B is for Boredom


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?

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9 Comments on “B is for Boredom”

  1. Jerry DiPego Says:

    One of the most cogent and provocative of all your good blogs. Bravo. When I’m on my own, I don’t feel boredom, but restlessness. Sometimes I’m unable to muster up enough creative energy to work or even engage with a book, but I’ll shoot pool or throw darts or even deal out poker hands and engage with that, at least for a while. Real boredom seems to come when I’m trapped in a situation, a class, a meeting, and I can’t just walk out. This feels like a very slow trip through very thick mud, but your words push me to take that next mud-slog and try to turn it into an opportunity to surprise myself with a thought, a creative construction, at least an engaging fantasy. Thanks. Jerry

  2. Thanks Allen. Of course I find that I experience Ennui which to me me is the dngerous edge of depression. It has all the energy and vitality of boredom below the surface but it is double edged and can easily sending you soaring into unbelievable creativity or plunge you deeper into a chasm of despair. Too me what resonated in your words is remebering the alchemical possibility in any moment.

  3. Laurie Casriel Says:

    I too have been struck by the expression of boredom in a teenage male student I have counseled at a middle school in Hollywood. In this particular case, the boredom could indicate a learning problem in the student, such as a difficulty in grasping the concepts being presented, or a lack of appropriate teaching methods to meet the needs of the student. Or, it could be an indicator of a nutritional deficiency, as this student frequently skips meals during school days. Those things make sense and may have some applicability.
    And, there is the deeper meaning of boredom. It is a “place in-between” being happy and contented, and being irritated and bummed out. Seems fitting that the the man who brought us a class on THE TRICKSTER, the figure that dwells in the in-between state, is scoping out the state of boredom.
    For a teenage boy, someone who often embody the trickster archetype and gets into all kinds of mischief, boredom is the thing. It gets him going, doing something. Just imagine if the teenager could develop the consciousness to know his state of boredom, to realize his in-betweenness and to embrace it instead of drugging, ganging or self-harming it away. Sounds like you are on the path to assisting your young guy to that place….

  4. Jennifer Says:

    Over the last few months, I have been doing some work with a CBT guy to help with chronic anxiety. We made progress on it pretty quickly and the first thing I noticed as the anxiety decreased was that I began to feel bored, something that I haven’t experienced since junior high school. I came in and asked if I was growing depressed, as this is what I would imagine depression feeling and looking like. He explained because my typical state has been one of anxiety, anything less than that will feel flat and boring for awhile. In a short time, a less anxious state will become baseline and the boredom should go away. He’s been right and over the last couple of weeks I see that fading. So, I have a new perspective on boredom myself from this experience.

  5. Zara Dentinurcar Says:

    Yes! Great! I love boredom! For me it is at the very least a fundamental symptom of sanity… Didn’t the comedian Chris Rock express the view that normal married life was by nature boring, otherwise, it would just be too exhausting? I think that goes for life too – give the grey matter a rest once in a while!

  6. Cindy Ganesh Says:

    As I was enjoying your blog around 1am, my neighbor, the hot 24-year-old fireman, knocked on my door. Booty call. He must have been bored. I didnt answer it though; 24 years old? I have shoes older than that.

  7. znfineart Says:

    What little tricks can you suggest to connect with our original inspiration and sense of purpose, which at crucial moments when productivity is called for, seem to vanish?

    • allenkoehn Says:

      Zoe – Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. So, “Tricks” is what you’re looking for – hmmm – when something vanishes I think it is always a good idea to be open to what comes to take its place. Which is, of course, a good trick!

  8. […] Dancing at the Threshold Just another WordPress.com weblog « B is for Boredom […]

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