By Dana Gornall
The year was probably about 1980-81, and I was sitting on the concrete step of the back patio of my house with the sun hitting the skin on my shoulders and back.
Staring at the white, paved swirls in the patio, I shifted my elbow from one leg to the next, and watched as an ant made its way through the dips and crevices of the concrete. “I’m bored,” I said, loudly enough that my mother would be able to hear through the open window in the kitchen. “There’s nothing to do.” It was summertime and school was out. Our house sat right in the middle of a tiny dead-end street, and there were no other kids my age who resided there.
I don’t remember what my mom responded with, but I’m sure this was a scenario that played out over and over, and she usually quipped back with a list of things I could do, none of which I actually wanted to do. I had time—so much time—and I didn’t know what to do with any of it, sometimes.
These days, time is more than elusive. My days seem to be filled with empty hours at work, my nights with mindless chores such as laundry, television, trips to the grocery store or a quick workout at the gym. Each task is checked off as I move from one to the next, glancing at the clock on my phone and pulling my coat up around my neck while I walk briskly to the car.
And yet, I feel like I don’t have enough time.
It’s like a daily race to the next thing, just like those old game shows with a clock ticking down as the contestant runs from one task to the next trying to complete it one way or the other before time runs out.
This isn’t the way it is supposed to be, I think. I meditate, I study Buddhism, I practice mindfulness. So why are my days filled with empty hours, mindless chores and a desire to just crawl back to bed and fall into thoughtless, dreamless sleep?
I think about the phrase: chop wood, carry water. Aren’t we supposed to bring purpose to our tasks? Aren’t we supposed to stay present with each moment, no matter how small or insignificant? So, why am I stuck spinning in circles and wanting something more significant to fill up these hours?
I find myself impatient for what comes next and wishing for the thing that I am in the middle of to just be over.
Sitting at a stop light I want it to be green, standing in line at the store I want to be checked out already (even though moments ago I was aimlessly meandering around looking for groceries), when I walk into work at the beginning of my day I want to be clocking out. What is wrong with this picture? Everything.
Yet as a culture, we are finding more and more ways to fill our time with mindless activities, and at the same time complaining more and more that we don’t have enough time—and also that we are bored.
There is no clear definition of boredom. The Cambridge Dictionary defines bored as: feeling tired and unhappy because something is not interesting or you have nothing to do. Merriam Webster defines it as: the state of being weary or restless through lack of interest.
Scientific American stated in article covering boredom that:
“There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant—a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences. In studies of binge-eating, for example, boredom is one of the most frequent triggers, along with feelings of depression and anxiety. In a study of distractibility using a driving simulator, people prone to boredom typically drove at higher speeds than other participants, took longer to respond to unexpected hazards and drifted more frequently over the centre line.”
Mindlessness and boredom are no joke. I think as a whole, we all understand this, recognize it and know something needs to change. Yet, where does one even begin? Our first inclination seems to be attempting to fill the voided time with activity.
In The John Hopkins Review article titled, The Cult of Busy, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes, “We worry about what we should be doing for our kids while at work, or we worry about work while out on a date. We may want to exercise, or to stay late at work to complete a particularly fulfilling project, but we feel guilt over what else we should be doing. Time slips away in an unrelenting concern that we should be someplace else doing something more, or that we’re just not able to get to all of the things we hoped to.”
As meditators, Buddhists and those seeking a more mindful life, we know the importance and benefits of choosing to be more present. We know what happens when we focus our minds on the present. Suddenly time spent on the couch next to our teen while watching TV becomes a quality moment rather than “vegging in front of the TV.” Driving on a commute to work becomes time to think and focus, maybe even listen to a podcast, instead of simply being frustrated that we haven’t gotten to our destination yet.
So how do we get from Point A: I never have enough time in the day and yet my day is filled with nothing, to Point B: I have a full life with many opportunities for growth?
You’ve got an entire day so carve out even just 10 minutes to sit.
I am guilty of this. I don’t have time to meditate. I don’t feel like meditating. I’ll do it later. I’ll do it tomorrow morning. It’s like a petulant child coming up with excuses as to why he/she won’t clean up the bedroom or take out the trash. You have the time, I have the time.
It is 10 minutes—hell, even five minutes. Taking that short period of time to sit, even if the mind is running amuck the entire time, is like doing 10 push-ups a day. It may be hard at first, it may be something we don’t want to do right now, but after awhile, it will begin to make a difference.
When we start feeling impatient or bored, notice.
We have heard this over in over in talks, in books, in articles and in sutras. Awareness is the key to change. Even in AA, the first of the 12 steps is admitting you have a problem. Notice the impatience. Notice the feeling of being bored. Notice that we are walking around day after day in a fog. As soon as we notice, the fog begins to lift.
“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Re-direct our focus.
Once you have noticed the fog and it begins to lift, find a focus—no matter how insignificant. Often when I find myself frustrated on my commute or caught up in self-destructive thinking while driving, I focus on the feeling of my hands wrapped around the wheel. It brings me back into my body and away from the cycling thoughts.
This can be the feeling of our feet on the floor, the air inhaling in our lungs and exhaling back out. It doesn’t matter what we pick (just don’t close your eyes while driving!), and it doesn’t have to be for very long—just one point to focus on brings our minds back to awareness.
Boredom is a part of life. It’s normal and natural and we all feel it. But it can also be a nudge that we aren’t truly living in the present. Rather than filling up our days with distractions that aren’t useful, why not fill them with that which brings us joy and find joy in that which fills our days? It’s like that concept Marie Kondo emphasizes in her book and her show on Netflix: if it doesn’t bring you joy then get rid of it.
I challenge you to not only remove those things, but to find joy in the insignificant things, too.
Afterall, there is a reason that moment of me sitting on the back patio step watching the ant crawl in and out of the paved concrete still sits in my memories today. It was a time of simplicity. A time of innocence. A time when I had time to sit in the sun and watch the workings of an ant.
How much more in the moment can one be?
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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