If boredom arises from monotony, from a lack of stimulation, from an unsatisfied craving for novelty, then why isn’t meditation the most boring thing in the world? 

Why doesn’t the act of sitting in a chair, doing nothing but breathing – why doesn’t this quiet and stationary act produce the most excruciating boredom imaginable?

Of course we sometimes feel bored when we meditate. But the fact that meditation isn’t always boring – the fact that we can meditate for hours without being bored at all – that’s a clue that boredom might not behave the way we think it does.

I spent a good chunk of my youth sitting in class while the teacher plodded through arithmetic or science or English in a dull and stultifying way. I couldn’t wait to be somewhere else where my curiosity – my desire to really learn – would be nourished. My early schooling left me with a fear and hatred of boredom. 

Over the years, I’ve found ways to cope with my fear of boredom, but that fear still lives within me. For a long time, I assumed that meditation wouldn’t be worth the pain. If I had been forced to sit still and be bored as a kid, why would I subject myself to that same trauma all over again, sitting still again, this time on my own, with my interests and questions and initiatives held in check?

Boredom, I thought, was the “price” I would have to pay to get the benefits that are supposed to follow from meditation. No pain, no gain. To achieve the calm and clarity that meditation offers, I’d need to get really good at enduring the boredom of sitting still during those long practice sessions. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to develop that endurance. 

Now that I meditate on a daily basis, I find that boredom occurs some of the time, but certainly not all of the time, and it doesn’t often last long enough to require extraordinary endurance. Is there any rhyme or reason to boredom’s appearance?

When I feel bored during meditation, I look at where my attention has recently been. Has my attention been focused on the sensations of breathing? Or has it gotten caught up in miscellaneous thoughts?

Most of the time, boredom means I’ve been thinking. Boredom arises from mental activity. Boredom is an indicator that I’m still in a superficial phase of my practice session, where my thoughts haven’t yet settled down. Boredom means that there’s room for me to go deeper into meditation itself. There’s room for me to concentrate more fully on the sensations of breathing and to be less involved in my thoughts.

When my mind is wandering very actively, I might assume there’s an infinite amount of boredom I must contend with. There’s an endless need for endurance. But as my thoughts begin to quiesce and I tune in more fully to the sensations of breathing, the boredom simply drops away. Evaporates. Disappears. All of the struggle I imagined I’d need to go through? That struggle turns out not to be my inescapable fate.

Flying a plane, we might encounter turbulence at one altitude, but if we fly a little higher, it’s not there anymore. Swimming in the ocean, we might struggle with waves at the surface, but deep enough below, there might be no strong currents. And so with meditation, boredom is a kind of disturbance we encounter at certain coordinates. But we needn’t endure this boredom, suffering miserably through it the whole time – we might be able to bypass it by moving our attention to a different “position.” And this needn’t be an elusive, mystical, or extraordinarily difficult maneuver. It just requires connecting further with the sensations of breathing and detaching further from the content of our thoughts. We can usually find a way to do that in some degree. And as we do that, we stop feeling bored.

But why? What is the mechanism by which thinking generates boredom, and by which not-thinking dissolves it? 

If you daydream about winning the lottery, or having amazing sex, or sharing a delicious dinner with friends – if you fantasize about anything very desirable – you might experience a letdown when the daydream subsides and you realize you’re only sitting in a chair trying to meditate. Another name for that letdown is “boredom.”

But daydreams of pleasure and adventure are not the only kind of thought that can result in the low-grade disappointment that we identify as boredom. Any thought creates some kind of hope or expectation that if we follow the thought where it’s trying to lead us, there will be some reward at the destination.

While you’re attempting to meditate, you might start mentally composing an email that you need to send to a customer service representative about a defective product you purchased two months ago, still under warranty. That’s not an exciting email. But as you write the email in your mind, you feel you’re making progress, you’re getting something done – there’s a reward ahead, the reward of productivity.

What happens next? Maybe the email gets too complex to keep in mind all at once. There are too many details to put in place. You give up for now. You remember you’re sitting in a chair supposedly meditating. The meditation isn’t “going well” because you’ve gotten lost in thought, and the email hasn’t been sent. The reward is denied. Now is when you think, “I’m bored."

But guess what? If you can release the memory of the email you were trying to write; if you can relinquish the thought that meditation isn’t going well; if you can tune into your next inhale, and the following exhale, and keep your attention focused on that alternation for a few more cycles, then the thought that “I’m bored” will dissipate too. You’ll stop wondering, “When is this going to be over? When can I get up and go about my day?”

When we encounter boredom during meditation, we shouldn’t plan on an endless struggle. We shouldn’t treat the boredom as a grim indicator of what lies ahead. Instead, we should interpret the boredom as a reminder – even an invitation – to deepen our focus. And we should take heart in knowing that if we do deepen our focus, our struggle with boredom might not last very long and it might not be very painful – it might simply cease.

In everyday life, outside the context of meditation, when we feel bored, we might assume that stimulation is the cure. Boredom suggests to us that our needs are unmet, that we’re missing out on requisite novelty, variety, challenge, and excitement, so we need to go out and get more of those things. But the true cause of the boredom might be an internal one. We’ve been thinking a lot. Our minds are overheated. Our thoughts are frantic and scattered. Each thought creates a small expectation or promise that results in a small frustration or disappointment. The cumulative effect of all that thinking, and all of the low-grade frustration it generates, is boredom. But there’s a way out. ■

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