Understanding Boredom in Meditation
Let's not mince words. Meditation is boring—so boring that most people who try it eventually stop doing it, and most people who keep doing it don't do it very often.
We, however, are in the process of building thriving meditation practices that truly help us in our lives. And for that, it's very important to take an honest look at boredom in meditation, and to learn how to work with it.
The Starting Point: No Guilt
Lots of discussions of boredom in meditation start by mentioning how reliant our society is on speed and entertainment, and by pondering whether our inability to tolerate boredom isn't some sort of cultural handicap. These sources often ask something like, "Is boredom so bad?"—making the case that a more "bored" life (or society) may be a healthier one in many ways.
That line of reasoning is fine as far as it goes, but it carries a danger: it's easy to use as an occasion for self-criticism.
They're right, I'm on my phone all the time and I'm so addicted to Netflix. No wonder I can't just sit here and be present even when I know that that's what would be really healthy for me right now. If only I were a medieval peasant farmer, I'd be so much more grounded and mindful.
Like every other self-blame routine, this perspective can lead us not to explore the sanity in our own feelings of boredom and resistance to meditation, or to learn how to work with those experiences as they come up. Working with our boredom becomes something that we just somehow, mysteriously, "should be better at."
This mixture of resistance and self-blame is how meditation ends up in the "Should Graveyard": our gloomy storage facility of idle, listless, unpleasant self-improvement obligations that hang over our heads undone for years, like getting a head start on our taxes and going for jogs at dawn.
If you speak to anyone who's tried meditation and then dropped the practice, she will very likely mention how she loved it when she was doing it, and how she keeps meaning to—or "really should"—get back into it. At the root of this apparently strange dilemma ("then why don't you?") is boredom: meditation is both unpleasantly boring and quite strenuous if not approached correctly, and if we don't know how to work with that, we stop meditating. We don't want to meditate, and we don't have to do it (no one's making us), so meditation goes into the Should Graveyard.
So I don't wish to be too dramatic about this (this is a resource on meditation, there are rules!), but the stakes for us learning how to work with boredom in a healthy way are quite high. Meditation can be so profoundly beneficial if we stay with it, and not relating skillfully to boredom is, above all other challenges, the immediate reason why people stop meditating.
Our first step is to let go of the veil of confusion that guilt creates, and understand that our boredom is something real, with its own purpose and its own sanity. It's telling us something, and we can actually listen, without embarrassment.
Now that we're not feeling guilty or secretive about our boredom, let's take an honest look at it. After that, we can learn to work with it.
What Is Boredom?
Without getting too theoretical, we should understand what, precisely, we're dealing with when boredom comes up. What do we mean when we say "boredom"?
Boredom has a range of flavors, which we discuss below. But all of those flavors have a few things in common, which define the experience of boredom overall.
Let's start simple: boredom is something we feel. Two helpful-to-notice things about feelings in general are:
- Feelings live partly in the body. So boredom carries both a physical sensation and a set of associated moods, stories, and daydreams—the same way hunger does. Speaking personally, boredom can physically feel like a vague, impatient "buzz" in the upper chest; or a ball of hot, condensed energy in the chest that also carries a physical urge to do something desperate like shout loudly or flip a table.
- Feelings are our responses to situations, and not the situations themselves. I might think a TV bowling tournament is boring, while you (a competitive bowler) are on the edge of your seat: similar situation, different responses, different feelings.
So boredom is something we feel, including physically, in response to certain situations. Okay, what situations?
In Response to a Lack of Stimulation
When we feel bored, it's in response to a lack of stimulation. What is stimulation? Basically, "interesting stuff happening": novel content that we find emotionally engaging.
We could feel a lack of stimulation during a situation that is physically unchanging (sitting quietly in a silent, empty room), but also in a situation that includes motion (pounding nails from dawn until dusk) or even a fair amount of variety (sorting and stamping thirty different types of tax forms). What's consistent, whether we're experiencing stillness or activity, is that we're not finding the situation exciting, funny, scandalous, intellectually engaging, heartwarming, horrifying, or any of the other feelings that give flavor and texture to life.
So boredom is a feeling that we sometimes feel in response to a lack of stimulation. Not much that should surprise you there, but it's nice to start at the beginning.
What else is true about boredom? This next one deserves a big headline:
Boredom is Painful
The teacher who started the meditation tradition I follow described two types of boredom: "hot boredom," which is restless and impatient, and "cool boredom," which is pleasant and relaxed. So it might be helpful to clarify that this discussion, throughout, is specifically about "hot boredom": unpleasant, want-to-stop (or just-can't-get-started) boredom.
