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 kn