Heidegger’s “Profound Boredom”: using boredom to cultivate the soul

A very bored looking Martin Heidegger circa 1950

Boredom is one of those self-defining words. For me, the experience of ‘bore-dom’ feels like something boring a hole through my soul, like a hand drill boring a hole through wood. Boredom is a suffering, yet a suffering caused not by something happening, but by nothing happening.

(Just as I am editing this article to publish my 9 year old son is balled up in our livingroom literally crying over how bored he is.)

Boredom is an acute encounter of existence stripped of its distractions. And it is this experience with naked existence which accounts for the anxiety it produces, causing one to cling all the more to his chosen distractions. Martin Heidegger wrote, “We should not be at all surprised if the contemporary man in the streets feels disturbed or perhaps sometimes dazed and clutches all the more stubbornly at his idols when confronted with this challenge and with the effort required to approach this mystery.”

Considering the fact that boredom is a universal human experience one would think there would be endless writing on the subject trailing back for centuries. This is not the case.  When Heidegger wrote in the early 20th century, he was perhaps the first philosopher to work a thorough investigation of boredom. Spanning roughly 200 pages, Heidegger teased out all the attributes of boredom and discovered that there were at least 3 varieties: (1) becoming bored with something, (2) being bored with something, and (3) profound boredom.

He discussed the final form—profound boredom—in such a way that during my first reading of it I felt that I was having a mini-enlightenment (granted I was simultaneously smoking an amazing cigar so there may have been some cigar buzz crossover).

A blog article is no place to attempt a study worthy of Heidegger’s treatment of profound boredom; with all of the unique terms and layers of thought upon which he builds, it is nearly impossible to lift a few quotes and safely transplant them into an article such as this without completely butchering the whole thing. But not all hope is lost. After reading the text several times and using his thoughts in my own practice, I’ll give a quick example of the feeling produced by profound boredom to which hopefully the reader will easily relate:

If you’ve ever sat alone at the beach, or in the mountains, or the country, or sat gazing at the fully illumined night sky and had that deep sense of your own smallness, of your own seeming triviality in the broad scope of existence, and yet rather than crushing your soul it gave you a sense of calm wonder, a sense of spiritual ordering, then you’ve likely had the experience of profound boredom as Heidegger described it.

In short, what I found so powerful in the notion of profound boredom is that boredom has the power to grant a person “attunement” to oneself and to existence as a whole—or more properly speaking, attunement to Being as a whole—in a truly spiritual manner. Rather than causing torment, boredom, if used properly, can be at once a guide to peace and a guide to the very mystery of being.

If boredom creates a panic response, a depression, or any sort of neurotic avoidance it’s a signal that something is off. As Pascal said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” If I experience boredom as oppressive—that is, if being in my own company is oppressive—then, clearly, I am not at peace with myself.

By the way, I do not mistake myself for an authority on this. I run from boredom as fast as the next person. The only advantage I have being a psychotherapist is a daily diet of clients dealing with this very thing, which keeps me keenly aware of my own situation. Sometimes just as I turn to run from boredom I am able to catch myself in the act and discover what is lacking. Nearly every time I find that the anxiety felt in the presence of boredom is a perfect measure of my distance from the presence of God. From there it is a simple adjustment of focus.

Perhaps “simple” is too simple a word choice. It’s very likely that such an “adjustment” is the very thing that requires a lifetime of discipline to acquire.

At any rate, perhaps the best use of an article of this size for a topic this dense is to give a few basic steps in accessing and using profound boredom. My thoughts on this is still a work in progress so feel free to let me know in the comments if you have anything to add:

1. Don’t wait for boredom to find you—search it out.

Turn off every device you own, find an empty space, and allow boredom to set in. Experiment with what it feels like to be a human-being rather than a human-doing. This is not meditation per se, but a mere willingness to be undistracted. If you have access to nature, use it. Being in nature is always a shortcut. Turning the tables on boredom might be all it takes to get yourself into an attunement with the immediacy of existence.

2. Once there, allow boredom to reveal its message.

Boredom always comes with a message about yourself and your relationship to being. One way to tap into it is to simply notice what happens to you: Does anxiety increase? Does sadness increase? Is there any anger, frustration, fear? Does your body react to it? (if so where and how?) We moderners rarely encounter naked existence which can make a brush with it feel like a leap into the dark. Let the encounter be what it is for however long it lasts (maybe its an hour, maybe its 20 seconds) and then get up and do something else—return to your distractions.

3. Repeat the above.

Repeat this preferably on a daily basis until you build up an acquaintance with boredom to the point that the negative reactions cease; do it until it becomes a place of rest and not of fret. This is essentially what the Taoist philosophers would describe as creating a void and allowing nature to fill it. Having constant, intentional encounters with the “void” allows growth to happen in ways unmatched by any other means.

