In the zone

I wrote this after reading a newspaper report proclaiming how rarely even highly accomplished sportsmen and women experienced the sublimity of life “in the zone”

I talk to them, and find that they want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world, but the knowledge that they are so.

From the (seventeenth-century) letters of Dorothy Osborne.

I first came across this expression when I read a newspaper report of a tennis match during which the contestants, for short periods, played so sublimely they were considered to be "in the zone". This was described as a state of mind and body that few ordinary mortals could aspire to, during which the play, and the interaction between the two players, flowed so apparently effortlessly, and yet so flawlessly, it defied analysis.

Strangely enough, I felt I recognised an approximation of this state, not only from my own casual and infrequent tennis games, but other activities too. Far from being a phenomenon limited to sport professionals, it seemed to me it was available to anyone, anytime, since it was so clearly dependent on a particular balance of attention.

The state is widely recognised, but is generally considered to occur haphazardly, in unusual circumstances, when certain conditions are right conditions which supposedly can’t be forecast. It would seem at its most prevalent when events conspire to flood the senses, creating an acute awareness of what is going on, with at its centre ourselves, but leaving no spare attention for extraneous thought.

Presumably, this is why finding ourselves in the zone is relatively common during sport or adventure, when extremes are the norm; or else in unique circumstances, which demand our full attention. In semiautomatic living, which is what we are engaged in most of the time, awareness of ourselves and our surroundings is minimal and our minds are largely on other questions. For complex matters, we tend to concentrate, narrowing our attention and excluding even more from awareness. Only on special occasions or for truly demanding tasks, it seems, do we really come alive.

Although we will recognise when we are in this state, which is essentially one of direct sensory perception, and enjoy it while it lasts, we can only reflect on it and consider what it means once it is over. This is because, in order for it to happen at all, our normal train of thought must first have stopped. Most times, the condition ends prematurely, as soon as we start wondering how long it will go on for.

The exceptional nature of these experiences for humans is directly related to their infrequency and short duration. Unfortunately, the more out of the ordinary they seem, the more paltry by comparison we have to admit the rest of our lives are. If we were able to spend more of our time like this, it might be less immediately thrilling, but there would be a sense of heightened awareness overall.

It must be assumed that animals live in a version of the zone most of the time. Clearly, they neither enjoy the reflective pleasure we do in considering it exceptional, which for them it is not, nor suffer the problem of this knowledge precipitating its end. We are almost certainly born that way, too; but we quickly learn to leave the world of sensory experience behind, relegating it to relative unawareness, in order to concentrate on other aspects of our growing and evolving minds.

Although we call this process "becoming conscious", without its distracting influence it is difficult to imagine any animal behaving with less consciousness than us. All too often we are consumed with reflections and abstractions that are far removed from what we are doing, leaving us functioning like automatons. A horse grazing in a field is unlikely to be wishing it was somewhere else, or planning tomorrow; it knows where it is and what it is about, in the absence of any convincing reason not to.

Whether we subscribe to the view that animals are conscious in a way we once were but now can only aspire to, or we are conscious in a way animals can never be, the human faculty for higher forms of thought is what separates us from their world absolutely. These higher forms are essentially language based. Without the ability to conceptualise linguistically, we would find it as difficult as animals undoubtedly do to string more than two or three consecutive thoughts together.

Animals certainly think, very probably in the same predominantly pictorial, auditory, tactile ways we do; but they lack an inner voice to put these imaginings into context. Consequently, they cannot think about things in the abstract fashion we are used to; only of them, in the sense of something beyond their immediate perception becoming the focus of their attention. We call the animal inability to function at our multifarious level mindlessness, and deplore it, while at the same time hankering after the tranquility we believe it brings and commiserating with ourselves for having lost that.

If we accept evolution, this ability of ours must have been acquired gradually, enabling us to leave the animal world by stages; so that any rare instances of it in the earliest days will have seemed as extraordinary, because so vastly different, as their absence does now. The continuation of this learning process would probably have found us, at some point in time, uniformly at home both in our ability to consider ourselves and our world separately, and to experience them directly.

If today we were able to stop such thinking at will, for as long as we wanted, in order to enter more fully into whatever we were doing, and then start it again when we needed to, in order to consider and manipulate our environment, we might find we were not only happier and healthier, but also, being less neurotic, considering and manipulating that environment differently. As a result, our world could be a more pleasant place to live in.

Unfortunately, we seem to have managed to progress from the animal state, with its complete absence of what we understand as conscious thought, to our present day human state, where it is practically unceasing, without remembering how we got there. This blanket weight of cognition doesn’t alter the fact that a blueprint for living in the realm of direct sensory experience remains as much at our centre as it ever did, just as it does for all sentient creatures.

