Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Importance Of Being Bored

One of the assignments I very often suggest to students of naturalism is "be bored".

I'm exaggerating a little when I put it that way. I don't actually mean that painful experiences of weary directionlessness are the goal. The goal of the assignment is to ensure that there are blocks of time in your day-to-day life in which it would be possible for you to be bored.

Naturalism is a System 1 approach. Most of the work is done "in the background", while you're engaged with other things or not trying to do anything in particular at all. It asks your deliberate, solution-driven thought processes to wait in the hall for a while, so the rest of your mind has space to make contact with the world and to process it from all the available perspectives.

But what tends to happen when we stop using our minds to accomplish things on purpose for a little while? What usually happens when you go for a walk, ride in an Uber, or eat lunch?

In my experience, and in the experience of most of the people I've worked with, what happens is usually some form of passive entertainment. We watch Youtube, listen to a podcast, or casually socialize (either through social media or through in-person smalltalk).

I don't mean to demonize passive entertainment. I use it frequently, and I don't think I'm making a mistake most of the time.

I only mean to point out that many of us have our lives arranged such that when we stop making deliberate use of our minds, we tend to hand them over to someone else instead. We are almost constantly occupied with directed experiences, whether or not we're the ones directing.

I recommend that students of naturalism, or anyone trying to do creative and original work, wrest some of their time away from the external forces that sweep in to occupy their unoccupied moments.

Give yourself an opportunity every day to be bored.

If you go for a walk, you could leave your headphones behind. If you commute by train, you could leave your phone or ipad in your backpack. If you eat lunch while browsing Facebook, you could sit on a bench outside instead. And if you meditate anyway, you could try a version with no instructions at all besides "sit quietly".

You'll find that your mind wanders. It daydreams. It thinks about nonsense, and the past, and all sorts of things. That is the point. The more your mind wanders, the more psychological vantage points you will occupy. And the more vantage points you occupy, the more opportunities you have to see things from unaccustomed angles, and to probe them with diverse tools.

If you allow your mind the space to wander freely on a regular basis, more of your mind is available for processing whatever it is that interests you. So if you want to understand something deeply for yourself, do not let yourself be entertained all of the time. Be bored.