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In Praise of Boredom

A Personal Perspective: How entertainment robs us of awareness.

I have been on a silent retreat at Vajra Vidya Buddhist Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado, for four days. All day long, the members of our group chant and meditate and don’t talk to each other. Needless to say, I experienced boredom during this time. And I’ve come to think that that experience is actually a good thing, so I would like to take a moment to sing boredom’s praises.

Most of us living in the modern age will do anything we can to avoid boredom, and since the methods for giving boredom the slip are manifold, we can almost always escape the dreaded state. Entertainment is everywhere. Always within reach. And most of the time, well, it’s really entertaining. But what if that entertainment is keeping us from something actually quite important? What if we need boredom? What if it is the gateway to a deeper experience of life?

Sitting With Boredom

I sit with about twenty others each day in a lhakung, or shrine room, with a soaring ceiling fronted by a fifty-foot burnished bronze and gold leaf statue of the Buddha, which is surrounded by a thousand – that’s right – a thousand little Buddhas. Now, I’m pretty sure most everyone’s boredom would be dispelled immediately upon entering the shrine room. It’s stunning. It glitters. It shimmers. It sparkles. It overwhelms with its sheer magnitude. But most people, including me, after about a minute or so of looking (“Whoa, that Buddha is huge! Look at all the little ones. Pretty. Pretty. Pretty.”), will have exhausted our interest, and unless those Buddhas come alive and start singing show tunes, we will be ready to move on to something else.

But our instructions from the Kempo who heads the center are to stay with the present moment, to attend to the “now,” to guard our minds and stop them from running away, chasing down interest, conjuring distraction at every turn. I am following the Kempo’s instructions, and, well, I am bored. My mind is itchy, antsy, and desperate to be entertained in the way it has become accustomed to. All sorts of distractions pounce on my awareness and wrestle it away from the “now.” But each time, I bring my attention back and place it on the moment. Back to boredom. Back again and again. Back. Back. Back.

Penetrating Boredom

But then, after a while, something happens. It’s as if I have come unloosed a bit internally. Everything feels softened. Like the world itself has become a little watery. And then I start noticing things. I notice that the room is warm and that there is dampness on my forehead. I notice the dampness feels like clusters of tiny cold pricks. Like snowflakes. Then I notice the snowflakes disappear. Then reappear in a different pattern on my forehead before resurfacing on my temples. Then lightly on my right cheek. Then my left.

The room is quiet, but now I notice the sound of a whisper. Or is it hum? A heater? Or a human? Yes, it’s a human. Probably someone reciting the mantra – om mani peme hung–under their breath, but all I hear is “Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.” Like somebody enjoying soup. To a steady beat.

Then the thousand little Buddhas, which I previously thought were identical, seem to brighten, revealing that they have been in different poses all along, various hand mudras, different garments, and, now I can see, even different faces. Some of their faces are stern. Some serene. Some kind. Some jolly. Some laughing.

And as I look up at them, all these glittering Buddhas appear to be gazing back at me in their different forms. The room is warmer now, so the snowflakes arrive all across my neck and chest and underneath my chin like a gracious mist. And beneath it, all is a slow, steady rhythmic “Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.” I sit and look at the Buddhas, and they sit and look back at me.

It was a moment worth going through the period of boredom to experience. It was a moment that, I believe, arose from the boredom. And It made me wonder if, like necessity is the mother of invention, boredom is the mother of attention. Or presence. For me, it seems as if it may be.

An Aspiration

So as I sit this week, I’m attempting to embrace boredom as a threshold, a necessary gateway to a richer, more vivid experience. I’m trying to be patient with the feeling of restlessness and not flee to the acrobatics show in my head. But mostly, I’ve just sat and sat and waited and waited for whatever will appear.

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