To be bored or not to be bored…

Here’s a thought: is boring–the state of having nothing to do and being unhappy about it– a bad thing? Or is it necessary and useful to our creativity? How we define “boring” says a lot about us. One man’s boring afternoon is another man’s idea of a day well spent: recently I went for a long, and slow, walk through a nearby park. I didn’t bring a camera, or even my cell phone, and I paid particular attention to the sounds around me: the wind rustling dried leaves, two eagles atop a dead Douglas Fir, and down on the beach, the gentle plash of waves along the shore. An Oystercatcher cried over and over as it flew out over the water, banked, and returned to shore: what had startled it? Not quiet, slow-walking me! Do non-human animals ever feel bored?


Had I been walking with a certain friend, he might have found this quietness, this lack of conversation, uncomfortable. He might have–well, I know he would have–talked, and so I would have talked, and we would have spent the entire walk talking. Which is not a bad thing, just a different experience.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “boring” because my job–a city bus driver–is, let’s face it, just driving the same routes day in and out, albeit with the variations in traffic, passengers, weather and so on. So bus driving is anything but boring in one way, and I have to keep on top of these rapidly changing environmental, engineering and sociological conditions in order not to have an “incident” (which is an accident but can also be less, or more, than an accident: clipping a side mirror on a pole, or having a passenger lose their footing as they alight from the bus because I didn’t pull in close enough to the curb). But to someone else, driving elongated loops of an hour’s duration each loop might be their definition of boring.

Driving attentively is ANYTHING but boring…as video artist Ron Gabriel cleverly shows us:

So I think one trick or technique is to reframe perception. To examine something by turning it, or our perception of it, inside out, or upside down. I’ve already mentioned some of the conditions I have to be aware of, every minute I’m on the job driving a city bus. In a way it is occupational mindfulness, a complete immersion in the here and now, without time to muse about other, non-driving, non-present things in my life. Is this what the assembly-line worker feels? The guard? The copy editor or even the airline pilot, most of whose time is spent in a computerized, fly-by-wire and essentially self-regulating, self-flying machine?

Airbus A-330 cockpit

Airbus A-330 cockpit

We define something uninteresting or unexciting as boring, but to do this, we make it comparative with another activity or thing–movie, book, concert–which was “not boring.”  Buddhist philosophy suggests that the way we frame our day to day lives, and the moments within those days, is all there is to life: the past is gone, the future yet to be experienced. Thus, to be bored is to be uninvolved in life, to be thinking about something else rather than involving ourselves IN THE PRESENT. How can the present be boring if we are fully engaged with it? If our attention is on each moment as it occurs, there is no time to be bored. This is why, I think, children have an advantage over us. Whether apparently lying idly on a lawn, face upward to the sky, or moving a toy about the floor, they are actively engaged with their present moment, and time passes by differently for them than it does for us.

Meditation is anything but boring, although it involves doing nothing and thinking nothing: or rather, letting go of all the thoughts that invariably flit in and out of the mind. Image:

Meditation is anything but boring, although it involves doing nothing and thinking nothing: or rather, letting go of all the thoughts that invariably flit in and out of the mind. Image:

In his paper “Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hiddent Value of Empty Time and Boredom” Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries* makes the point that “doing nothing can be the prelude to bursts of creativity,” but that being seen to be doing nothing, or apparently nothing, is unacceptable to others, it suggests laziness and lack of ambition. The need for continual stimulation has led us to the repetitive and mostly useless actions of email or text-checking at the slightest hint we might be bored. Rather, de Vries suggests,

Reframed differently, boredom can be seen as a liminal space, a critical resource that pushes us to seek the unfamiliar. Being bored can help us to develop a rich inner life and become more creative.

We perceive time by the way our brain handles sensory inputs, in a holistic or holographic kind of whole-brain process: when something is novel or we perceive it as dangerous/stimulating, not only are more areas actively involved, but the processing time is greater than for something we have experienced before. It seems counter intuitive: the more interesting the event, the more time it seems to take up; the less interesting, the for the very young, everything is new and time feels expanded: that stretch of time on Christmas Eve, for instance; while for the adult, much of life is repetitive, “been there done that” sort of thinking, which makes time speed up. But wouldn’t a boring activity, one that holds little or no novelty, then apparently take less time than one which fully engages us? It seems that the brain’s sense of time has more than one measure: there is the measure of heartbeats, the measure of the external diurnal cycle, the electro-mechanical measurement of quartz-crystal vibrations in our watches and the time we sense on a longer scale, of our body’s aging, of hunger, of pain or pleasure.

