Sunday, August 7, 2011

The wisdom of boredom

Boredom is essential to Buddhist practice. When our minds aren’t occupied with something else – planning or playing games or talking or buying – we have the space to see our thoughts. What do you think about when you have nothing to think about? And what does that say to you?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche differentiated between at least two kinds of boredom – hot boredom, the restless jittery I-can’t-sit-still-another-minute kind, and cold boredom, the zoning out kind. Both indicate our mind's desperation to escape the present moment.

We don’t like to be bored, of course. We like to be entertained. We carry smartphones and personal games systems so that we never have to be without something to occupy our minds. Or books -- some of us still carry books.

In this excellent essay, Scott Adams argues that boredom also is essential to creativity.

I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.

Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, also credits his time in corporate meetings, “which felt like a play date with coma patients.”

Now let's suppose that the people who are leaders and innovators around the world are experiencing a similar lack of boredom. I think it's fair to say they are. What change would you expect to see in a world that has declining levels of boredom and therefore declining creativity?.

In that world, he says, people would be more dogmatic, adopting positions laid out for them rather than thinking things through themselves. Movies would be derivative or sequels; TV would show more “reality” shows. The economy would “flat-line for lack of industry-changing innovation,” and the news would sound repetitive. People would have difficulty understanding new ideas.

You might find that bloggers are spending most of their energy writing about other bloggers. Uh, touché.

You know how sometimes a theme emerges in your life, and everywhere you look, something wakes you up to an aspect of your life? Here’s a sample of what I’ve discussed/highlighted/shared in the past week of my personal life:

"Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll's. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his lifespan that Yossarian thought he was dead." Joseph Heller, Catch 22.

“We would like apple juice, orange juice, cottage cheese, ice water – anything to avoid boredom. Through shamata, we discover that we do not need to jump to conclusions or act purely out of impulse. All those impulses are canceled out by the process of mental discipline”. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation.”

"The mind that needs to be entertained hunts for modes of engagement that sedate it, rendering it dull and numb. And once we're tranquilized this way, our reality becomes little more than a giant cocoon of ambient experience." Ethan Nichtern, One City

I’m talking to a friend about how busy we are. She notes that when free time does appear, it’s hard to shift into neutral and just idle. I agree, saying it’s been hard to find time to read. She gently points out that reading is doing something. Ahhh-ha!

On the other side, we have Fritz Perls the inventor of Gestalt Therapy, who said, “If you are bored, you are not paying attention.”

Next time you find yourself casting about for something to pass the time, see if you can let that impulse go and just be in the moment. What is happening within you and without you, right now? What attracts your attention or makes you want to turn away? What are you not seeing?

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