The Zone


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.

Views: 116

Comment by koshersalaami on November 8, 2018 at 9:25pm

I once heard nirvana described kind of like that. The best description I ever heard of that was what it felt like when you were in the act of catching a ball. It’s all focus. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 9, 2018 at 4:47am

kosh, I think that's right. Nirvana comes with enlightenment, and enlightenment has been described as the "full comprehension of something".  In nirvana one's desires and suffering go away.  Can you find Nirvana weeding a garden?

Comment by J.P. Hart on November 9, 2018 at 8:26am

is a
Now if we could somehow get much of this ~ most beautiful Great Lake snowfall ever ~ to douse the horrific Paradise California flames, generally reverse the hurt and pain of Thousand Oaks, maybe essay if Albert Einstein would have split the atom if he were prescient~~~on and on we go, Dr. Rodney Roe!
Like the snow, we don't know, what we don't know.

Comment by marshall bjohnson on November 9, 2018 at 10:55am

your context is vital to your post- "there must be a purpose and a goal" so if your purpose here is to edify and enlighten perhaps you have, if your goal is to describe vs. show by example you may have succeeded, but if you wanted to be in flow with your actions the post most likely falls flat, again a failure of imagination is at play...doctors are usu. locked into the medical model of diagnose, treat, cure and repeat...but flow is a holistic endeavor and the 'goal' is in doing something well vs. a tangible result...ponder and be more with death and your limitations...then flow might come...ego (Easing God Out) is always the obstruction... 

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 9, 2018 at 3:03pm

Marshall, Elaine Pagels newest book, Why Religion, sounds like an interesting read.

I am not sure that I understand your comment. “Flow” under a variety of names, is central to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and even Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism appears to be the model to which Paul added Jesus in developing his model of Christianity. 

You seem to feel that any discussion of joy cannot happen or is invalid without first mentioning G-d. For others the divine is everywhere without being named.

As I said, flow is only one path to well being.

Comment by marshall bjohnson on November 9, 2018 at 3:22pm

Spiritual joy need not name god but w/out it any secular chasing of happiness will end in frustration and more self seeking...I never ask “why” and am always in relation to the divine:) 

Comment by Tom Cordle on November 9, 2018 at 5:31pm

I occasionally approach "the zone", when I write something I consider exceptional – at least for me. It's a kind of out of body experience, where you look up from the page and wonder "where did that come from?" I sometimes get their playing music as well, particularly when the musicians I'm playing with find a groove. The sure sign this is happening is that none of us want to end the song. Strange thing is, the same guys can be playing the same song the next night, and it just doesn't go anywhere.

Comment by Rodney Roe on November 9, 2018 at 7:00pm

Tom Cordle ~ I've never experienced that with music playing with someone else.  I think it takes a comfort level and familiarity with the music and the musicians that I have never had.

On the other hand, working on music myself, I've gotten there.

The pottery thing is like your musical experience.  Some days my head just wasn't there and I made crap.  Other days were like magic.  I've seen production potters get there making the same thing over and over.  I call them zen potters.

Comment by Ben Sen on November 10, 2018 at 8:26am

A lovely piece of memoir.  Appears to me to be written while you were in the "zone," too.  I felt the energy held by the words.  I can report similar experiences also attributed to meditation, as I think a lot of serious practitioners can.  Don't you think there's some "right" brain, "left" brain explanation?  I can see now where your gusto as a writer comes.  I don't think it happens by accident, though have known some very talented people who reach the zone readily, yet have no formal practice.

Comment by Ben Sen on November 10, 2018 at 8:45am

You've made me start to reflect: I've been fortunate, I guess, since I've reached the "zone" in a number of ways, writing, sculpting, drawing, acting (a recent development) dancing, in rituals, and in meditation itself, which for me is the most profound experience. While it isn't what makes the others possible, I think it definitely enhances them, which looks like it's your experience too.  I don't, however, always know when it's going to take over. It can be a problem if it becomes obsessional and other endeavors and obligations are left behind. That's happened to me as well.


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