You already know what the flow is; you’ve probably experienced it several times by accident. The trick is being able to call it up at will and prolong it, to make it a part of your life.
The flow or the zone is all about focus, motion, and intention. Those pristine moments occur when the ego fades into the overall sway and movement of things.
Usually we isolate our focus from everything we’re focusing on. We put ourselves “over here” and whatever we’re doing or whatever’s happening “over there.” This creates a kind of gap between you and what you’re doing.
When you’re in the flow, that gap dissolves, there’s no separation between you and what you’re doing. You hear the cliche, “Be the ball,” a lot, but that’s dumb. Really, it’s, “Be the dribbling, be the pivoting, the running, the sweating, the seeing and hearing,” but I guess that isn’t as catchy.
When you’re in the zone, your actions are also synced up with your intentions. In ordinary, non-flowing life, we plan everything move we make; we’re always thinking one-step ahead of what’s actually happening, even with the simplest things like walking.
When we’re walking, we’re not just walking; we’re anticipating every step we take before we take it. In the same way that distancing ourselves from what we’re doing splits us off from the here, living a beat in the future cuts us off from the now. The zone is only ever here and now.
I’m not a Buddha, so I’m not in the zone 24/7. I can cue it up with a little focus and mindfulness, but it isn’t in my marrow yet.
I was driving the Zamboni around at work a few weeks ago (I’m a janitor) and, all of a sudden, it happened—flowing. Everything was perfect, it felt like there was no resistance in all the world. Every turn, every tap on the accelerator, there was no John Lee anymore, just the turning and the pushing and the whirring of the Zamboni’s brushes.
I wasn’t some thoughtless space during all of this, there were still thoughts but they didn’t seem to come from someone, they just appeared on their own out of the moment, as the moment. The flow is a little taste of nibbana and I think it’s an essential part of well-being.
How do we manually get in the zone?
First thing’s first, you’ve gotta relax. You don’t have to be all zonked out, but at least cooled off. A few deep breaths and any old relaxation exercise will do. The next part involves paying attention to the body and activity. The same way people focus on the breath in meditation they can also focus on whatever they happen to be doing throughout the day.
When the mind wanders from activity, just gently bring it back tot he task at hand. Next, there’s mindfulness. Mindfulness means recalling the Dharma, remembering the teachings. In this case, it’s remembering that everything is constantly changing and 100% interdependent. With those principles in mind, you can try to spot those principles in action.
Finally, the whole thing has to be pervaded with an easy, non-judgmental mindset. Relaxation, mindfulness, and attention all help with this. When we’re in zone, there’s no such thing as good and bad, right and wrong, pleasant and unpleasant; that’s part of what makes those moment so refreshing.
So whenever you see yourself judging something, just give yourself the friendly reminder that that judgment is totally mind-made, it isn’t part of the thing being judged. It’s a product of habit, perception, and sensation—nothing more. With that in mind, just let judgments pass on by, free, uninterrupted and themselves unjudged.
Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t immediately in the zone after doing all of this, Buddhist practice is more akin to bringing film to a photolab than saving, printing, and sharing right from your smartphone. It takes time and effort. But, sooner than you might think, it pays off.