"Cool boredom" is honestly not really boredom at all in the normal sense, but is rather the sense of ease, relaxation, and even peace that lies on the other side of everyday ("hot") boredom. In the ThriVe system, "cool boredom" is one aspect of the experience of Openness: tuning into the part of ourselves that has always been at peace in the here and now. So when we talk about boredom, we mean "hot boredom," "everyday boredom"—the agitated and restless and stuffy kind, the kind that causes most meditators to quit.
As a starting point, it's extremely important to acknowledge that this boredom isn't merely "flat" or "dull" or "uninspired": it's painful. When you feel bored during meditation, you are experiencing pain.
How much pain? There was a great set of laboratory studies (which I first saw reported in an article on mindfulness and boredom) that let participants choose between sitting still for fifteen minutes and giving themselves painful electric shocks. Many of the participants, in the researchers' words, "preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts." One participant shocked himself 190 times.
These people were not masochists: before participating, they'd all indicated they would pay money to avoid being shocked. So, to sum up, the boredom of simply being alone with oneself (let alone of rigorously following a technique, especially if that technique mistakenly includes a doomed attempt to stop your thoughts) is more painful than an experience so painful that people would pay to avoid it. And here we are, trying to meditate for free!
So if you've ever found yourself hovering around your meditation cushion—but somehow, helplessly, ending back up on Instagram or cleaning your room or just staring at the ceiling fan—then this clears up that mystery: you're avoiding pain, as surely as if you had, for some reason, committed to plug yourself into an electric shock machine every morning. (We'll explore avoidance further in the section on avoidance-boredom, below.)
Don't Just Push Through It
The truth that boredom is painful is why the casually dismissive, "Oh, it's just boredom, I should be better at relaxing through it" is so dangerous. Your thoughts can tell you that story, sure; but there's another, nonverbal part of your being that is conditioned to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and it knows exactly what it's feeling. If you try to simply ignore that part of yourself, you'll find, to your surprise, that you hate meditation. At best, you'll have the love/hate relationship to meditation ("it's the cornerstone of my life/I rarely do it") that so many longtime meditators endure for years.
We can do better. Doing better calls for more than just the commonly recommended inner resources, such as patience, curiosity, and gentle attention. These are all helpful, and we'll use them all; but relying only on these resources is the logic of the usual careless advice, which is to drown in your boredom repeatedly, until someday, somehow—when you're finally Mindful Enough—you find that you like it.
We'll outline a very different approach in the next article, but first we need to understand boredom itself more deeply.
Three Flavors of Boredom
Boredom, overall, is a painful feeling that we sometimes feel because of a lack of stimulation. Like any feeling, from "sad" to "satisfied," we know that boredom is not just one experience that's exactly the same every time.
In particular, as we're learning to work with our boredom, it's helpful to learn to distinguish between three flavors of boredom:
These three categories correspond to the Buddhist teachings on "wanting, aversion, and avoidance." These three tendencies (which have many English translations) are understood to be the primary unhealthy ways that our minds can respond to a situation: "I want it," "I'm repulsed by it," and "I can't be bothered with it."
Our experience of boredom can be colored by any of these three tendencies (or all of them). Learning how these three types of boredom operate is very helpful for clearly understanding your own experiences of boredom, and how to work with those experiences.
Wanting-boredom comes up when we feel deprived of something that we feel would be stimulating: when we don't have the stimulation we want.
As an example, let's say that in the next room our friends are laughing and playing video games, but it's our turn to do the dishes. Maybe we're normally okay with doing the dishes, but this time the process feel incredibly drawn-out and irritating. We feel almost physically "pulled" away from the dishes by the fun we're missing out on.
Wanting-boredom becomes especially troublesome when we try to meditate in the middle of a busy day. We may not exactly "want" to refill the parking meter to avoid a ticket, or respond to an email marked "URGENT!:"—but the powerful "pulling-away" effect of these and a million other distractions can make meditation heroically difficult.
However, wanting-boredom certainly doesn't need any external occasion to pop up during meditation: thoughts themselves are enough to pull us away. The first time we meditate, we discover that thoughts don't always slip unobtrusively through awareness. Rather, they often demand our attention, sometimes very persuasively. Did I turn the stove off? Is the job offer actually going to come through? What is the name of this song that's been stuck in my head all day? These thoughts tug at us because they come with promises: we know that if we follow them, we will feel captivating emotions ranging from anxiety to amusement. They're like movie trailers—comedy, horror, family drama, revenge thriller.
We want to keep watching these trailers (never mind the movies themselves), and so the discipline of letting them pass and forgoing the stimulation they offer can be a very powerful source of wanting-boredom. If you've ever joined a meditation retreat, and found yourself overwhelmed by sexual fantasies, first paragraphs for your novel, jingles for nonexistent products, and irrational health worries, then you know how intense a source of wanting-boredom your mind can be, even—especially!—with almost no external stimulation.
