Mountain laurel on drizzly day

Yesterday was a cool, gray day with a fine, misty drizzle: a day the Irish call “soft” but Americans call “gloom in June.” Personally, I don’t mind drizzle. Cool days make for comfortable sleeping, and misty days aren’t bad for walking: just wear a ball-cap and waterproof jacket, and you have no need for an umbrella.

Raindrops

Yesterday morning I sat at my desk writing with windows closed and the sounds of the street trickling in: a patter of raindrops, bursts of wind rattling the windowpane, a distant siren, and the intermittent chirps of birds. The dog lay resting behind me, her body right up against my chair; it was so quiet, I could hear her breathing. These are the simple moments I cherish–quiet, contemplative moments after I’ve meditated when the scratch of the pen on the page seems completely of-a-piece with my practice–meditation with and without pen.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

I’ve started to read Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, by Mary Mann. So far, it isn’t what I’d expected: I thought it would be more about the science of why we yawn and the state of “zone out” we sometimes label boredom, although it often goes by other names. But instead, the book is an uneven collection of semi-autobiographical essays loosely related to the topic of boredom, written by a woman who seems terrified to think she might ever be bored or boring.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

The result is a frustrating and disjointed book, with a lot of subtopics that are worthy of further exploration, like the intersection between boredom and spirituality (think acedia and the Desert Fathers), boredom and sex (think sex toys and sexual fantasies), and boredom and violence (think soldiers consuming porn during wartime and the psychology of thrill kills). As soon as Mann touches upon an interesting way boredom says something deeper about our society and ourselves, however, she skitters off in another direction, as if fully exploring any one idea for a sustained period is (alas) too boring.

The result is a book about boredom for the ADHD generation, with fascinating half-thoughts interspersed with rambling autobiographical associations. (I feel a bit embarrassed, for example, by the amount of information I know about Mann’s relationship with her boyfriend, Grant, but that’s probably because I grew up before the Oversharing Age.)

Raindrops

Although I’m infinitely interested in boredom, I’m not the ideal audience for Mann’s book: I’m probably the exact opposite. Mann (like, perhaps, others her age) fears and thus wants to avoid boredom; I, on the other hand, want to embrace it. Boredom is valuable because it is the entrance to something deeper, the greatest treasures hiding behind nondescript doors. Boredom is the blank patch of soil where the seeds of insight sprout…but if you continually dig up that soil to check the progress of those seedlings, the plant you’re tending will quickly die.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

As a Buddhist, I make it my practice to cultivate boredom: that is, after all, what modern meditators and the Desert Fathers share. Sitting and watching one’s breath is the most boring thing a person can intentionally do, and that is exactly what monks and meditators do to maintain and strengthen their mental focus. Flitting after butterflies, chasing rainbows, and compulsively checking email and social media are all fine and good; we’ve all done (and do) these things to fritter away nervous energy. But if all you have is flitting and chasing–if your mind isn’t also practiced at stopping and staying–you’ll struggle to attain depth.

Throughout the essays in Yawn, Mann wades ankle-deep into interesting insights only to retreat suddenly to shore rather than wading deeper. Yawn, in other words, reads like a mind-map for a larger, more interesting project, assuming Mann could pick a focus and stick with it. Ultimately, my advice to her is the same as I give to my writing students: feeling bored with a topic is a sign you need to slow down and go deeper.

Fly on fallen contour feather

Today I read an article on CNN about smartphones and the so-called death of boredom. The idea behind the article is simple enough: in an age when we can carry the entire Internet in our pocket, quickly sending texts, checking email, and surfing the web whenever we have a spare moment, have we lost our capacity to be quietly unoccupied?

Rain on leaflets

I remember asking a similar question several years ago as I walked through Boston’s Public Garden, alone. It was a beautiful day, and everyone around me was either walking in pairs, talking, or walking alone, talking on a cell phone or listening to an iPod. Everyone but me, in other words, was somehow filling the silence of a sunny day with some sort of sound: if you weren’t talking with someone, you were listening to something. Even a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of tattered belongings had a battery-powered boom-box perched atop of his possessions, blasting music. What I realized that sunny day in the Public Garden is that very few of us have the time or inclination to listen to our own thoughts anymore. Why bother with the boring monotony of silence and solitude when you can give someone a call or crank up some tunes?

Rain on leaves

That was in the old days when people actually talked on their cell phones. I’ve written before about J’s and my conscious decision not to buy smartphones: when I step away from my computer, I want to be able to “unplug” entirely. J and I are, however, in the distinct minority; as that CNN article noted, “More people now own a smartphone in the United States — 45% of adults — than own a traditional cellphone.” This means a huge number of people have games, music, and the allure of the Internet close at hand whenever they find themselves unoccupied. Stuck in a long line? Play “Angry Birds.” Waiting for the bus? Check your email. Awkward conversation lull? Send a text.

Rain on spiderwort leaves

I don’t want to vilify smartphones: if data plans were cheaper, there would be countless ways I’d use a smartphone in my daily life. It would be convenient to have an up-to-date weather report, the latest news, accurate directions, or the answer to a nagging trivia question easily available at the tap of a touch-screen, and it would be helpful to be able to check my online classes even when I was away from my laptop and wifi. But just because smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets make it possible for people to fill their spare time with email, music, and the Whole Wide Web doesn’t mean that filling every spare moment with such things is a good or desirable thing.

Raindrops on spiderweb

When I was a graduate student working on my dissertation, I had a PDA (remember those?) with a program that allowed me to read and edit word-processing files. I kept a folder with all my dissertation files on this device, and whenever I found myself with a spare moment at the doctor’s office, in traffic, or waiting in line at the store, I would take out my PDA and start tap, tap, tapping on my dissertation.

Raindrops on leaflets

After years of making good use of every spare moment—after years of carrying my damned dissertation with me EVERYWHERE, as if it were an unavoidable albatross slung around my neck—one of the most delightful aspects of finishing my degree was finally having the luxury of doing nothing. When traffic snarled to a stop, I could admire the surrounding countryside rather than reaching for my PDA. Waiting in line at the grocery store, I could make faces at the cute toddler in the cart ahead of me rather than burying my nose in dissertation edits. Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I could read whatever trashy magazine a previous patient had left behind rather than milking every last second of productivity out of the occasion. Sometimes, being productive is helpful, but other times, being productive is tiring. Is it any wonder that many teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived given how many of them sleep with their cell phones under their pillow, just in case anyone calls or texts them during the night?

Contour feather

As I write these words, I’m sitting in my office at Framingham State: a quintessentially blank, boring space with a large, airy window overlooking the main road bisecting campus. After having spent my office hour answering student emails, I switched off my email notifier when I opened this file, hoping to pound out a post without distraction. It’s taken me longer than you’d think to write these lines, mainly because I’ve stopped occasionally to think, staring out my window at the students slowly ambling past, clad in the hoodies, jeans, and sweatpants that are a college student’s official autumn uniform. Some of these students walk in pairs, chatting; others walk singly while checking their phones or fiddling with their iPods. Are any of them bored? I can’t possibly know by looking at them, but I do wonder: when is the last time any of them sat quietly in a blank room looking out a large, airy window, doing nothing more productive than thinking about the slow crawl of their own silent words?