The Value of Boredom

Boredom is one of the most underrated experiences in the modern world. More than that, we do everything we can to eliminate it, as if it was some condition or evil force we’d all be better off without.

The 21st century solutions to boredom are as diverse as they are many. Reading articles, talking, browsing dating apps, going on holiday, DIY, furthering your education, earning money, exercising, eating; if you have a phone, wifi, and a fridge, then you literally never have to be bored ever again.

And yet, if there was one word that could describe much of our days, boredom would be right up there. Despite the huge surge of information and distractions and ways to keep ourselves occupied, it’s becoming increasingly easy to slump down on the couch and feel an unpleasant sense of boredom wash over us.

As you’ve probably realised, this isn’t boredom as we used to know it. The type of boredom that led to spontaneous adventures and wildly creative ideas. Rather, this is just the withdrawal from the hyperstimulating world we live and work in every day masquerading as boredom.

This is pretty damn sad for two reasons. One, as we’re never long away from stimulation, we don’t get into and benefit from the satisfying and fruitful states that boredom can induce. Two, as we wax and wane in and out of stimulation, all the while our threshold for being without stimulation decreases. And because we literally never have to be without the new and novel (with great thanks to our phones), then we become unable to bear even the shortest moment of silence in a conversation or the tiniest gap of inactivity when around others, and not least when with ourselves.

In a world where the only worthwhile experiences are those that can be monetised and sold back to us, boredom needs to be reclaimed for the true source of free and infinite wisdom and wonder that it is.

To do that, and to start bringing more of the real hardcore boredom back into your life, you first need to be clear about what it is exactly, and maybe more importantly, what it’s not.

The Difference Between Hot Boredom and Cool Boredom 

Boredom isn’t free from being commoditised. You can pay good money to visit a special ranch or retreat centre and be bored: disconnecting from your devices and doing things like sitting still, washing pots, more sitting still, and more washing pots.

But far from being real boredom, such experiences are still, albeit more subtly, infused with the new and novel. There’s typically enough contrast with your normal life to keep your mind buzzing and occupied, and if there isn’t, at least you can take pictures or write about it and have a good story to tell when you return.

Forget that Fake Boredom. What we’re concerned with is the difference between being so bored you start Facebook stalking people from your high school just to fill the space and prevent some icky thoughts from emerging and being so bored that you’re bored to death of your own boredom and suddenly a spec of dust becomes the most interesting thing in the world.

You don’t have to go to the backend of nowhere where there’s no wifi or cut yourself off from all stimulation to get to this point. As influential and controversial Tibetan Buddhist monk Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, the key is making the shift between “Hot Boredom” and “Cool Boredom”.

Hot boredom is the type of boredom you feel when you’re agitated and uneasy and will do anything for a Lifestyle magazine to read or a dirty old pen to chew on.

When we experience Hot Boredom, it’s so fiery and demanding we often just do what it wants without question. It’s passing off on the cleaning in place of Netflix, it’s scrolling through Instagram instead of listening to your grandma repeat that story again, it’s moving positions in your seat sixty times in as few seconds because, well, it’s just too boring to stay still.

Hot Boredom is like suffocating in a locked cell with the only way to get out being to frantically search for the key.

But rather than being the real deal, this is just the first stage of boredom, and more like an entry to it at that. When you don’t submissively give in to the demands of Hot Boredom, and instead dive headfirst into the restlessness and irritation, beyond it will soon open up the more spacious and enjoyable state of Cool Boredom.

Cool Boredom is not the same as feeling sorry for yourself because there’s nothing to do or the dullness that sets in with the monotony of work. Cool Boredom is a state in which there’s no strong need to really think about or do anything at all, especially something that involves some sudden action as if at any moment you’re about to run out of air.

Cool Boredom is like the realisation that the same locked cell you were in actually has a tonne of open windows and you can breathe just fine. It’s, out of not frantically looking everywhere for the antidote to rid you of Hot Boredom, the discovery that all along the key to the door was in your hand.

This isn’t easy. It should feel difficult and it should feel like you’re about to burst unless you pick up your phone and scroll as fast as you can to find something, anything, to make it all better.

But no matter how cute the dog video or how interesting a tidbit or factoid you find, it will soon pass, and soon enough you’ll find yourself back in that locked cell with again seemingly only one way out…

Despite what we’re often lead to believe, more variety does not equal more freedom, more stimuli does not equal greater creativity, and more entertainment does not equal greater satisfaction.

For all of that and more, you won’t find it on some random blog or YouTube channel, all you have to do is not give in to but go beyond and rediscover the true value of boredom.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from The Old North. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.