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Mindful : October 2016
Wired for vigilance, we start to feel like some- thing ’s awry when we stop seeking pleasure or running from pain. The nagging pull of boredom is partly the brain’s reminder that you’re putting your life at risk when you’re still. Our culture reinforces this. Writ large, the urge to survive and thrive is expressed in the race for better houses, jobs, friends, and rep- utations. Smartphones and social media are designed to give us ever more means to seek satisfaction, and we come to rely on them for the pleasurable hit that comes from each virtual interaction. It’s a truth almost univer- sally acknowledged that busyness is good, and by correlation, boredom is not. If we’re bored, something must be wrong. But is this true? If we are privileged enough to live in a part of the world where war and hunger aren’t daily concerns, then what purpose does our constant fidget serve? What might in some situations be good for survival isn’t conducive to happiness. Being prone to boredom has been linked with depression, drug abuse, high-risk gambling, and overeating, not to men- tion poor attention span, performance errors, impulsivity, and unconscious biases. It seems that with our bid to escape ennui, life actually becomes shallower, more frantic, and more des- perate. While it might have short-term adaptive value, boredom might not even be good for your longer-term prospects: In a study of British civil servants over more than two decades, those who reported being most bored were also more likely to die an early death, compared to those who felt engaged with life. The more we react by trying to get rid of boredom, the less equipped we are to deal with it. Distracting ourselves again and again, we never learn how to cope with the uncomfortable sensations that come when we can’t get satis- faction. Even meditation can end up on the list of discarded cures, when it fails to deliver the quick bliss we crave. And yet discomfort is an inevitable part of life; it’s hard to avoid boredom forever, and we can’t avoid ourselves. Unless we spend our entire lives running (and many of us try), we need to find some other way of manag- ing the irritation, the lethargy, the rumination, the not-right-in-our-own-skin feeling of sheer, stark, please-turn-me-to-stone-I-can’t-stand- this-another-minute boredom. Mindfulness offers an antidote. Not to the experience that we usually label as boredom, → The more we react by trying to get rid of boredom, the less equipped we are to deal with it. For anyone who has meditated, these results perhaps won’t come as a total surprise. While many of us practice for inner peace, what we find when we stop and sit is rather disconcert- ing: Our minds flit on a seemingly endless loop of tedious thoughts, and our bodies itch and ache. We realize we’d rather be anywhere than stuck with our antsy selves. Like a teenager desperate for stimulation, we feel like scream- ing into space: “I’M SO BORED.” Meditation instructors often cite the tale of when a master teacher instructed a group of new students just to “be,” a hand shot up from the audience. “Sir, how long do I have to be for?” What’s going on here? Why is it so hard just to be ourselves, alone, without embellishment? And what is this strange experience we call boredom, which seems to fuel our relentless drive always to be getting somewhere, doing something? According to psychologist John Eastwood of York University in Toronto, boredom is “the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity,” char- acterized by “an unengaged mind.” Basically, we want to connect to our world, but we cannot find anything in our current environment—inner or outer—that seems worthy of attention. So instead we try to escape the unease, impelled to seek relief elsewhere. Our minds wander around and around, and our bodies buzz with desire to flee. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: We are primed to seek the pleas- ant stimuli that help us survive—food, shelter, social interaction—and actively avoid threats to our well-being, such as predators or poisons. We aren’t programmed to stop and rest for long, which would make us simple prey for hunters (in the wild, meditators would be sitting ducks). 54 mindful October 2016 well-being