In my younger years I marveled at people who were able to enter “the zone”. The zone was a state, usually enjoyed by very good athletes that enabled that person to perform above their usual level of play. We used to imagine that Michael Jordan was always in the zone. It was mythical, elusive, something that average athletes could only aspire to.
And then – using a technique recommended by a coach – I found it.
I’ll come back to that.
Lately, a state called “flow” has been talked about a lot. It’s not really new. It was named flow by psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in 1975. When you examine the elements of flow it is what was colloquially called the zone in athletics. Flow has been the central concept in several Eastern religions.
Csikszentmihaliyi compares it to the Greek concept of ecstasy which had a different meaning than today’s connotation of a state of bliss. Ecstasy literally meant beside oneself or removed from oneself. In that state, which requires complete focus, purpose with a known goal, a lack of distraction and active involvement in an activity that you enjoy, time seems suspended and there is a sense of personal fulfillment and joy.
It is not a state that you work directly toward. You engage in an activity that fits the criteria.
If you are old enough you may remember a saying that appeared on posters, buttons and t-shirts in the sixties and seventies; “Happiness is like a butterfly. If you try to catch it it will fly away. But when you are not looking for it, it will come and sit on your shoulder.” Flow is like that.
In retrospect I enjoyed it all of the time when I was working. I did, primarily, surgical pathology. If you ever had a biopsy, had a “mole” removed in the dermatologist’s office, or had surgery that involved the removal of some tissue or organ it was the surgical pathologist that examined that and rendered an opinion. Thanks to years of study and practice in residency most of the opinions are straightforward. However, nearly every day there are one or more cases that require study, additional tests and review of some area before an opinion is reached.
I usually buzzed through the tonsils, hernia sacs, gall bladders and the like and then came back to the hard cases. I loved those that required further thought. When I was involved in studying them and reading I was unaware of anything else. I often took a break and discovered that people had been in my office and left work or papers to sign and left without my ever knowing that they had been there. A couple of hours seemed like minutes.
Pottery was a hobby for years. When I was working at the wheel time ceased to exist.
I was never a great athlete. I was short, slight of build, and not designed for sports like football or basketball. I did have better than average hand eye coordination, though. When I was young my family hunted small game. Rabbit hunting was a group activity involving the family and my father’s friends, a pack of beagles put together by the group, and the rabbits killed ended up on the table.
My dad, asked about whether I was a hunter replied that I wasn’t much of a hunter, but I was a hell of a shot. My feelings were hurt, but it was true.
As an adult I took up skeet and trap shooting and sporting clays (sort of like golf with a shotgun) and got pretty good, but not great. I took lessons in which instructors worked on my technique. Finally, a coach and friend told me that he had taught me everything there was to learn about technique, and my technique was as good as that of anyone. My problem was in my head.
Dan recommended meditation and studying the Book of Five Rings, and I followed his advice. Go Rin No Sho (the Book of Five Rings) was written by a Samurai about fighting. I found my answer in the last chapter. No mind. No mind was the writer’s concept of flow. The first four parts were about practice, preparation and right living. The fifth “ring” was the concept of trusting your body to do what was needed once you had had enough practice. When you went into a fight thinking could get you killed. You needed to trust your practice.
A Samurai fight was brutal and over in seconds with someone dead.
I was thinking too much. I needed to trust my training, practice and experience.
The meditation was used to help me relax and get into the zone. I used breathing as the means of becoming focused in meditation. What I focused on was not letting stray thoughts in. ( “You can’t do this.” “This kind of target has always caused you trouble.” “You’ve made it to a shoot off. You’ll blow it now.”)
In practice I didn’t think about my score. I shot one target at a time with no thought of the last one or the one to come. On one occasion I showed up for practice and at the first sporting clays station I missed five of the ten targets. I was still working on a problem at work and not focused. Over the next nine stations of ten each I just shot one target at a time. When we finished I couldn’t remember anything that had happened and had no idea what my score was. I had broken the remaining ninety targets and the other guys in my group told me it looked effortless.
At the next tournament I kept score, but I didn’t think about it. On one station which featured a type of target that once caused panic, I stepped up to the line, took three deep breaths, got centered, and broke all of the targets. I would like to tell you that I had a perfect score – I didn’t – but I shot better than usual. Shortly after that I lost my vision, so I didn’t get a chance to see if that improvement would last.
My point in all of this is that it is possible to find flow everywhere; golf, bowling, pottery, painting or just about any activity that is active. You can’t find it watching television or taking a bath. One needs to be engaged in an activity that is enjoyable, challenging, and understandable. That is there needs to be a purpose and a goal.
In the pursuit of happiness flow is important. It is not the only thing that can bring happiness, but it is one, and it is achievable by anyone.