Somewhere I read (Schopenhauer, I think) that boredom occurs when you feel time pass while doing fruitless activity. Unlike pain, which invades our sensations, forcing our response, boredom seeps in from contrasting our current action from a better alternative.
Existential boredom, then, is a sense that life more generally is not fulfilling. It might be “pleasurable” at a daily level, but when one steps away, it lacks something. Life–like a story–needs a certain cohesion, a “meaning” or significance.
I had plans for another post today, in light of a fellow blogger nominating me for a Liebster Award. But a night at a Franciscan retreat center has prompted me to write something a little different.
Since I first learned about Buddhism in high school, I’ve been interested in it. I still remember filling out answers to the Four Noble Truths on quizzes in the front of my ninth grade class, alongside sanskrit terms.
Since then, I’ve come a long way.
An independent study in Buddhist philosophy, numerous books, a few meditation retreats, and a daily meditation practice that lasted a few years have all increased my awareness in Buddhism, especially Zen.
But two winters ago, my interest culminated in a three day retreat at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. I still recall the final day of the retreat. After the exhausting stints of 5 a.m. zazen meditation and work projects–where I silently cracked over a hundred eggs–we concluded with a koan and a dharma talk by the sensei. The koan was about the diamond sutra, a central text in Mahayana Buddhism, called “diamond” because a true understanding allows one to cut through illusion and ignorance like a diamond.
The sensei brought up the ending of the sutra itself:
“So I say to you – This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”
“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
Thus spoke Buddha.
Building on the Buddhist notion of impermanence–that life contains unceasing flux and change–the sensei stressed our need to “leave no footprints” as we moved through life, negotiating the tricky balance of “equanimity,” a peaceful abiding between aversion and desire that does not fall into indifference. Life is indeed brief. It is full of change and interdependence. Like a dream, things come and go.
Sitting in zazen position, legs folded and “heart open,” I felt a change. Buddhism traditionally has different levels of understanding, ranging from the merely intellectual to the silent but sure understanding of an Enlightened one. Somewhere between lies a heart understanding, where one truly “feels” a new insight that cannot fit into words.
In the midst of the dharma talk, I felt that insight.
I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.
Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.
A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.
I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.
I propped open The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn while sitting on my bed in a Zen Monastery, day two of a spiritual pilgrimage. It’s an older book, coming out in 2012, but a teacher recommended it.
The day started just before 5 a.m., when some monk jangled a handful of bells outside the door. At the time, I imagined he took a sadistic joy in it.
“Hey, here’s a crammed group of exhausted travelers—how can I give a good start to the day?” he probably thought. “Loud bells!”
Rubbing my head, I greeted the others with a nod.
Night still drenched the windowpanes in reflection as we entered the meditation hall. I crossed my legs into a half-lotus and a bell pitched the space into silence, broken occasionally by the rattling radiator or the rasp of a stuffy nose.
I wrestled with my thoughts for the next hour or so. The rest of the day blurred as we moved from one lecture to another and a silent work call. I stayed in the kitchen, cracking 160 eggs for a massive casserole.
Thirteen hours after waking up, I was choking on Zen. Flynn’s tense prose challenged the backdrop of silence that permeated the day. But I needed it.