Great performers of all sorts, from athletes to musicians, have experienced being in the zone. It is the optimal state for performance, where the performer and performance are one, unobstructed by conscious thought.
Many performers assume this state of mind is a random byproduct of the act of performing, not realizing it is simply a state of mind that with practice can be readily accessible.
This state of being in the zone is the same state that meditators work to discover, maintain, observe, and gain insight from – a state of core consciousness and awareness, unobstructed by thoughts and conceptions.
The name Buddha means “one who is awake”, and refers to this ideal. For meditators, life is the performance, and the goal is to wake up and maintain the experience throughout life.
Why Should You Care?
The ability to “wake up” or be in the zone at will is more valuable than anything else you can achieve. It is the doorway not only to optimal performance, but much more importantly, to a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction in life where stress, sadness, anger, and pain cannot touch you – liberation and freedom. There is nothing better.
I’ve tried to write about this a number of times over the years without sounding either crazy, unintelligible, or pointless. Today I think I may have found the words to make intellectual sense.
What Is Waking Up?
To be awake is to be fully aware in the present flow. We do not exist in the past. We do not exist in the future. We only exist in the present flow. There is only the present flow. It is the only place where we actually exist.
To be fully aware in the present flow cannot happen on the level of your thinking mind. It can only happen on the level of your core consciousness.
From your core consciousness you will perceive the arising of thoughts. On this level the perception of a thought arising will be no different to you from the perception of the sound of a bird chirping. The perception of a thought arising, no matter the contents of the thought, will not affect or change your core consciousness.
Thus, your core consciousness, perceptions, feelings, and emotions are not affected or influenced by your thoughts or ideas.
In our normal consciousness we feel that we are identical to our thoughts. Our perceptions, feelings, and emotions are dictated by our thoughts, and we ride them like a boat on rough water or dust blown around in the wind. There is a fundamental lack of freedom in this, not to mention emotional instability.
Being fully aware in the present flow, aware from the level of your core consciousness, there is a profound freedom – freedom from the past, the future, the limits of your thoughts and ideas – and a profound perception of perfection and satisfaction. The experience is literally like waking up from a dream. Perception becomes faster. Every sight, sound, and sensation becomes clearer. Any form of stress or negativity disappears. Performance is optimized. On observation and reflection, deep and numerous insights can be realized.
How Long Does It Last?
How long this state lasts and how frequently you access it largely determines how much it changes your life. The longer and more frequently you wake up, the more it rewires your brain, the more insights you can realize, leading to deeper places, and the more quickly and easily you can do it at will.
The ultimate goal for some meditators is to wake up permanently, the mind state of what is perhaps only a mythical Buddha. I am open to the possibility, but I have serious doubts as to if waking up permanently is achievable. If it is, to rewire your brain so completely it would likely require living isolated and meditating constantly for the majority of your life. But there is a spectrum, from a single unrealized experience of being in the zone that does nothing to change your life, to a fully enlightened Buddha.
Establishing a Practice
By establishing a practice of meditation, you can learn to free your mind or wake up every day. The more you do it, the longer it will last, and the closer your everyday mind will be to it. You will be able to notice when a negative or unproductive thought arises, quickly go to your core level of consciousness, and clear your mind of the negativity. Even if not a fully enlightened “Buddha”, you will realize a liberating freedom, deep satisfaction, and a way to nullify stress, anger, sadness, and any other negative feeling or emotion.
This waking up practice gives you the ability to be alive and happy on a level that most people, sleepwalking through life or riding on the waves of their unconscious thoughts, can hardly imagine. Again, it is literally like waking up from a dream.
How Do You Practice?
My current sitting meditation practice is fairly simple, but it does take time and effort – time and effort very well spent. I’m not a meditation teacher, but I can tell you what works well for me.
1. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, so your posture is maintained more by your skeletal structure than by muscular tension. My preference is to use a zafu cushion and sit on the floor, cross-legged. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Many people prefer to close their eyes. I prefer to keep mine open and fixed on a point in front of me. Take a couple of breaths to relax, and then simply observe your breathing. Observe the inhalation, and observe the exhalation. Thoughts will disrupt your observation. When you realize you have become lost in thought, return your observation to the present flow of your breathing. Do this for a while.
2. Expand your awareness/observation to your entire body. Your breath is part of your body awareness, and you can use it to help keep you in the flow of the present. Do this for a while.
These two steps alone will do a great deal to stop your thought patterns, reduce stress, and increase your physical health.
3. Here is the somewhat tricky/subtle part – Turn your attention inward and look for what it is that is observing your body, breath, and everything externally. In this looking, you will find nothing there but your core consciousness in the present flow.