Dr. Jeremy Dean, in a Psyblog article on time perception (see link below), notes that–

People often say the years pass more quickly as they get older. While youthful summers seemed to stretch on into infinity, the summers of your later years zip by in the blink of an eye.

A common explanation for this is that everything is new when we are young so we pay more attention; consequently it feels like time expands. With age, though, new experiences diminish and it tends to be more of the same, so time seems to pass more quickly.

Which leads me to consider, as I move through my fifties, how I might alter the perception (and I’ve definitely felt it) of time passing more quickly, of the rapidity of spring-into-summer-into fall, by paying more attention to the everyday, the very things I’ve experienced, seen, smelled, heard and touched thousands of times already.

How, I wonder, does boredom fit into the perception of passing time, or of us passing through time? Or does the sensation of time create an interesting or a boring reaction to a situation? One study suggests that it is the psychological reaction to the apparent length of time of something happening that determines whether or not we think of it as an engaging, fun exercise or dull and rote (Aaron M. Sackett et al, The Hedonic Consquences of Subjective Time Progression. Psychological Science January 2010 vol. 21 no. 1 111-117
Were you bored today? What was it about the day, or the activity (or lack of) that made you feel bored?

and a book by Claudia Hammond:
* Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries is Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD,
Boulevard de Constance, 77305 Fontainebleau Cedex, France. The paper is available to download:

African Voices and Colonialism

by Syed Uddin-Ahmed. download this paper: African Voices

Syed is a Doctoral Candidate in Modern World History at St. John’s University. He received an MA in Modern World History from St. Johns University in 2013, an MA in Public Policy and International Affairs from William Paterson University in 2010, and Bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Geography & Urban Studies in 2007. He teaches courses at several institutions, including Rutgers University, St. John’s University, and William Paterson University. 


West African Slaves



The European Colonization of Africa had a devastating impact on Africa in terms of the brutal economic, political, and social oppression the continent experienced. Colonialism was a dark and tragic period in its history as many of the original customs, traditions, religions, tribes, and social orders would be severely torn from their space of existence. Arguably this trauma or shock in its history crippled our own understanding of Africa even today. Most of the records of this period came exclusively from European sources, which had left the African voice missing from the conversation.

There was an undeniable gap in what the Europeans perceived was going and what an African might have felt about colonization. Also, with the slavery experience the objectivity of a European writer becomes questionable because it left a cleavage in the narrative. This was because events occurred in a given space but, each group could have had very different takes on what had occurred. It would be difficult to look at a history of Africa that in this period that had an African voice included in the dialogue.

Furthermore, without having an African voice in the dialogue about colonialism we could not have a full narrative. This could not be done without giving agency to their plight. Without giving agency to their voices and painful memories of slavery you could-not get a complete understanding of what occurred in different spaces throughout Africa. We need to review what kind of impact this experience would have had on an African to truly understand this trauma. Unfortunately, many of the Europeans who recorded the events in Africa at this time did not know how to speak many of ethnic languages of the different tribes that had lived there for ages. Without any knowledge of the native’s languages and customs we have identified a fatal flaw with these writers. The European writers had “Orientalized” Africans by lumping or combining together all Africans into a one size fits all label. This does not work because in any one village there can be multiple dialects, practices, religions, tribes, and traditions.

The majority of descriptions of Africans have been from a Western perspective which did not always take into consideration the different dynamics of African culture and society. Western thought cannot be applied to this society because Western theories will often misjudge certain aspects of these societies as being backwards or not developed. It led to a level of “Orientalism” that turned Africa into a social science project. For example, many of the Europeans writers took for granted that these tribes which they often portrayed as having no monetary system might use systems of barter and trade.


