Take advantage of ‘boredom’

Americans are industrious. In 400 years of winning, settling and populating this land, we have lived out a “Protestant work ethic” we’ve been willing to share generously with all immigrants, Protestant or not.

Hard work, diligence, tenacity – these are indeed blessings to be cultivated. The 19th-century clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher cautioned that “If you are idle you are on the way to ruin, and there are few stopping places upon it. It is rather a precipice than a road.”

It seems, though, that the precipice lies gaping for the workaholic as much as the idle, for the frenzied time-filler as much as the rose-smeller. Like any other blessing, industry of mind and body can be carried to excess, and into the precipice we fall.

Wisdom from psychologists and practitioners of the world’s religions advises us to seek quiet regularly, to practice contemplation for mental well-being, and even to enjoy the balance idleness brings to lives fraught with bustle and noise pollution.

Obviously, the stress wrought by busy-ness causes ill health and possibly a short life. Everyone understands the harmful effects of pressure and stress, even when it takes the form of a perpetual quest for excitement. It’s easy to overlook the virtues of boredom.

The Buddhist approach to boredom, with “the moment” a central tenet, has much to offer. Living in the moment requires discipline, but people who adopt this practice find it worthwhile. Inevitably, some moments are boring, but yielding to them may be better than fighting these bogeyman moments. The Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm suggests yielding to the boredom of a moment. The outcome will be attention paid to interesting facets of the mind and soul that we’re usually too busy to discover, such as a single leaf on a November tree.

Brahm uses the example of an art gallery, a place many people consider unexciting. A fresh approach would be to acknowledge one’s boredom among walls of quiet art. Take a deep breath, and then focus on the sculpture or painting. You’ll quickly find something surprising and interesting in the piece, lifelike details, vivid colors, facial expressions, shadows cast by the sculpture or painted into a landscape or frolicsome scene. Soon enough, boredom yields to an appreciation of something beautiful that feeds the spirit.

Most of us are bored when we’re waiting for something. Recently, I found myself waiting for a friend in the lobby outside the SUNY Fredonia Starbucks. I was bored. So I glanced out the window and fastened my gaze upon buildings and their shadows stretching into the afternoon sun. I asked myself, “If I were an artist, how would I sketch this scene?”

Suddenly, the forsaken scenery of my dull wait took on a quality of life, becoming a portrait of lines and angles, shapes and shadows, contrasts of architecture and gangly winter limbs. I felt pleasure in imagining myself as the artist I could never be. I was in full appreciation of the flip side of diligent Henry Ward Beecher, the persona that also said, “The soul without imagination is what an observatory would be without a telescope.” Moments of boredom are perfect occasions for stoking the imagination.

During another bored moment, I focused on one of the trees outside my home. An abandoned nest perched conspicuously on a still-bare branch, vulnerable as a precious dish on a tightrope. For some reason, the image filled me with a quiet sense of peace. That happens when the unseen backdrop becomes the focus of our attention. Like Ajahn Brahm, the truly willing can find the rewards of such focus.

The 19th-century poet Walt Whitman made his living at numerous jobs, supporting his mother, his siblings, and himself through his industry. But he also believed in idleness, and good poetry emerged out of the tension between these competing forces of work and relaxation. It was he who said, “I loaf and invite my soul.” He is a perfect example of the imaginative power endowed by idleness and, one can presume, moments of boredom.

So the next time you’re bored – in a line or waiting room, stuck in traffic, attending the symphony – take a deep breath and invite yourself to a party. It’s a loafing party with a short guest list: you, and a world of wonders.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com