From Separation to Boredom

The ascent of humanity has come at a price, and I am not speaking here merely of the destruction of the ecological basis of human civilization. Our separation-fueled ascent exacts its toll not just on the losers, the victims of our wars, industry, and ecocide, but on the winners as well. It is the highest of all possible prices: it comes out of our very being. For all we have built on the outside, we have diminished our souls.

When we separate ourselves from nature as we have done with technology, when we replace interdependency with “security” and trust with control, we separate ourselves as well from part of ourselves. Nature, internal and external, is not a gratuitous though practically necessary other, but an inseparable part of ourselves. To attempt its separation creates a wound no less severe than to rip off an arm or a leg. Indeed, more severe. Under the delusion of the discrete and separate self, we see our relationships as extrinsic to who we are on the deepest level; we see relationships as associations of discrete individuals. But in fact, our relationships—with other people and all life—define who we are, and by impoverishing these relationships we diminish ourselves. We are our relationships.

“Interdependency”, which implies a conditional relationship, is far too weak a word for this non-separation of self and other. My claim is much stronger: that the self is not absolute or discrete but contingent, relationally-defined, and blurrily demarcated. There is no self except in relationship to the other. The economic man, the rational actor, the Cartesian “I am” is a delusion that cuts us off from most of what we are, leaving us lonely and small.

Stephen Buhner calls this cleavage the “interior wound” of separation. Because it is woven into our very self-definition, it is inescapable except through temporary distraction, during which it festers inside, awaiting the opportunity to burst into consciousness. The wound of separation expresses itself in many guises, ranging from petty but persistent dissatisfactions that, when resolved, quickly morph into other, equally petty dissatisfactions in an endless treadmill of discontent, to the devastating phthisis of hopelessness and despair that quite literally consumes the spirit.

Riding any vehicle it can, the pain from the interior wound manifests in a million ways: an omnipresent loneliness, an unreasonable sadness, an undirected rage, a gnawing discontent, a seething resentment. Unaware of its true source, we assign it to one or another object, one or another imperfection in the outside world. We then seek to forestall the pain by suppressing its vehicles: getting life under control. In a personalized version of the Technological Program, we identify happiness with the maximum possible insulation from danger, dirt, and discomfort. But of course, this insulation cuts us off even further from the world and, so, exacerbates the separation that is the actual source of the pain.

A saying goes, “Seek not to cover the world in leather—just wear shoes.” It is a spiritual cliché that happiness is not to be found by engineering the world so that everything goes your way: such happiness is transient, doomed. But that’s the way we act, culturally and individually, much of the time. Someday, everything will be perfect and we’ll be able to relax and be happy forever.

The futility of the personal and collective Technological Program of complete control finds incontrovertible demonstration in the phenomenon of boredom, which shows us the human condition when the Technological Program succeeds. What is the ground state, the default state of the human being when everything is under control, when no personal calamity imminently threatens? What happens if we just sit here, with nothing to do and nothing that needs to be done?

Boredom is so endemic to our culture, particularly among youth, that we imagine it to be a near-universal default state of human existence. In the absence of outside stimuli we are bored. Yet, as Ziauddin Sardar observes, boredom is virtually unique to Western culture (and by extension to the global culture it increasingly dominates). “Bedouins,” he writes, “can sit for hours in the desert, feeling the ripples of time, without being bored.”[19]

Whence comes this feeling we call boredom, the discomfort of having nothing to occupy our minds? Boredom—nothing to do—is intolerable because it puts us face to face with the wound of separation. Boredom, that yearning for stimulation and distraction, for something to pass the time, is simply how we experience any pause in the program of control that seeks to deny pain. I am not suggesting that we ignore the causes of pain. Pain is a messenger that tells us, “Don’t do that,” and we are wise to heed it. But we step far beyond that when we suppose, even when the wound has been inflicted and the consequent pain written into reality, that we can still somehow avoid feeling it. A saying of Chinese Buddhism goes, “A Boddhisatva avoids the causes; the ordinary person tries to avoid the results.”

Apparently, boredom was not even a concept before the word was invented around 1760, along with the word “interesting”.[20] The tide of boredom that has risen ever since coincides with the progress of the Industrial Revolution, hinting at a reason why it has, until recently, been an exclusively Western phenomenon. The reality that the factory system created was a mass-produced reality, a generic reality of standardized products, standardized roles, standardized tasks, and standardized lives. The more we came to live in that artificial reality, the more separate we became from the inherently fascinating realm of nature and community. Today, in a familiar pattern, we apply further technology to relieve the boredom that results from our immersion in a world of technology. We call it entertainment. Have you ever thought about that word? To entertain a guest means to bring him into your house; to entertain a thought means to bring it into your mind. To be entertained means to be brought into the television, the game, the movie. It means to be removed from your self and the real world. When a television show does this successfully, we applaud it as entertaining. Our craving for entertainment points to the impoverishment of our reality.

All the causes of boredom are permutations of the interior wound of separation. Aside from the impoverishment of our reality, we are uncomfortable doing nothing because of the relentless anxiety that dominates modern life. This in turn arises from the paradigm of competition that underlies our socioeconomic structures, which (as I will explain in Chapter Four) is written into our conception of self. Second, we desire constant stimulation and entertainment because in their absence, we are left alone with ourselves with nothing to distract us from the pain of the wound of separation. Finally, technology contributes directly to boredom by bombarding us with a constant barrage of intense stimuli, habituating our brains to a high level of stimulation. When it is removed, we suffer withdrawal. We are addicted to the artificial human realm we have created with technology. Now we are condemned to maintain it.

