Recently at work I’ve been bored. I’m near to my leave date, I’m fairly unconcerned with being fired (I fill many important roles and we’re hilariously short staffed) and overall even if I was fired today, I would end up being fine. I’ll spend long stretches, with nothing to do and no desire to do anything. Often this will be accompanied by tiredness. Sometimes I enforce rules I otherwise wouldn’t for sheer want of something to do.
Today when I was meditating I asked myself, what is boredom? Then finding that question unhelpful, asked instead, what causes boredom? It definitely acts as a hinderance and is connected to sloth. I’ll usually be able to read or simply practice being more aware of my breathing, yet I won’t. I’ll opt to wallow in boredom and be stressed by it.
I recognized that part of answering the question of where does boredom come from means doing some field work. Watching my mind as it becomes bored and discerning what conditions are required for boredom to arise. In line with this/that conditionality, boredom is that, so what is this that it is dependent on?
I have noticed for example being able to sit and do next to nothing and be perfectly happy, so why at other times do I sit and suffer? What causes one and not the other? What am I craving or clinging to that is resulting in this stress connected to boredom? Maybe it’s craving for feelings of happiness or engagement, or clinging to previously arisen feelings that are now leaving.
Ajahn Chah would sometimes say that if you’re feeling diligent, practice and if you’re not feeling diligent, practice. Maybe part of the solution to boredom is practicing while bored, looking at boredom and watching carefully as boredom arises and ceases. Seeing what it is dependent on in the moment, cultivating dispassion for boredom and it’s causes.
I notice that part of boredom is having no urgency. No drive to do something, no contextual need to do something. Not being hungry or desiring feelings dependent upon food, you won’t eat. I remember that one night I was laying in bed and reflecting on the climate crisis, I felt a sense of impending death and with it came a sense of urgency. If I don’t practice rightly now, how can I hope to have made progress before the climate kills me? I sat up in bed and practiced.
If boredom is necessarily a facet of sloth, then it follows that the solutions to sloth discussed in the canon would apply to boredom, we might even see boredom as a type of sloth characterized as more stressful than being happily sleepy (as after a meal). As at the base it seems that boredom isn’t an actual lack of things one can do, yet a resistance to doing. The Buddha gives guidance to Ven Maha Mogallana in AN 7:58, telling him to try a few different tactics, suggesting each in order:
- Change your perception/focus of practice
- Mentally recall the Dhamma, re-examine and ponder it
- Repeat aloud in detail the Dhamma
- Pull both your earlobes and rub your limbs
- Get up and wash your face/eyes, then look around and up
- Attend to the perception of light (I think visualizing a sun or light?) and “resolve on the perception of day-time” and “dwell by night as by day, and by day as by night”*
- Practice walking meditation
- Take a nap, get up quickly after waking up and don’t indulge in the pleasure of lying down, reclining or of drowsiness
*This is explained in SN 51:20 as “Where a monk at night develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & fabrications of exertion by means of the same modes & signs & themes that he uses by day and by day he develops the base of power…by means of the same modes & signs & themes that he uses by night”. I’m not really sure how to explain this simply because I don’t fully understand it myself. It seems basically that “modes & signs & themes” is the subject and style of practice being done and that presumably one practices differently at night than they do during the day and should therefore reverse the two. I don’t really do this myself so I’m unsure how I would apply this.
If we look now at the explanation of dependent origination we can find more explanation of what causes the feeling of sloth/boredom. In AN 10:92 it’s said:
From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.
From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.
From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form [mind & body]
From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media.
From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact.
From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling.
From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.
From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance.
From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming.
From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.
From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.AN 10.92
For the feeling of boredom/sloth it seems to be dependent upon contact, contact with what? With contact being dependent on the six fold sense media that means we have six options for where the contact could originate: visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, thoughts/ideas. Therefore the feeling of sloth/boredom arises dependent upon contact with one or more of the six above forms of sense media. But which and when and how do I prevent that?
Maybe this is the wrong question, contact with these sense media is an inevitable part of having a mind and body. Instead consider, the feeling of boredom usually elicits a craving for release from that feeling, a clinging to the idea of not being bored, even clinging to ideas of what would end boredom (“If I just played this game, did this drug, I wouldn’t be bored”). How then do I notice the feeling of sloth and detach it from the associated craving that comes from it?
I notice that I’m not getting anywhere further with this line of questioning. I think the answer to the above question can be summarized as the fourth noble truth. The answer to what to do about the problem in the short term being the above list of solutions for sloth. Ajahn Sumedho said in one talk that regardless of what lead to a particular state of affairs, it’s here right now. You have to deal with it here, now.