The journey to delighting in boredom

By training in…boredom, we train in accepting things as they are. This helps us wean ourselves from the habit of closing down into our soothing world of familiar, imputed meanings.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

I used to be terrified of being bored. As a teenager in high school who lived life at 90 miles an hour, I anticipated but dreaded times like spring break or winter break. In my mind’s eye, I could see myself totally enjoying time off – waking up late, lazing around, maybe reading or writing or watching TV – but when that time actually came, I was a ball of anxiety.

This continued well into my 20’s, and even into my early 30’s (almost in my mid 30’s!). At some point, though, I was able to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of being bored. I started small. Instead of browsing through some app mindlessly on my phone while waiting in line at the post office, I’d just stand there and let my mind wander. Maybe smile at the person in front of me. Maybe strike up a conversation if it felt right. Instead of picking up my phone immediately when my lunch date got up to use the restroom, I’d sit, take a sip of my drink, and just contemplate whatever came to mind.I’m not going to lie – that was hard at first. And if I had to think back to when I began doing this, it was probably when I began practicing yoga.

The town I live in now has a very cute riverside yoga studio connected to a marina (with real sailboats!) just a couple blocks from my house. About a minute walk as the crow (or osprey, or heron..) flies. After having some back issues and paying good money at the chiropractor’s office to get some relief, I decided to treat myself to a monthly membership at this yoga studio. I was apprehensive, as much as I wanted to “get into yoga” and cultivate a regular practice… and get rid of my horrible posture… and be able to do a real pushup.

But the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes of class were near tortuous for me during that first month or so. I hated sitting cross-legged “in a comfortable seat
… it wasn’t comfortable. I did not like focusing on the sounds outside, which included other people breathing, cars passing by, the occasional siren sounded for the volunteer fire department. I couldn’t understand the point of focusing on those sounds. And focusing on my breathing? I was here to get a workout, dammit. I breath in, I breath out. Simple enough. Let’s move on.

Savasana, or corpse pose, was equally horrible when I first began. I couldn’t fathom laying still on my back (total side/belly sleeper here) for any amount of time, let alone trying to focus on a guided meditation about letting basically all my muscles slacken (even my face! what!). My favorite part of savasana at the beginning was when we were told to “carefully roll over to one side and press yourself up to a comfortable seat.”

But the thing about savasana is that it’s sometimes hailed as the most important pose in a yoga practice, when all the good stuff from your yoga practice settles into the body and mind. It’s when the body rests after working to keep you upright and moving for about an hour. It’s boredom but it’s everything good that boredom could be.

As we individuals grow in our resilience–as we become better at staying conscious and not losing heart–we will be able to remain strong in challenging conditions for the long haul. This is within the capacity of all of us.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

So now that I’ve contemplated the genesis of my being able to sit still for any amount of time, I’ve been growing in my practice of boredom. This can look so many different ways. Right now, boredom for me looks like having no music or TV on as I write this, just an awareness of the other sounds around me: the comforting syncopated sound of the dryer tumbling the bedding, the dog breathing as she sleeps, the clack-clack-clack of typing on the keyboard, the occasional creaking of the stairs as my husband comes down from his office for a snack or something to drink.

While sometimes I choose to be bored, mostly I’m forced into it, and that is where the anxiety has come from – having expectations of going to the store and getting out quickly but actually having to stand in line for a long time. Getting stuck in traffic and getting home late when I’d already mentally planned out my obligation-less evening. Boredom happens in the moment, and that’s the key I think. When I’m okay with being bored, with my mind being temporarily unoccupied, I can be in the moment. Instead of driving at 75 mph in heavy traffic down Interstate 95, my mind is on a drive out into the country, perhaps stopped at a park for a few minutes before we continue on.

I think I wrote about silence before here… about going to my grandparents’ and wondering why in the world they didn’t have music or TV on and it was just… quiet. But now I get it. The more in tune with myself I am, the less I want mindless influence from outside. More often than not, I welcome the quiet. It doesn’t make me nervous or anxious like it used to. I’ve learned to sit with it, embrace it, and ask it questions.

