A Buddhist solution to boredom


UK riots

The unexpected riots and looting in England left all of us wondering where they sprung from. There were some extenuating external factors but, as I said in this last article, I think they certainly were inflamed by inappropriate attention and the baleful influence of unhelpful “friends”. I also agree with those who say that they arose from attachment/greed (no shop was safe, no matter how innocent), the “me first” mind of self-cherishing and even plain boredom. A lot of vandalism in general is primarily motivated by boredom, and even back in the Roman days a graffitist wrote:

“Wall, I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.”

Rioting might have seemed like a lot more fun than slouching around on another street corner or trying to find something to watch on summertime British TV. Perhaps the 24/7 access to You Tube, Xbox, Google and Facebook had also at least temporarily lost its ability to charm and distract, I’m sure we all know that feeling.

Santino the Chimp
Santino the Chimp

A chimp called Santino collects rocks before his Swedish zoo opens in the morning so he can pelt them at the roughly 300 humans who come to stare at him. Is he bad-tempered, seeking relief from boredom, or a bit of both?

Where does boredom come from?

Do you ever feel bored? Or how about ennui, lethargy, inertia, melancholy, flatness, or any of its other close cousins!? What does it feel like? What do you do about it? It seems to be a universal predicament in all age groups and income brackets. Kids during endless summer holidays get bored, adolescents notoriously get bored, people working day in and day out at dead-end jobs get bored, people with no jobs get bored, old people stuck in their houses get bored, caged animals get bored, and even people with comparatively nothing to be bored about get bored (think mid-life crisis). Perhaps we all get bored sometimes unless we are just too busy, which may be the opposite problem?! Nor is it just a recent phenomenon – humans and animals have been getting bored for as long as they’ve had minds, namely since beginningless time.

So where does boredom come from? The reason it is so common is probably that it is a facet of one of the three main mental poisons – ignorance. One reason I think this is that in the meditation on equanimity we get rid of our three poisons of: (1) closeness for our friends out of attachment, (2) distance for our enemies out of anger, and (3) indifference for boring strangers out of ignorance. And we can also develop equanimity with respect to inanimate objects, overcoming attachment, aversion and indifference/boredom for them too.

In some ways, if we are not in a state of attachment or aversion and things appear just neutral, boredom may be our kind of natural default! We feel unengaged, indifferent and distanced from the things we find neutral. At the same time, we paradoxically feel more hemmed in because everything seems more solid and real. What do you think?! In the mind-training book Universal Compassion, Geshe Kelsang says that for ordinary beings:

Attractive objects cause desirous attachment to arise, unattractive objects cause anger, and neutral objects cause ignorance… Those with special interest in training the mind, however, should try to change this and develop the three virtuous minds instead of the three poisons.

We become bored by supposed predictability and unavoidable and unchanging circumstances that seem beyond our control – not understanding that our own minds are the creators of our ever-changing and indeed unpredictable circumstances, and that we can take control of our minds. In terms of the inappropriate attention that accompanies all delusions, I would think that we are exaggerating the apparent solidity, permanence, and inherent existence of our situation whenever we are bored.

I agree with a Facebook friend Matthew who says that the boredom of the UK rioters is related to impatience (a type of anger) and attachment too:

“I think boredom is a form of impatience. Therefore patience is an antidote – so is contentment. It is said that young people tend to equate happiness with excitement while older people equate happiness with peace. Boredom in the young is related to attachment to excitement.”

 It could be that in this age of instant ever-shifting entertainment in our pockets it is harder in general to stay interested and absorbed, and boredom is likelier to crop up. But I think that the lack of excitement or pleasure itself comes from an ignorance grasping strongly at an inherently existent world outside the mind and thus feeling alienated from it, adrift, unconnected, unable to enjoy. Boredom also comes from fruitlessly seeking happiness in that inherently existent external world for, as Jenny on Facebook puts it:

“Maybe it arises from lack of understanding of where true happiness is to be found – surely if we didn’t search for happiness in external things we would have no reason to be bored?”

Are these the causes or symptoms of boredom that Kelsang Dorje describes on Facebook?:

“A lack of feeling of any place in the community or world. A feeling of impotence and disenchantment for a world that seems to ignore one and holds no opportunity for productive action or pleasure.”

The stronger we grasp at the world existing outside of ourselves, the more isolated, alienated, impotent, bored, and yes, ignored, we are going to feel. Then we are naturally going to start craving anything that will excite us and become impatient when nothing exciting enough seems to be forthcoming to relieve the monotony and feeling of being hemmed in.