Two papers by Stephen Duguid

Links to two papers recently uploaded to by Dr. Stephen Duguid, the former director of Simon Fraser University’s Graduate Liberal Studies program. Dr. Duguid is the author of Can Prisons Work? The Prisoner as Object and Subject in Modern Corrections (University of Toronto, 2000) and Nature in Modernity: Servant, Citizen, Queen or Comrade (Peter Lang Publishing, 2010). He is also a former Humanities chair and director of the Graduate Liberal Studies program at SFU–and a good friend.

What Works in Prison Education

Human Nature, Compassion, Empathy


Current Thoughts on Human Nature, Compassion and Empathy



There is a long-standing and cross cultural tradition in human culture that their exists at the very core of ‘humanness’ the qualities of compassion and sympathy and that these qualities, if properly nurtured can in turn lead to certain practices in human behaviour such as empathy, reciprocity, mutuality, caring, respect and development of a symbiotic relation to an ‘other’.

Charles_Darwin_by_G._Richmond. File: Wikimedia Commons.

Charles_Darwin_by_G._Richmond. File: Wikimedia Commons.

I argue in focusing on these two qualities that they are part of each of us, that they are innate. These qualities are the tools we acquired through thousands of years of natural selection, acquired because they “worked”, they helped make us, despite obvious vulnerabilities, a successful species. No satisfactory explanation of human nature was possible before Darwin:

“….because human nature is the product of evolution. The human mind and body are adaptations to the challenges we faced as members of the small hunter-gatherer bands that uniquely defined human existence until some 10,000 years ago…..We now know that, by the principle of natural selection, living creatures have fitness-maximizing, genetically based behavioral repertoires. In particular we recognize that human beings are designed to make choices that maximize their biological fitness, not under contemporary conditions, but under the hunter-gatherer conditions in which we evolved.”[1]


What made compassion and sympathy the key to the success of our species are to be found in what Stanford Neo-Darwinian Biologist Joan Roughgarden calls our ‘Genial Genes’, arguing that the notorious selfish genes championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins[2] are less dominant than we have been led to believe, that our ‘will to survive’ has always been based more on cooperation than ego-driven aggression. It was our ‘embodied vulnerability’, what we share with all other animals, that Jacques Derrida argues calls into question the much vaunted power of the ego and creates a pragmatic dependence on cooperation.[3]

It is supposed by anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss that the initial genetically derived predisposition that natural selection ‘chose’ was the early humans’ identification with “…any living creature because it is alive”, and this intuitive feeling for other ‘feeling beings’ come prior to the more evolved identification predominately with other humans.[4] As in the extreme case of psychopaths and the wider evidence of repression or avoidance of such empathetic identification, it is only a predisposition to “..prefer justice to injustice, to deplore cruelty, to sympathize with distress, to foster the well-being of their kin and – more fragilely, on their non-kin too. For these predispositions to become manifest or even universal they need to be nurtured and shaped by the society we live in.[5]

But this raises an immediate objection since simple observation of some humans seems to contradict the presence of these qualities. There are individuals in our cultures who seem to lack the physiological capacity for empathy “…and the emotional arousal apparently required for moral judgment”– in extreme cases we refer to them as psychopaths.[6] These extreme cases should not, however, distract us from the more common phenomenon of repression nor the almost universal presence of these qualities across human cultures.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Relying on metaphysics rather than genes, moral philosophers of earlier times such as Michel Montaigne, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, the Confucian scholar Mencius and even Adam Smith built a persuasive philosophical case that compassion and sympathy, operating through a conscience that was innate in each of us, was at the core of our ‘human nature’. Whether originating in a religious or cultural frame, we were born with the potential of what was often described as ‘goodness’ a behavioural disposition that could only be corrupted by a perverse set of social circumstances. In a sense, then, psychopaths aside, to be cruel on unfeeling required over-riding these innate qualities and their operational practices.

To read on: download this paper at


Free Access to University Libraries

Stanford Green Library's Lane Reading Room

Stanford Green Library’s Lane Reading Room

In the May 22, 2014 edition of the New York Review of Books, an article by Robert Darnton rather cheesily entitled “A World Digital Library is Coming True!” warns that:

All over the country research libraries are canceling [sic] subscriptions to academic journals, because they are caught between decreasing budgets and increasing costs. The logic of the bottom line is inescapable, but there is a higher logic that deserves consideration—namely, that the public should have access to knowledge produced with public funds….