Accidental entry to this realm, which is what most humans have to rely on, seems to hinge on the creation and filling of a momentary vacuum, either when demanding circumstances silence our internal voice sufficiently to force a more immediate attention upon us; or when circumstances are so unusual we are transported by a radically changed perception.

What appears to happen at such moments is that one or more of our senses is suddenly overwhelmed and our questioning brain stops in its tracks, impressions flood in through every other sense and we become vibrantly alive. What triggers this is often something we are used to but suddenly see, hear, taste, smell or feel, as if for the first time. Standing in a garden on a beautiful day can organise our attention for us in this fashion. Bob sleighing, mountaineering, anything with an element of danger to it, will do the same, as will more prosaic activities requiring, or being given, our unconditional attention, just so long as we are sufficiently competent at them to avoid the necessity of having to consider, or think about, what we are doing.

It is in this state that cricketers are said to see the ball like a football and racing drivers claim if they were to reflect on their actions they would crash. Of course, they would need to have honed their inborn or acquired skill before any experience of it could be expected to be sublime; but they would also need to know how not to let undue reliance on technique prevent that sublimity from occuring.

Although such moments usually occur haphazardly, they should be more open to conscious emulation for most of us, even in stable circumstances, than a continual search for new or increasingly demanding challenges. One obvious way of experiencing life more fully is to behave as though each moment is our first, or last. This is what animals do, unknowingly, since they have little conception of a linear past or future; and it need be no pretence for us to do the same. All that is needed is for us to stop serial thought, even if only momentarily.

Unfortunately, trying to do this by an effort of will can amount to a severer repression of underlying sentience than that caused by such thinking itself. The alternative is for us to work directly at reopening our senses. Sensory perception, including proprioception, is what ultimately determines responses to stimuli, and is our interface with the world. In this case, there is no need to do anything, other than take in what is already present. It is unnecessary for us to try and stop our train of thought when that happens: it simply ceases to exist.

Knowing how to reopen our senses may seem a problem, but a far greater one lies in remembering to do so. Most of us would be astounded if we took the trouble to try this. Naturally, we would have difficulty getting through our days if we did not continue to exclude vast quantities of information from consciousness. It is only when we do this all the time, even while wanting not to, that it becomes inappropriate.

Wanting to stop thinking might seem to be in opposition to the spirit of Alexander work; but there is an essential difference between the sort of thought that enables us to organise our lives through the forming of intentions and the sort that allows us to experience life while holding those intentions in mind.

Thinking about something involves a complex series of imaginative processes; thinking of it can include one or more of these same processes, but in conjunction rather than succession. If, for example, we think of our front door, an image of it is all we are likely to be aware of; but as soon as we think about it, we may remember it lets in draughts, needs painting, squeaks on being opened, and is the entrance to a house we haven’t finished paying for.

Any intention to deal with these problems, or to behave in a particular way in another area of life, would itself be a thought of, rather than about, a plan of action. Although we can fulfill an intention while thinking about it – or of or about something else – it will be at the expense of our awareness, and probably the effectiveness, of what we are doing. If we want to maintain consciousness of our actions, which in its fullest sense would include consciousness of both where (our environment) and how (the "means whereby") we are carrying them out, we must avoid superfluous thought.

The same principle applies if we want to prevent the Alexandrian intent behind "thinking in activity" detracting from our enjoyment of that activity. As soon as we find ourselves considering, rather than experiencing, the process of inhibition and direction as it relates to life, it will no longer be a beneficial influence on our use so much as the cause of our lapsed attention.

For as long as that attention remains constant, and sufficiently widespread for us to be conscious of both where and how we are as well as what we are doing, we can expect a sharpening of perception generally. Because our senses are a unified whole rather than isolated mechanisms, the validity of what we feel kinesthetically will be matched by whatever we see, hear or touch. This should enable us, regardless of the actual state of our sensory appreciation, to enjoy an integrated consciousness. In other words, we will find ourselves in the zone

For those of us unfamiliar with Alexander work it is probable that by emphasising the direct experience of life through all our senses their gradual rehabilitation – including that of proprioception – will happen naturally. It would be unsuprising if this was the case, since a tendency towards homeostasis must exist; and if thinking about life is what has so disabled us for a proper appreciation of it, stopping that by returning our senses to consciousness should cause their reliablity to fall back into line.

Since such a process would also work in reverse, anyone enjoying the improving kinesthesia Alexander lessons promote could expect a commensurate quickening of their other senses. Even without lessons, by virtue of its insistence on our paying attention now, to as much that is going on as possible, the Technique would still constitute an invaluable discipline for anyone wanting to spend more of their time "in the zone".

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