One of the most rewarding and universal human experiences is the feeling of intense focus on an activity one finds rewarding. This is known as being in the zone, or flow.
You will have heard of being in the zone, and you’ve likely experienced it yourself. If you engage in a sport, play games (video- and otherwise), create art or play music, you know the zone. It’s a state of deep concentration, but with a couple of distinctions that make it different from, say, being caught up in a good book or film.
In the zone, everything else falls away. There is no self-consciousness in the zone. You forget that time is passing, that you’re thirsty or itchy or need to wee. (On leaving the zone, you can find yourself thinking, ‘My God, I’m starving… how can it be four o’clock already?’)
In the zone, you cannot half-arse anything.
In the zone, you are in control.
In the zone, your ability and the challenge at hand feel as if they are in harmony. The zone does not permit boredom, frustration or anxiety.
Of course, ‘the zone’ and ‘flow’ are simply contemporary names for a phenomenon as old as – or older than – humanity itself. (I reckon some exceptionally smart animals, like cetaceans and great apes, probably experience some version of the zone.) Many ancient philosophies describe flow in similar terms to meditation.
I’m not very good at meditation, but I’m lucky enough to have a few different activities through which I can enter the zone. Writing is one, and drawing is another. Anyone who has spent any length of time with me soon learns that my ears are pretty much turned off while I’m in the zone. It often takes a loud, sudden ‘Amelia!’ to pull me out of it.
The zone is special, and the zone is strange. I’m not exactly happy while in the zone; not in the sense of being wrapped up in feelings of warmth and effervescent joy. But I’m not unhappy; I’m just focused. The zone does provide happiness, but it’s usually subdued, or more often, comes about as a result of the work done while in the zone. The zone is rewarding, but the level of concentration that the zone requires is too great too allow for self-reflective thoughts like, ‘This makes me happy.’ More common is a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction on emerging from the zone.
I can’t imagine a life without the zone. And, although I’m often not mindful of the world around me while in the zone, science backs me up on this one: the zone is good for you. Experience of flow (the zone) lowers anxiety, raises self-esteem, and in the long run results in greater overall happiness. You enter the zone because you seek to master an activity; the better you get, the more time you spend in the zone on that activity, which creates a big lovely ourobouros of effort and reward. I think it’s important for everyone to have some skill or passion through which they can enter the zone.
As a lecturer of mine once said (who is a rather successful YA author herself), it’s important to understand how one’s characters enter the zone, too. Finding a way to enter the zone can be an essential part of an adolescent protagonist’s development. I consider my characters not fully developed if I don’t know their relationship to the zone. Sometimes I play with expectations, too, which rounds out the character. For example, Ti – the trainee shaman in my current novel – doesn’t get into the zone through doing magic. He’s always self-conscious and unsure when he’s trying to command spirits or mix medicines, fearful of what might go wrong. By contrast, when he plays his sapeh (a kind of Bornean sitar), he is entirely involved – body, mind and soul – in creating his music.
Speaking of which, I made a massive breakthrough on The Celestial Kris this week, so I think I’ll go and see if I can slip into the zone myself.