"I have a very hard time with things, you know, just being quiet. Like, if I sit alone, you know, for ten minutes with nothing happening, you know, which I guess some people would call meditating, I just lose my mind. I'm, like — how does anyone deal with this horrible silence and awareness that everything's almost over?"
"How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god?" ~ Alan Watts
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.”
“My mother always said, ‘Billy’s never bored.’ All my life I’ve listened to the rain. I think it’s utterly mysterious. Every raindrop falls just once and you only hear it at the end of its fall. . .
The comets burn out and the black holes disappear. There’s nothing good or bad about that. That’s the way it is. I don’t know where I come from and I don’t know where I’m going and it’s wonderful to be here.”
"Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect — in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 — and its game play reflects this origin.
The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain (Donkey Kong, Mike Tyson, Carmen Sandiego) but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting.
It is bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will.
Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves."
Start as someone who loves with above-average intensity. Fall so in love with people and with things that you forget to eat and sleep. Stay up all night reading a certain book or listening to a certain song or gazing into a certain person’s eyes or just pacing back and forth thinking about whatever it is you can’t stop thinking. Know what it’s like to lose all control over the operation of your mind. See abyssal profundity where others see only surface. Experience moments in which the whole universe seems to close in around you and your head feels like an astrolabe and you feel the entire concentric cosmos click together into one unified image of perfect beauty and harmony and all you want to do is hold it in your mind forever and fall down on your knees and worship it.
Start to see this image more and more frequently, often at inopportune moments. Feel its beauty morph slowly but inexorably into terror. Start looking for ways to drown it out; settle on booze and drugs and deafening music. Go to bed every night drunk enough to pass out immediately, but then wake at 5am, feel it bearing down upon you once again, press your face into your pillow, and weep with fear.
Slide into the dark period you knew was coming. Go for months feeling okay only when you’re asleep. Open your eyes every morning just in time to feel the okay-ness seep out of you like blood from a stab-wound. Stop checking your email because you know it will just be your friends asking you if you’re okay, and you don’t want to admit that you really aren’t but know they won’t believe you if you lie and say you are. Stop showering because it seems like too much effort to undress. Step outside on the first beautiful day of spring and think absently about how it does nothing for you. Feel like everything is impossible; feel like doing anything at all would require a greater suspension of disbelief than you are capable of. Feel burning itches in places like the lining of your stomach and the backsides of your retinas.
Hit rock bottom. Lose your job; flunk out of school; drive your car into a tree. Wake up in a hospital bed and see your parents staring at you, weeping. Move back into the room you grew up in and spend weeks in your pajamas eating canned soup and staring at the ceiling. Feel as though you are lying on the ocean floor with seven miles of water pressing down on you. Let your mouth hang open because it seems like too much effort to raise your jaw. Feel nothing. Forget that you exist; forget that anything exists. Feel like you have passed into death.
See a psychiatrist; get on meds. Start feeling a bit better. Watch a sitcom with your parents and laugh a little. Go for a walk expecting it to do nothing for you and find that it does a little. Pull fresh air through your nostrils and feel something. Feel, after a few weeks, a vague sense of coming out of something; feel a certain presence, which you had taken for granted since before you can remember, start to pass out of you. See a bird flapping its wings on a telephone wire and laugh for no reason. Wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about happiness.
Start seeing a therapist. For the first time ever, see your entire life laid out in front of you all at once, like a dollhouse. Realize with a shock of recognition that you were depressed the whole time. Realize that, the whole time, you just assumed that life was this difficult for everyone, and that everyone else just had better self-discipline or better self-control or a better attitude than you did. Realize it wasn’t your fault and feel something inside you burst and dissipate. Talk about your life — family, friends, relationships, traumas — and realize that everything is connected to everything else, that every feeling you carry inside you has a history and a reason for existing. Start to figure out which of the feelings are yours and which are not; start to let go of the ones that aren’t.
