Norwegian television embarked on an odd experiment several years ago when it aired a seven-and-a-half hour-long program showing a train traveling across the country from Bergen to Oslo. That’s it – just footage from the train.
Granted, it showed some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. Snow-capped mountains. Verdant valleys. Flowing rivers. But seven and a half hours of the stuff? To everyone’s surprise nearly a quarter of Norway’s population or 1.5 million people tuned in. The show was so successful that similar programming – 12 hours of knitting anyone? – has aired since, creating a movement called “slow television.”
I could offer a number of theories as to why slow T.V. is a hit. Watching beautiful scenery even if it’s on a television screen provides a hypnotic oasis of calm in an otherwise frenzied world. I suppose, though less understandably, so does knitting.
But I have another theory. Something magical happens when you embrace things that on the surface are patently boring. You stumble upon contentment.
Underneath the presumed monotony of life’s less exciting moments lies that subtle yet often sought after feeling of ease. It’s the sand at the bottom of the ocean. It’s always there. But it’s hard to see when we’re thrashing in the surf.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert has said that everything interesting and meaningful in life is also boring. Marriage? About 90% of it is boring. Work? A snooze. Parenting? Booorrring!
The earnest acknowledgement that most of life falls solidly between the lines of ecstasy and misery is not only freeing but gratifying. Without the anvil of expectation weighing you down, you can settle in a bit more and enjoy the ride. Your capacity to become interested and even fascinated with the banal moments of life expands. Slowly, but steadily the experience of so-called boredom becomes not only tolerable but at times a welcome friend.
Next time you feel fidgety because nothing is happening, don’t reach for the cell phone. Don’t open the fridge looking for edible entertainment. Stay with the boredom for a while and see what lies underneath. It may or may not be contentment – at least not at first. Petty frustration. Anger. Sadness. Who knows what you’ll find as you sink to the bottom of your experience.
Getting to know boredom is a mindfulness practice. It takes time for the modern brain to winnow its addiction to stimuli. But the more you embrace the subtleties of a “neutral” moment, the more you’ll feel at home in your own skin. You might even find yourself tuning into Norwegian slow T.V. All of which can now be streamed on Netflix under Slow T.V.
On my mind
Perhaps, not surprisingly, for a book about attention Mathew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction requires the focus of a watchmaker to read and fully grasp.
But once grasped the philosopher’s indictment of the societal weakening of one of our most intimate faculties – our ability to pay attention – should give us all pause.
Crawford’s searing prose details the many costs of our fractured attention. Not the least of which is the slow drip of disconnection we feel from each other.
Emphasizing this point, Crawford plucks these lines from writer Jonathan Franzen and then extrapolates: “Walking up Third Avenue on a Saturday night, I feel bereft. All around me, attractive young people are hunched over their StarTacs and Nokias with preoccupied expressions, as if probing a sore tooth….All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen.” A public space where people are not self-enclosed, in the heightened way that happens when our minds are elsewhere than our bodies, may feel rich with possibility for spontaneous encounters. Even if we do not converse with others, our mutual reticence is experienced as reticence if our attention is not otherwise bound up, but is rather free to a light upon each other and linger or not, because we ourselves are free to pay out our attention in deliberate measures.”
In other words, next time you walk down the street smile and even say hello to those you meet.
What happens when kids get together and focus on a shared enterprise? In the case of the non-profit Louisville Leopard Percussionists, the answer is an utterly novel and joyous rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Have a listen here: