Entering the Zone
December 11, 2009
You have heard of the ‘Zone’. It is the special place where athletes dwell when they are living their flow. It is a place of such joy that, once there, the dweller wishes to return again and again. Is it possible for anyone to experience this timeless state of true bliss? Indeed, it is. To embrace a positive relationship with time, I would even argue that inducing the Zone is essential.
I sat down for a phone chat with Ellen J. Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of many books including On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity. We discussed how creativity can develop mindfulness, that blissful state of awareness of the now. After observing how nursing home residents flourished (and lived longer) when charged with caring for a houseplant, Ellen and her team of researchers looked for other ways in which noticing something new could contribute to well-being. In fact, she has dedicated over thirty years of her career to the study of mindfulness.
To become mindful is easier than you think.
You’ve been there. Your partner is engrossed in ‘the game’ and you’re sitting on the sidelines, pouting. Ellen suggests looking for ways to make the game viewing interesting. “Even if it’s noticing the behinds of the players,” she jested. When you notice something new about your surroundings, you are literally enlivened by it. That is the heart of mindfulness.
So what about roadblocks to our creativity? Ellen states we all live in a social construct of right and wrong, which encases us in fear about making a mistake. If there is a right way to do things, we reason, there must be a wrong way to do them. We react to the evaluations of other people and those of our own making rather than seeing things in a more powerful way. For instance, have you ever gotten a ‘bad grade’ on a test, only to dwell on how stupid you must be to have ‘failed’? These are merely evaluations of what we think versus what we could be thinking. Because our mindset becomes ‘mindless’ as we accept these evaluations as absolutes, we no longer question them or think they are negotiable.
Truth be told ~ everything is negotiable. For a lot of things, we merely made a decision a while ago to eliminate uncertainty and embrace self-induced absolutes. In the process, we reasoned that mindlessness would save us time. Automate the process! we demanded. Then we won’t have to think about it.
Then we won’t have to actual ask ourselves if what we are doing makes any sense at all. Anyone who has mindlessly surfed the Internet for an hour (as I just did yesterday!) will tell you there is a cost to mindlessness (in my case, I reached bedtime faster!).
Think about the Impressionists, for instance. They were not well-regarded in their lifetime, yet their work is some of the most valued today. Did, say, Monet’s painted water lilies change over time? They did not. Our evaluation of them, and many other paintings in that genre, has. We moved from mindless disregard to a new way of thinking. Monet and friends now grace the halls of the rich and the greeting cards of the rest.
“People have very mindless notions about creativity,” Ellen warned. “When you think of creativity, you think of a final product. Mindfulness is the focus on the process, literally and figuratively, which makes us joyful.” It goes back to the flow and zone we all crave.
Mindfulness makes you notice something new. The very act of noticing breeds more mindfulness. In the end, a mindful way of living has been proven, thanks to Ellen’s research, to grant us a longer, happier and more fulfilled existence. Living mindfully through the power of slow is as easy as child’s play.
When we are at play, we are energized, stated Ellen. Whoever said there should be a separation between work and play? What if you were to look at your work as your play? Would you be more joyful? It doesn’t matter what you do. From driving a bus to driving sales, you can experience Zone-like joy with a shift in your mindset.
“People are sealed in unlived lives,” Ellen remarked. They are afraid to express themselves for fear of making a mistake. As the Japanese notion of Wabi Sabi suggests, the very thing that marks something imperfect is the very thing that makes it beautiful. A hand-woven rug is more valued than a ‘perfect’ machine-made one.
So go grab a paint brush or pen or whatever the instrument of your creativity might be. Then rejoice in the process, mistakes and all.