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Nine months into the pandemic, with at least 6 months to go before things return to whatever normal might mean by then, and life might be feeling a tad tedious – that is, marked by monotony and tiresomeness that is seemingly beyond our control. Luckily, although we can’t really hurry this thing along, there is something we can do about our boredom.
Carrying on from this last article, Boredom in the time of COVID, I have divided the inner or actual causes of boredom into (1) ignorance (2) lack of meaning, (3) poor attention span. The root of boredom is ignorance, which takes awhile to get rid of altogether; but #2 and #3 are recognizable causes that we can do something about straightaway. I found this article gives a very helpful summary of them:
Scientists measure boredom by looking across two axes: your ability to find meaning in a task, and your ability to pay attention to it. For a person to function normally—i.e. not be bored—both of these abilities must be intact. It’s easy enough to see how this pandemic would disrupt the meaning axis: With some of us now spending all of our time at home, whatever we leaned on in the Before Times for meaning—our friends, our work, the for-here mugs at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf—has teetered out of reach. But it’s just as likely that pandemic anxiety has been messing with the other axis, by shortening our attention spans.
Buddhism can help with both.
# 2 cause of boredom: lack of meaning
First, a question: Does feeling bored come from a sense of meaninglessness or a sense of meaninglessness come from feeling bored?
We have to find fun and meaning in new things, and it could be right now that many of those things are going to have to be less external than before.
With schedules and social lives disrupted, almost none of the sources of fulfillment we relied on two months ago are easily accessible. While some have reacted by recommending books, challenges, or stream-able Broadway shows to counter the new reality, these are only Band-Aids.
Without meaning, we don’t really feel that we have much agency over our lives. It feels that way to a lot of people right now because the normal things we reach out to for meaning are not available to us – whether that is our job, our friendships, travel, a new relationship. These external sources of meaning do not show signs of completely recovering for a while for many people.
There are a billion people around the world still largely in more isolated circumstances at the moment, especially in parts of the world where the days are shortening and there is less opportunity to be together outside. People are being thrown on their own resources for meaning. With far fewer entertainments or distractions, everyone is having to become a lot more self-contained.
And this is not necessarily all bad given that externals are fleeting and incapable of providing lasting meaning or satisfaction, as mentioned here. Wouldn’t it be good if we used this time to develop our power in other more enduring ways?
A lot of people are being more active than ever this year in addressing social causes, such as poverty and inequality. I have spoken during public comment on the City Council twice myself, and written letters, urging the mayor and council members to practice compassion toward our unhoused neighbors, to stop sweeping them from block to block like garbage (only difference being that garbage has somewhere to go), especially during a pandemic. This has not only added my voice to something that I have always found concerning — people in the wealthiest country in the world without a roof over their heads — but also helped me feel more meaning and connection during these difficult times.
Reframing our current situation
One immediate thing we can also do is reframe this current situation. We can give it meaning by remembering that there is still a good reason for us all to be doing this social distancing, it is still very beneficial to be protecting ourself and everyone else.
Talking to an ICU nurse here the other day, a Buddhist, I was very much reminded of the need to keep being as careful as possible for quite a long time yet, to hold out patiently till the vaccines arrive, and to keep praying for our frontline heroes:
“Unfortunately, the medical community is failing nurses and doctors right now. Every provider I interact with is having symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout. Some of this is due to the sheer number of people we have seen die recently (in many cases providers have seen more deaths in the past few months than they expected to see in their entire careers). This is within the context of many providers being shunned in public as well as the resistance of many people to perform simple actions to prevent harming or infecting others, and the strong tendency of people to have wrong views regarding Covid. Hospital administrators are completely out of touch with the urgent needs of bedside clinicians. In every hospital in the world there is a philosophy of “do more with less”. To try and fix the budget crisis, nurses are asked to do our jobs with inadequate resources and reduced staff. The unfortunate side effect of this is that nurses experience greater burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma; and we are witnessing worse outcomes and sentinal events resulting in patient deaths due to inadequate staffing. This leads to an ultimate feeling of hopelessness and helplessness within the frontline provider community.”
