Philosophy’s Take on Boredom
It is the task of philosophy to soothe our souls writhing with existential anxieties like boredom, loneliness, or longing. Today, let’s talk about the philosophical discourse on boredom.
With “efficiency” being touted as the current ambition, doing nothing has become synonymous with a defeatist outlook. This is particularly ironic, given that the point of modern technology is to allow us more “leisure time.”
If you are as flummoxed as me, this life-changing advice by the great philosopher, Bertrand Russell, will show you the light at the end of the tunnel.
Boredom Is Necessary and Sometimes Rewarding
Some boredom is required to be able to fully appreciate the excitement offered by life. Boredom, Russell observed, is like the resting period of the soul, which rejuvenates it and prepares it to savor the various stimuli offered by life.
It’s also important to note here that boredom has a specific purpose in bringing us closer to reality. Only a person who is able to endure limited boredom is well adjusted with the actuality of life—that one day is indeed much like the next one, except on rare occasions. Boredom, then, is needed in as much it requires one to look for stimulation using their own imagination and resourcefulness. Russell also said that dealing with boredom must be learned in the early years, i.e., during childhood.
Reading this startling piece of advice, so contrary to modern parenting, rekindled my own childhood memories.
My parents believed in afternoon naps. It was forbidden to make noise or go out of the house. Bored out of our wits, my brother and I invented something like reverse Pictionary. We’d pick a word from a book and then make a picture describing the word. We would then compare notes—and make fun of the other’s drawing. The entire exercise was pointless, except it made those dull afternoons tolerable.
It was a profound experience: We invented a game out of pure boredom.
Adam Philips concurs in his book, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored:
“Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom … Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated, and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize … The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.”
Replacing Boredom with Idleness
Danish philosopher Kierkegaard requests us to replace boredom with idleness. He argues that while boredom is the root of all evil, idleness is a virtue that we need to cultivate. Idleness essentially means the capacity to be still, to simply accept one’s existence as is.
He also urges us to restrict indulging in easy distractions and work toward developing resourcefulness. He reflected on the resourcefulness of a solitary prisoner who could find amusement in a lone spider crawling on the floor. The point is: Without any distractions, you apply yourself to seek amusement. Therefore, the more you limit yourself, the better you become at being you.
All of the above ties up well with Stoic philosophy. The Stoics strongly advocated solitary contemplation—the modern definition of the word “boring”—because it awakens within us the most divine part of our nature. To be able to endure boredom and aloneness, the Stoics thought, was the only way to be truly self-sufficient and at peace with ourselves.
In fact, it’s scary how accurate the Stoics were when they spoke of the things we should do during quiet contemplation: Ponder over our responses and relationships, enjoy the beauty of nature, and remedy what bothers us. That’s exactly what the brain does in the default network mode (also explained in yesterday’s lesson).
Starting today, I want you to start building a capacity for idleness. Here’s how I started doing it, and you can try this method too.
Sit down at a comfortable spot with a stopwatch. Set it for five minutes. Let the time pass while you do nothing but just be. Gradually increase the time by a couple of minutes per day. My current time is 18 minutes.
This is not a meditation exercise, so don’t restrict your thoughts. Let them flow.
If you’re hard-pressed to find time for this, pair it with a quiet activity that’s already in your routine. I usually do this with my eight minutes of Vajrasana after every meal.
Sitting quietly with a cup of tea works too.
Boredom should be perceived as a time where you let your attention float in space and time. Think of it as investing in your well-being, a spot where you reflect, imagine scenarios, reminiscence, and rethink.
Now that you have a sound understanding of boredom, let’s see if there are any benefits of boredom. Tomorrow’s lesson is going to be about just that.
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