8 thoughts on “Heidegger’s “Profound Boredom”: using boredom to cultivate the soul

  1. I have never understood why people allow themselves to do nothing and become bored. I’m almost 76 and with the endless things/projects my imagination thinks up, I don’t think I have ever been deliberately bored.

  2. I have never been bored. My default condition seems to be doing nothing and being perfectly happy with that. I enjoy nothing more than sitting or leisurely wandering around observing my surroundings and pondering. I find doing anything an effort, though I like doing things too and achieving that satisfaction that comes with a sense of achievement and duty done. But doing nothing, just living in my interior while being aware of surrounds too, is best.

  3. A few thoughts further to the above comment, and in relation to boredom and anxiety:

    I do know regret and shame though, so I know what conscience grating in the soul feels like. It feels like fingernails raking down a blackboard in the centre of one’s being. It can be mild or unbearable, depending. Regret and shame at their worst are the worst of human feelings. Worse even than loneliness, for loneliness is separation from others, but regret and shame separates us even from our conscience, and so divides our soul into discordant parts.

    My observation of others (adults) is that their boredom is usually anxiety. And anxiety is mostly of two types: 1. Just a natural physiological sensation of adrenaline and cortisol release which just means the body is functioning as it should. And 2. internal conflict/discord getting confused (or excused) for being anxiety.

    Most people are superficial; they identify themselves as being their physical-emotional layer. They attribute that layer as being who they are. And so they seldom go into their self any deeper than that.

    That there are layers and grades of mind, and back of that a layer and spectrum of values, and of beliefs, and back of beliefs is attitude with its various outlooks and possibilities of perspective, and back further a central consciousness and within that consciousness are deeper and higher internal stations of consciousness going back deep and high within, all such layers and stations of being and identity lie within and out of reach to most people, who do not know how to turn their attention within.

    Conflicts and discords back in among these deeper layers give rise to sensations of assorted kinds of uncomfortable gratings throughout one’s psychological system, which most people assume to be anxiety. Along with particular circumstances that act as a sympathetic resonance to draw forth (trigger) such gratings, boredom or the absence of external stimulation can cause such gratings to be more readily felt.

    I have found that when afflicted with a rising anxiety, particularly when it is strong, that better than distract myself from it, is to pray and then turn within and directly into the anxiety, penetrate it, and come out the other side – the inside – of it, in prayer, to face it and resolve it. Repentance resolves. Repentance is presenting oneself/one’s errors/sins to God.

    • Crossbow, once again, bravo. Had you never revealed it to me I would easily sense that you are a therapist by the observations you make. I wish there was a worldly-therapeutic equivalent of repentance, because it is just as you described it; it is the ultimate resolver of anxiety, shame, guilt, all of it.

  4. Eric, this is incredibly profound.

    Have you read “The Way of a Pilgrim?” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Way_of_a_Pilgrim) [I know…don’t use Wikipedia] Profound boredom as discussed by Professor Heidegger is exactly what the “Jesus Prayer” has achieved by Hesechasts Christians for hundreds of years. For non-Orthodox Christian readers, the Jesus Prayer would be known as the prayer of the penitent- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, A Sinner – prayed over and over and over, in rhythm while breathing. One can pray the Jesus Prayer while awake, asleep, working, playing, resting… the focus is to empty one’s self to fill yourself with only the thought of Christ God.

    God love and bless you. Happy Father’s Day.

    • Patrick, yes indeed. I read it awhile back. And yes, I find that Orthodox prayers in general, and the Jesus prayer in particular, give everything and more that any meditative or psychological practice can bring in the way of mindfulness. But of course Orthodoxy is dealing with connecting the believer to God Himself so there is no man made practice that can begin to compete. I’ve kept a regular daily diet of the Prologue of Ohrid and the Greek Philokalia for the last 9 years or so and I cannot begin to tell you what that has done to my world. There is so much spiritual wisdom and awakening that happens in Orthodox praxis that it cannot be tracked.

  5. Repentance being the presenting of our sins to God, there is no worldly equivalent as such.

    There is, however, the presenting of our sins with a humble and sincere apology to the one we have wronged. Forgiveness will heal and resolve.

    Where possible and practical, and where further harm and entanglement will not result, we should go to those we have wronged and seek forgiveness from them before going to God.

    If we are not forgiven by the one we have wronged, then we should go to God in repentance, and we will be forgiven.

    We should bear in mind that God’s forgiveness is not suited to tiny tasks. Therefore, when taking our sins to God we should take up the sins of all others too, so that others may be forgiven along with ourselves.

    All prayer begins with repentance, and with forgiveness of others. Nothing heals the soul and relationships like forgiveness does. Repentance enables forgiveness.

    In many places the gospels teach us this.

    Crossbow, the old therapist.

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