Lack of or too much identity?

It is paradoxical that young rioters are described as suffering from a “lack of identity” because although on one level that is true insofar as they are demonstrating no healthy sense of self-worth, when we are bored our sense of identity is more concrete than ever. We are holding ourself separate from the rest of the world, me versus them. It is just not a very constructive or wise sense of self as it ignores our profound connection to others on every level. Although we can be bored on our own or in the company of others, loneliness also seems to be boredom’s never far-straying twin.

Creativity v. boredom

Whenever as a kid I complained of having nothing to do, my mother would say that annoying old-fashioned thing:

“If you’re bored, you’re boring.”

Thing is though, I could see she had a point. Boredom is the opposite of creativity. While we’re bored we feel like a victim of our circumstances, we feel disenfranchised, we don’t feel creative, we don’t feel in charge. When I heard teachings on emptiness I realized I had lost my excuse to be bored ever again because I was creating my own reality moment by moment through conceptual imputation – and there is nothing boring about an act of creation that cosmic! It doesn’t mean that I have yet completely conquered boredom though, I still detect it sometimes – which is partly why I am interested in the subject. The best antidote for me is to meditate, which is creative and uplifting, and in particular to remember emptiness. Wisdom, I find, dismantles the temporal and spatial walls erected by boredom. For an amazingly clear introduction to the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can download this free Buddhist eBook Modern Buddhism and read the chapter called “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”.

Because boredom lacks creativity, it is understandable that graffiti artists, for example, try to assuage it by writing on walls in an act of creation that may or may not annoy everyone else in the neighborhood. We can of course try to change our circumstances in helpful ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there — seeking a more challenging job, for example, or meeting new people, or taking up a hobby, or simply taking ourself out of the house for a walk in a new area. This can be helpful, especially if we are well motivated. Boredom, in other words, can lead us to creativity and useful innovation. But as the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds – dismiss that fact, and we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.

Precious human life

Paul on FB suggested the rioters:

“Meditate on ur precious human life!”

which is a good starting point providing someone lets them know that they have one! In fact it is the starting point for all of us, realizing that we have more choices and prospects than we knew. Nick Vujicic, who I wrote about in this article, has no arms or legs and therefore seemingly far fewer opportunities than the rest of us; but try telling him that!

Summary

According to Buddhism, when we’re attached, the main opponent is non-attachment or the wish for true mental freedom. When we’re angry the main opponent is patience or love. When we are indifferent, or bored, the main opponent is non-ignorance, or the wisdom realizing emptiness and an understanding of the mind’s power to create. There is always something creative to do. Loren Jay Shaw managed to find creative ways to stave off boredom for three years in solitary confinement!

As with all opponents to delusions, however, we need to know about them before we can apply them. Once again I find myself grateful for Buddha’s teachings, or to be honest I think I too would be bored out of my mind with samsara by now.

Do you have any good solutions for boredom? Please share them. And share this article with anyone who might be getting bored during these long dog days of summer!

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 36 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to our everyday lives, and vice versa. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

20 thoughts on “A Buddhist solution to boredom”

  1. Reblogged this on A Way in the Woods and commented:
    But as the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds – dismiss that fact, and we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.

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  2. The riots did not leave me wondering where they had sprung from at all – it was perfectly obvious where they sprung from if you are urban, poor and alienated in an unequal society whre materialism and greed are the values and are having to pay for the greed of others who have plenty. Another exampkle of political naivety. Also shouldn’t you be talking about the anger on both sides e.g the savage retribution?
    I love this website and the chance to discuss these things with like-minded people but let us avoid it being too detached from ‘reality’ , too utopian, when many of us seem to live in a dystopia (drones, fracking, tazers and corruption).

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    1. I take your point. I was attempting to show the role or cause of boredom in all our lives from my Buddhist perspective as a way of finding a way past it. I used the current riots as a starting point but I acknowledge there were also many other reasons for the riots, including the ones you mention above. However, I wrote this before the “savage retribution”, and I wasn’t using this article to make political points.

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  3. Could you say this? (taken from here)
    “Loneliness (boredom) is just not a very constructive or wise sense of self as it ignores our profound connection to others on every level. Although we can be lonely on our own or in the company of others…”

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    1. i feel anyone in this thread’s pain about being bored with life……to close ones who don’t understand you can sound sad/ pathetic – “get a life syndrome” i call it – but its really no joke……

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  4. So many meaningful points to consider. For myself-boredom has not been one of my patterns. I rarely feel bored. It happens, of course…occasionally and only for brief moments. It is the one area that has not afflicted my mind as much as some other issues.! Your excellent exploration of boredom sheds light on aspects that many of us do not associate with boredom (depression/lethargy, etc).

