One of the significant challenges usually encountered sooner or later by those who aspire to an awakened life, or by those interested in the deepest spiritual and philosophic truths, or by those who take up a sincere meditation practice, is the issue of boredom.
Boredom is a rather strange word; according to etymology.com, it is a relatively recent term, not appearing until the mid-to-late 18th century, corresponding more or less exactly to the birth of the Industrial Revolution. This is surely no accident. In less mechanized, more technologically primitive times, boredom was a luxury of the elite, the nobility, the tiny percentage who had no significant material needs as related to day to day survival. (The connection between boredom and the Industrial Revolution is underscored by the notion that the very word ‘boredom’ is speculated to derive from the term for the ‘boring machine’, owing to its plodding, mechanically predictable function).
‘Spiritual boredom’ is another matter, however, and is almost certainly something that has been faced by mystics and those aspiring to enlightenment throughout history. This is because the very intention to realize absolute truth—much less to ‘live it out’ in the gritty details of our life—sooner or later meets head on with the conventional realities of the sensory, physical universe our body-minds dwell in.
The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once made an interesting observation about boredom. He said, ‘you’re never bored; you’re boring.’ (With emphasis on the last four letters). His point was simple and sound. Basically, we tend to experience boredom when we are not participating to an adequate degree in life. A meditator typically encounters boredom when they enter a phase of their practice that is becoming somewhat insular, with a subtle overemphasis of the interior world and a subtle (or not so subtle) rejection of the apparent outer world. The reason for this is straightforward: one who meditates with sufficient profundity and sincerity of intent will sooner or later realize that they’ve ‘seen it all before’. There is the Ground of Consciousness, and there are thoughts arising within this Ground, like stars in an infinite matrix of Space. But like stars in the night sky, there are only so many ‘types’ (even if uncountable). For the meditator who gazes deeply into the interiority of their mind, they sooner or later experience a particular thought that roughly takes the form of, ‘now what?’
Some mystical traditions have elaborated extensively on this phase, and some see it as an element of the ‘dark night of the soul’. The ‘dark night’ is not the province of beginners, or those whose prioritization of spiritual truths is half-hearted. The ‘dark night’ arises as a means of deeper and further purification; it can be understood as an initiatory phase undergone only by those who are ready to be purged of deeper illusions.
Of course, the idea that we’ve ‘seen it all before’ is yet another delusion of the ego-mind. Perhaps more accurately, it can be understood as a trick, a device of the ego-mind to get us to abandon this silly navel-gazing and dwelling in deep, ponderous reflections about the Oneness of Reality. How many times and how many ways can the great truths of non-duality be expressed? Give up this nonsense, says the ego-mind. Come back to the ‘world’, to conventional matters, to all the dramas of life that are, well, interesting. Not this boring and utterly repetitive spiritual crap.
The lie in this position is soon seen through, provided we stay with the process, and not abandon our attention to the Ground of Consciousness. To meditate is simply to pay attention to the Ground of Consciousness, the ‘space’ that is the context in which thoughts arise. It is, in fact, impossible to become ‘bored’ with the Ground of Consciousness, because in the Ground there is no local self in which to experience boredom.
Boredom is experienced in relation to something or someone. We become bored with this or that. In that sense, boredom is very valuable as a focus of observation, because it is one of the ego’s last stands, so to speak, in its effort to convince us that we are nothing more than a separate entity, doomed forever to remain disconnected from that which appears to surround us, the universe of people and things.
To many people, meditation is commonly perceived to be a dull, or boring, activity. And yet it is one of the great ironies of spiritual and philosophic truths that meditation is the chief antidote to boredom, because it reveals the core-mechanism via which boredom arises. We typically tend to think that when bored, we need to switch our activities (or the people in our life). We need to disconnect, to re-arrange the furniture of our life. And yet it is the very mechanism of disconnection (the ego-mind) that enables the experience of boredom in the first place.