Mindfulness and Boredom
Little is typically written about boredom but it is actually one of the most difficult emotions to embrace and one which, if not mindfully recognized can render very destructive consequences. We have all experienced boredom. It might be experienced on a dreary winter day when there are no planned activities, waiting in a doctors office, sitting in an airport after a flight delay, a droning college lecture and so on. Boredom is likely to set in when environmental situation falls below some specific threshold. Research shows that we are more likely to experience boredom when our internal levels of arousal are high. If our internal arousal levels are low then we are more likely to feel relaxed. Boredom is also more likely to be reported when we perceive little or no control over our environment, as in the case of a delayed or cancel airline flight. Boredom is also more likely to be experienced when we experience a lack of attention and focus to which we attribute to environmental factors.
As with other of the difficult emotions, we tend to react by avoiding the experience or in some manner compensating for it. This tendency to avoid feelings, in the case of boredom can lead to overeating, alcohol or substance abuse, filling our time with compulsive behaviors: Cleaning, shopping, playing video games, sleeping, eating, watching mindless TV shows, repetitive self- stimulation behaviors (pacing, fantasies, self-talk etc.). I used to work at the Bronx Zoo and many of the animals would engage in pretty strange behaviors that are not characteristically seen in the wilds. Aimless pacing, masturbation (yes animals do that), aberrant social behaviors and so on.
I believe that for modern humans in the industrialized nations, the issue of boredom may be escalating. We have, in many ways become an ADD nation. We have become overly reliant of high levels of external stimulation via our hyper-reliance on technology and media. This reliance appears to have decreased our ability to be comfortable in low arousal settings and internal states contributing to internal feelings of ennui and boredom.
So then, the question becomes, “What are healthier ways to deal with the experience of boredom”? The primary point to be made here is that the antidote to boredom is not simply to stay busy. Keep in mind, “We are human beings, not human doings“–Lama Surya Das
Tips for working with mindfulness and boredom :
One answer I suppose is to gradually teach our body/minds to require less arousal. Towards this I recommend occasional breaks or what I term “stimulation fasts”. In Judaism and Christianity, the Sabbath once fulfilled this role. For example, during the sabbath, Jews are instructed to relax, not engage in commerce, not cook or engage in any work or effortful activities. The idea is that one’s energies and time can then be turned towards more spiritual pursuits. So perhaps we can create our own Sabbaths in whatever manner fits our own life schedules and responsibilities.
My other recommended exercise is one which of course I would propose for any of the “dark emotions”…mindfully embrace the feeling. So for instance one could actually close their eyes and really focus on the feelings. Note where in the body boredom appears to emanate from. You may find that as you probe deeper into the feeling, that some other feelings and physical sensations arise. Perhaps you might identify fear, loneliness, loss, sadness, hopelessness despair or other feelings trying to surface. Whatever you experience, just sit with the feelings and pay attention to the accompanying thoughts, images, memories and so on, but without getting caught up in them.
The final thing i would recommend, is thinking of things to do that can be self-enhancing and that have a likelihood of being meaningful, not just activities to fill time. As one mindfully sits with the feeling of boredom, it is more likely that meaningful pursuits and goals might start to arise in one’s mind. Boredom can be motivating if we don’t anesthetize our experience of it. Socializing with friends, reading, gardening, joining a gym or yoga class, adult education classes, taking a walk or hike, volunteering at an animal shelter, food pantry, meditating, reading, or 1001 other things might occur to you.
Please feel free to post comments, personal experiences, suggestions or questions!!