Boredom is a topic you don’t hear a lot about in the context of a spiritual path. You hear a lot about discipline, effort and perseverance; you hear about attachment and distractions; you hear about spiritual bypassing and spiritual materialism, but boredom? Not so much. And yet, for me, and I suspect for others, since as we know there are no others in the truest sense, boredom did become a ‘thing’ – and has been one of the most challenging of all the obstacles that I have encountered on this journey of awakening.
I am not talking so much about those fallow periods, when the energy and inspiration gauges dip so low they don’t even register any more, and you worry that you might never ‘do’ anything productive again. Yes, boredom is part of that adaptation to the acceptance that there are natural cycles of production and non-production and that trying to force production out of a state of non-production is likely to be, well – non-productive. I am more speaking to a finer weave in the fabric, when we have already settled down to a large extent, having given up on the notion of being the ‘doer’ of anything. It is after this period of surrender, that it is quite possible, though I am sure not inevitable, that boredom might set in. Because once you have seen through the majority of the programming and have back-engineered substantial stacks of conditioning, something quite miraculous happens – a sense of peace comes over you, that is so deep that it goes beyond any notion you have about an emotion or feeling, or even of an experience. It feels like Grace. And that is the only word that seems to work.
After weeks and months of Grace, and it is quite possible (although again, not inevitable) that the Ego begins to kick a little against all this peace business. The Ego is used to drama, it wants a project, it wants, I-dentification, and Grace is quietly eroding what is left of your I-dentification after all those deconstruction projects of the thoughts systems that had become rooted into an idea of a ‘self’ as constructed from all these beliefs and styles and angles, rather than just dressed up in them.
The Ego is not a fan of Peace. Peace is a threat to the Ego’s very existence. Peace is all-pervasive and non-discriminatory. The Ego likes separations and distinctions.
When this boredom began to kick in for me, it emerged as a subtle restlessness. The Winter had crushed me into a quiet stubborn lump of flesh in front of the fireplace. I had resisted all the usual tugs to take my eye off the ball of startling crystalline stillness. The boredom manifested as an inability to continue to sit still. I seemed no longer able to meditate for long periods. I felt the stirrings of rebellion against everything being always the same.
I did not expect this boredom – which was the only word I could find to describe it. A sort of – is this it then? The ever-changing weather-scapes of the spiritual adventure had been tough, exhausting, but this – this continuity of no ‘thingness’, this interminable continuity was simultaneously profoundly beautiful and frighteningly predatory.
“This peace is going to eat me whole,” groaned the Ego. Egos prefer to be the eater, not the eaten; the devourer, not the devoured.
I flipped through my copy of I am That to see if Maharaj Nisargadatta had anything to say on the topic. I found only one reference to boredom, but it was all I needed.
“Once the mind is quiet keep it quiet. Don’t get bored with peace. Be in it, go deeper into it.”
The fact that Nisargadatta had even acknowledged the possibility of getting bored with peace, was a bit of a relief. Go deeper into it. That was what I had to do. Stop circling around it like a skittish horse around a scorpion. Stop this jitterbug effect. Again, it was fear I think, that I had interpreted as boredom. It was the fear of getting engulfed, swallowed up by the whale, stung by the scorpion. Annihilated. Death. Not physical death, but death of the I-dentified self. As long as there was an ‘I’ that was experiencing all of this, the Ego felt secure. But this? This was getting serious. I felt suddenly far, far from home – and yet I knew that my real home was in the opposite direction to where my fear was calling me. Across that murky misty mountain range, so imposing and unforgiving. I no longer could tell where the Shire ended and the Adventure began. Everywhere had become the same.
Later, Nisargadatta talks about the significance of the repetition of struggling on and on with endurance and perseverance, despite the boredom and even despite despair. Because there is something behind it that will always serve as the Saving Grace in every conundrum – and that is the sincere urge towards liberation – what he often refers to as a spiritual earnestness.
Go into it. That’s good advice. It’s how I’m responding to everything that arises now. Instead of trying to avoid discomfort, I lean into it.
The peace as threat scenario is well known to trauma therapists. It is why, some children and even some adults who have suffered trauma and are then guided to lay down their defenses in therapeutic settings – go home and have massive panic attacks. Traumatic responses had been recruited as protective strategies to deal with the initial trauma – and so giving up these strategies can feel threatening and can even reproduce the emotional imprint of previous traumatic events.
The Ego also sees itself as protective. It can even – and usually does – divide itself into various ‘parts’ with distinct roles. Dr. Richard Schwartz labels these parts as the ‘managers’ the ‘firefighter’ the ‘critic’ the ‘exiles’ and so on. But it isn’t necessary to have a history of trauma to get the jitterbug effect during a period of long-term mental peace. It is very normal, and I now realize that it is really simply a matter of settling in and adapting to this as a new normal – it may feel like another level of ‘letting go’ – for me it felt more like submerging into a body of dark water.