Your wanting-boredom may also be vague: you want something interesting to happen, but it's unclear what that might be. There's no particular party or crisis you're missing out on, there's no particular movie or thought-movie you want to watch, but you still feel pulled toward more engagement. It's a bit like the trope of kids growing up in a town where "nothing ever happens," and who leave as soon as they can to "see the world": you want something else, something compelling—whatever it is. On meditation retreats, I've found myself eating five bread-and-honey sandwiches a day, strictly from this vague tendency to seek whatever stimulation is close at hand.
Wanting-Boredom and Entertainment
The common thread in this entire discussion is entertainment, the ongoing process of seeking and experiencing stimulation. Whether it's a video game, a parking meter, or an ad jingle, our mind wants to do stuff in order to seek out good feelings and situations and ward away bad ones: in other words, to keep itself occupied playing the game of life.
Being fully occupied by life in this way—seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, targeting peak experiences and charting our progress toward them—is not a problem in itself, but it can fascinate us away from the Openness at our core (which turns out not to be bound up in entertainment of any kind) if we don't know how to disengage from it when necessary.
We love to engage with life, as we should. But that passion can also mean that any pause in our entertainment—including perhaps the most pronounced pause there is, meditation—becomes a forced time-out, torture. That sense of deprivation, of being kept away from something more interesting, is what we mean by wanting-boredom.
Aversion-boredom is a powerful feeling of restlessness, confinement, and negativity that arises from feeling trapped in a painfully unengaging experience.
As we discussed above, wanting-boredom is how we feel when we can't have some desired stimulation: "I want that," and instead I'm stuck here. Aversion-boredom is more direct: it's not about "that"—some imagined experience—at all. Rather, it's about "I don't want this": it's how we feel when we do have a painful experience of restlessness and confinement that we don't want to keep having.
Aversion-boredom is not a subtle or mysterious experience in any way. Everyone's felt it. Let's take an example.
Aversion-Boredom: An Example
You're at an airport terminal, two hours early for your flight. Your carry-on was too big, so you had to check your laptop and your headphones and your book. You accidentally checked your wallet, too—whoops. Luckily you got through security with the passport in your coat pocket, but now you can't buy anything.
Since you sat down fifteen minutes ago, people have slowly filtered in and taken all the seats next to you, so you're now nestled in with a bunch of strangers. You can't use either armrest.
CNN drones on in the distance, but the only nearby monitor is angled away from you. The sound is too quiet to understand clearly, but you also can't make it stop. It's a debate program of some kind: voices, shrill and fast.
The couple in the seats directly across from you are asleep, folded awkwardly across their carry-ons and armrests. You notice that their sweatshirts clash. The man has one shoe untied.
You become aware of the buzz of the fluorescent lights above you.
The stranger three seats down is slurping chicken noodle soup directly from the edge of a large Styrofoam cup. You hear the Slurrrrrrrrrppp. Ahhhhh. every thirty seconds or so. More specifically, the sound seems to repeat immediately after you stop listening for it. It almost has the rhythm of a reminder, like the chirp of a smoke alarm.
There's a gate announcement. Your flight is badly delayed. You'll be here for four hours, not two.
This is hell, right? That's aversion-boredom.
Understanding How Pain Can Still Be Boring
The example above highlights again that aversion-boredom is not necessarily a "bland" or "ho-hum" experience. Rather, it can be startlingly painful. It's like trying to eat two pounds of soggy cardboard: the input is thoroughly bland, but the experience itself can be marked by real, heightened misery.
What makes this painful boredom, and not just pain (like getting dumped, or being barefoot on a hot sidewalk) is that the pain isn't stimulating, engaging. It doesn't call for a physically vigorous response, we don't want to write heartbroken poetry about it, it doesn't give us an energizing sense of danger or competition, it's not a turning point in our lives or a noble sacrifice for a greater cause. It's just a drag: a traffic jam, a tax audit, an afternoon at the DMV.
Aversion-Boredom and Stillness
Of the three flavors of boredom, aversion-boredom is the closest to "the pain of boredom itself"—and not the pain of yearning for one or another kind of stimulation (wanting-boredom), or the pain of all the little routines we do to avoid boredom (avoidance-boredom, which we'll cover next). The question now is: where does this painful experience come from? What provokes it?
The most intuitive answer might be that stillness, a lack of activity, is naturally unengaging, since there's "nothing going on." If that's true, then aversion-boredom comes from stillness: sit still for too long and you'll inevitably go out of your mind with boredom. That would be bad news for meditation, and the people who practice it.
The truth is that aversion-boredom is not an inevitable response to stillness itself. Stillness is still: neither bored nor entertained. The impulse to feel trapped by stillness is just that: an impulse, a movement within stillness. The impulse to knock the chicken noodle soup out of a stranger's hand is an impulse, a movement within stillness.
