I only have one irrational fear: boredom. After many years of getting to know myself, I admit I have a fear of boredom. I go to great lengths planning for new things to happen so that I will be spared a moment of boredom. What’s so bad about boredom? It can be relaxing. I did say it was irrational. Boredom feels a little like death because nothing is happening; maybe that is it. But apart from boredom, I do not have any irrational fears. Well, except maybe of really high heights, but that is rational, a fall would kill me. And then there’s claustrophobia. The idea of being awake in a closed coffin really spooks me, but wouldn’t it spook you? Wait a minute, are all these fears rooted in a fear of death, in the end of me?
In Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner provides a fresh take on the Buddhist view that “self” is at the root of our troubles. The notion of self as a permanent thing is an understandable mistake. Our self is a constant through our many changing experiences, so we mistake it for a permanent thing. “When a man is sailing along in a boat and he moves his eyes to the shore, he misapprehends that the shore is moving” says Dogen, an ancient Buddhist teacher. Dogen’s book, Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, is the subject of Warner’s dialog. It taught him many of the insights on his path from a bassist for the hardcore punk band Zero Defects to becoming a Zen priest.
While many books on Buddhism cause my eyes to glaze over (in boredom?), Warner’s perspective on punk brings extra punch. Take anger, the mantle of every punker. “Drop the A-Bomb on meeeeeeeeeeee!” According to Warner, angry music is different than an angry musician. When they were writing or playing music, there wasn’t any anger involved. Angry music was intended to say something true, and playing it shifted him out of his petty self. Anger is about me being right, and you being wrong. If you dispense with self, it is tough to remain angry.
This shift is the essence of Zazen, a meditation practice. Zazen is quite simple. Find a quiet spot, sit on a pillow in full or half lotus, keep your spine straight and your eyes open, and cease the “ten thousand things” that your mind gets distracted by. Turn off the chattering mind, and just sit there. Yeah, pretty boring. But according to Zen Buddhists, ordinary reality is the essence of enlightenment. Sitting in Zazen, we gain a clear perception of the present moment, and unhinge from the self and its complicated yearnings for the past or its plans for happiness in the future if only such and such occurs. “Real happiness comes when you are truly living this moment, no matter what it is.”
Warner admits the story of Buddha is a boring one. Nothing like the life of Jesus, with miracles and betrayal and all. Buddha was a young prince who lived the first part of his life indulging the pleasures of the body, and the next part denying them in ascetic rituals. In the end, he rejected both, sat under a tree, and was enlightened. He stopped being distracted and beheld reality as it eternally is, right in front of his nose. Yipee. Now what? I’ve heard it said that the only cure for boredom is curiousity, but look what happened to the cat. There’s that death thing again. Maybe my fear of boredom is less a fear of physical death and more a fear for the permanence of self. Dropping the illusion of self feels kind of liberating. Next time I’m stuck waiting for a train, or in line at the grocery checkout, I’ll think about it, or better still, I’ll stop thinking about it and practice a little Zazen.