That we have unprocessed pain inside us, waiting for any empty moment so that it may assert itself and be felt, is not so surprising given that a main imperative of technology is to maximize pleasure, comfort, and security, and to prevent pain. The urge to make life easier, safer, more convenient, and more comfortable has motivated technology from its inception. When the inventor of the Levallois flint-working technique produced his first spearhead, his contemporaries enthusiastically adopted it because it made life easier: “Not nearly so much work, now, to produce each spearhead.” The new technique was so much more efficient. Life got easier. Need I cite more examples? Today we go to the pharmacy cabinet to apply technology to the alleviation of any discomfort, no matter how minor. Have a hangover? Take an aspirin. Have a runny nose? Take a cold medicine. Depressed? Have a drink. The underlying assumption is that pain is something that need not be felt. And the ultimate fulfillment of technology would be to discover the means to eliminate pain and suffering forever.

Maximizing pleasure and eliminating pain is the goal of the Technological Program taken to its logical extreme. An articulation of this goal in fairly pure form is David Pearce’s “Hedonistic Imperative,” which advocates the total elimination of suffering through genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neurochemistry by disabling pain receptors, stimulating pleasure centers, and so on, as foreshadowed by today’s happy drugs but also by the entire medical apparatus that seeks to remove or palliate symptoms. The mood-altering drugs, most notably the “selective” serotonin uptake inhibitors, are applied on the premise that the real cause of mental anguish is low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Raise levels of these neurotransmitters and the anguish goes away. The treatment is a success!

Underneath the assumption “the pain need not be felt” lie some even deeper assumptions. One of these is disconnection. The low serotonin levels are viewed in isolation from a patient’s whole being, like a car with a broken part. This mechanistic paradigm denies the organic nature of a body, in which the health of any part reflects the health of the whole. It denies that there are reasons for the low serotonin, and reasons for the reasons, and reasons for those, spreading out to encompass the patient’s whole being.

Related to disconnection is a further assumption, that we live in a dead and purposeless universe. Events happen essentially at random; there is no orchestrating purpose to make each event significant and right. Depression did not a serve a higher purpose because there is no such thing as a higher purpose, no reason except the identifiable, mechanistic reason, and therefore no cause to expect the pain will return in another form when this avenue is blocked. Reality is infinitely manageable.

If, however, we see technology (both on the personal and the collective level) as a means not to eliminate pain but to defer it, then it stands to reason that it will be waiting for us in any empty moment. All the more so if the very effort to defer pain generates new pain: the new problems caused by the previous technology, the symptoms caused by the drug itself.

In a connected, purposeful universe, managing the pain is like patching a leaky pipe when the water pressure is too high. Fixing one leak ensures another will spring elsewhere. Meanwhile, the pressure keeps rising. The apparatus of civilization springs one leak after another, as frantically we try to seal the spreading cracks.

It has been said in a Judaic-Christian-Islamic context that separation from God, the Fall, is the source of all suffering. Buddhism names attachment as the cause of suffering, but careful examination reveals its teaching to be nearly identical to that of esoteric Western religion. Attachment, to the impermanent, delusory ego self and all those things that reinforce it, maintains a separation from the rest of the universe from which we are not actually separate. Attachment is separation. As for separation from God, what is God but that which transcends our separate selves and interpenetrates all being? On the origin of suffering, Eastern and (esoteric) Western religion are in fundamental agreement.[21]

In everyday human life, happiness and security come from strong connections—to family, community, nature, place, spirit, and self—and not from “independence” whether psychological or financial. Because the story of technology is one long saga of widening separation from nature, widening separation from community (because of specialization and the mass scale of society), widening separation from place (because of our highly mobile and indoor-centered lifestyles), and widening separation from spirit (because of the dominant scientific paradigms of the Newtonian World Machine), it is no wonder that the pain of the human condition has only grown throughout the modern era. Even as outright physical hardship has declined, psychological suffering in the form of loneliness, despair, depression, anxiety, angst, and anger has grown to epidemic proportions. Even when our technology succeeds in holding off the external consequences of separation, we still internalize it as a wound, a separation from our own souls.

A final indication of the nature of the wound lies in the phenomenon of greed. When I ask my students the source of global problems such as pollution, they invariably cite greed, which they see as a fundamental characteristic of human nature that can be controlled but never eliminated. But greed like boredom is absent in most hunter-gatherer cultures based on a more open conception of self. Acquisitiveness is merely another attempt to fill the void and assuage the ache of separation, as if the accretion of more and more self, in the form of possessions, could compensate for the profound denial of self that is separation. Tellingly, we often use acquisitive metaphors for the ways we distract ourselves from the existential unease we call boredom: have a cigarette, have a drink, have something to do. It is by having as well that we strive for security, whether material—having possessions—or interpersonal, even to the extent of “having sex”. But of course, no matter how much accrues to the discrete and separate self, that self is still fundamentally alone in the universe.


[19] Sardar, Ziaduddin “Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West”. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge, 2000, p. 742.

[20] Hodgkinson, Tom. “A Philosophy of Boredom”, New Statesman, March 14, 2005. This is a review of Svendsen, Lars Fredrick. A Philosophy of Boredom. Reaktion Books, 2005. Translation by John Irons.

[21] Hinduism is similar to Buddhism in its explanation of suffering. As for Taoism, suffering could be said to result from ignorance of the Tao; that is, resisting the natural flow of life. This too is a form of separation.