In other words: Boredom is always a movement in mind, not a property of the innate stillness of mind itself. To take an analogy, spending too much time in a public pool can make our hair brittle and even green. Is this because of the pool water? Not exactly: it's because there's a bit of stuff, chlorine, in the water. Water itself is neutral.
This does not discredit your experiences of boredom, and it's not an invitation to treat those experiences carelessly: "Oh, this is just a movement of mind." Everything is a movement of mind: your joy at the birth of your firstborn child is a movement of mind, and your fear of the ax murderer who just burst into your bedroom is a movement of mind. Movements of mind are not to be hand-waved away.
Rather, understanding that boredom is a movement within stillness, rather than a baked-in property of stillness itself, is helpful in two ways. First, it points to the possibility of stillness without painful boredom. That experience is part of Openness, and it certainly does exist.
Second, this perspective invites you to examine the immediate sources of your boredom. We know water's neutral, so what is the chlorine in the pool of your mind? Are you physically uncomfortable? Is your mental activity trapped in a painful cycle from a difficult day? Are you trying too hard at a particular meditation technique? Is there a TV droning in the next room? The next article will go much more in-depth on "touching" and understanding your boredom itself—without drowning in it.
Of the three flavors of boredom, avoidance-boredom is the slipperiest, and the least immediately painful. Wanting-boredom is painful: feeling pulled toward, but unable to indulge in, something stimulating. Aversion-boredom is painful: being trapped in a situation that is unstimulating, and which may be irritating in other ways (that are also unstimulating).
Avoidance-boredom is the subtly painful experience of not being able to bring ourselves to deal with a boring situation directly in the first place. It's a sense of constantly, helplessly, slipping off to the side, because of not wanting to get into an experience that we think will be full-on boring.
Avoidance-boredom is how you feel when you procrastinate on your homework for an entire Sunday. You "keep meaning to" get around to your homework: It'll only take 90 minutes! Then you'll have the whole day free! Somehow, though, you always end up watching one more Netflix episode. Then one more game on your phone. Now you're just staring at the ceiling fan. Before you know it, you've spent the entire day in your room, under the subtle cloud of a boredom you couldn't bring yourself to face head-on. You feel guilty, a bit strung-out, and actually dazed: What happened? Why didn't I do what I "should"?
So avoidance-boredom has this quality of being a little sad and gross, but also a little numb and difficult to even notice. It's definitely less painful, at any given time, than the much sharper boredom of doing accounting worksheets for 90 minutes in silence. This is how we can surf on avoidance-boredom for an entire day (or year, or whatever): it's always the less painful option right now than the boredom we fear lurking behind it.
We are often mystified and guilt-ridden by our own avoidance: "I just keep putting it off for some reason. I have no idea what's wrong with me, but tomorrow I'll definitely just buckle down and get it done!" But avoidance-boredom makes a definite kind of sense, and it's not something to blame yourself for.
As we discussed above, understanding that boredom is not merely "flat" but actually painful can help us understand a lot more clearly how and why we avoid it. Remember, lots of people find boredom, even in small doses, more unpleasant than electric shocks. If you've grown to associate meditation (or whatever activity) with this level of painful boredom, then when you contemplate doing it, your "should" mind is telling you, quite earnestly and innocently: "I should really plug myself into the shock machine today. It'd be so good for me. In fact, ideally I'd wake up at dawn and hit the shock machine for a good 45 minutes before work." Looking at it this way invites a lot more understanding and sympathy for the snooze-button routine you end up doing instead.
The next article will discuss a number of strategies for working with avoidance-boredom—all of which respect the power of boredom and don't ask you to simply grit your teeth through it. If that worked, you wouldn't even be reading this; you'd be doing that yearlong solitary forest retreat you've always dreamed about. Of course, you'd also be running an ultramarathon.
Where We Go From Here
This discussion on boredom falls within the ThriVe facet of Precision. Precision is being able to clearly understand the dynamics of your own meditation practice, and to navigate your practice toward Openness, without being sidetracked for too long by any one obstacle.
Allowing painful boredom to direct your meditation practice into the Should Graveyard (or a protracted love/hate relationship) is a big obstacle, which is why we're talking about it right away. In fact, along with mistaken ideas about the meditation technique, boredom is the key obstacle to a steady meditation practice. Those are the bouncers, and the club itself is extremely wonderful, utterly worth getting inside (if, perhaps, a little more quiet and spacious than we might be accustomed to in our nightclubs).
The key understandings of boredom we've presented here, and especially the three flavors of boredom we've outlined, are key to the material we'll present next: strategies for working intelligently and sensitively with boredom in your meditation practice—without ever drowning in it.
I hope you've found this presentation of boredom in meditation helpful and clarifying. I also hope you've found it engaging: I'm not here to entertain you, but I don't wish to bore you either.