“A non-toothache is very pleasant.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
A couple of years ago I was driving with my nephew. He was around 12 at the time. At one point we hit a lull in conversation and he blurted out “I’m bored”. It was a foggy night (which makes everything look more interesting in my opinion) and I said reactively: “There’s cool stuff everywhere. How can you be bored?”. I pointed out how strange and beautiful the tall, ring-style highway lights looked through the mist, like “alien trees”. He didn’t respond. I have no idea if he got what I was saying, but it made me think a lot about the concept of “bored”.
Have you given much thought to boredom? Probably not. I hadn’t either. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that it was kind of insidious that way, flying under the radar. You likely have at some point have reflected on your own states of anger, sadness and joy. So why not boredom? When it hits, we typically just brush it off and find some available distraction to scratch the boredom itch. Heck, you might be mentally scanning for something more interesting than this boring essay right now!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of a stimulation junkie as anyone. I live in a cool, busy part of the city. I have tons of choices for food and shopping, I can engage with friends and family, work and personal projects all day…and failing all that, I carry a device with me that pumps out music, movies and social content on command! How could I ever get bored?
I think it starts with an unconscious judgement call. Some part of me says “What’s going on right now isn’t enough. ”. Then comes a “get me out of here” pull for something new, different, engaging. Before I know it, I’m down the work email, tv episode, take-out burrito rabbit hole. Not necessarily bad things, just not so great when done out of habitual avoidance of boredom. Now though, it doesn’t really happen that way…as much.
Last year, the stress and isolation of pandemic lockdown led me down a particularly deep rabbit hole, filling the gaping void with all manner of distractions (and burritos). So I decided to try an experiment based on a kind of modified meditation retreat. I called it a ‘distraction fast’. Like food fasting, I wanted to cut out, for a set period of time, all entertainment/distractions. This included things like tv and movies, listening to music, unnecessary phone chit-chat and eating when I wasn’t really hungry. I combined that with a resolve to meditate (even for a minute or two) whenever I felt bored and the urge for distraction set in. I was also helped by a phrase (more of an inquiry actually) that goes: “What do I not want to feel right now?”. I did it for two weeks during my non-work hours.
The practice was hugely informative and transformative. I could see that beneath the surface level of boredom there were layers of complex thoughts and feelings, things I would have never been aware of if I jumped reactively to one of my habitual distractions. I got to really check out the juicy discomforts and cravings that were compelling me. But there was more! Something unexpected. I also got to sit face to face with those parts of my inner and outer worlds that were nothing special, mundane, boring. A flat white wall, no particular odour in the air, the feeling of not really happy or sad, just kind of neutral…and it was fascinating!
In the moments I wasn’t turning away from the ordinary, it came alive. When I just sat there and really checked out the dullness, it got super interesting. The things I had experienced a million times were filled with a new kind of richness. A shadow on the rug, the steady low whoosh sound of the air duct. It was like seeing, hearing, feeling it all for the first time. Really wild. What a great reminder that there’s never really ‘nothing’ going on. And I began to feel a great ‘thank you’ for it all.
Even the negative space. The stillness between the movements and the quiet between the sounds. Nothing that catches attention, but there nonetheless. It was just nice. Peaceful. Worthy of appreciation.
Another aspect I began to appreciate was that I wasn’t feeling crappy. I wasn’t feeling especially overjoyed or delighted either, but neutral is still better than bad, and that’s good! The venerable Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out “the joy of a non-toothache”. How much could be going wrong that isn’t right now? The list is infinite. Gratitude practices for the good things in life are fine, but why not be grateful for the neutral too?
You don’t need to be at home staring at a wall (like I was) either. This practice works great out in the real world. Next time you’re in line at the bank or sitting in a waiting room and find yourself feeling bored, don’t just dismiss it and reach for your phone or a magazine. Take a second. Relax and investigate how boredom itself feels. What’s really going on inside and out? Check out the ordinary colours and sounds around you. Give it all a chance and you may be surprised at how you too can appreciate nothing.