It is a strange thing, this aversion to peace. So contradictory. In many ways, the periods of fighting off demons and phantoms were easier. Perhaps not easier, but more satisfying. The Ego can handle being the protagonist of its own spiritual drama. In fact, it was born to play that role. I sat in peace and the restlessness began to stir, and I found myself eyeing the bow and arrow on the door. The Call to Adventure. I felt like Bilbo Baggins. Armed with all this peace, surely I could take on the Orcs of Mordor. You have spiritual currency now. What else to do but spend it?
The Ego wants to ‘do’ something with the peace. It wants a project. It wants a cause. You can’t just sit with it. You find yourself Googling Ashrams in Costa Rica, or a noble-looking NGO – or somewhere with a cave, the further away the better. This is not to say that you shouldn’t join an ashram or work for a noble NGO, or go off into a cave in Tibet. You have to do something with the ‘experience’. You can’t go deeper into it. Anything but that. Because that smells like a kind of death.
The peace doesn’t feel completely safe. Another interesting contradiction. And in all honesty, we’re right. The peace is NOT safe – not for our Ego mind. It WILL destroy us, it will devour us. This is why all those gods and goddesses often look so monstrous and terrifying. You don’t get out of here alive, and awakening requires a ‘death in life’.
So this is Bilbo Baggins feeling suddenly out of his depth on high spine of adventure and announcing to the dwarves that he’s going back home to the Shire to drink a proper cup of tea. But he stays because he realizes that home IS the adventure – we’re already on it. Adventure is an inside job.
You might feel this boredom as inertia – it’s a tamas state. It’s scary because it feels like quicksand, and anyone who has had more than a passing blow with depression knows this fear of getting sucked down somewhere against your will. Rajas is the jitterbug mind that kicks against the inertia. Rajas is looking up flights to Costa Rica. Rajas is checking the quivers in the bow. Rajas is measuring out the cave. There is a constant tension between tamas and raja. But the reality of Sattva – Truth – is neither of these. It is completely beyond these kinds of definitions.
Don’t get bored with peace. What a line.
Because it is if and when we get bored with peace, we are in danger of prolonging the game, of just unnecessarily lengthening the journey. Because it takes us back to our old tricks. It may seem like new tricks, but it’s really the old tricks dressed up in spiritual finery.
By all means go join an ashram, high-tail it to a cave in the Himalayas, or gather up your worldly belongings and give the up to charity – but remember. The best opportunity we ever have is where we are now. In fact, it is the ONLY opportunity. When are we going to take that opportunity? When we book the flight? When we’re on the plane? When we reach the cave? When does it kick in – this plan to spend all this peace we’ve saved up? Are we in danger of squandering it along the way?
I would hazard a guess that if you’ve read this far, you’re ready for the stay – for the quicksand. Perhaps a bit more so, knowing that none of us are really alone. I suspect there are millions of us pondering these things, getting nervy, finding courage in the Call to Awakening, nodding in the direction of a fellow heart.
Wherever we go, eventually we will need to learn to ‘stay’. No experiences lead anywhere ultimately. They seem like they’re going somewhere because there are all these interesting twists and turns and knots and plots, but eventually, they all just curl back upon themselves. Every rabbit hole is simply part of the same warren. You’ll rack up a whole data bank of ‘experiences’. And eventually, you will get tired of it. It will all start to seem like more of the same. If not now, then at some point. You may need to get it out of your system first.
But if you think you might be ready to stay, take it from Nisagardatta. Don’t get bored with peace.
“Stay, stay” I was talking to myself like I was a badly trained dog for months. Stay. Stay. Stay. It was uncomfortable, fascinating and humbling to watch how my Ego wriggled and squirmed under this kind of scrutiny and immobility.
Ram Dass also wrote about boredom.
I remember when I got into my cell in Burma. I spent the day in my cell, the first day of my two months, meditating righteously and getting my sleeping bag right and my food containers, and studying the spider at the window, and all the things you do. Then I realized I had months yet to go, and I was bored. I was really bored.
What Ram Dass did then – because he was Ram Dass – was, he made boredom the object of his meditation. And this is where things began to shift, because he questioned this label ‘boredom’ and began to unpack it. What does it mean? What does it feel like? What the hell is it, this thing called ‘boredom’?’ It’s most probably not what we think it is.
He goes on. ‘It’s interesting to make peace with boredom. Nothing’s happening, nothing’s ever gonna happen again and here we are. It’s fascinating, because when you pull back from a certain level of experiencing life, and see that it’s just more stuff, no matter how fancy the packaging is, it’s just more stuff. You get to the point of realizing that when you are in the here and now, you are here and you’re not going anywhere, and nothing’s ever going to happen.’
I had to laugh reading this last part. That’s exactly how I felt over the Winter of 21 to 22. And I would add ‘….and nothing has EVER happened!’
I would be lying if I said that I’m completely out of the boredom woods. I still have moments of the jitters. But they don’t last as long, and I can hold their gaze for longer now. This is how the path works for me. Incrementally. No stone unturned.
So what do I do with the boredom? I increase the exposure, I take a leaf out of the gold-leafed books of Nisargadatta and Ram Dass, and I lean into it. I keep it in my sights. And you know what? It turns, it changes. I’m not going to give away what it turns into….try it and see.
And yes, I do see the irony of writing a blog about not being able to sit still with peace. Well, none of us are perfect – and I can make peace with that as well.