Being Bored is A Gift: Here’s How to Use It

Founding editor Barry Boyce speaks with Stephanie Domet about how adding curiosity to moments of boredom improves the quality of your perception.

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Point of View Podcast, Episode 12: Being Bored is A Gift: Here’s How to Use It

  • 25:58

Stephanie Domet: Listen, I hope you can stay awake for this one. I need you to focus in. You know, I’m with Barry in his office at Mindful, the windows open. Squeaky chair is here and we’re getting ready to talk about, are you ready for this? We’re gonna talk about boredom. 

Barry, I feel that boredom is such a rich topic for a writer and for a meditator, and you start by writing about those long afternoons of childhood. And I feel like I can summon one of those up right now, forty-five years later. “Mom, I’m bored.” 

I know why boredom and thinking about it is important to me. But why was boredom on your agenda to write about?

Barry Boyce: Well, the Point of View is really about looking at the intersection between life and meditation and mindfulness practice. And it is just such a common experience to practice meditation and find that you’re bored, maybe even, you know, extremely irritatingly fingernails on the blackboard type of bored. So that was one reason to explore what the quality of boredom is and in mindfulness meditation practice and why it’s there, what its value might be. But also there is a lot being discussed and written about boredom these days because of the hyper stimulation that’s emerged from all the stuff that’s available to us on our devices. So people are writing about reclaiming boredom and enjoying boredom. And so I thought I would throw my hat in the ring.

Stephanie Domet: So it’s not generally socially acceptable for an adult to whine that classic sentence. “I’m bored.” But we do get bored. And you’ve thought a lot about this. So what is boredom made of? 

Barry Boyce: Well, of course, I’m no expert. And except for my own contemplative study of it and a bit of reading. But it seems like, you know, we’re made of on time and off time and something in between, you know, if we think of ourselves as beings who would be down in the wild having to survive. You know, there’s in-between time when we’re needing to be on the lookout. Then there’s time when we’re responding. Moving. Acting. And then there’s complete downtime. I think we have trouble with that middle space. We feel like we should be doing something. We should be stimulated. We’re kind of built to be stimulated or to relax from that, right. And yeah,. 

Stephanie Domet: Like I look at the chipmunks in my yard and you’re right, they’re on or off. That guy is never bored. Yeah. He’s either in fear for his life or he’s asleep.

Barry Boyce: Yeah, exactly. It’s that in-between space I really wonder whether evolutionarily when we were out in the wild, you know, how bored did we really get? I think boredom is a bit of an accident of having so much entertainment available. I think that part of the reason it’s interesting is that when we lurch toward entertaining ourselves too quickly, we step over the simple perception of where we are and what’s going on. 

Stephanie Domet: Yeah, which sometimes we want to perceive that sometimes, we really don’t. And you’re right about some of those classic places where boredom presents itself. You had a job at a grocery store, which had it in my reading of your column, almost comically large clock as a symbol of those minutes just dragging by. 

Barry Boyce: Yes, it was comically large. That clerk was unbelievably big. I haven’t seen a clock that big inside a building since. 

Encountering Boredom in Meditation

Stephanie Domet: Your boredom writ large and school, of course, where the minutes never seemed to end. But then you also write about encountering boredom in meditation and meditation adjacent activities, of course. And so I’m wondering how your relationship with boredom changed as you went deeper into your practice. 

Barry Boyce: It somewhat came down to the simple fact of whether I was just going to quit or not. 

Stephanie Domet: Quit meditating? 

Barry Boyce: Yeah, because it’s you know, and this came about from I would do like a minute or a couple of minutes. But, you know, when we were talking about doing a few hours or more, you got into a level of boredom and lack of stimulation that bordered on painful. And, you know, I started to battle with it. Every entertainment I came up with couldn’t sustain itself. Eventually it wore out. I became bored with the entertainment that I cooked up in order to not be bored.

Stephanie Domet: I believe they call that a first world problem. 

Barry Boyce: Yes, definitely a first world problem. So when I got some advice to stop doing battle with it, it started to open up to be okay with less stimulus and it began to, and I’m not alone in meditation practitioners in experiencing this, it began to open up my awareness and perception more. 

Stephanie Domet: Say more about that. In what way did it open it up and what did you find there?

Barry Boyce: That there a lot that I wasn’t noticing in the atmosphere and in myself. While I raced for entertainment, boredom was like a passageway. That kind of painful boredom. A lot of the pain was, you know, fighting and trying so desperately to be entertained. When I let go of that a little bit, I could really appreciate it like some air coming through a window, more. That was a sufficient, “entertainment.” My perceptive capabilities were reignited in a way as a result of getting past this kind of simplistic level of boredom.

