There’s something exquisite about boredom. Like melancholy and its darker cousin sadness, boredom is related to emptiness and meaninglessness, but in a perfectly enjoyable way. It’s like wandering though the National Gallery, being surrounded by all those great works of art, and deciding not to look at them because it’s a pleasure just walking from room to room enjoying the squeak of your soles on the polished floor. Boredom is the no-signal sound on a blank television, the closed-down monotone of a radio in the middle of the night. It’s an uninterrupted straight line.
Actually, my idea of boredom has little to do with wealthy surroundings. It’s about a certain mindset. Perfect boredom is the enjoyment of the moment of stasis that comes between slowing down and speeding up – like sitting at a traffic light for a particularly long time. It’s at the cusp of action, because however enjoyable it may be, boredom is really not a long-term aspiration. It’s for an afternoon before a sociable evening. It marks that point in a holiday when you’ve shrugged off all the concerns of work and home, explored the hotel and got used to the swimming pool, and everything has become totally familiar. ‘I’m bored’ just pops into your mind one morning as you’re laying your towel over the sunlounger before breakfast, and then you think ‘How lovely.’ It’s about the stillness and familiarity of that precise moment before the inevitable anxiety about packing up and heading back to God-knows-what.
All things being equal, it is good to be happy, and it’s certainly awful to be severely depressed. But what worries me is that our pursuit of happiness is leading us to judge the great intellectual and spiritual traditions of the past according to only one measure: do they increase happiness and reduce misery? That which passes the test is plundered and that which fails is left behind. The result is that wisdom is hollowed out and replaced with a soft centre of caramelised contentment. [...]
Those keen to adopt mindfulness training as a mere means to a happier life ignore the fact that the ideas Buddhists have traditionally wanted people to be mindful of are not necessarily comfortable ones, even if they ultimately lead the way to nirvana. Being mindful of the flavour of freshly brewed coffee or the beauty of a common sparrow is one thing; fostering awareness of the emptiness at the heart of the self quite another.
Aristotle is another ancient sage who has been watered down for the dulled palates of the modern positive thinker. He is frequently quoted as saying that happiness “is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. But, as any first-year undergraduate knows, the word translated here as happiness – “eudaimonia” – actually means something more like “flourishing”. Eudaimonia requires that we exercise the full range of our capacities as humans – especially, but not only, our intellects. The crude adoption of Aristotle as a champion of feeling good helps happiness flourish, while flourishing flounders.
[Socrates asked,] But what would you like? Shall I, as an elder, speak to you as younger men in an apologue or myth, or shall I argue out the question?
To this several of the company answered that he should choose for himself.
Well, then, he said, I think that the myth will be more interesting.
It’s one thing to say you wouldn’t be you if not for your brain, that your brain is critical to what you are. But I could say that about your upbringing and your culture, too. It’s another thing entirely to say that you are your brain.
I don’t reject the idea that the brain is necessary for consciousness; but I do reject the argument that it is sufficient. That’s just a fancy, contemporary version of the old philosophical idea that our true selves are interior, cut off from the outside world, only accidentally situated in the world. The view I’m attacking claims that neural activity is enough to explain consciousness, that you could have consciousness in a petri dish. It supposes that consciousness happens inside the brain the way digestion occurs inside the GI tract. But consciousness is not like digestion; it doesn’t happen inside of us. It is something we do, something we achieve. It’s more like dance than it is like digestion.
Even if we had a perfect way of observing exactly what a brain was doing, we would never be able to understand how it made us have the kinds of experiences we do. The experiences just aren’t happening inside our skulls. Trying to understand consciousness in neural terms alone is like trying to understand a car driving down the road only in terms of its engine. It’s bad philosophy masquerading as science….
Just as an engine is necessary in a car. But an engine doesn’t “give rise” to driving; driving isn’t something that happens inside the engine. The engine contributes to the car’s ability to drive. Consciousness is more like driving than our philosophical tradition leads us to expect. To be conscious is to have a world. The fact is, you and I don’t have what it takes to make a world on our own. We find the world, we don’t make it in our brains.
The brain is essential for our lives, physiology, health and experience. But the idea that it is the whole story, or even the key to understanding the story, is not a scientific conclusion. It’s a prejudice. Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, the body and the world.
By living in a spirit of forgiveness, we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that all the memorable works of our culture convey. The message has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but we can hear it once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices resentment and thereby renounces something that had been dear to his heart.
When a great number of motorcycle functions are regulated by microelectronic rather than mechanical devices, the thoughtful inspection and tuning of the cycle beside a shady curbstone in Miles City, Montana, will have become a thing of the past. They will be impossible and unnecessary. A call for caring makes sense only within a reform proposal that recognizes and fruitfully counters the technological tendency to disburden and disengage us from the care of things.
—Albert Borgmann on the limits of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.