Start to understand that feelings are much more than just the amorphous clouds of pain or pleasure that they feel like when you’re in them; start to see those clouds as mere surfaces, concealing complex and highly specific configurations of memories and obsolete assumptions and vestigial unfulfilled desires and lingering residues of people and things that you used to love, all hooked into one another and pulled taut like a cat’s cradle whose total shape sometimes flashes in your mind for a moment all at once. Notice that the experience of these moments of Gestalt illumination reminds you a little of what it used to feel like to fall in love, before love turned into terror and finally burnt itself out, except that now it’s not scary or overwhelming so much as gently rewarding, something like the feeling of solving a challenging but still low-key riddle.
Keep feeling out, little by little, the inner structures of the emotions that once ruled you. As you explore, start to feel them coalesce into something solid and unmoving. Start to understand that the solid and unmoving thing was there all along, waiting patiently for you to notice it. Realize you have already begun to think of it as home. Wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about emotional stability.
Realize one day in the shower that the unmoving thing you’ve arrived at and the cosmic image that once drove you mad are one and the same. Realize that it’s just you, that all along it was just you and nothing more. Laugh at how stupidly obvious that seems now. Feel the unmoving thing settle into you, and you into it, and notice, almost casually, that for the first time in your life you are completely without fear. Look at your reflection in the bathroom mirror and feel like you are seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Realize that after years of false hopes, you have finally arrived at something real, something that no one can ever take away from you.
Realize that this arrival, which is what people mean when they talk about “finding yourself,” is not an end but a beginning. You have nailed down the vital center; now for a lifetime of filling out the periphery. In living through, then recollecting, your own story, you have learned implicitly that there is a story coiled up inside of everyone and everything. Maybe you knew this all along. Maybe this was why you were so quick to fall in love with everything in sight; maybe you sensed instinctively the overflowing fullness of all things too soon, before you were ready to grasp their interior complexity. Maybe when you were in love with things, what you were really in love with was not the things themselves but rather something inside them that you could never quite get at, which was why you loved them with such annihilating desperation, as if throwing yourself over and over against a locked door. But now that you have found yourself, now that you have fought for and won your emotional stability, you will find that you have been granted a master key. As that unmoving thing was waiting all along for you to notice it, so too does the whole world now stretch out in all directions, patiently awaiting your discovering gaze; and so too does every thing hold its story trapped inside it like a spirit, waiting for you to utter the incantation that will release it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the abundance: your life has only just begun, and you have all the time in the world.
Murakami sold his jazz club in order to devote himself, full time, to writing.
Murakami at the finish of the New York Marathon in 1991. Photo by Atsushi Kondo“Full time,” for Murakami, means something different from what it does for most people. For 30 years now, he has lived a monkishly regimented life, each facet of which has been precisely engineered to help him produce his work. He runs or swims long distances almost every day, eats a healthful diet, goes to bed around 9 p.m. and wakes up, without an alarm, around 4 a.m. — at which point he goes straight to his desk for five to six hours of concentrated writing. (Sometimes he wakes up as early as 2.) He thinks of his office, he told me, as a place of confinement — “but voluntary confinement, happy confinement.”
“Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life,” he said. “If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don’t get bored. I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.”
"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."
In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.
But where will this mania for entertainment end? What will people do when they get tired of television? When they get tired of movies? We already know the answer — they go into participatory activities: sports, theme parks, amusement rides, roller coasters. Structured fun, planned thrills. And what will they tire of theme parks and planned thrills? Sooner or later, the artifice becomes too noticeable. They begin to realize that an amusement park is really a kind of jail in which you pay to be an inmate.
This artifice will drive them to seek authenticity. Authenticity will be the buzzword of the twenty-first century. And what is authentic? Anything that is not devised and structured to make a profit. Anything that is not controlled by corporations. Anything that exists for its own sake, that assumes its own shape. But of course, nothing in the modern world is allowed to assume its own shape. The modern world is the corporate equivalent of a formal garden, where everything is planted and arranged for effect. Where nothing is untouched, where nothing is authentic.
Where then will people turn for the rare and desirable experience of authenticity? They will turn to the past.