The struggle over academic journals should not be dismissed as an “academic question,” because a great deal is at stake. Access to research drives large sectors of the economy—the freer and quicker the access, the more powerful its effect. The Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion in federal funds to develop, and thanks to the free accessibility of the results, it has already produced $796 billion in commercial applications. Linux, the free, open-source software system, has brought in billions in revenue for many companies, including Google. Less spectacular but more widespread is the multiplier effect of free information on small and medium businesses that cannot afford to pay for information hoarded behind subscription walls….

Yet accessibility may decrease, because the price of journals has escalated so disastrously that libraries—and also hospitals, small-scale laboratories, and data-driven enterprises—are canceling subscriptions. Publishers respond by charging still more to institutions with budgets strong enough to carry the additional weight. But the system is breaking down. In 2010, when the Nature Publishing Group told the University of California that it would increase the price of its sixty-seven journals by 400 percent, the libraries stood their ground, and the faculty, which had contributed 5,300 articles to those journals during the previous six years, began to organize a boycott….

As an alumnus of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, I still have access to online journals and the entire SFU library from within the campus, but  access is limited for off-campus computers when I use my alumni ID and password (eg. JSTOR can’t be accessed, while Project MUSE can).

Alumni have limited access to online resources remotely.  Our license agreements with vendors often restrict this access, or the cost of adding alumni access is prohibitive. — email from Janice Banser, E-resources Access & Systems Librarian, Simon Fraser University Library

“It should be possible,” Darnton suggests, “to enlist vested interests in a solution that will serve the public interest, not by appealing to altruism but rather by rethinking business plans in ways that will make the most of modern technology.”

Darnton notes there are some open-source initiatives (the hyperlinks are mine):

The Harvard Open-Access Publishing Equity (HOPE

The Compact for Open-access Publishing Equity (sponsored by several institutions including Harvard, MIT, University of California at Berkeley)

DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard)

Open Edition Books, based in Marseille

Open Book Publishers, free online access to books in the humanities, out of Cambridge, England

Digital Public Library of America with such a great URL I want to make it visible: <;

Source: (May 24 2014)

Source: (May 24 2014)

In describing this last service, promoting which seems to be his article’s raison d’être, Darnton writes

Aside from its not-for-profit character, the DPLA differs from Google Book Search in a crucial respect: it is not a vertical organization erected on a database of its own. It is a distributed, horizontal system, which links digital collections already in the possession of the participating institutions, and it does so by means of a technological infrastructure that makes them instantly available to the user with one click on an electronic device. It is fundamentally horizontal, both in organization and in spirit.

He cautions that lobbyists from the major academic journal publishers (Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer are the three largest) continue to stymie efforts in the U.S. and Europe to make publicly-funded research (that is, taxpayer-funded) freely available to the people who paid for it. We have to counter this by supporting those new, bold initiatives, and demand from our university and college libraries, as current students and as alumni, unfettered access to their subscription services. My university continues its alumni outreach with frequent emails about events on its campuses, and requests for funding from time to time; in return, I would like the reinstatement of those privileges of online access I had when I was registered as a graduate student and teaching assistant.

I think it is high time that universities made their library collections and subscriptions universally available to alumni, no matter where they are. I still continue research and writing, but from home. Do you, as an alumnus, have unfettered access to your university/college library and its holdings and subscriptions, off-campus? 







Goodbye and good luck,

…as Edward R. Murrow famously closed each nightly broadcast in the early days of TV news. We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot How often we blindly grab a quote from, Quoteland or the venerable, paste it into our essays as an epigraph and assume it’s erudition will somehow elevate our writing by osmosis! This well-known four lines from Eliot’s The Little Gidding, which was the fourth of his Four Quartets, first published in The New English Weekly  in October 1942, not long after the Blitz in London and surrounding areas. Every Londoner who read it then could relate to its themes of trial by fire, purgation and redemption. But I should have typed it thus: We shall not cease from exploration/ and the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time. Or as

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

Reading only these lines, and not knowing it came from a long poem, one would make the assumption this was a statement Eliot had made about the human condition. Reading The Little Gidding presents an altogether different context, one in which Christianity, destruction, and a ghost feature. 2014-03-19 15.28.47This post was originally dated April 4, 2014; at that time I wrote that I was ceasing publication, but a month later changed my mind, and although I am not actively promoting it, Coastline Journal  continues to welcome and publish essays from current students and alumni of graduate Liberal Studies (and similar, interdisciplinary) programs contributors across North America. For example the essay by Syed Uddin-Ahmed on African Voices and Colonialism.

