Have you ever played the game “Would You Rather?” It’s something kids used to do (maybe they still do, if they’re not on SnapChat) to amuse themselves when a moment of boredom came along. The game consists of asking each other questions like, “Would you rather be rich and ugly, or poor and gorgeous?” or “Would you rather go completely bald, or have back hair to rival a grizzly bear?”
Recently some researchers at the University of Virginia decided to play a scientific game of “Would You Rather.” Of course, they didn’t call it that, but they created a study to find out if college students would rather be left alone in a quiet room for 5-15 minutes, or give themselves an electric shock.
The results do not bode well for the future of humanity.
Most of the participants in the study preferred the electric shock! (You can listen to an interview about this study here, with a few more details about how it was conducted – no electricity puns intended). The study’s author is a professor of psychology, and he attributed these results to the rise of social media and smart phones, essentially saying that people are losing the capacity or willingness to sit quietly with their own thoughts without being entertained.
So…what’s wrong with a little boredom?
The day after hearing about this study on the radio, I had to spend 3 hours at the DMV getting a new driver’s license. When I arrived first thing in the morning, the line was already snaking around the outside of the building. The wait was an hour and a half in the hot sun just to go inside the building and take a number. Then you got to go to the actual waiting room and sit until your number got called. I was G088.
The DMV is a pretty good place to do some people watching, if you don’t have your head buried in an iPhone the whole time, so I determined that I was going to practice just standing in line and being a little bored. I’m always feeling like I’m too busy, so here was someone giving me permission to take a break. I can’t say I never checked my phone, but I kept it stowed away for the vast majority of the time I was there. I was just about the only person around not texting, Facebooking, or emailing. Someone from earlier apparently got so uncomfortable with the boredom that they decided to braid some plant leaves together (must not have had Angry Birds).
But, I enjoyed the breeze, the sky, the real birds, and the feeling of my feet on the ground standing in Mountain Pose…in line at the DMV.
I feel fortunate to have a meditation practice to rely on for all the discomforts of daily life. Boredom is one of those things that you will inevitably encounter, sooner rather than later, if you take up meditation. It’s not a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing! It means that you’re not filling up the space in your mind with all kinds of stuff, for once. Sure, some of that stuff is helpful and necessary, but a lot of our mental activity is just fluff. When we pause for a little while from our usual mode of working or being entertained, that becomes pretty evident. And when we can stop being entertained by our worries and restless thoughts for a moment, that letting go gives peace the chance to show up for a visit.
I heard a talk once with meditation teacher Pascal Auclair, in which he said, “Peace is an acquired taste.”
That one stopped me in my tracks. Don’t we all want peace?
But, he’s right – peace is not the same as excitement and entertainment. Much of the time, we’re not willing to settle down enough to experience this thing we want! As Pascal explained in the talk, peace has a kind of neutral tone to it. It’s not an exuberant high, and it’s not a sorrowful low. It’s a lot closer to the ability to just be with whatever the moment is offering up.
Here’s a practice for you: next time you get the opportunity to be with boredom, let yourself experience it fully!
- Notice that feeling of “pull” as you are drawn to a hundred new ideas for what to do with the moment (“Should I do this or that? I wonder what’s on Facebook? Do we have any of those cookies left?).
- When you notice the boredom, are there any other feelings in the background (like pressure to be more productive, anxiety about wasting time, worrying that you’ve forgotten something)?
- Now pause and hear any and all of the sounds around you. Notice the shapes and colors of what you are seeing. Feel where your body is touching a chair, or your feet are contacting the ground. Sense the breath rhythmically moving in and out of you.
Are you still bored?