What I learned from four days without entertainment, people, or food.
Last week, five souls & I undertook a Nature Quest with Weapons of Mass Creation at Sacha Boodja, a spiritual retreat and regenerative agriculture farm in the WA Wheatbelt. On a cold Tuesday morning, each of us went to our individual nominated sites with little more than water, a tent, and several layers of clothing. Over four days and four nights, we did nothing but meditate, exercise, drink, and rest. Most outcomes from this time are still inchoate. This story is about one insight that I think can bear the weight of articulation.
“I’m bored,” was a common refrain in my childhood home. A thorny memory from my adolescence was of my sister & I’s choral call of boredom beneath the back verandah on one quiet Sunday. Dad was digging in the yard and, after becoming exhausted listing a series of suggestions (Beatty Park, jungle gym, Blockbuster)— all unsatisfying to my sister & I — he promptly threw his shovel like a javelin across the yard and stormed through the house with staccato footfalls. We heard the old Ford Falcon roar to life as he wordlessly drove away.
Ironically, it absolved our boredom.
My folks’ response to our childhood boredom was always to suggest we “Go and do something.” Of course, my sister & I weren’t bored for want of things to do, we were bored in spite of having things to do. I was a very fortunate kid with gaming consoles and a desktop computer. I lived opposite a park and a few doors down from my best friend. My folks were always amenable to shoving five bucks in my hand and sending me to get two litres of milk, with spare change for hot chips from Chicken Treat.
Boredom is not about a lack of occupation but a lack of motivation. We become strangely unmoved by our surroundings and circumstances. This feeling is momentarily curious, but quickly darkens. I often find myself coming back to this haunting phrase in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night:
What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction. What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity.
Now even that had flickered out.
How long I stood frozen there, I cannot say. If I was ever going to move again, someone else was going to have to furnish the reason for moving.
A policeman watched me for a while, and then he came over to me, and he said, “You alright?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’ve been standing here a long time,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“You waiting for somebody?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Better move on, don’t you think?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
And I moved on.
When we become aware that boredom is a lack of motivation rather than simply a lack of occupation, its anxious pleas for motion quieten and we bear witness to it’s looming, blacker-than-black puppeteer: Existential Dread. It gently pushes boredom aside, and darkly reminds us that we’d better get a move on if we’d rather not confront the abyss.
Dread does its work through the hand-wringing of boredom. The indifference of a silent Universe often manifests as a preoccupation with a list of things we feel we should be doing —cooking that meal we’ve wanted to make for a while, catching up with that friend, downloading that new video game. These are all things we have cared about at other times, but find strangely enervating once boredom sets in. Boredom turns our deepest passions in to tired obligations. If we are able to muster the energy to do them, it is not because we care, but because we are trying to remind ourselves that we care.
My site at Sascha Boodja was a place without much opportunity to do anything. There was nothing to cook, nobody to talk to, and no games to play. Initially, I tried to fight this agonising boredom sans obligation. I set myself arbitrary games, like walking slowly around a certain boulder one hundred times without looking at my feet. I tried to teach myself basic French by reading the bilingual safety label on my tent.
None of these strategies were especially effective over a sixteen-hour day.
About halfway through the second day, I found myself sitting on a particular fallen tree. I’d smelled and re-smelled every flower and weed within reach. I stared at a dead old tree that had hosted a variety of birds the previous afternoon, but was now still and silent. Wanting for something to do but feeling I had exhausted every option available, I encountered a strange realisation — I would just have to be bored.
This realisation wasn’t terrifying. Indeed, it felt like I had given myself permission to stop swimming against a fierce tide. So I simply sat, hands hanging in my lap, staring insensate at the dead and still tree.
What I came to find was that on the other side of boredom, Nature tends to furnish reasons for our attention. After about ten minutes, a few birds came to occupy the tree. I ran my fingers along the grooves of the log I sat on.
Boredom became a little less dreadful as I learned I could trust Nature, and my own inner life, to furnish reasons for motion.
Blaise Pascale said that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” yet after Sascha Boodja I believe the ability to sit quietly is a skill that can be learned with time and practice.
I still heard the grim urgings of the existential dread monster. However, its chief lieutenant — anxious boredom — is more huff and puff than substance. Indeed, on the other side of boredom is not necessarily dread, but a kind of freedom, though without the usual vigourous activity we might normally attach to freedom. It is a freedom from activity.
This type of freedom is unique to natural settings. Nature, aside from the occasional apex predator, rarely demands focus. It takes a Spanish-tapas style approach to the recruitment of human attention. It is a place for the human animal and its propensity for idleness. It may even be possible that the most astute observation of Pascal’s was not about humanity in general, but the impact of rooms specifically.
In better times, more enlightened times, parents may cease to try and solve their kids’ boredom with stimulation. A parent may look over their shoulder at their two children’s contorted, whinging faces, and receive their “I’m bored!” bellowing across the backyard with the same grace with which the shore receives the wave. If the parent is able to be serene without being smug, they may answer their children: “Yes, and?”