    Boredom was not something I related well to, nor did I understand it until I became a counselor in the field of eating disorders and substance abuse. What has interested me about boredom has come about from my clients reporting to me that they feel bored….as they are becoming more calm, stable, spiritual through their personal work and meditation practice. As an East/West psychotherapist, I utilize various modalities to help clients change their style of thought and, subsequently, their actions. Most of my clients are recovering, or trying to recover, from various addictions and associated depression and anxiety. When their respective lives become less eventful, dramatic, intense – they can often struggle with the “calling” of the internal and external chaos that formerly aroused their experience of… feeling alive. Many have survived horrendous abuse and neurotic environments-only to find they have maintained the very patterns they abhorred from their past(s). Those who refrain from addictive substances and maintain their consistency with the therapeutic/spiritual processes past the initial stages do report that they are learning to see the unending creativity in peace of mind. Some state that the new calmness has allowed them to create more choices for themselves – through thoughtful considerations rather than mindless reactions. Emotional instability and unpredictability give way to less self involvement and more interest in and concern for others… hence more interesting experiences. Some have actually stated that they did not realize how “boring” they were until they emerged from their predictable insanity.

    Those who benefit from their personal work express improved self-esteem, less anxiety, increased mental ability to handle stressors intelligently, that had previously been the excuses for practicing addiction. The roller coaster ride has to actually become boring, and exhausting, to the addict, before she/he chooses to learn to live life mindfully.

    In samsara this just seems to be the path to seeking freedom that even non-addicts tread.

    Thank you for this article. I will be sharing it with my clients.

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  5. Boredom comes when we look outside the mind and don’t find anything to occupy us. If we are not developing attachment by focussing on some objects or getting angry by the way we are focussing on others, then boredom may well ensue.

    If, on the other hand, we are ‘inner beings’, practicing mindfulness, always aware of our own minds and the nature of what is going on there, then perhaps there will be less potential for boredom.

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  6. Hi Luna, i think boredom does play apart in these riots — it’s easier for our delusions to manifest in a destructive way especially if we have no specific purpose in life. However, saying this, the society we live in creates a moral disposition and this creates a chain reaction for others to follow. Morals are lost and people crave excitement. Without wisdom all of us can be unfortunate enough to suffer from the delusions clearly stated in your article. Nevertheless the children we see creating such acts of violence have little or no morals, we cannot blame them for this; morals are a guide taught to us to understand the difference between right and wrong, the parents’ responsibility. Boredom is present in their actions but definitely greed, envy and other delusions are also manifest. All of us have some responsibility to play and if we are fortunate to have wisdom we can give this to others which in turn will create a positive reaction. I pray that everyone finds this wisdom .

    Thanks Luna for great insight .

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  7. Why are they bored? How did boredom contribute to the riots? How can we alleviate boredom? Should we focus on boredom as the key problem?

    Clearly, dissatisfaction with education or vocation leads to boredom and frustration. Why do something you don’t want to do? Unless there is a satisfying reason to do something, is there really a point doing it? Even if economic provision is a reason to do something you don’t really want to, you don’t really enjoy doing it, and this itself leads to boredom, and the same kinds of questions – why am I doing this? Just because I have to? What do I really want to do? On the level of education and vocation, maybe boredom is the result of being in the wrong life for you at that time.

    Since everyone has boring periods to their lives (not getting what they want, enduring unfavourable conditions, being dissatisfied), most people switch jobs, move attention to something else, discover different dimensions. The onus is on us to do this, and most people do it with varying levels of skill. We have to be liquid, get into and out of situations, learn and forget things, assume and dispense with identities. A veritable and daunting task, but most of us manage to get through it.

    But what if you can’t change this situation? What if you can’t afford college, can’t get a job? What if you ‘never got on the ladder’ at all? What if the culture or environment in which you live does not encourage or prioritize education or satisfying work? What if there are only a few opportunities where people compete with each other to get the positions? What if the style of your social group is stigmatized to the point where they immediately fail in this competitive environment? What about failures of flexibility on behalf of both the individual and the state? There are many, many reasons that society’s default expectation of ‘a productive and interesting career for the individual’ can go very wrong.

