I think I’ve written before about what I suppose it means to be ‘in the zone’. You usually hear it from sportsmen such as golfers, who are either grateful that God has taken time out to accompany them on a round and make sure all their putts drop, or have succeeded because they’ve been ‘in the zone’ (hereinafter ITZ). To me, it simply means that you’re focusing on (and presumably enjoying) something so much that you don’t notice the passage of time, you’re unaware of your own self, your identity, your surroundings, or anything other than whatever the activity demands.
Why write about it today? Because yesterday I did some wood carving and, after concentrating on trying to sketch the basic shapes of the eyes, beak and claws of an owl, I suddenly realised that four hours had passed and it was time to rejoin reality and remember who I was/am. During that time, the only thoughts in my head involved which gouge to use, how much I needed to slice away to get the angles right, how the pale wood revealed by the cuts contrasted with the darker (dirtier) wood I was cutting into and so on and so on. With most activities, even enjoyable ones, the mind now and then wanders away into thoughts of a job that needs doing, ideas for stories, daydreams, anticipations and memories. There seem to be different bits of the brain throwing their preoccupations or delights into the mix. But, these ITZ moments seem to tell all those other bits of brain to shut up, butt out and let whoever’s doing whatever it is get on with it.
People cleverer than I am would now segue into the nature of Zen, and I can see the attraction of training the mind to experience that sort of oneness as often as possible. But all I feel is curiosity. It’s the total loss of self-awareness that’s so surprising. If the gouge slips and I cut my hand or lop off the claw I’ve just started to shape, I’m suddenly me again and I remember that this is a pretty frequent occurrence during carving sessions. But I stop the bleeding, put on the elastoplast (or start trying to remake the claw), and, pretty soon, it’s just the wood and what’s happening to it that takes over again.
I assumed earlier that, while we're in these zones, it’s the pleasure we're feeling that makes them so special – but here’s a paradox. The focus is so intense that you don’t know you’re having a good time. The enjoyment is retrospective. You stop, notice that four hours (or whatever) have passed and then you feel the contentment.
Because writing is my job nowadays, most of my ITZ moments are connected with it. It almost never happens when I’m writing something commercial or non-fiction, but when I get into a novel, short story, flash fiction, it’s a familiar experience. It doesn’t happen so much during the research phase, but once the characters have started taking over, I’m so curious about them and their world that my own ceases to exist. The choice of words and the order in which I put them seems to be part of the fabric of whatever these people or creatures are doing and although, objectively, I know I’m the one who’s writing them, the ‘me’ isn’t there. I mean, how can I write of a scene near Aberdeen harbour in the days of sailing ships when I’m sitting here at the computer with a mobile phone in my pocket with more computing power than the Apollo mooncraft?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely not trumpeting my 'talent', I’m saying that these things happen and I’ve no idea how. Or why for that matter. It’s a type of controlled oblivion. I sneakily suspect that all these ITZ moments are so valuable because they give us the impression that we’re in control, we’re actually shaping experience and making sense of it. It’s a familiar delusion – you get it from carving wood, writing, painting, making music, playing golf, sailing and no doubt hundreds of other things with which I’m not familiar.
I only wish I could be aware of the pleasure it’s giving me as I’m doing it rather than only in the moments when I stop. There must be a moral there somewhere.