Beyond Boredom: When Less Is More

My client’s chest heaved and sweat dripped from his brow as he settled onto his yoga blankets. He had sprinted from work to make it to our 7:30pm session, commenting that work had been crazy. I asked him if this stressed him out or if he thrived on it. “Both,” he admitted. “But it’s a good thing,” he paused. “Well, better than the alternative.”

“Which is what?” I asked. I thought he would say, business being bad, but instead he said, boredom.

“So, the alternative to work being crazy is boredom?” I asked.

He thought for a moment and then admitted that when he is away from work, away from the city, he is perfectly content to spend the day floating on a surfboard or hanging with his family. When he’s away from work he often wonders what the point of all that busyness is. But when he’s in it he feels like one of the crowd running from the bulls. It’s exhilarating, but also really tiring.

He said some of his coworkers never take time off. “They don’t have hobbies. They don’t go to the gym. They don’t do anything but work and sleep.” He said he doesn’t know how they survive. “I’m not sure that they do,” I said.

After nearly 40 years in the finance industry, another yoga client of mine worked herself into a state of debilitating illness. For years she told me how stressful work had become and how she didn’t want to be there anymore, but she felt that she had no choice. We worked on coping mechanisms, but they weren’t enough. Eventually her body revolted.

She told me about the “Leader Board” at work, on which the names of the week’s top earners are shown to the whole company. “I used to be on the list. Then I felt bad about not being on the list. Now I don’t even have the energy to care about being on the list.”

Our culture tells us that we must keep striving to get ahead, but ahead of what, and at what cost?

In April after a long winter of raising two small children and working full-time, we headed to Australia for an entire month. The younger me would have been terrified to take a month off work to go on vacation. Americans don’t do that. But with my husband’s family in Australia it was inevitable. On several of our past trips I found myself anxiously trying to keep things going back home despite a 14-hour time difference and a slow Internet connection, or vowing to spend five hours a day working on my book. Or whatever other things I could do to avoid the B word. Boredom.

This time on the flight over, Griffin and I both started to feel sick on the plane. I chalked it up to motion sickness, thinking it would pass, but it didn’t. For the next four days (the only four days we had booked a condo at a resort) Griffin and I lay in bed sleeping, staring at one another and racing to the bathroom to release things from opposite ends of our bodies. It was not pleasant – the nausea, the discomfort, the feeling of gravity pulling my body aggressively to the earth.

I tried a few times to override my body, but when Griffin said, “Please turn off the TV,” (his favorite thing in the world) I realized that I just had to let go. I slept more than I ever have. When I wasn’t sleeping I listened to the breeze moving through the palm trees and the native birds singing to one another. I watched my son sleep, which I hadn’t done since my daughter was born. And when we stared at each other it didn’t feel like we were mother and son, but rather just two people surrendering to our humanness. There was nothing boring about this.

Of course I never want him to be ill and would prefer not to be sick myself, but I think we will both always remember that time of doing absolutely nothing together. And in that nothingness, I decided to also let go of a few things I had been trying to fit into the summer – namely leading a retreat in Greece. While our retreat the year before had been incredible, I felt too tired to think about planning another one. Our host in Greece just had a new baby of her own, and I would be responsible for getting my two-year-old and five-year-old to the airport for a midnight flight to Europe. I just couldn’t do it. I decided to duck into a doorway and let the people and the bulls run past me.

After making this decision my body started to feel better. Although I wasn’t able to run the Noosa Ocean Trail that I had dreamed of, I did walk it slowly, which gave me the chance to watch my husband and son build a rock tower and to observe the world through my daughter’s eyes.

We spent most of the rest of the month relaxing. I ran when I felt like it, did yoga when I wanted to, read a whole book and spent more time just hanging with my kids than I probably ever have.

If I hadn’t gotten sick I might have missed out on all of this. I might have kept running from the bulls, even when I felt like stopping. We all have bills to pay and obligations to meet. We feel pressured to keep performing and producing. But often we are putting a lot of that pressure on ourselves. We build up a misguided fear that lack of stress and busyness equals boredom.

For many of us, it takes illness or external obstacles to force us to slow down and let go. But what if we could do this more often because we want to? What if we took down the leader board and set up a round table where instead of measuring performance we just checked in with one another?

This may just be a dream, but I want to keep dreaming it, setting plans from a place of authenticity, choosing to do less of what my mind tells me I must and more of what my heart tells me I can and remembering that Boredom is not necessarily the opposite of busyness. The opposite of busyness can actually be great joy, wonder and peace.

Elizabeth (EJ)

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