    After a long time of unaddressed disaffection and failure, the only possibility is that boredom turns to frustration, then anger, and in the extreme case here, rioting. But I think that the ‘boredom’ phase here is symptomatic of a deeper problem of education and opportunity, particularly within inner cities, which also leads to the proliferation of identities that transmit and carry emotions (including boredom).

    At the point of disaffection, there is a disconnection from the mainstream perception of a ‘normal career’, and the identification with an ‘out-group’ of similarly-minded individuals, which is simultaneously:

    1. Made concete through clothing, music and attitude to social norms.
    2. Empowered by a money-hungry fashion industry.
    3. Hated by the mainstream public.

    Over time, this group hardens, and initiation becomes easier. All someone has to do is impute the right person, possess the right attitudes, and wear the right clothes. Any rebellious reason can be used to justifying signing up, by people of all ages. In addition, part-time membership is possible for those who are simply intrigued by the ‘street’ mentality, or at least want to project it. The underclass culture is available for membership at all times, for all reasons. Are you bored? Frustrated? Directionless? Friendless? Skint? Unconfident? Come inside! Get down to the fashion shops and get all the kit!

    The group itself may have been created by disaffection, but has become a lifestyle choice for many. But still, disaffection is built into it’s structure. When central parts of the group start rioting, their behaviour spreads to others primarily through identification with the group; their reasons range from ‘having a laugh’ to ‘rebelling’ (against police, government, family or community), depending on the individual circumstances, of which boredom is just one. Rioting as a reaction to boredom in one person can influence ‘having a laugh by rioting’ in another.

    On the other side of the group there is a disapproving and hating public. They are stigmatized as ‘morally corrupt’, ‘criminals’, ‘vermin’ and other labels, as if these people really were these things. The public do not see them as dependently-related, arising in response to societal and individual problems, but as inherently corrupt, villianous people who need to be removed from society. This in fact compounds the problem, re-inforcing the group’s identity, which can only lead to more rioting and disorder. David cameron wants them in jail, but what happens when the riots start happening in jail? Extend their sentences, put them in solitary confinement, deny them more freedoms .. all these things re-inforce the power of the group through deepening the sense of alienation and disaffection.

    Our only hope is that we see the group and it’s members as socially constructed, and try to understand the dependencies that created it. This can even be an educational goal at the secondary level. We need to present life opportunities to the young in a way that incorporates an understanding of identification. Do they want to be an engineer, a salesman, an academic, a writer, a businessman? What skills do they need? How do they see themselves at work? How will they manage a change in their career? How does the process of identification work? These skills are learnable at the adolescent / young adult phase of life, and they need not be university skills. Pursuing these lines of research may bring corrective systems that provide youth with more skills of identity and flexibility, skills that can empower them with the good sense to choose their friends and groups wisely.

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    1. Good article Alex! Disaffection does start in school, this definitely needs to be addressed more. Especially to different minority groups who have felt this throughout their educational experience. This is more recognized now, especially after the stephen laurence enquiry, the government could no longer ignore the fact that these children needed encouragement. Most of the groups on the tv especially in London don’t feel that they had no choice, without moral guidance and identification of their positive contribution these children feel let down by the system. Hence destructive behaviour.

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      1. I think it is a lack of love. If parents cared for children and we cared for society we would create a society where things are going better. Most bad childhoods are a lack of love. Locals shops closed due to a lack of love. National supermarkets mistreat employees and farmers. Without love we build a system of poisoning nature and destroying it……..then into this environment we bring children. We fill the childhood with hedonism and low quality social experiences and because we are stretched by mational businesses that we work for we have little time or mental resources for these children. When they demand attention we give them chocolate or a dummy or put them in front of a computer game. in this way they grow up without enriching family bonds that are nourishing for their soul and mind and inspiring. Then as teenagers they look out to the world. With their sharp minds they see a world that is doomed to poisoning, adults that are depressed and have no inspiring qualities- simply a lot of talk about sex, men and women using and then dumping each other, alcoholism and swearing as the role model for adult life and how we need to legalise cannabis is our views on improving society. These teenagers see their future as being working for the minimum wage for an international business that will have no respect or valueing them..whilst looking for a partner within sleazy nightclubs filled with drunks. The Tv tells them what is normal and many having come from broken families use this as a reference point.
        All this has come because we have rejected nature and the values of our elders. When people farmed they recognised how much work goes into creating things like food. Teenagers would farm and they didnt see food as something you go get off a shelf in a plastic container but something you had to toil in the rain and mud to earn. In this way they didnt take things for granted.. This attunement to nature works because it is recognising a fundemental Buddhist teaching. ..cause and effect. The reason why the teenagers burned down the shops is they had no concept those shops came from causes of hard work and that the produce they use comes from hard work. The whole consumerism problem is arising because of greed and greed is coming because the people who are consuming are not having to work to manufacture the things they are using. Also they re not having to deal with the waste they are creating.
        If creating these things is put into school curriculum it would be far better than studying the beatles the rolling stones and lowry. Simply put farming on the curriculum and have a rota where it replaces a sports class as excercise. Make a plot on the school field for example then they can learn how even a small amount of produce requires a lot of work. or if they are removing assembly put it as an alternative for kids who want to opt out of religion.
        To reattune to basic dependent relationships and the basic level of our situation as human beings is far more healthy than attuning our kids to machinery and sci fi gadgets. Its is also part of love to recognise that if this scientific era falls flat on its face that our grandchildren will be able to survive because the skills of natural living havent been lost through our generation.
        Love, nature and dependent relationship