And almost 100% of the time, it answers. I come to interesting revelations that I share, or keep to myself. I’m able to sit and spend an entire day reading.. something I’ve always wanted to be “able” to do. I can breathe in the moment and find gratitude for the simple things – the amazing invention of the dryer, the furry, warm companionship of a dog, the fact that my husband is here in “quarantine” with me while years ago he was 7,000 miles away.

Learning to embrace boredom has helped me do some settling. I feel more settled in my own intentions and motivations, in what I like and don’t like to do, watch, see.. in what I want in friendships and relationships.. in the fact that what I do is not who I am. (Whewweee.. I could write a LOT about that last one…). And in the settling, I find flight and change and invention and creativity.

However, learning to embrace boredom that’s forced upon us (kind of like we might experience now in self-isolation) helps prepare us for more dire situations where we must focus on something without warning – where we have to be aware of our surroundings and make decisions on the fly. And, we might have to direct our attention to said situation for a long period of time without a break. This is a skill that at some point is common to all humanity, and we must know how to face such a challenge.

What can boredom teach you? And will you open yourself up to learn from it?

When ‘no’ means ‘yes’

Busyness is a form of people pleasing, and people pleasing is a coping strategy. If I can’t feel good about myself from the inside, then I make sure to get as much external validation as possible. The more I say yes, the harder I work, the more validation I receive which, because of how I grew up and interacted with the world as a child/teenager, makes me feel good.

But at the end of the day, crawling into bed, it just makes me tired.

Not only does being busy for me mean the relentless act of people pleasing, but it also means I get to escape from my reality. I don’t know much about the history of why humans are the way we are, but I get the idea that humans have needed some form of escapism as a means of survival.

Sometimes escapism is just me daydreaming about the clock saying it’s time to go home, and at other times, I’m so not at home in my own skin that I absolutely need a promise of something otherworldly to allow me to relax, even for a second.

Our forms of escapism are wide and varied. Mostly, I think about vacation and not having my cell phone (like, forever banishing it to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay), and walking the gangway onto a cruise ship bound for warmer waters. I think about early retirement or tending a large garden outside our homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains (we do not in fact own a homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains). I think about camping among the huge evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, of the breeze on my face as I ride the ferry out to the San Juan Islands. I think about the freedom of a day with no worries, cares, checking the bank account, making grocery lists, doing laundry.

My preferred form of escapism is busyness. Always floating and moving from commitment to commitment, filling up my calendar to the brim and always being on the move. If I’m always moving, I never have to actually sit and be faced with the fact that I’m not in fact on vacation right now or sailing away from Baltimore or taking a hike up to a waterfall. I can just move from event to event, place to place, and maybe stop for a second to fill up the gas tank but just keep ignoring the fact that the car needs maintenance, that it’ll be just fine for a few more miles.

But at some point, the car will break down. I will have to take an entire Saturday to either sit at the repair shop waiting for it, or work out a way to get a ride to and from and anticipate that fated call that tells me I’m going to take a chunk of savings to fix the damn car (and a part of that savings was probably for real vacation). And the Saturday I was planning on using to relax and do some “self-care” will be shot.

For some reason, cultivating a life that’s a mix of work + play, consistently, seems not only outlandish but also irresponsible. To open my calendar during a regular workweek and not see anything scheduled outside of my working hours just seems unnatural.

It seems unnatural because it is. But my body and soul and spirit are reeling, they’re telling me,

Elizabeth. It’s been 30 years of this busyness & people-pleasing bullshit. We can’t take it anymore. Please stop.

I think the things I daydream about while entrenched in my reality are clues to things I could actually do now to live the life that makes sense to me. I could go for a hike after work, or on a Saturday morning. I could load up the kayak on a Friday afternoon. I could sit on my porch with coffee and a book in the morning before work. I could spend a weekend in the woods.

