Performers and athletes often talk of being “in the zone.” Some might describe it as being in a place where they loose themselves in the activity or music and it appears as though it is happening all by itself, smoothly and automatically. Some might notice their productivity surge and loose track of time. Others may feel a burst of creativity, or the sense that they can do no wrong. In his Ted Talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of what he calls “flow,” like this:
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other... Sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”
For me, experiences that I imagine could be called being in "the zone" were about being present. If we are in the past or in the future, we can’t be in the music. Music is only happening in the moment. If we judge the sounds we hear, or get distracted by a thought or by something going on in the room, or start worrying about a passage coming up, or even just start feeling tense, breathing shallow, etc., we are no longer in the moment.
Similarly, if our challenge is too great or the task at hand is too easy, we won’t be stimulated enough to reach a flow state. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the path between challenge and boredom. We need just enough challenge to keep us engaged and excited, but if something requires too much effort, we’ll flounder, become frustrated, or find ourselves plagued by inner critics. Similarly, if the music is too simple for us, we won't have to focus too intently and we won't become engrossed in the moment. Could we use a simple tune, played with full passion and expression, to reach a point where we’re “in the zone”? Quite possibly, though it’s often easier to find flow if a bit of challenge demands our attention first.
It takes practice to recognize when we’ve drifted away from the present, and it isn’t realistic to think we can stay 100% present all the time, even for those performing at a high level. A great goal would be to gradually learn to bring ourselves back to the present before our thoughts and feelings get the better of us and our lack of presence snowballs into an issue which derails our playing. It’s a real musical meditation!
Also, if we make our goal a communication of musical ideas rather than perfection for the sake of perfection, we open a world of expressive possibilities and have a focal point to help us stay focused and centered for longer and longer periods of time. As we progress, if we remain curious about what we hear and feel, moment to moment, even the occasional mental, emotional, or physical distractions, then we will keep evolving as people and players.
I highly recommend Insight Timer and daily meditation as an adjunct to playing an instrument, or being a performer or creative of any type. A free app, Insight Timer hosts a lovely meditation timer which can be programmed with a number of real bells and chimes, as well as thousands of guided meditations and talks from meditation teachers around the world. My very favorite guided practices are the Yoga Nidra practices, especially those by Tanis Fishman, and Stephen Procter’s MIDL (Mindfullness in Daily Life) series.