The Zone


Have you heard of the zone? It’s a state of mind sometimes called “flow state.” Humans experience this state when they get really absorbed in an activity such as sports, music, art, computer programming, gaming, and so forth. It is the mad scientist’s state of mind when he is so absorbed in his invention that he hasn’t eaten, washed, or slept in three days; it is the child’s state of mind when she is so absorbed in playing that she doesn’t realise that she is hungry or tired; and it is the Starcraft champion’s state of mind when he is playing the computer game so intensely, executing ten actions per second, hammering the mouse and keyboard, ultimately defeating his opponent through superior focus and micro, but being forced to retire at the age of twenty-five because his reflexes are no longer quick enough. (In Starcraft, micro is the ability to win an otherwise unwinnable engagement by simultaneously micro-managing over one hundred units in the game to use each unit to its maximum potential. It requires extremely quick reflexes).

If you have experienced the zone, then you know it is blissfully absorbing. Your attention is completely removed from anything else. You are fully in the moment, outside reality or the passage of time, and your mind detaches from your body. The zone produces an inner clarity, the activity you are doing becomes its own rewards, and you feel fantastic. The following quote gives an example of someone in such a state.

“I felt as though I was driving in a tunnel. I had reached such a high level of concentration that it was as if the car and I had become one.” —Ayrton Senna (Formula One race car driver, 1960–1994)

Scientific research, particularly Dr Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s at Claremont University, has shown that the human mind can process only so much information at any one time. If we intensely focus on one task, then there is no attention left to monitor anything else. For example, if you intensely focus deeply on Starcraft, then your mind doesn’t have the capacity to worry about insignificant problems like hunger and thirst. All your problems go away (temporarily), and you feel great.

Dr Csíkszentmihályi’s research has shown that we can best obtain a state of flow when we are doing a very challenging activity that we are very skilled at, while other activities are less ideal for obtaining this state. State

Low challenge, low skill: Suppose someone asks you to turn the lights off and on five hundred times in a row. Pretty easy to do, right? At the same time, I bet it isn’t something that you have practised before or find very interesting. So, you would get very bored very quickly, doing this activity.

Low challenge, high skill: Imagine the world’s fastest clapper (search for him on YouTube). The man can clap his hands faster than anyone alive. He is very skilled at hand clapping. I bet he has practised for years. Still, clapping your hands isn’t something particularly difficult. The clapper finds clapping his hands easy, relaxing, and fun but doesn’t easily get into the zone.

High challenge, low skill: You are the only passenger on a small airplane and the pilot has a heart attack. You have no idea how to fly a plane, and flying is hard. You are in total anxiety; no chance of the zone here.

High challenge, high skill: You are an amazing mountain climber; you can climb a cliff face with no chance of falling off. Climbing a cliff requires a huge amount of skill and focus, even for an expert. If you are such an expert, then this is an ideal activity for entering flow state.

Free-solo climber climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

I can get into the zone while running. A few months ago I ran the Wellington Round the Bays half marathon. It was a wonderfully fun experience for me; I got into the zone and was smiling almost the entire marathon. However, I observed that for most of the other runners, the experience of running seemed more of a chore, perhaps something they had to do to lose weight, a process more akin to torture than fun, something that definitely did not lead them into the zone. Such runners wore very pained expressions on their faces during the race.

That’s me in the front running the half-marathon

I’ve been practising the ancient scientific process of Krishna Consciousness for the last thirteen years. Part of this process involves daily meditation called japa, quiet chanting of sanskrit mantra on beads. Keeping the mind focused on the mantra is something that requires a lot of skill, as the mind is very difficult to control. I can also sometimes enter the zone while chanting, and, as a result, my worries, thoughts, and material desires melt away.

Many Eastern teachings, including the art and science of Krishna Consciousness, explain that we are not the body, but are, in fact, beings of pure spiritual consciousness. The zone closely resembles our original state of pure consciousness and is therefore a state of such great happiness.

Zone consciousness involves no lamenting about the past and no hankering for the future. Hankering and lamenting are great sources of anxiety for many people, and they find great pleasure in relief from such feelings. In our constitutional spiritual position, there is no hankering and lamenting, and the zone can give us a hint of that position.

The zone is not, however, automatically a spiritual experience. It can be spiritual, but, more often than not, it is simply the material mind getting absorbed in a material activity without any direct spiritual connection. Depending on one’s consciousness or purpose, a zone-inducing activity can either be spiritual or material. There is nothing inherently spiritual about writing a book, for example, but when a saint writes a spiritual tome of knowledge, then such activity is certainly spiritual. Let us look at a quote from the author of the Caitanya-caritamrita (a biography of the Indian saint and incarnation Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu) where he describes how he is in the zone while writing:

I have now become too old and disturbed by invalidity. While I write, my hands tremble. I cannot remember anything, nor can I see or hear properly. Still I write, and this is a great wonder. – Krsnadasa Kaviraja Goswami (Bengali saint and author, 15th century)
For all its wonders, there are some problems with the zone. For one, you can’t enter the zone whenever you like, it is difficult to get into. It requires an activity that you are very skilled at and that is highly challenging at the same time. Such activities are hard to come by and require lots of time to master. Furthermore, the zone is a temporary state. You might loose track of time for a while, but sooner or later you emerge from the zone and enter back into mundane reality—the bills, the work, the routine.

The yoga texts of ancient India elaborately describe the Krishna conscious path into the zone. The texts present a practice of meditation that leads to greater and greater absorption in relationship with the Supreme Consciousness, to Krishna Consciousness. This path starts with hearing sacred sound vibration, then repeating such sounds as you have heard them. This repetition can be done either quietly in japa meditation, or loudly in kirtan singing. The more you repeat the sacred mantras, the more they embed themselves into your consciousness. Soon, as you start to remember them throughout the day, your mood lifts. With determined practice, the mantras (sounds that represent the many names of the Supreme) become second nature, until you remember them in every situation. Prolonged practice of such Krishna consciousness leads to a state known as samadhi, pure spiritual trance, or fully awakened consciousness. In that state you completely understand your relationship to the Supreme and inhabit a body made of pure spiritual consciousness. You are no longer of this material world. You are completely happy, fully and permanently in the spiritual zone.

In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the Self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact. —Bhagavad-gita 6.20 (ancient spiritual literature, 3000 B.C.)

Below are links to some amazing videos of Alex Honnold, supremely expert free-solo climber. He climbs vertical walls without any tools, ropes, or support, reliably entering into the zone when he climbs and finding great happiness in that state. Alex has an amazing skill, and I have the greatest respect for him. Still, as you watch the videos (notice your hands start to sweat as you watch), think about how you might find a safer, easier, and more accessible path into the zone by seeking out a friendly group of like-minded spiritual practitioners, practitioners engaged in a bona fide meditation practice, practitioners chanting japa and kirtan, practitioners on their way into samadhi.

60-minutes report on Alex Honnold:
Short version of “Alone on a Wall”:
Full version of “Alone on a Wall”:

Alex Honnold climbing a wall
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