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John Cage being bored

I remember being publicly called ‘spiritually immature’ a few years back. It was in 2014. I was at a seminar for the RSA’s Spirituality project. The seminar had gathered various wise folk all competing to display their wisdom, as was I.

At that point I was mid-way through my research into ecstatic experiences. I had been born-again, died again, and was wondering what I had to show for all my explorations. I held on to the idea of a reservoir of bliss within us, which I’d encountered in my near-death experience in 2001, and which we could rediscover through practices like Transcendental Meditation. Spirituality, I suggested to the seminar, was the process of connecting to this deep well of inner bliss.

That’s when an elderly Buddhist lady retorted that this was an example of ‘immature spirituality’. Her spirituality, she suggested was more mature – focused on accepting whatever arose rather than chasing spiritual highs.

What a smug bitch, I thought. How dare she publicly suggest she was wiser than me.

But gradually, over the next couple of years, I realized she was right. My approach was spiritually immature.

I realized it when I went on a Vipassana Buddhist retreat in 2016, and the teacher – a dead Burmese businessman called SG Goenka – told us (via video talks) that we might feel unusual sensations like bliss, rapture, electric thrills. If so, we shouldn’t get attached to it. ‘Don’t chase the sensation’, he said. ‘Don’t chase the rapture. Just observe it and remind yourself it will pass.’ Likewise, if painful sensations arose, don’t push them away, just observe it and remind yourself it will pass.

Our ego is perpetuated by attachment to pleasant feelings and aversion for unpleasant feelings, and we slowly liberate ourselves by cultivating equanimity and insight, just sitting and observing whatever arises, even if nothing very much arises.

But we often crave the spiritual highs when we go on retreat. We crave the epiphanies. We want proof that we’re advancing, that we’re special, that God loves us. We want to be lifted out of our boredom and pain and limitation, into the flashing lights. Boredom is an aversion to a situation where nothing interesting seems to be happening. It’s a rejection of ourselves.

Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and hardcore Vipassana practitioner, put it well:

I have noticed a pattern emerging in my search for ecstasy over the last few years. I’d have an intense epiphany – my born-again moment in Wales, or the ayahuasca retreat of last year – and for a few weeks or months I’d feel really spiritually high, flooded with meaning, then a bit less high, then after three or four months I’d be back where I was, a bit bored, a bit depressed, and longing for the next adventure. It would be like the air slowly escaping from a hot-air balloon. So I’d fly off on another adventure – to India! To the moon! Up, up and away! Anything to avoid the loneliness and boredom of normal life. Pema Chodron writes: ‘we attempt to avoid uneasiness by seeking special states of mind.’

I see this tendency a lot in my fellow metropolitan spiritual types. We’re all post-Romantics, geared up to search for peak experiences, flow states, Instagrammable spiritual epiphanies to prove that we are special. There is a craving for intense experiences and breakthroughs, which the spiritual free market is only too happy to cater to – pay $500 for a weekend with Tony Robbins and laugh, cry, hug, jump up and down, and discover the True Amazing You. Get into that peak state, for a few months, until you come down, and do it all again.

We don’t want to come down.

It reminds me of a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoon – I used to love these cartoons when I was a teenage stoner, about three hippies and their drug-fuelled adventures. One episode, they decide not to take any drugs, and they gradually turn from lurid cartoons into actual human beings.

 

They can’t take coming down.

No one writes on this need to escape ourselves better than the 17th-century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal. One of the principal themes of his Pensees in our inability to sit with ourselves, and the million ways we invent to distract ourselves from weariness and dissatisfaction.

He writes:

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

Because we cannot handle sitting with ourselves, we seek diversions: ‘Men spend their time in following a ball or a hare.’ Or go on a date, or start a family, or buy a watch, or launch a company, or go to war, or change our hair. Anything! We must have projects.

Without diversions, we would be faced with what the Buddha called dukka – dissatisfaction and an insight into the emptiness and meaninglessness of all our games. Can you imagine the national existential crisis if they cancelled the Premier League?

And yet, Pascal goes on, our inability to sit still and confront our boredom and restlessness actually traps us in an empty cycle of distractions:

The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.

So my new, mature practice is all about boredom. Lean into boredom. Watch paint dry. Repeat the same sentence for an hour. As John Cage, the most boring composer ever, said: ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’  No rapture. No epiphanies. No breakthroughs. No flashing lights. No angels. No aliens. Just boredom and loneliness and dissatisfaction and quiet panic. Face it baby. Love it.

Check out some of Pascal’s amazing quotes on this theme here.