But if I say yes to all those things, then I’m saying no to other things, and *gasp* ‘no’ to people. The horror. It’s a skill I have not yet mastered, but I’m working on it. Practice with me. (Disclaimer: this might feel a little bit like a grammatical exercise. Bear with the linguist/teacher here.)

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do].

Great job. You said your peace (piece? I think it can be both…). Now, let’s practice by adding ___ + so that ____.

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job so that I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry so that I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day so that I can have time for exercise.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause so that I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid so that I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period so that I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee so that I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day so that I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night so that I get enough sleep.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner so that I can take care of my body.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss so that I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking so that I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do] so that [insert positive alternative here].

Can you see that the statement that comes after so that is actually a value statement about your own life?

  • I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • I can have time for exercise.
  • I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • I can get enough sleep.
  • I can take care of my body.
  • I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

Last step, my friends. Let’s add yes to those statements. And now you have guiding affirmations.

  • Yes, I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • Yes, I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • Yes, I can have time for exercise.
  • Yes, I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • Yes, I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • Yes, I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • Yes, I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • Yes, I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • Yes, I can get enough sleep.
  • Yes, I can take care of my body.
  • Yes, I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • Yes, I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

FYI I did not copy-pasta ‘yes’; I typed every single one. It felt good.

I hope you can see that this form of self-care actually extends beyond self and into the world. If you believe that we are all in this together, we sentient, feeling, emoting human beings, then you probably agree that if we take care of ourselves, put on our own oxygen masks first, then we’re taking care of all of us. We provide a much-needed yet humble model for forging a new path in our burdened, overworked, stressed society. And we make it better.

The Mean Girl in the Mirror

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You’re too tall. You’d better feign an interest in sports so people think you’re living up to your height.

You’re too skinny and too tall.

Your handwriting sucks. Erase and write your name again. And again.

Be careful about showing too much of the silhouette of your body. Men will make noises at you when you walk down the street. You’d better wear baggy clothes.

Glasses make people look smart, but they make you look too smart.

You messed up again when practicing that song on the piano. Better start over.

No one wants a smarty pants for a friend.

No one wants a smarty pants for a girlfriend.

You suck at playing piano. You didn’t practice enough and that’s why you messed up. You deserved it.

You don’t know how to do your makeup. You should learn because you can’t look as pretty as the girls who do.

Stop being so emotional. People don’t care if you feel sad about that. You’re too sensitive.

You don’t have a mental health problem. What could you ever be depressed about?

You need to get all A’s otherwise your parents won’t love you as much.

You need to pick a career that’s good for a family otherwise a man won’t want to marry you.

Stop caring so much. It’s exhausting. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway.

You’re dirty and slutty for thinking about sex.

Don’t wear that; it might tempt your boyfriend to have sex with you.

Why did you have sex again? I told you that if you did, you are weak and can’t control yourself.

I can’t believe you think you’re old enough to get married. Are you sure he even loves you?

Now you’re fat. See what happens when you don’t exercise and eat right? You have no control.

Stop eating that! Run more. It’s good if you let yourself be a little hungry. You’ll look better.

From the side you still look chubby. Suck it in.

Your thighs are too big. Why do they still touch? Haven’t you been working out?

Look at how ugly your veins are, I can see them under your skin.

Check over that email again and fix it. No one’s going to take you seriously if you write like an idiot.

Your body sucks. You can’t even grow another human. What’s wrong with you?

He’s going to leave you if you can’t get pregnant. Stop disappointing him. And stop crying about it.

Another glass of wine? I told you a long time ago you don’t have any self control. I told you so.

You need to make sure you look good. What if he dies and you need to find a new husband? No man is going to want a woman who looks like that.

He says he loves you but maybe being together now is just easier than not.

Why did you say that? Just stop talking. You’re so annoying.

Did you see the way she looked at you? No wonder you don’t have any friends. No one wants to be your friend.

You’re well into your thirties now. Why haven’t you figured this out yet? 

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