The Power of Nothingness in a Time of Distress and Unbearable Boredom (article)

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Boredom has historically been one of the hardest states for me to live with, a feeling that starts as an itch of dissatisfaction and spreads like a real physical ache that easily spirals into this all encompassing feeling of helplessness, meaninglessness, and sometimes, a trigger for a depressive episode.

For a long time, stimulating my brain again and again was how I dealt with it. Listening to music. Playing video games. Watching a movie. Drawing. Writing. Social media. Sometimes, several of those at once. Sometimes, this would work. I would spend day after day swamped with things — with doing things, making things, consuming things. I didn’t stop, and I couldn’t stop. Maybe if I just did more, I would feel — more meaningful.

A few days ago as I sat on a bench refreshing Reddit again and again, I suddenly realised — this doesn’t make me feel good. At all. The brief dopamine hits of Facebook notifications and Reddit comments barely made a dent in the existential boredom — or perhaps, more of a deeper melancholy — of life. In fact, I began to realise that my solution to my feeling, was feeding the feeling itself.

Stepping back, I saw that I was essentially doing the same thing again and again, almost like a lab rat pressing the same lever in the same cage again and again. My brain would get jolts of excitement, only to fall back into this ever existent baseline — what am I doing? What is even the point?

Pressing that lever became the towering priority in my life. Other things — sitting in the park, reading, even just taking a walk, were less important because they were less immediate. I barely even thought of less stimulating activities like walks and bike rides because my brain craved that immediate spike that shook it out of its monotony. As the time frame for my attention became shorter and shorter, so did my motivation for anything, as well as my temper and reactivity towards life.

In fact, maybe if I had taken a moment to just step away from the lever and accept that feeling of gnawing, deep discomfort and boredom, just sit with it for longer than a dozen minutes, I would find that it was the very act of seeking out and pressing the lever again and again that was sandpapering my life into this monotonous circle where I was just going around and around and around with no real variety or destination.

After all, the daily Reddit posts and news may be different, but the very essence of the act was the same. It was engaging the exact same parts of my brain, and my body was doing the exact same thing, thinking it would yield a different, better result every time.

After one particularly irritating pointless Reddit argument by the beach of all places, I did what every self help book on Amazon touts as some be-all end-all solution: I deleted all my social media apps. Of course, I didn’t expect this to be some magical cure-all — in fact, it’s only an aspect of it, and not nearly as profound as self help books dedicating chapters to it claim to be — but it did finally gave me room and space — mentally, emotionally — to step back for once and take a breath.

With the lever removed, it was like someone had removed blinders from my face, allowing me outside of the tunnel vision I had lived in for so long. With no avenue to access adrenaline rushing internet arguments and notifications, my brain naturally expanded, grew like roots in the soil, to everything else. The world suddenly seemed so much bigger. The little island of biodiversity and plants and birds nearby suddenly seemed much more meaningful and captivating than the endless internet of information and things in my phone. My mind began to chew on ideas for novels and endeavours that I had given it no time to consider before. The noises, sights, and smells around me that had been swamped by my dopamine hunting knee jerk reflexes created a rich texture of life that I simply did not have the mind space to even notice before.

The constant itch to scratch, the constant urge to circle back and press that lever again and again, was gone. Although I definitely still had moments of boredom, they became less painful and overwhelming. The constant stimulation wasn’t helping boredom, in fact, it was simply exacerbating how painful it was. But when I let myself have moments of peace instead of a constant stream of information and adrenaline, boredom became almost peaceful at times.

I had never been someone particularly good at meditating, and even though people had pushed meditation to me for years and years, it was only ever something I scoffed at. I didn’t believe in miraculous spiritual states and epiphanies. It turns out that that’s not what meditation is, though.

As I spent time taking walks and looking at flowers and slowing down to a comfortable pace from a thousand miles an hour, I recognised that meditation was simply about observing and giving yourself time to reset and breathe — something that I could only appreciate as I let myself lie in the sand on the beach without the need to make a Facebook post about it and then spend the next few hours waiting for people to react or respond.

Counterintuitively, what my brain needed was not more excitement and less boredom, but rather, less excitement and more boredom — if that boredom was simply a state of nothingness, a space where there was no pressure to do — or be — anything or anyone.