Bookmark our new URL:

For those of you who wish to learn how to craft better papers, I recommend purchasing any or all three of these excellent books: Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several short sentences about writing. New York: Random House/Vintage, 2013. Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s WorkshopNew York: Random House/Modern Library, 2003. Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.


Hekate: Bringer of Light

By Shelly M. Nixon, California Institute of Integral Studies

In this paper, the author explores the origins, associations, and functions of the ancient goddess Hekate.  The roles of Hekate in the myth of Demeter and Persephone are discussed, as are Hekate’s place in the Eleusinian Mysteries.  Finally, the author describes her own personal relationship to the goddess Hekate.

download a pdf of this essay: Hekate


Few days have gone by in the past months in which I did not ponder how to write this paper.  (I have nine and a half pages of handwritten notes and corresponding references sitting in a folder next to me that I have been carrying around since November of 2012.)  I cannot say precisely what the holdup is, nor why my motivation seems to have gone the way of the subject itself — dried up and covered over by the minutes, seconds, hours that make up time.  I could make excuses about my extended grief over unjustly losing my job and the resulting financial hardship and loneliness that have plagued me.  I could also blame the lack of multiple computers and my father’s tendency to dominate the only functioning one, my laptop.  Of course anxiety and depression are constants in my life, as are self-doubt and self-loathing.  Yet I believe the most plausible explanation is the subject itself.  I have never had easy mother-daughter relationships: my adopted mother Rose and I continue to struggle to understand and express love to one another, and I have never met the woman who at such a young age, gave birth to me and then surrendered me to the state of Michigan.  Nor do I have children of my own, save my cats and former students; whether or not this is a result of the circumstances of my own birth is debatable.

Nonetheless, I feel like fraud incorporating the tale of a grieving mother and a lost daughter in an emotionally meaningful way that translates into an adequate academic piece.  I find, instead, that the aspect of the tale and mysteries of the Demeter/Persephone narrative that I am most drawn to and intrigued by is the role of Hekate.  It is through her that I find my way in to the myth that actually feels authentic.  Hekate is a complex goddess, taking on multiple aspects: “Hekate was worshipped in five primary roles … Propylaia (Guardian), Propolos (Guide and Companion), Phosphoros (Light-Bringer), Kourotrophos (Goddess of Women), and Chthonia (Goddess of the Underworld)” (Rose, 2001, p. 174).  Indeed, “Hekate is an all-encompassing deity, representing both good and evil, the rational and irrational, the celestial and chthonic” (Winkle, 2002, p. 81).  She has also served as an inspiration and patron during this dark time in my life.


Hell, as in going to

If you’re going to read Lynn Coady‘s Hellgoing, a collection of short stories which just won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is, actually, a pretty Big Deal up here in Canada, with the attendant and expected boost in sales concomittant with the drop in the price of the book (at least, online), if you’re going to read Coady’s book, I say, it is recommended to do it with a drink.


A drink of something alcoholic. I don’t say this AS an alcoholic: far from it, I’m rarely with a drink, and can only take a glass or two of white wine, or a few ounces of Scotch, and I’m good. I mean, I’m not good, I’m all right, but if I took more, or, let’s say, I made the mistake, made so many many times in the past, of accepting a glass of red wine, I will enjoy it, yes, but will wake the next day with not a hangover, per se, technically it is not a hangover but a monstrosity of a fucking migraine which will incapacitate me until precisely 1500 hrs at which point I will arise from my bed, or couch, return the icepack to the freezer, splash cold water on my face, and resume the day. So no: I don’t count myself among the drinking establishment. I don’t count myself a drinker at all, but if, as I began here, if you are going to read Hellgoing, I think it a fine idea to have yourself a drink at hand. (more…)


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