Boredom: what is its substance? Poring over schoolwork on dark January days can easily bring about this question. Last decade one answer presented itself as I was visiting some relatives out in the Maritimes. While they discussed their newly-acquired farmhouse I sat sequestered in a corner with my binder full of readings for SOCI335.
“That old couple before us didn’t improve a thing. The bathroom needs to be totally redone. It’s like a crypt in here, or a time capsule from the 1950s. And worst of all, they left behind so much junk. Mostly books! You’d think being way out here in farm country they’d get bored of sitting around reading and get some practical work done. I mean, the bathroom works but the fixtures need to be renewed.”
Turning to me and perhaps noticing my scholarly pose, the speaker asked “aren’t you bored reading schoolwork all the time? Isn’t distance education just a fruitless solitary pursuit of a worthless piece of paper?”
I paused and look up from my text.
“Perhaps it’s boring, and perhaps I won’t get a job directly related to my schooling. But thanks to my book-learning education, and the extracurricular reading it’s inspired, I now have a broader understanding of the reasons and contexts for my own boredom. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe the previous homeowners never knew a day of boredom in their life thanks to the enrichment their books provided? For some folks life is an ocean of under-stimulation. I wonder what would happen if we really analyzed what boredom is and how we can have even passing glimpses of its opposite?”
Invariably my memory of that day is coloured by my present self in 2016. If I were back in that cottage today I’d add the following to the discourse:
Not long ago I read an article about boredom by Karen Miller, in which she states unequivocally that “if we find one thing boring, we’ll find everything boring” (81). Her theory is that as we go through life we discover that our interests “have grown charmless or tiresome-which they always do.” (79). Education?which to many of us seems like a means to an end, at best, and at worse, drudgery down a perpetual tunnel where the light becomes ever-smaller and more distant?doesn’t sound like a fun idea when filtered through this perspective.
But there’s more than meets the eye.
Miller is giving a Buddhistic analysis of the striving that makes up human life; whatever we choose to do, we do (she says) in pursuit of the absence of boredom. Life seems to consist of running from one’s own tail, struggling for release from a boredom that never truly subsides. Boredom is here reified as a concrete state and its absence as a flight from reality. “We are bored out of our minds”; she says, because “in the name of boredom we overfill our minds” and “flee what fails to amuse” (80). So if boredom is inevitable due to our striving natures, then why should a person get an academic education at all? Isn’t self-improvement a hopeless cause?
Perhaps boredom on the other hand, is a royal road to self-discovery. The incredibly-expressive Beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg once wrote “I can’t stand my own mind” (Ginsberg, online). It’s possible that the very desire to flee from oneself and one’s boredom produces greater self-understanding. Distance education certainly teaches us to find answers while remaining self-contained. As AU students, much of our ’classroom’ and course material occurs within one’s own mental world.
Perhaps momentary pleasures enact the colour that gives boredom its value as a drab offset. Roland Barthes notes that ’jouissance’ stems from the ecstatic pleasure which momentary happiness provides (Barthes, online). The perfect chocolate, an elegant flower, a sensuous kiss?these things are momentary yet poignant beyond words. Maybe this is why a famous speech by Siddhartha (the Buddha) consisted of him doing nothing but holding up a flower to the throngs of attendees (Flower Sermon). Perhaps when we flee from the mind into beauty, the ephemeral-yet-intoxicating essence of this beauty leaves us better off than we were to begin with. Boredom may ensue when we’re finished, but at least we’ve learned to know ourselves anew. The book may close, but its mental fragrance remains in our minds.
Not all school courses change our lives, yet some leave indelible marks. So I’m not sure why Miller would imply that the momentary damnation of temporary boredom calls forth the eternal damnation of boredom for all time. She asks: “What if we could release the grasping mind, that is always clawing after some precious new thing, even if its just a new fantasy?” To my academic-student mind this sounds like a recipe for unending dullness. It’s the grasping that provokes growth! Yet, my esoteric philosophic leanings make me wonder: what serenity lies waiting amidst the weeds of enlightenment which we often weed whack down as obscurantist hinterland?
Regrettably, the books had all been carted off by the time I visited the homestead back East, but, being as the previous owners were German, I’d have perhaps stumbled upon a book or two by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Influenced by Buddhists such as D.T. Suzuki, Heidegger himself influenced post-modern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, and as such came in for criticism by those convinced that he was saying all kinds of things without really saying anything at all. His conception of boredom may be summarized, or at least approached, in his own words:
“Even and precisely when we are not actually busy with things or ourselves, this ’as a whole’ overcomes us-for example in genuine boredom. Boredom is still distant when it is only this book or that play, that business or this idleness, that drags on. It irrupts when “one is bored”. Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and human beings and oneself along with them into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals beings as a whole.” (99)
The last line of this passage suggests a value for ’boredom’ as a contrast to satiation. When we feel the whole world as an absence of stimulation then we feel our being differently. Conversely, when the waters of our mind rush in again, we invariably see and feel the stimulation in our lives differently. Karen Miller suggested following Soto Zen, which consists of staring at a blank wall until reality and enlightenment ensues. She says “the wall is called the world” (82). Alternatively, I think of a book by Ursula LeGuin called The Word For World is Forest’ (Yon, online). I read it in HUMN335, and its theme is that it’s possible to see ourselves and our desires as bound up with, and immanent within, our earthly context. The world can be a forest or a wall, depending on how we look at it.
When we surround ourselves with things we enjoy the ineffable also changes its form. The value of education lies in the production of new mental environments so that our being, and even our boredom, take on a more enlightened hue. True intellectual vacuity, then, may lie in disavowing the value of learning and experiencing new things. So long as the plumbing in a bathroom works, isn’t the most stimulating part of the room the reading material left lying around?
Barthes, R. (1975, Howard, R., Ed.). ’The Pleasure of the Text’. Retrieved from: https://emberilmu.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/roland-barthes-the-pleasure-of-the-text.pdf.
Flower Sermon. Retrieved from: http://www.tamqui.com/buddhaworld/Flower_Sermon.
Heidegger, M. (2008). ’What is Metaphysics’. Pp. 89-110. In: ’Basic Writings’, David Farrell Krell, Ed.
Miller, K. ’Booooring’. In ’The Best Buddhist Writings of 2013’. Retrieved from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=dZ0QAQAAQBAJ&pg=PT72&lpg=PT72&dq=karen+miller+booooring#v=onepage
Yon, Mark. The Word for World is Forest. (May 2, 2015). Retrieved from: http://www.sffworld.com/2015/05/the-word-for-world-is-forest-by-ursula-k-leguin/
Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.