Stephanie Domet: So what is that? Is that like owed an acknowledgement or a realization that this world is enough for this moment? Is it enough? 

My perceptive capabilities were reignited in a way as a result of getting past this kind of simplistic level of boredom.

Barry Boyce: I don’t know about realization, realization seems a little bit highfalutin, more like I don’t know what you’d say skill or something that, you know, I often use the example of learning to play the guitar, the violin and the piano. You know, the the early student is so caught up in themselves and maybe they’re bored with learning and as you keep at it, you start to notice in the nuances and the subtleties that enable you to become a better player. You can detect the difference between one way of striking and another and, you know, a whole range. So it’s really you’re quality of your perception improving. Not so much a realization, but maybe the realization is, wow. That’s kind of cool, that I can perceive at that. At that intricate and my new level.  

Stephanie Domet: And so then you’re able to reengage your curiosity. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah, exactly. Your attention is, I think, also increasing. Right. Right. You can attend longer. You know, I’m fascinated with things like police work where somebody has to go on a stakeout and just sit and pay attention, and if you avert your attention, the thing that you’re looking for may escape notice. I think you’re attentive capabilities increase. 

Stephanie Domet: I guess you had a chance to really engage with this. You write about your archery practice. I forget what particular kind is called.

Barry Boyce: Yeah, it’s called Kudo, which is sometimes called Zen archery. But it’s really just a Japanese practice of archery. But while I was doing it, it was incredibly engaging and I wouldn’t say I got good at it, but I learned a lot. And in that form of archery practice, you start out there’s like almost no attention to the target. 

Stephanie Domet: What are you paying attention to them? 

Barry Boyce: So you’re you are paying attention to the form of how you’re holding your body and the bow and the bow string and then you just shoot into a bale of hay, right, without a target on it, and it’s only like six or eight feet away from. 

Stephanie Domet: Not a huge challenge. No outcome oriented that this is completely freaking me out. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah. Well, in the mean, quite often when you’re learning. So you will go through these coordinations,  I think there are several of them that where you end up finally releasing the bow string. And so you could be about to release the bow string and then the the arrow just falls out and goes on the ground. But the instruction is to complete the whole thing anyway. So you just shoot this empty, empty bow and then you have to sheepishly pick up the the arrow and start all over again. So in that context, to teach, one of the teachers said, you know, things really get interesting. And the practice really starts when you’re getting bored, when it starts to get boring. What this was really about is that any fascination with I’m doing archery and this is going to be cool, that starts to go away. And you really start to notice in more perceptual way that I was talking about how am I actually gripping this? And you would notice things like, man, I’m really gripping this bow a lot harder than I need to. And you’re doing that, it’s a certain kind of insecurity and fear. I grip it harder. It’s going to work better. 

Stephanie Domet: I’m going to be better. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah. I’m going to be better. I’m going to control this and my Japanese teacher he talked about, perceiving in holding the bow where each of the fingers was an what degree of pressure they were applying, and as I started to try to perceive this, I realized that man down at the end of my arm is just like a hamhook, like I don’t have this level of perception of the individual fingers and the definite knuckles he’s talking about. 

Stephanie Domet: Yeah. 

Barry Boyce: So let me in on, past the boredom and the obsession with being entertained there was a level of perception possible because this teacher embodied that kind of perception in the, you know. He knew where every sinew in his body was and what was happening and not in any obsessive kind of way. It’s just that was how he was trained. So anyway, that was a very wonderful meditative, because it was a it was archery as meditation practice.

Stephanie Domet: And it wasn’t really about hitting the target. 

Barry Boyce: Not ultimately, although as people progress in do that practice more there are targets and they even take it as far as you know, that there is a target that’s way far away and even on some level, you do it on horseback and all this kind of stuff. I never got that far, but certainly the point. Of the beginning meditative aspect of that practice is to not be focused on getting anywhere so much, be focused on where you are and what’s happening with your hands. 

Stephanie Domet: It’s such a perfect metaphor for what we’re talking about, because I think, you know, that being in boredom in a state of boredom and the itchy feeling of trying to get out of that isand you write about this too, it’s about not wanting to be where you are, and being actually kind of desperate to not be where you are now. And that feels like there’s something intrinsic there about being a person and trying to pay attention. 

The Power of Attention

Barry Boyce:People talk nowadays about preserving this great gift we have of attention and not having it robbed so easily by the merchants of distraction. It’s a great gift that we have. 

