Like, say, staring into space. Or counting your breaths. Or living life just as it is. KAREN MAEZEN MILLER on the virtues of boredom.
message comes with good intentions, as do most things designed to
inspire, so I click on the link in my email and watch the short video.
First I see a sleeping newborn swaddled in a blanket, followed by a
silken black butterfly perched on a finger, a dewdrop dangling from a
leaf tip, and a nest cradling two luminous robin’s eggs. Images dissolve
to a piano serenade—a foggy meadow at daybreak, the fiery blaze of an
ocean sunset, a peach pie cooling on a plank table, and a vase of
peonies gracing a windowsill. A boy bites a glistening red popsicle at
that perfect instant before it slides off the stick. A golden-haired
girl blows the dancing flames from her birthday candles. “Moments,” the
voiceover says. “Moments like this are all we have.”
They are happy, captivating shots, drenched in color and
sentiment. The eye wants to drink them in and dwell. Compared to this,
my life seems mostly washed-out and even wasted.
I stop the show. Something’s wrong with this picture. Pies and
popsicles are appealing, but these pictures don’t quite capture the
essence of life. Not the whole of it.
Later on, in the bathroom picking up dingy wet towels, I notice
the mildew creeping up the bottom of the shower curtain. This is not the
life of precious tributes. It’s not one of the moments you want to
frame and keep. It’s one you want to throw out. And many of us do. We
replace people, places, and things that have grown charmless and
tiresome— which they always do. Fascination fades and restlessness
Chasing the picture perfect, we can lose what we have in
abundance—the times that teach us even more than the rare delight of
butterflies or a robin’s blue eggs. We lose the hours, the days, and the
decades when nothing much seems to happen at all. Time freezes. Paint
dries. Mildew spreads. We’re bored out of our minds.
Boredom is the unappreciated path to patience, peace, and
intimacy, so who would read a paean to it? Let that be your koan.
Face the Wall
Bodhidharma faced the wall.
The Second Ancestor, having cut off his arm, stood there in the
snow and said, “My mind is not at peace yet. I beg you, Master, please
put it to rest.”
Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”
The Second Ancestor said, “I have searched for my mind, but I cannot take hold of it.”
Bodhidharma said, “There, I have put your mind to rest.”
I happen to love this koan. Every time I look at it I notice
something beautiful. You might not see it, because there’s not much
going on here. Plus it doesn’t paint an especially pretty picture. One
guy faces the wall. Another one stands frozen in a colorless landscape,
going stir-crazy. It’s the crazy part I relate to.
Bring Me Your Boredom
Schoolchildren can be afflicted with it by the second day of
summer; workers by the sixth month on the job; spouses by the seventh
year of marriage; and readers by the tenth paragraph. Or before.
Are you bored yet? Nowadays, boredom is considered a scourge. We
blame boredom for the death of curiosity, learning, productivity,
innovation, and commitment. Boredom is the antecedent to all kinds of
distractions, disengagements, overindulgences, and infidelities. The
worst crime is being boring, the joke goes, but we all know that the
real crimes are likely to come after. In the name of boredom, we
overfill our minds, our bodies, our senses, and our time. We flee what
fails to amuse. Boredom breeds contempt, and contempt breeds calamity.
If boredom is such a menace, let’s bring it out into the open. Can
you show it to me? Like the other thoughts and feelings we use to
torment ourselves, boredom is something we can’t locate except in our
own deadly pronouncement: “I’m bored.” By the time we say it, we believe
it, and believing is all it takes. This is where the story can get
When we’re bored, we go looking for something new. And let’s face
it: we’re nearly always looking for something new. It doesn’t matter how
much or how little we’ve got—how well we each manage our store of
talents or prospects—we are somehow convinced that we haven’t yet got
“it,” not enough to be completely satisfied or secure. We might think we
need something as harmless as a cookie, a game, or a gadget—or another
career, lover, or child. We might call what we want higher purpose,
wisdom, passion, or simply a change of scenery.
Until we are at peace with ourselves, the quest continues. Until
we know that there is nowhere else to go, and nothing more to get, we
are trapped in delusion. We cannot resolve delusion with more delusion,
but we try, and in the search we drive ourselves further away from
reality and into raving madness. Fighting boredom is a full-time
What does it take to liberate ourselves from the chase? What if we
could release the grasping mind that is always clawing after some
precious new thing, even if it’s only a new fantasy? That would be
excruciating, or so we fear. It’s the fear of letting go that afflicts
us, but letting go is pain free.
Search the Mind
time I was interviewed by a radio host about meditation, and she seemed
alarmed, even offended, by the idea. Staying put runs contrary to the
religion of self-gratification.
“It seems to me you’re telling people to settle,” she said. I was
flummoxed, and I searched my mind for a response. If I’d had the
equanimity of my Zen forebears, I would have said what I really meant.
I would have said, “Yes.”
What’s wrong with settling? What’s wrong with being patient and
making peace? What’s wrong with quieting the crazy-making, egocentric
mind? And for that matter, what’s wrong with boredom? It’s not the
feeling of boredom that hurts us; it’s what we do when we try to run
away from it.
If we find one thing boring, we’ll find everything boring, so we’d
better learn to look at boredom differently. We’d better see things as
they really are. This is why we begin our practice, and this is why we
keep practicing even when we are no longer entertained. If we are really
committed, we can indeed bore ourselves out of our ruminating mind and
into a world at rest.
In the Soto Zen tradition, we meditate with our eyes slightly
open, facing a blank wall. Like Bodhidharma, who was said to have faced
the wall for nine years before his first student appeared in the
snowdrifts, we are called wall gazers. People often ask about the
meaning of the wall, since it seems so extreme, or at the very least,
It’s true; sometimes the wall we face is a bare white wall, where
we are looking at nothing. This wall is called a wall. At other times,
we turn around and face another kind of wall, where we are looking at
everything. This wall is called the world. There always seems to be a
wall of some kind or another in front of us; the question is whether or
not we can face it.
Whatever the scenery, our practice is the same. Our practice is to
face everything life is, and everything it isn’t. Everything we think
and feel, and everything we don’t. Wall gazing is a very thorough
practice in facing the fleetingness of things, and not getting trapped
in momentary apparitions. All apparitions, it turns out, are momentary.
When your eyes are open and you are intimately engaged with what appears
in front of you, it’s hard to stay bored because nothing stays one way
for long. Even walls disappear.
When my husband comes home, he asks me what happened during the day.
There were no piano serenades at my house. No misty meadows or
fiery sunsets. No newborns. No birthdays. I did not make a pie. It was a
day like any other that can bore you out of your mind.
“Nothing,” I say.
But that doesn’t mean I’m bored. I have been facing the wall where
the snow falls, paint dries, towels fade, and mildew spreads—the same
wall where the light blooms in a continuous spectacle of color,
sensation, and imagery that is the undivided whole of life. I have been
practicing the equanimity of my Zen forebears, but even now I have not
said what I really mean when I say, “Nothing.”
I mean, “Everything.”
What could ever be wrong with this picture?
Karen Maezen Miller is a teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.