We live in a society that is pretty obsessed with doing. We attach value to being busy, and most of us live in a constant state of activity, always working, distracting and interacting. We believe that a person’s worth stems from tangible achievements, accolades and outcomes – only by achieving a certain title, degree or salary are we deserving of love. Rarely do we make time to simply BE: to sit in silence and stillness, remaining present with our internal experience. Maybe we fear our own thoughts and feelings, afraid of what will arise if we actually stop all the busyness and just pause. For many of us, we simply can’t seem to get comfortable with the feeling of boredom. This aversion to boredom is so extreme that people will actually choose pain over boredom. A recent study by the University of Virginia found that when given the choice to sit alone in silence or receive mild electric shocks, most participants chose to receive shocks rather than experience isolated quiet time.
Why is this so? What’s going on with us that we prefer pain over boredom? And what can we learn about boredom from Buddhism and Buddhist psychology?
Boredom is not a pleasurable emotion. It is a restless and uncomfortable feeling that nothing interesting or stimulating is happening in our environment. And especially with the plethora of technology and social media platforms that exist, we seem to have become addicted to stimulation. We are so rarely without access to information, people, sounds or images. We mindlessly scroll through our phones like robots, not necessarily happy with what we’re doing but seemingly unable to stop. In short: we’ve developed an addiction to stimulation the same way we develop addictions to other substances (check out Dr. Cal Newport’s TEDx talk on the neuroscience of social media addiction).
In Buddhist terms, our minds label an experience as having one of three feeling tones or sensations (called “vedana” in Sanskrit): pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The feeling of boredom arises when we perceive a situation to have a “neutral” feeling tone. In this sense, there is nothing inherently wrong with boredom. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with any sensation – even those that are distressing or uncomfortable. Feelings do not have innate value; as a society, we’ve simply chosen to label “happy” as “good” and “sad” as “bad”, to place feelings on a dichotomous spectrum ranging from the most pleasant to the least pleasant. This is because our minds are wired to resist whatever feels unpleasant and grasp at anything it perceives as pleasurable. We constantly chase pleasure and run from pain, and from an evolutionary perspective, this “negativity bias” is extremely helpful and protective. From a mental health standpoint, however, the tendencies of the mind can create a great deal of suffering. To sum it up: perception is everything.
So how do we apply this idea to our experience of boredom? How can we change our perception of boredom so that we don’t feel restless and uncomfortable when we’re bored?
The answer, as is so often the case in Buddhism, is to become non-judgmentally curious about our experience. When we feel bored, we are taught to lean in, to stay with the feeling and experience it as a physical sensation in our bodies. Where does boredom “live”? Is the sensation acute or dull? Does it have a color or a texture?
And what about the stories we tell ourselves about boredom? What does the mind say about the experience? Are we thinking of ways to escape it and resist it? Do we believe we’re bad people because we’re not busy?
Meditation is the main tool we learn to help us cultivate this experience of staying with our thoughts and feelings. By remaining still, and learning to simply observe our inner experience (without attaching any sort of value judgment), we begin to feel a sense of calm and peace. Without mindfulness or meditation, we are at the mercy of our minds: we impulsively resist and run from whatever feels unpleasant, reacting from a place of disempowerment and fear. When we stay with our thoughts and feelings – however pleasant, unpleasant or neutral they may be – we liberate ourselves from the cycle of suffering, and are able to experience a deep sense of real and lasting peace.