The first boyfriend I had after moving to New York refused to walk up escalators in subway stations, calling it “a little vacation.” To me, this was wildly annoying, especially when I was in a hurry. As it turns out, that infuriating feeling I had while stuck just standing there wasn’t disdain for my ex — that was my hot boredom talking.
Although it sounds like a phrase used to describe Zoolander-esque model poses, “hot boredom” was coined by Tibetan-Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa, a key figure in the popularization of Buddhism in the 1970s in the U.S. In one of his many posthumously published books, Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends with Yourself Through Meditation and Everyday Awareness, Trungpa described “hot boredom” as the sense of “being locked in a padded cell. You are bored, miserable and irritated.” In modern terms, hot boredom is that internal groan when you’re in line at the DMV or stuck on the airport tarmac, and your phone dies and there’s not a book, magazine or any source of distraction within reach. At its worst, it can feel almost physically painful.
“We’ve created so many distractions in our everyday environment — social media notifications, scrolling the web, socializing endlessly, shopping [methods] that generations before us did not have,” explains meditation practitioner and mindset expert Dipal Shah. Thus, when faced with an unwanted sense of stillness, “we feel like we might explode. Our hyperactive lifestyles and constant mind chattering have forced us to develop an allergy to sitting in stillness.”
Although hot boredom may be an “allergy,” it’s not innate. Rather, hot boredom is something we pick up over time through being socially conditioned to work hard, perform well and push through at all costs. Unfortunately, an unforeseen cost of this always-on mindset is that those brief moments of quiet — when we should be resting, resetting and recharging — feel fucking excruciating, putting our bodies under even more unnecessary stress.
Meditation teacher and executive coach Michael O’Brien has found that hot boredom is a common struggle people encounter when they first try to meditate. A big part of getting past it is learning to sit with that discomfort instead. “Don’t resist it because when we allow for hot boredom to exist, we give ourselves the possibility of transiting to the spaciousness of cool boredom.”
Shah echoes the sentiment that in order to move beyond hot boredom, you have to feel it burn a bit first. Also like O’Brien, she stresses the importance of sticking with it, even if you “feel like you’re going to blow up like a pressure cooker,” she says. Beyond that, she recommends giving yourself about 21 days to practice consciously sitting with hot boredom, and eventually, the irritation will cool off.
Trungpa described cool boredom as the idyllic opposite, and a central goal of meditation overall. “Cool boredom is quite spacious, and it creates further softness and sympathy toward ourselves. In that space, we are no longer afraid of allowing ourselves to experience a gap,” he wrote in Mindfulness in Action. “In other words, we realize that existence does not depend on constantly cranking up our egomaniacal machine. There is another way of existing.”
At first, it may sound like something you’d find on an inspirational TikTok or Yogi Tea bag, but cool boredom is basically the realization that “we don’t always have to be spinning away,” O’Brien explains. If we get stuck in line, “we can make space for stillness, and this moment in time calls for us to slow down.” While this acceptance may seem to slow us down at first, it ultimately conserves our resources and is “the best way to go fast.”
So the next time I’m stuck standing on an escalator, I may not fully meditate, but I can at least remember that boredom isn’t a good or bad thing — it’s just best served cold.