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  8. I think if you withdraw from your surroundings and the people around you, it is easy to become bored. But it you look outwards and become very interested in other people and your surroundings, I think boredom will be hard to find. In short, we should abandon self interest (cherishing) and switch our attention to others (exchange self and others).

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  9. This is bringing up a lot, especially the boredom coming from under or over coddling from parents. As a parent of 3 (don’t mean to label here but…) intense teens who have had various issues with health and learning, I notice that when things are quiet we all don’t know what to do. Deep down I think its boredom. I know that sounds crazy but the intensity has become a way of life and everyone makes sure it remains somehow. Now I am working hard to pay attention to neutral moments.

    I have come to see how rich these moments are and started to comment on and pay attention to those times when someone just walks in a room. I am paying attention before the intensity and not during. Understanding that what I pay attention to is what grows I am training on bringing my attention to all these quiet times when nothing is happening, no one is angry, sad, teasing, or throwing “hand grandees” as we say. I notice how much actually is happening in those moments, and how much I can do with it.

    This article clarifies so much and I am going to bring in emptiness more and more here.

    thanks so much!

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    1. Well, Donna, you got me thinking again too, especially when you summarize “I notice how much is actually happening in those moments”, and as a result I’ve added this bit to the article:

      In some ways, if we are not in a state of attachment or aversion and things appear just neutral, boredom may be our kind of natural default! We feel unengaged, indifferent and distanced from the things we find neutral. At the same time, we paradoxically feel more hemmed in because everything seems more solid and real. What do you think?! In the mind-training book Universal Compassion, Geshe Kelsang says that for ordinary beings:

      Attractive objects cause desirous attachment to arise, unattractive objects cause anger, and neutral objects cause ignorance… Those with special interest in training the mind, however, should try to change this and develop the three virtuous minds instead of the three poisons.

      Like

      1. yes that is perfect. It is in the neutral moments to remember emptiness, there is so much to do or not do that we will never be bored. 🙂 Equanimity, everything is equal in emptiness, hummmm more to ponder for me .

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  10. I used to have terrible problems with boredom when I was a child and young adult. I think it comes from being ‘uncentred’ or not in touch with oneself due to not knowing …all your likes, abilities and potentials yet, probably often due to a lack of life experience.

    Now I occasionally feel bored if I’m mentally or physically low and not able to do very much although I may want to be doing things.

    I like Angela’s comment on Facebook (Angela, please copy and paste it here!)
    On one level, so much of it is to do with parenting.

    I think loads of the rioters will have had ‘inadequate parenting’.

    That is not to say that every child or person who does ‘bad things’ has but I… think the way of parenting – I’ll call it ‘middle class’ as it seems to be most common there – where the parents are very involved with their children, and make a lot of (joyful?) effort to guide, nurture and occupy them – activities/skills/sport/pi​ano/interest in what child is learning/spelling and grammar(!), talking/teaching/explainin​g/listening – usually ‘produces’ children and people who are confident, self-motivated, secure etc. etc.

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    1. Yes. When i was bored as a child, after being told the above (if you’re bored, you’re boring), i’d be encouraged to read or go play or do something. At the same time, you can over-coddle your kids so they get spoilt and bored when they are not receiving attention. Boredom can be brought about by under-coddling or over-coddling! Still only a condition though, not the root cause.

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