The American press doesn’t show many images of all the actual sickness and death, such as the thousands of unknown bodies buried in identical wooden boxes in Potter’s Graveyard in NYC; and when I saw some of these scary pictures this also reminded me of why we are being careful. As did the fact that someone tested positive in my house – luckily the rest of us tested negative despite being around each other, which could be testament to the power of masks. (She has recovered, I’m happy to say.)
To me, my mask reminds me of love. I am wearing it around other people to help keep all of us safer. There are so many people around the world who don’t have this luxury, and it reminds me to root for and pray for everyone who is in fear and danger, including all the frontline workers. We can reframe it to think that we are being careful because we care.
This different life doesn’t have to be so terrible if we understand it in the context of being all in it together. This pandemic is showing that we are all utterly and totally interconnected. This virus does not discriminate who it attacks, whether an unhoused neighbor or the most powerful man in the world. If someone has it somewhere, there is always going to be some risk of the rest of the us getting it. We all need to help and look out for one another – never has self-absorption been so pointless.
We can remember how we are all cells in the same body of life, as I explained in this article, Better together. I am not an isolated separated out bored person but one cell in the body of life in which everyone is important and equally meaningful. We rise and fall together ultimately. The people we were cheering for are the essential workers –– the ones who will get the vaccination first because they after all, rather than the rich and famous, are the ones essential to our staying alive and well. We can develop a big heart of compassion for everyone who is sick and scared and in pain all over the world. Instead of thinking about our own boredom, we can let this situation feed our compassion, “I want to help all these other people. I want to be part of the solution.”
Benefits of solitude
How do you feel about quiet times? According to most if not all religions, times of solitude can bring us closer to the divine. Solitude can be our greatest treasure. A friend in NYC said he has realized how much time he has spent running around for the past 15 years, and this period of enforced isolation has been truly regenerating and eye-opening for him in terms of realizing the meaning of his life. I am sometimes reminded this year of the long period I spent in the 2010’s pretty much all on my own in retreat, voluntarily – they were in some respects the best years of my life.
Like anything, we can get used to more time with our own company and come to enjoy it more and more, especially if we are in the business of improving ourselves. Through this we can become more comfortable with uncertainty and far more self-contained — life lessons that will help us long after COVID-19 has finally gone away and left us alone.
Crisis of agency
Boredom is not just about not having enough to do. We can have too much to do and still feel bored if what we are doing is meaningless to us.
Studies have found that people who are working all the time and stressed are just as likely to experience boredom as those who don’t have enough to do. Under stimulation is not the problem.
We have to reframe our lives so that we feel we are someone who is always full of joy and possibilities, even enlightenment, whatever we are doing or not doing by way of external activities.
Telling a bored person to go read a book or watch a movie is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would,” said John Eastwood, who heads the Boredom Lab at York University. “Boredom is a crisis of agency.
Boredom can be judged as a lack of imagination, but the truth is we don’t lack imagination, we just need the understanding, agency, and permission to employ our creative minds to our best ends, motivated by wisdom and compassion. We all have imagination – we are using it all the time to impute our reality.
When we are bored, we are allowing ourselves to be swept along by our own solidly boring universe, not taking the effort to see that it is not even there. We may not yet realize the huge part we play in creating our world and what extraordinary potential and opportunity we currently have, but when we do, we can take charge of our own narrative far more than we are doing at the moment. We need to take charge of our own narrative. We need agency in our lives, in our days.
Through meditation we start to change our sense of who we think we are from a fixed limited person at the mercy of every passing circumstance to the inspired architect of our own life and future. Our whole world is created by imagination. We create everything with our minds, including liberation and enlightenment themselves.
More coming up in the next article about the next culprit for feeling bored, poor attention span. Meanwhile, if this article got you thinking about anything, I’d love your comments in the box below!