Saturday, June 25, 2011

Everything Is Boring, Everyone Is Bored

Johann Hari:

I'm not against e-books in principle – I'm tempted by the Kindle – but the more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book. The object needs to remain dull so the words – offering you the most electric sensation of all: insight into another person's internal life – can sing.


There is a two-step process here. First, you accept the mundane. You accept the boredom and the toil of life in general. You even willingly push it to its extreme and sign up, for instance, to work at the IRS for the rest of your life. There you can become one with the boredom. You can have an experience that is not, on the face of it, special in any single way. But if you are truly attentive to the details, if you concentrate on the minutia like a Hasid davening before a sacred text, then you have come out through the other side of boredom into a heightened relationship to the here and now.

In fact, the collection of characters at the IRS that Wallace tracks in The Pale King are all mystics of the boring in one way or another. One character with almost autistic literalness and attention to the details of tax-code reaches states of concentration that find him levitating above his desk. Another character spent his childhood in the obsessive, body-contorting, yogi-like process of attempting to kiss every spot of flesh on his own body. These people have come to the IRS not because they've given up on life, but because they have discovered what they consider to be a secret at the heart of life. It is the boring that leads you to real reality. It is the mundane that is the door into the extraordinary. The things that seem, at first, to be exciting and pleasurable are actually a trap. They lead to emptiness.


To me, what Buddha was really looking for was a way to live a life that doesn't suck. Hedonism didn't work because hedonism sucked. It looked like fun, but it really wasn't. Austerity sucked too. It provided a kind of high, but that high didn't make him happy. Instead he found the Middle Way between the two.

Buddha was not looking for a way to make all of us clones of whoever comes along claiming to be the manifestation of "adulthood." He was not looking for a way to make us all "serious" in the conventional sense. He wasn't an authoritarian leader looking for obedient followers. He was looking for a way to help people live a life that did not suck.

Buddhism is about enjoying your life. The goal of zazen practice, if there is one, is to learn how to enjoy living as thoroughly as you can. This is what I am working on. Nothing else. I am working on having as much fun while I'm here as I possibly can without hurting anyone or impeding their ability to have fun.

This is why I sit and stare at walls every day. No other reason.


Now Peter Toohey has written a short book defending drudgery. Dismissed in the past because it is not a big, passionate emotion like love or hate, boredom, he argues, should be respected and cherished rather than feared and reviled. It is adaptive, “in the Darwinian sense.” Not only can boredom “illuminate certain very famous pieces of art and literature,” but, “boredom has in some ways been a blessing.” This distinctly un-romantic effort strikingly rejects older philosophical ideas warning that dullness might lead to crime, addiction, or death. “Boredom doesn’t cause anything,” Toohey proclaims. But his book does not merely aim to transform boredom from ugly duckling to swan. It strives to prove that so-called existential boredom might not exist.

Boredom itself has been around under various guises and names—acedia, horror, tedium vitae, and melancholia—for centuries. Common wisdom has it that modern boredom began during the Enlightenment, with increased leisure time and the loss of faith. It grew with modernity and rose to epidemic proportions in nineteenth-century France, and, thanks to technology and the expansion of the self, it has become ubiquitous in our times. For Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, boredom is nothing less than an “explanatory myth of our culture.”

I just thought it was interesting to notice all these variations on a theme recently. I'm not necessarily making any grand claims for dullness (though I will proudly assert my claim to be the most boring person you know) but it seems we all agree here that an excess of stimulation interferes with an ability to focus, yes? And that amazing things can develop in your awareness when you stop letting your eyes and mind wander? Thoughts need time and space to sink their roots down deep in order to become interesting, and the quietude of what most people call boredom is a good place to find them.