A Year of Living Mindfully: When meditation is boring

I wake at 5am but stay put until 6am. Getting up is no problem when I get to bed early. But it’s murder when I don’t.

I plod downstairs and open the back door. It is still dark and the morning air feels cool on my face. I sit cross-legged on a cushion and begin my daily routine.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. It’s the same with meditation.

Today I notice my mind is taking longer than usual to quieten down. My thoughts are annoying me. They are assaulting my few moments of precious silence before a day that will be filled with talking.

Fragments of barely remembered dreams appear out of nowhere. Sounds of the city waking up distract me. I can feel my edginess.

I follow the arc of my inbreath and my outbreath as I have done many times before. I hear the sound of my breath and feel its warmth as it passes in and out of my nostrils.

Faithful companion
Today I will breathe about 8,000 times. My breath keeps me going. It is my most faithful companion, and sticks with me through thick and thin. But I take it for granted.

For these few moments I am happy to show it some appreciation.

My breath earths me back into my body and to sensations that remind me I’m alive. Some sensations are pleasing; some are not. I try to welcome each and not dismiss or neglect even the subtlest of feelings.

A blackbird sings, a church bell rings, traffic sounds in the distance grow in intensity.

Nothing much happens. I just sit there. I am neither disturbed nor inspired. No sorrow shows its face, no creative thought emerges.

I have known many moments where I’ve sat quietly, wrestled inwardly with strong feelings and discovered something that I hadn’t realised before.

My practice has given me some deeper understanding of who I am. These nuggets of insight, no matter how tiny, make me feel that it’s worth getting out of bed.

But there are no epiphanies today.

We’re all addicted to the highs and lows, the dramas and the hard-won insights. But epiphanies come in their own time, on their own schedule.

There will always be those in-between fallow times, where nothing much seems to happen.

Like anyone else who is trying to learn a new skill – a musical instrument, cooking, physical exercise – sometimes the best that I can do is to show up.

Woodie Allen
I remind myself that showing up, according to Woodie Allen, is 90 per cent of success.

But it’s not easy. It feels like nothing is happening, that, if anything, I am getting worse at being able to stay in the present moment. I know that I shouldn’t be trying to get something out of this exercise; that mindfulness is not a programme of self-improvement.

That it is a way of living that seeks to be open and present to the whole spectrum of human experience. Including those moments, when, God forbid, we feel bored.

Boredom is almost a four-letter word. It’s one of the feelings that we are not meant to feel. In our high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled world we are always meant to be “one”.

People ban the word “boring”. To admit to feeling bored with anything is to open oneself up to all manner of criticism. “How could you be bored with so much to do?” friends ask with an arched eyebrow.

Patient with ourselves
But here's the thing. We have to be okay with ordinary, boring, in-between moments as much as we are with those more exhilarating times in our lives.

And we need to be patient with ourselves when we feel this way. We’re inclined to react to the mundane and the boring as if we have done something wrong, as if they are a punishment of some sort.

We mistake these fallow times in our lives as evidence that we are going nowhere. When actually feeling bored may be precisely what it takes to push us into a more creative space in our lives.

So I sit with it this morning and I wait.

A verse of Rumi’s comes back to me. It says something encouraging about those stuck, helpless moments that we are too easily inclined to write off:

Be helpless, dumbfounded,

Unable to say yes or no

Then a stretcher will come from grace

To gather us up.

Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health