Stephanie Domet: And you can you know, I used have a kind of a high powered job as a daily journalist where I was really rewarded for being able to fracture my attention. And then when I stopped doing that and I turned my attention back to writing in a deep way, you know, trying to write long fiction, I realized that my attention span was broken. And because I was always rewarded for being able to turn on a dime, and so I had to work with, I worked with a little timer and a little reward system and, you know, some self compassion to try to rebuild that attention span that had taken me through, you know, those long childhood afternoons which were great for me as a writer. That was when my imagination and I really became kind of firm friends. We didn’t have cable television. Seemed like it was always raining. Definitely before the time of smartphones. You can only play Sorry so many times with your brothers before you truly are sorry. And we do really try to run from boredom, but it can be such a good teacher and a facilitator in my experience. And probably yours too, of things like art. 

Barry Boyce: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that attention span is pretty cool if we think about it. You know, I think that’s a great story of you working to regain your attention span, so to speak, and we think of attention span unfortunately, in this kind of punitive way, because of teachers wanting us to increase our attention span and, you know, being punished, so to speak, for not not having enough attention span. But the notion of spanning a broader field of time and vision and space is a good one. It feels good to have more space. Although on the way there, you get the bends.

Stephanie Domet: There’s kicking and screaming in my experience.

Barry Boyce:I mean. Yeah. But I think that’s what we’re talking about and enjoying that that longer span. 

Stephanie Domet: You’re just finding what’s waiting in here. What might we observe if we can do this? If we can sit with boredom, just be with it. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah, I think we can get to know our impulses and be able to be curious and explore and question our degree to which we’re addicted to filling up space, rather than letting ourselves be filled up by space, to dance with that a bit. And when we start to fight the boredom, see if we can declare a truce and just be with things a little longer and see what happens.

When we start to fight the boredom, see if we can declare a truce and just be with things a little longer and see what happens.

Stephanie Domet: So the next time I’m sitting and I’m thinking, no, no, no, no, no. What do I do? Give me something practical. 

Barry Boyce: Boycott that stop. And then when it comes up again. Boycott it again. Like. Okay, you know, it takes a certain…it’s interesting about meditation and effort. To the extent that you have this really kind of hard pushing effort, it doesn’t work. You know, you pushed too hard, on the other hand. A little bit of effort is needed of a particular kind. To say no to the part of you that’s resisting because, you know, you’ve set a time. And this, by the way, is very important, practical, tactical, important thing for. Formal meditation practice it’s good to set a time, OK, I’m going to do this for 15 minutes rather. so then you don’t have to go into ok I’m bored, I’m going to quit now. You know, a little bit of effort is the effort to boycott that. And as it comes up again, you boycott it again. And then if you have a whole thought pattern about why does this keep happening? You boycott that. 

Stephanie Domet: Right, no narratives about that. OK. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah. You’re always going to find that if you keep boycotting those instincts. There’s something that lies there beneath, that is relaxed and attentive already. Your basic capability of being aware. It’s under there, I promise.

Stephanie Domet: Even for me? 

Barry Boyce: Well, if it’s there for me. 

Stephanie Domet: I’m wondering because you’re a parent. You’ve got kids. You’ve got grandkids. How did you talk to them about their own boredom when they were coming to you with those long afternoon whiny times? 

Barry Boyce: You know. That’s a very interesting question. Going back to my own children, I might have to ask them. I think I probably simply tried to find something constructive for them to do, right? I think I did a little better than go away and leave me alone. But I didn’t try to educate them, so to speak, in the nature of boredom. I mean, good luck with that. 

Stephanie Domet: That was probably a good move on your part. 

Barry Boyce: It’s kind of B.S. anyway. I mean, they’ll experience it. So I probably tried to help them along a little bit by giving them something to do or something to read. Every once in a while I have a feeling like I asked them to do some housework and clean up the room. A classic technique. 

Stephanie Domet: I always found that an excellent cure for my complaints of boredom. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah, it’s very effective. Okay, if that’s the alternative, I’m doing just fine. 

Stephanie Domet: I will entertain myself. 

Barry Boyce: Yeah, I will entertain myself. I’ll find something to do. 

Stephanie Domet: I feel we’ve naturally arrived at the old mindful vulgarian and his relationship with the nature of boredom.

Barry Boyce: Well, the thing about the mindful vulgarian, my persona alter ego must be blunt and possibly just ego blunt, for it tells it like it is. The mindful vulgarian is definitely a work in progress. On his tombstone, it will say work in progress. The mindful vulgarian says. Come on. Come off it. You’re the most bored person in the world. You resist boredom like the plague. How do you come off talking about the wonders of getting past boredom?

So. Yeah, I mean, if we’re being honest here, I’m in this mess with the rest of us, but I have. Experienced a moment of two from time to time where I was able to drop my fight with boredom and then actually wake up to where I was. 

Stephanie Domet: Thank you for this. 

Barry Boyce: Thank you. It’s been a blast, and stay bored.

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