Monday, February 22, 2010


The other day, I spoke with a young teen as he entered the classroom. "Good morning!" I said. "Hi.", he replied, but with zero vigor in his voice. Seeing that he was not himself, I asked "Are you all right?" and he said "Yeah", but in a way that implied "Nah". "Is everything okay at home?", I probe getting a little worried. "Yeah. I saw Avatar last night. ...Now, real life just seems boring."

I tried to answer with something conveying sympathy, but didn't do a very good job. You see, I've spent a good chunk of my life with 'boring', as we all do, and I've kind of grown to like boring, because boring is not very boring at all.

When I was 15, Master Pak, watching the brown belts did not look pleased. "Your side kicks need work. After class, do 1000 side kicks." he said. It took a while. A LONG while. Was it fun? Not exactly. Was it boring? I didn't think so. Not surprisingly, for those of us who finished, our side kicks improved.

Practice for competitive swimmers, especially middle distance and distance swimmers, is probably more boring than most athletes could ever imagine. Hours and hours of looking at the bottom of a pool in a largely sensory-deprived environment. It can be like driving on a straight highway with no scenery, music, or companionship. I've read descriptions of outdoor morning practices, likening the thrashing bodies amid the rising mist to a scene of hell. If you feel it is boring, it will be... and you will suffer. If you can focus on breathing, on technique, on cadence, on pacing, on turns, and on streamlining, you have provided yourself an endless array of challenges. Every stroke, every length of the pool, every breath can be a novel experience.

Years after I stopped competitive swimming and the martial arts, as a graduate student, I worked my way through school driving a bus. Driving the same route all day can be a mindfulness challenge. However, if you strive to make every stop and acceleration as smooth as possible, if you try to take your rear right tire as close to the curb as possible without 'curb-checking' every right turn, if you keep your eyes moving from driver mirror to road to speedometer to road to convex mirror to road, if you smile and greet every passenger, then the time passes quickly... AND, you will become a better driver.

If training, or life, is boring, then it's time to pay closer attention to it, NOT look for some new fix. As "you cannot step twice into the same river", every moment (repetition, meeting) is a new moment and an opportunity for something novel. I think that beats "Avatar", but I don't know - I haven't seen it yet.

Like anger and other emotions, boredom most often fools us into diverting our energies entirely to an external situation. Thus it keeps us from liberating ourselves by seeing our relationship to the emotion itself. We make a great mistake about boredom when we think that it comes because of a particular person or situation or activity.
So much of the restlessness in our meditation practice and in our daily lives derives from this fundamental misunderstanding. How often do we try something new to recapture our interest, something more stimulating or more exciting? And how often does that too quickly become boring and dull, so that we range off again, looking for something "better"?
To realize that boredom does not come from the object of our attention but rather from the quality of our attention is truly a transforming insight. Fritz Perls, one of those who brought Gestalt therapy to America, said, "Boredom is lack of attention." Understanding this reality brings profound changes in our lives.
Then boredom becomes a tremendously useful feedback for us. It is telling us not that the situation or person or meditation object is somehow lacking, but rather that our attention at that time is halfhearted. Instead of wallowing in boredom or complaining about it, we can see it as a friend saying to us, "Pay more attention. Get closer. Listen more carefully."

-Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom (pg. 80)


Brian said...

Thank you very much for creating and maintaining this blog,as well as your youtube series. I am very interested in your writings on focusing on process - between this post and some of your other works you've done an excellent job in arguing for taking pride and interest in the process of an activity foremost,and then having the results follow (like paying better attention to be less board, or focusing on turning to be a better driver).

Speaking personally, I am a novice weightlifter; I've been lifting seriously for about 6 weeks. Being a very large individual, 6'8" and just shy of 300 pounds, at the gym I've found myself putting enormous pressure on myself to be stronger than those there that are smaller than I am. I rushed and rushed to get my squats up to what I considered a respectable poundage, but once I got to where I wanted to be, I took a step back and realized that my form was horrid, my depth was awful,and I was in fairly serious danger of hurting myself (which, incidentally, is how I found your videos, and then this blog). I had clearly become outcome-, rather than process-, driven, and ego was to blame. The idea that I 'should be stronger' was causing me to cut corners, to my detriment.

In your opinion, what would you say are other obstacles to focusing on the process, and how what would you suggest to overcome them?

Thanks for your time,

Boris said...

Thank you for the thoughts and the question Brian. I have a lot of thoughts, but let me think about it and post a longer response.

Brian said...

Thanks for the note - I read this blog regularly, so when you get a chance to post your response I'll be sure to catch it!

Have a good one,

Niel K. Patel said...

Great post Boris.

I think this definitely applies to training for those who find it becomes "boring" for them.

gpazin said...

Your thoughts on boredom should be required reading for everyone, though I think many would miss the point.

I often ask people if they think the mega-successful people are simply born with gifts the rest of us lack. They certainly are, but the most important one is simply will, or persistence, whatever you want to call it.

Bill Gates was grinding on a computer while most of us were watching TV or chasing girls. Eddie Van Halen just played his guitar all day long.

Steve Elkington, the pro golfer, tells a tale in his book on the golf swing about his childhood. He was playing in a golf tourney with a friend caddying for him. His friend asked him how he could remain to calm. Steve said, do you remember playing Cowboys and Indians growing up? His friend said, what? He repeated the question. His friend said, of course. Steve said, I don't, I just remember playing golf.

As Woody Allen said, 80% of success is just showing up.

I wish I had learned that a lot earlier in life, but at least I learned it at some point.

The hard part is living it!

Boris said...

Thanks gpazin.

I think Woody Allen was right about the importance of showing up. I'd put the number a lot higher than 80% though. ...and yeah, me too - I wish I'd learned that a lot earlier and knew what "showing up" and "being present" really meant.