A few years ago, I was on a meditation retreat in North Wales. It was winter: wet, windy and dark. Fields had become quagmires. There was a program of meditation, teaching sessions and daily chores. There was also plenty of free time. Most of the retreat was in silence, so whiling away the hours in pleasant conversation was not an option. There was a request to restrict our reading to books on meditation and not to check our phones. This was a time for being with one’s own mind, in more depth than is usually possible.
To say I was experiencing boredom is an understatement. Beyond the programmed events and a bit of yoga practice, I did not know what to do with myself. I drifted from the dining area to the living room, and back again. I gazed out of the window at the rain-soaked garden. In my search for anything to do, I made copious cups of tea. Bedtime was something of a relief. This was more than a digital detox. It was a complete break from the levels of stimulation that, like my contemporaries, I have come to expect. I felt like I was going cold turkey.
But as the days wore on, a change occurred. I began to get interested in my inner life. I became conscious of an underlying current in my life: a tendency to look forward to the next event. I realised I lacked fulfilment in my current life and sought it elsewhere. Noticing this constant grasping for the next thing was uncomfortable. Yet it was also freeing. I glimpsed an alternative to living in this state of tension. Why did I imagine that what I was looking for was elsewhere?
Periods of contentment emerged. It was a gift to have the mental space to muse and reflect. Sometimes I pondered on my relationships and actions. I recognised times when I had been thoughtless, or unkind. I remembered events I felt happy about. My emotions started to flow. I shed tears, sometimes without knowing why. The sound of the rain made me happy and peaceful. One day snow began to fall. I watched as one of the retreat leaders dashed out to feed the birds, his face a vision of concern. The image still brings a smile to my face.
I ended the retreat feeling refreshed and centred. The boredom of reduced busyness had been a gateway to a rich inner world.
Back home in everyday life, it is easy to avoid boredom. Well before tedium can get a grip, I can reach for my phone or my laptop. There are an overwhelming number of ways to fill the void.
In her book Dopamine Nation, Dr Anna Lembke explores addiction to instant gratification. Dopamine is a hormone released when we experience pleasure. But the dopamine does not last, leaving us searching for the next hit. Our brains build resistance to dopamine over time. The satisfaction gained from repeating a pleasurable activity gradually reduces. Like any addict, we need a bigger fix and we want it more often. Lembke points out a sad paradox - that pursuing pleasure for its own sake leads to anhedonia. That is a loss of the ability to enjoy pleasure.
The internet exposes us to levels of stimulation unthinkable to our forebears. Lembke likens the smartphone to a hypodermic needle. My phone plays a starring role in my own attempts to avoid boredom and other unwanted feelings. Comfort eating is a strong supporting act. Am I, along with others like me, drifting towards a grey, joyless existence? What should I do?
Science shows what poets and philosophers have known for centuries. Pleasure and pain are like two sides of a coin. Pursuit of unceasing pleasure creates pain. Any addiction demonstrates this.
Conversely, tolerance to the unpleasant sides of life leads to greater enjoyment. Getting into a cold shower is unpleasant at the time, but feels great afterwards. Resisting the urge to snack between meals may feel like deprivation. But the food is more enjoyable when it comes.
Boredom is unpleasant. But my retreat experience of moving through it to deeper enjoyment fits the science. The lack of stimulation was, at root, a dopamine fast. This reset my hormones for better enjoyment of life's simple pleasures. This is the course of treatment that Lembke prescribes for us 21st Century dopamine junkies.
Mindfulness theory encourages us to sit with such unwanted feelings. This is easier to do when we are not distracted by other things. I am beginning to think that a bit of boredom may be a good sign.