Transcription of talk given April 10, 2007
One of the words that have come up recently in speaking with practitioners is “boredom”.
As we continue to practice, as the body begins to settle, as the mind begins to become more focused in the present moment, as we consciously make efforts in our lives to simplify, to remove distractions that we have habitually placed, the experience that many people think about is boredom: “I realize that I am listening to the radio a lot, reading a lot of insignificant or unimportant information, eating, drinking, smoking, whatever, because I’m bored.”
Boredom is a word that I don’t understand entirely. In my experience of practice I’ve never really experienced something I can call boredom. So as I investigate this, as I talk to people about their experience with boredom, it starts to become more and more apparent that what they are talking about is a situation which is uncomfortable. It’s a situation in which there is no distraction, there’s no shiny objects, things to be attracted to. So what it is, is that without having these distractions we begin, maybe for the first time, to see and to feel and to experience what it is to be in this present moment complete as it is.
I think when we begin practice and I talk about things like this—this present moment, complete—we have this very happy idea of what that is, and our very idea of complete somehow becomes “complete with all the good things and none of the bad things”. But in the end, as we stabilize the body and mind and we come into this moment, we find that complete is complete: all that is pleasant, all that is unpleasant is contained in this very moment. We are not separate from it: what is pleasant is not out there, what is unpleasant is not out there, it’s right here, in this very moment. We are this very moment. And I have to agree that coming to this realization, coming to this experience of what it is to land in this moment, can be profoundly uncomfortable, difficult and unpleasant. And we might be able to express this as boredom. But we should understand that boredom is an expression which means discomfort, or, even if we like, suffering, and that our habitual response to this boredom, or suffering, is to get away from it, to avoid it at any cost.
We have all kinds of television programs and movies, all kinds of substances, foods, different kinds of entertainments; we seem to never stop creating new ways to escape this boredom. But this moment, just as it is, with all of its good, all of its bad, all of its comfort and all of its suffering, is the content of our lives. There is nowhere else to be. And when we investigate this moment in this way, we understand that what we do in life is to spend all of our time and all of our energy trying to be anywhere other than in this moment, other than in the very centre of our own life, anywhere but here.
This doesn’t happen overnight. This wasn’t something that was imposed upon us by some great external force. These habit patterns, these behaviours, are things that we ourselves have taken up, we ourselves have established, we ourselves have attached to and identified with; we ourselves have made us this kind of person or that kind of person. “I would never do that. Oh, I always do that.” Fixating our identity to habits—habits which have arisen out of a desire to avoid.
Practice is something which if we are true, if we are sincere in it, inevitably will become uncomfortable because it turns us back from being distracted, into being present. Waking up to this moment just as it is, waking up to this moment as having as its content all things in this vast universe. The sound of the birds singing, the pain in my knees, the aching of my heart, all of these things are the content of this moment. We want to avoid what is difficult, we want the things that are pleasant and easy to continue forever. But in the end that which is difficult doesn’t last. That which is pleasant also doesn’t last. This moment is not a place. Our lives are not an object. I use the term, “the activity of the Dharma,” because this universe, our lives, are not solid objects, but activity. When, through practice, we begin to settle the mind, to settle the body, and we come into contact with things that are difficult, we come into contact with the activity of this moment and we find it uncomfortable, we find it not to our liking, not what we expected.
We are not asked to do anything in practice, and I think this is one of the greatest challenges for people who do practice. Don’t do something about it. You don’t need to change anything about it. Sit, just sit! Become aware of this moment just as it is. If it’s unpleasant, just sit. Experience the unpleasantness of it and observe that it passes. When things are pleasant, you don’t need to do anything about it. Simply sit and observe that it also passes. Plus and minus, minus and plus, this is how my teacher refers to this activity. When we become fixated to plus or minus, positive or negative, comfort or discomfort, trying to avoid one, trying to gain the other, then we always find ourselves in the position of suffering.
This attitude, this fixation or habit, manifests itself over and over as we practice; as we sit we can’t wait to do walking meditation, as we start walking meditation, we can’t wait to sit back down. This is how we go through life. Zen practice, the form of Zen practice, offers us the opportunity to meet boredom, to meet boredom square on, face to face, to not engage in avoiding it, distracting ourselves, or trying to be somewhere else. It invites us to wake up to what we call “boredom” as being the fundamental suffering that we all experience. What is it?
If we can’t gain insight into this, then for all of our lives, we will be pursued and we will chase: running away from the things that make us uncomfortable, chasing after the things that we think will make us happy. But we won’t see it that way—“this is good, that’s bad, this is who I am.” Master Rinzai said that you live, “like a sheep eating whatever your nose bumps into.”
The practice of Zen, engaging in the activity of coming into the present moment just as it is, is the activity of waking up. So please, as you practice, when you feel that itch, that reaction to something, knowing that you are not in danger, knowing that there isn’t any urgent business to take care of, when you feel that sensation of what we call boredom, discomfort, don't immediately respond habitually, but just for a moment become still and breathe.
Investigate that experience. Become aware of what it is in that moment that’s chasing you, that you are trying to avoid. In the end it’s these things that we chase, that pursue us, that we perceive as being outside of ourselves. What we chase we perceive as something that we need, something that we lack. What we try to escape is something that we don’t want or something that we feel we have too much of already. Each of us, in this very moment, has as our content all things in this vast universe.
There is nothing to want or to be afraid of.
There is only this activity of plus and minus.