"Boredom has many aspects: there is the sense that nothing is happening, that something might happen, or even that what we would like to happen might replace that which is not happening. Or, one might appreciate boredom as a delight. The practice of meditation could be described as relating with cool boredom, refreshing boredom, boredom like a mountain stream. It refreshes because we do not have to do anything or expect anything. But there must be some sense of discipline if we are to get beyond the frivolity of trying to replace boredom...As we realize that nothing is happening, strangely we begin to realize that something dignified is happening. There is no room for frivolity, no room for speed. We just breathe and are there. There is something very satisfying and wholesome about it. It is as though we had eaten a good meal and were satisfied with it, in contrast to eating and trying to satisfy oneself. It is a very simple-minded approach to sanity."
How do you remain faithful when boredom sets in? Sages offer numerous rules of piety, precepts, commandments, vows, proverbs, and aphorisms, all compiled after revelations that shattered the structure of existence. The purpose of all rules of piety is to extend revelation into ordinary life. They are survival tactics that help us withstand tedium, our disappointed expectations that something dramatic will happen—the sky open, a pillar of fire light our way—if we do this and that. For example, if you stand in a field in the month of Elul when the red dwarf rises above the tree where the shepherd has tethered his goats, you’ll see divine light. Instead, you are preoccupied with stamping your feet in the cold, with muttering and gossiping with friends. Without knowing it, you’re storing a memory of being knit together that will help you survive later. You’ll remember one friend who rolls her eyes in mock disapproval at such religiosity; another concentrates as hard as she can on what the sages said would happen if you gathered in the fields during the month of Elul. She focuses on waiting to see a flash. The other observes what can be seen, the night sky, its billions of unnamed stars, impossible to count, immeasurable depth, formless space, black, blank; receding as she is, less and less visible, less and less impatient at nothing much happening. The other shouts, witnessing the birth of a star.
Genuine contemplative practices are difficult to describe with words. Director Philip Gröning captures the ineffable experience of daily monastic life by letting it speak without words for itself in Into Great Silence. It took him sixteen years to get permission to spend six months filming inside a nearly thousand-year old monastery in the French Alps. We were fortunate for the opportunity to see the documentary over the past weekend at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
The rhythms and repetition of the monastic routine whispered its secret: there is far too much noise and confusion in our contemporary lives. I have learned from direct experience that there is deep satisfaction gained from giving up talking, eye contact, news, weather reports, cell phones, television, movies, the Internet, and email even for a few days at a time. We assume that great simplicity results in intense boredom and can be surprised to discover the opposite. Iimagine the possibilities of developing an ability to be fascinated by boredom and completely absorbed in it.
Just as in meditation practice, not every sitting period can be overflowing with bliss. Impatience and even boredom provide their own lessons. I have sat countless times waiting and pleading for someone to strike a bell to release me from the exponential expansion of discomfort during a long period of meditation. At times during this 162 minute film, I found myself wanting it to end. But that seems to be one aspect of this film's brilliance, its ability to convey so much without handing us explanations, analysis, background, or biography.
What a rare and generous gift: to glimpse the quiet insights acquired by those who give up everything in order to discover them before drifting back out into the noise we've surrounded ourselves with like a threadbare security blanket, wondering what it is in life that truly brings happiness.
I read somewhere recently that renunciation is not so much about relinquishing ownership of personal possessions as it is about profoundly embracing the reality that everything is impermanent.
"Sh-h-h," by Michael Schulman, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007
Results from this poll indicates that perennial boredom among teenagers persists in spite of the overabundance of options they have for amusing themselves:
A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, the first in a series of annual entertainment surveys, finds that a large majority of the 12- to 24-year-olds surveyed are bored with their entertainment choices some or most of the time, and a substantial minority think that even in a kajillion-channel universe, they don't have nearly enough options. "I feel bored like all the time, 'cause there is like nothing to do," said Shannon Carlson, 13, of Warren, Ohio, a respondent who has an array of gadgets, equipment and entertainment options at her disposal but can't ward off ennui.