Boredom fascinates me. Whenever I feel bored, I wonder, “Why is this such an unpleasant experience?” I mean, I’m not in pain or being tormented or forced to do something I don’t like. I’m simply feeling disinterested in what is currently happening.
My own life during the pandemic was one monotonous routine. Wake up, make coffee in the kitchen, go back to the bedroom to work, eat lunch in the kitchen, return to the bedroom to work, eat dinner in the kitchen, take a walk around the local park, watch a movie in the living room, go back to the bedroom to sleep. Each day was very predictable, and I felt so much boredom. I wanted something to change, to break the monotony, to add some excitement or anticipation to my experience. In the past year, I heard about so many people struggling with boredom, feeling very “blah” about each day seeming the same.
In Buddhism, boredom is one of the three poisons. These are mind states that cause suffering. There’s hatred and aversion, not wanting something; then greed and desire, really wanting something; and then there’s boredom and ignorance, and a lack of interest.
And then I remembered the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays a New Yorker visiting Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog Day holiday. But when he wakes up the next day, it’s Groundhog Day again—and it’s exactly the same as yesterday. This continues to happen day after day, and he realizes he’s stuck in the same time and space.
Throughout the movie, Bill Murray experiences different stages of reacting to the time loop. At first, he hates it and tries everything to make it end. Then he figures as long as he’s stuck in the same day, he’ll exploit it. After that, he’s so bored, nothing interests him. But finally, after a long, long time—perhaps centuries—he burns through his hatred, greed, and especially his boredom.
It is the boredom that prevents him from seeing what’s going on, the life around him. He stops trying to change events and instead starts to pay attention to each moment. Each morning he wakes up and responds to that moment—not to the feeling of, “Oh no this day is going to start over again.” He begins to respond with compassion and wisdom to whatever and whomever he encounters, and when he does this, he’s free from the poisons of suffering and the ignorance of separation—and he’s happy.
At some point in the pandemic, I decided to take inspiration from Bill Murray and look a little closer at what’s really happening in my small and limited space. And when I really paid attention, I could see that each moment is different and new. I began to notice the way the sunlight reflects off the cherry tree outside the front window and its blossoms as they opened and died. I noticed my husband and his request for homemade chocolate chip cookies that day, and I heard the sound of an ambulance on its way to the hospital. I let myself feel the sadness in my heart that would come and go, and the happiness too.
The antidote for the poison of boredom is simply to pay closer attention. There is always something happening, no matter how subtle. One of the truths of life and phenomena is that everything is always changing. Every moment is impermanent. Nothing just stays the same, it’s all arising and coming together and falling apart. If I pay attention, I can see that even the light in my bedroom moves and changes throughout the day and it’s never exactly the same, and each moment it’s a little bit different.
The word mindfulness is used so often, but mindfulness meditation is paying attention to what’s happening as it arises. Instead of focusing our attention on one object like the breath, we pay attention to what’s happening as it happens. This practice—like all meditation practice—requires us to be kind to ourselves, though it may be hard at first. We haven’t been trained or accustomed to noticing small and subtle changes—we’re very used to excitement and things grabbing our attention. So it takes a bit of patience and practice to relearn the art of paying attention. And we need to remember to come back. The Pali word for mindfulness is sati, in Sanskrit it’s smriti, and its meaning is “to re-collect, to gather, to come back.” What are we coming back to? Here and now.
A Mindfulness Practice for When You Feel Bored
Take your time to find a quiet and comfortable spot where you can sit. Stop talking and don’t use your devices. Gently bring your attention to your feet, your seat, your shoulder blades, the back of your head. Give yourself permission to experience this very moment.
Rest your attention to the rise and fall of your belly as you inhale and exhale. Just lightly place your awareness on your abdomen, being with each breath as your belly expands and contracts. Resist the urge to get up or to look around. Softly keep your attention on your breathing, gently feeling the rise and fall of your breathing.
Now carefully open your attention to other sensations that are arising. Rest in sound that may be entering your ears, the air on your skin, light entering your eyes, taste in your mouth. Let these sensations come and go without grabbing them.
If you find you’re getting caught in a plan or memory or idea, that’s okay. Breathe out quietly and slowly, and refocus your attention on your belly. When you’re ready, start again—carefully opening your attention from just your breath to other sensations. You may feel an itch or tension, or see an image in your mind, or hear the neighbors. Try not to work too hard. Let yourself rest in what’s arising.
As we conclude this meditation, take a moment to appreciate your time and your good heart, say “thank you” to yourself. And the next time you’re feeling bored, stop and pay attention to what’s arising—inside and outside.
Adapted from Kimberly Brown’s Dharma Talk, “In It Together: Kindness through Crisis”