fears until your anxiety reduces is one of the cornerstones of CBT. The process of deliberately confronting your fear and staying within the feared situation until your anxiety subsides is known as exposure or desensitisation. The process of getting used to something, like cold water in a swimming pool, is called habituation. The principle is to wait until your anxiety reduces by at least half before ending your session of exposure – usually between twenty minutes and one hour, but sometimes more.
... if you deliberately confront your fears, your anxiety becomes less severe and reduces more quickly with each exposure. The more exposures you experience, the better. When you first confront your fears, aim to repeat your exposures at least daily."
It seems this is exactly the process which occurs when one sits down in mindful meditation. There is this idea that facing boredom will somehow kill us, and it may indeed kill a part of us - some unnecessary and unhealthy appetite for entertainment on demand, but the idea that boredom can somehow destroy us outright like dynamite is apparently very wrong. Even Professor Svendson intimates the value of facing boredom head-on, p141-2:
" experience boredom is to experience a piece of reality. Rather than immediately happen on an antidote to boredom, there could be some point in lingering and maybe finding some kind of meaning in boredom itself. It is not possible to completely deselect boredom or some other mood, but one can choose to recognize it or to repress it.[...] ...without the ability to tolerate a certain degree of boredom one will live a miserable life, because life will be lived as a continuous flight from boredom. So all children ought to be brought up to be able to be bored. To activate a child at all times is to neglect an important part of child-rearing. [...] Boredom contains a potential. In boredom an emptying takes place, and an emptiness can be a receptiveness, although it does not have to be it. Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts. It can open ways up for a new configuration of things, and therefore also for a new meaning, by virtue of the fact that it has already deprived things of meaning. Boredom, because of its negativity, contains the possibility of a positive turn-around. ...boredom gives you a perspective on your own existence, where you realize your own insignificance in the greater context."
Unfortunately Svendsen doesn't go any deeper than this, although there is an interesting link between what he relates in his analysis of William Lovett and a MBSR mindfulness introduction technique createded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Svendsen writes, p65:
"William, though, is not the only person who is bored – practically all the characters are. One of William’s friends, Karl Wilmont, writes that ‘This boredom has already brought more unhappiness into the world than all the passions put together. The soul shrivels up like a dried plum.’"
What would be to happen if Karl Wilmont decided to sit down in relaxed awareness and investigate his shrivelled, dried plum of a soul right there 'in the moment' with all his attention? Kabat-Zinn seems to have the answer in Full Catastrophe Living, as he relates the mindful exploration of a raisin, p27-28:
"we bring our attention to seeing the raisin, observing it carefully as if we had never seen one before. We feel its texture between our fingers and notice its colors and surfaces. We are also aware of any thoughts we might be having about raisins or food in general. We note any thoughts and feelings of liking or disliking raisins if they come up while we are looking at it. [...] The response to this exercise is invariably positive, even among the people who don't like raisins."
But what of situations more intimidating than raisin-eating? - What of soul-shrivelling boredom?


In another of his books on mindfulness practice, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), Kabat-Zinn says the following of boredom, in the section titled 'Non-Judging', p55-56:
"When you dwell in stillness, the judging mind can come through like a foghorn. I don't like the pain in my knee .... This is boring. ... I like this feeling of stillness; I had a good meditation yesterday, but today I'm having a bad meditation. ... It's not working for me. I'm no good at this. I'm no good, period. This type of thinking dominates the mind and weighs it down. It's like carrying around a suitcase full of rocks on your head. It feels good to put it down. Imagine how it might feel to suspend all your judging and instead to let each moment be just as it is, without attempting to evaluate it as "good" or "bad." This would be a true stillness, a true liberation."
So the method to facing boredom successfully is to drop the judgement. In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn says of this process, p34:
"At a certain point you may find your mind saying something like, "This is boring," or "This isn't working," or "I can't do this." These are judgments. When they come up in your mind, it is very important to recognize them as judgmental thinking and remind yourself that the practice involves suspending judgment and just watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts, without pursuing them or acting on them in any way."

Suspending judgement allows one to accept whatever necessary situation is occuring, and allows it to pass by in it's own time. Kabat-Zinn further illustrates the practice as follows, p64:
"we just observe the impulse to get up [out of boredom] or the thoughts [about boredom] that come into the mind. And instead of jumping up and doing whatever the mind decides is next on the agenda, we gently but firmly bring our attention back to the belly and to the breathing and just continue to watch the breath, moment by moment. We may ponder why the mind is like this for a moment or two, but basically we are practicing accepting each moment as it is without reacting to how it is. So we keep sitting, following our breathing."

And so a more unexciting, yet calmer and stable, way of life unfolds from this practice - traditionally boring necessary situations are no longer met with adversity and 'suffered', and the presence of boredom in one's mindfulness meditation can be seen as a gift - to practice being more 'OK' with empty time - to weed one's psychic garden and bury the weeds as fertiliser for the more noble plants to grow stronger.

As one's practice deepens, however, even getting excited about mindfulness needs to be met with caution. As Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p57-58:
"Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged. This is not good. If possible, try to be always calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement. [...] Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. [...] When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest."
There is plenty of joy to be had outside of excitement.

The author enjoying a mountain waterfall in South China.

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