Archive for September 2010

B is for Boredom

September 5, 2010


B is for Boredom

I talked with a 17 yr. old a few days ago who was telling me how bored he was as he checked his cell phone to see if anyone was texting him. I’m pretty sure his feeling wasn’t about not having anything to do per se. When I asked he agreed that there’s always something to do, but none of it was appealing. There was no energy, no pull. The easy answer is that he just wanted to be entertained, but then it dawned on me that maybe what he really wanted was to be engaged. I think that most of us know the difference between being distracted and being engaged. Distracted is mostly about killing time, whereas engaged is about living fully. It’s a kind of being called, touched, awakened to life’s possibilities. This is all fine when we get caught up in ways that we like. The problem comes when the call is asking, even demanding, that we make efforts, be vulnerable, sacrifice, risk and even suffer. That’s when, as James Hollis puts it, a life of, distraction and hedonism looks quite appealing.

I have begun to have a new appreciation for boredom as a state of potential. Tolstoy calls it a “desire for desires”. I think that Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” resonates at exactly this point. As much as we might fear the call, we are dying slowly without it. Maybe we’re not so much bored as we are not paying attention. I have tried the exercise of exploring moments of seeming boredom and it doesn’t take long to become aware that there are energies present just below the surface. Fear and excitement; imagination and panic swirl around. All dressed up and no place to go. Jung’s description of such psychic energy as having intentionality comes clear when we can give and hold our attention to it. Alchemically boredom is a kind of lead with the potential for transformation into the gold of a fuller life. Fine, but who wants to pay attention to lead? The gold seems very far away in the face of the heaviness of the moment.

I like Ellen Parr’s statement (or Dorothy Parker’s, you pick) that the “cure for boredom is curiosity; and there is no cure for curiosity.” How to awaken the natural curiosity of our novelty seeking brains? It seems to me that the essence of curiosity is asking questions. What questions might we ask about the lead of boredom? The standard ones that show up pretty quickly include: “Why me?” And, “How do I make it go away?” Oh, and, “Why are they/life doing this to me?”

The shrink in me would like to move to: “What possible meaning might this experience offer?” But, that avoids the immediacy of the experience. Boredom weighs on me. I don’t like it. Boredom is boring. Granted. “How to be present with it?” That’s a better question, and one without easy answers. And, as I stay with it the energy does reveal itself. Not always pleasantly, but always present. Am I willing to be called, touched, challenged, awakened?

I’ve known and worked with a lot of people who we traditionally think of as “creative” – artists, writers, musicians – who often talk about being blocked or stuck. One facet of such stuckness fits with this idea of boredom. Life is flat and static. There is no flow of creative juices. They are ready and willing as best they can to be “engaged”, but have lost the source. For me the reality is that this state is much more universal than we usually realize. Which of us has not felt some version of this as we go through our daily routines of work and parenting and relationships?

Is this boredom or depression? The line can be very thin at times. For me the distinction has to do with whether or not one can tap into the energy that is present in what we call boredom that seems to be missing in states of depression. Just below the surface of boredom is an invitation to life; depression mostly doesn’t offer that. The vital question becomes how do we perceive and respond to this “invitation”. How do I explain to my 17 yr. old friend that he is an alchemist in the making? I think the answer, for him, and for us, is to be open to the possibility and the challenge of these moments. To recognize that what the ego feels as boring is in fact a call to explore and expand in ways that we have feared, avoided, or, simply hadn’t noticed before. Any questions?