5 hours of flight time to Seattle and he hadn’t taken a break yet. My eyes were closed, but the glow pierced my meager defenses and lit up my visual field. This wasn’t the pleasant aura of a candle or a waning crescent moon. This was iPad light, dialed to maximum brightness. I yearned for my sleep mask.
I opened my eyes and glanced over. More explosions. This show had no characters – only an array of pyrotechnics that could probably induce seizures in those susceptible. The guy next to me was totally locked in. I silently willed his battery to die.
I carried my fantasy further. What if this man were stranded without portable entertainment? His nightmare could take many forms: Languishing in a doctor’s waiting room without cell reception. Forgetting his tablet charger on a transatlantic flight. Sitting alone in a room with no NetFlix. Feeling, as we say, bored.
“Just think for a moment how much you might do in your life to avoid the feeling of boredom,” reflects author and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “Somehow feeling bored is not okay.” Our entire culture seems bent on avoiding this emotion. TV, magazines, books, smartphones, apps, tablets, newspapers, iPods – something is always within reach to keep our attentions sated. We simply must stay busy with something. With anything.
“This busyness serves as kind of an existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness,” writes satirist Tim Kreider: “obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”
This fear is, in large part, the fear of boredom. It starts early. Kids are shuttled from class to chess club to soccer to homework to TV with no instant left unscheduled. No time left for reflection. No time for gazing at clouds or chewing on blades of grass. No “me” time. Before our cultural programming seeps into their cortical folds – before we structure every minute of their lives – children find wonder in the most basic things. But then the machine revs up.
And now we have a human being with an insatiable desire for stimulation. There is always something – something just around the bend – to be done, read, clicked, heard, or watched. “Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn. “The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete.”
Joy of non-doing? Perhaps boredom isn’t the only option when we turn off the spigot of entertainment. What, exactly, does happen when we feel the gravitational pull of our phone but decide to resist? Something far more interesting, in my view, than scrolling through stock quotes or costumed bulldogs on Pintrest.
First there is a sense of panic. I’m missing out. What if she emailed me back? Then a powerful urge arises. We glance around furtively, looking for something to do. We even contemplate cleaning the fridge. If we watch closely here, we learn something about ourselves: we are addicted to doing. Our minds are like slaves to our activity-seeking, boredom-avoiding, habit patterns. “All of humanity’s problems,” wrote philosopher Blaise Pascal, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I’m not suggesting we don’t act on impulses. We would starve. Yet, most desires don’t have to be fulfilled to fade away. With training, we can learn to see them for what they are: amorphous wisps arising and disappearing in consciousness. The training is simply to be interested in this process. And interest is the antidote for boredom.
Now the plane was in its final descent and my neighbor looked up, blinking, from a final episode of Napalm City. His re-entry into this world would surely be a boring one. There would be no fireworks, twinkles, detonations, flashes, flares or sparkles. At least until the next WiFi hotspot.
Goldstein, Joseph. Dharma Talk: “Working With Afflictive Emotion.” Nov 10, 2001.
Kreider, Tim. We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons. New York: Free Press, 2012.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensees (Thoughts). Boston: MobileReference.com, 2010.
Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994.