Practicing With Boredom

This was my first dharma essay, which I wrote about four years ago.

Practicing With Boredom
by Lisa Ernst

Often in dharma writings and talks, emotions and mind states such as fear, despair, craving and aversion are given plenty of attention. But how often do you hear about boredom? Although it’s mentioned less frequently, boredom can be a deceptive mind state that easily leads us away from an opportunity to awaken to this moment. I feel inspired to write about this mind state because recently I had an experience that reminded me of how deceptive “boredom” can be and how it can also be a gate into liberation.

One morning recently I hit a creative block in my painting. It had been a long time coming, but it finally came to a head, and I abruptly put down my brush and ended my painting session. Distressed, but not in a mood to face it fully, I headed to the kitchen and made a batch of brownies. Everyone who knows me is aware of my deep love of anything chocolate. But I hadn’t had an unplanned brownie bake like that in a long time. I must say that the brownies were quite good, and I decided to take a long hike at Radnor Lake to atone for the indulgence.

As I got onto the trail I noticed how strongly my mind was caught in the drama of my creative block, separating me completely from my experience of hiking in the woods. This awareness in itself helped me to become a little more present. Yet I encountered an unexpected feeling — boredom; my mental drama seemed more interesting than simply walking quietly along the trail. For a brief moment I was tempted to avert my attention away from the boredom and back to the spinning thoughts. But instead I decided to investigate the boredom.

I have practiced with boredom at long meditation retreats, when the hours and the sitting seemed interminable. Unexamined feelings of boredom can lead to what the Buddha called “sloth and torpor” where our minds become dull and completely inattentive. Is it truly a mind state that is stale and uninteresting, the very essence of something we should ignore or try to change, or is it something more? Often, boredom is a kind of aversion to whatever is happening in this moment, leading us to believe that we need to divert or occupy ourselves with “something else” rather than our present experience.

As I looked into this question as I hiked, paying attention to and experiencing my boredom, my aversion to being present simply vanished. Suddenly any desire to cling to my drama, any feelings of separateness from the moment were gone, replaced by the sounds of the birds singing, the soft ground beneath my feet and a gentle breeze against my skin. There was no longer an “I” apart from the experience of hiking through the woods. The act of paying attention to the boredom, of letting it in, was also the act of letting go into the moment. As one of my favorite dharma teachers, Stephen Levine says, “Letting in is letting go.” With a calmer, less reactive mind, I also gained a few insights into my creative block.

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