This is the goal. You may be able to skip steps 1 and 2 and go straight to this step. In my own practice, I begin here now. If this doesn’t make sense to you, after practicing steps 1 and 2 for a while, it should begin to make sense.
Hold on to this core conscious awareness. Here you will see the arising of thoughts but be unaffected by them. Every sensation, what you see, hear, feel, and any thoughts that arise, will be one in the same – consciousness or energy in the present flow. You will be in the zone, awake. Hold on to this for a while. Try to maintain it even as you get up from your meditation spot. Try to maintain it longer and longer, and more often.
I have practiced different forms of meditation since 1992, but I’m really not a meditation teacher. I did teach a basic form of meditation that I learned from my first instructor to many of my students, for 10 years or so, aimed at developing concentration for martial arts/self defense practice, and although that practice had a deep and profound impact on me, I do not have the experience of efficiently guiding practitioners there.
My current practice, listed above, has been the most effective and enduring. The steps that I have described were positively influenced by a Sam Harris podcast with Joseph Goldstein, and Harris’ book, Waking Up. The idea that had the biggest impact on both my practice and my ability to describe it was stated by Sam Harris as an idea from Dzogchen: “The goal is the path.”
This idea is that there is not a path where the goal is only found at the end of the path. The goal itself, to wake up, is available to us all right now. It simply involves looking in the right place in the right way. The path to the final goal, a full and permanent awakening, or at least an extension of the time that we are awake, is to simply hold on to the experience of waking up. The goal is the path.
If you take the time and effort to do this, you can maximize your performance in everything that you do. You can realize a liberating freedom, unchained from your past and from the limits of thinking and conceptions. You can dramatically increase your well-being and minimize negativity in your life. You can literally wake up from the dream-like state that the vast majority of people live in. I highly recommend it.
Very true ,I am from southern side of INDIA a INDIA State called Kerala here we follow HINDU Sasthras ,in Gagavad Gita the uplifting of human mind ,how to pray,meditate,eat,sleep,etc etc whatever is necessary for a stress free life is explained in detail. This is for your information only, your article is very good, I follow this type of meditation Thank you bye
Interesting and true.
Many thanks David for your beautiful post! I have been practicing TM since a teenager and also enjoy good works on the subject of living in the present moment, or, as you put it, being awake. “The Power of Now” by Tolle being my favorite. If humans “wake up”, perhaps they see what they are doing and how their egos are destroying mankind.
Thanks Tom! You are correct. It would certainly be better if everyone could see clearly. 🙂
thanks for that David. Good to hear from you again. Greg
I keep my focus on Jesus.I know people have different beliefs but He’s the one and only Way (Comforter).
Dwayne, meditation is not in and of itself the practice of any particular religion. It is used heavily in Buddhism, but it has been and is also used by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc., etc.. Meditation does not require one to believe in anything at all in order to do it. It is simply the practice of observing your true nature, accessing your core consciousness.
You could just as well say you will not practice martial arts because your focus is Jesus, or you will not work out with weights because your focus is Jesus. Meditation is an exercise for your brain just like weight lifting is an exercise for your body. You don’t have to have any religious associations or beliefs in order to do it.
Finally, belief is simply thinking something without the evidence to support it. If there was supporting evidence then it wouldn’t be called a “belief”. Anyone can choose to believe anything they like, which makes the idea of belief rather meaningless. Belief is also unnecessary at best, and mentally detrimental. Thinking that something is true without evidence is the path to thinking things that are false. Unfortunately this is the case for the vast majority of people. 🙁
Hi David, thanks for your input. There is a scripture that i find very special. It says: ” All men know something of God. Some know Him through Scripture, and some know Him even as in nature. For those who know Him by the Law, they will be judge according to the Law. For those who don’t, they will be judge according to what God has put in their hearts.” God’s blessing David. Doug.
Thank you Doug. That is a good message. 🙂
This is an outstanding article. As a teacher of traditional samurai arts and modern military arts, we put great emphasis this type of mind set. Let’s face it, there is no reason for practical sword training these days other than to reconnect with your environment and apply those internal elements into hand to hand combat. The samurai spent a lot of time applying the laws of nature and physics as universal laws that can be applied to combat or every faucet of life. Elite military forces understand the importance of a his as well. SEALs do various types of flow and sensitivity drills that are meditative within themselves. Spetznas study systems and sambo together for a set of physical skill set combined with internal domination. Untrained eyes see these drills as silly but open-mindedness artist will quickly see the benefits of not not having a ceiling of strength and speed. Being able to move freely with the situation instead of trying to force a situation has great merit in self-defense and life and death fighting…aka, combat. Great article!
Spell check sucks! Lol
Hello John. As you said, there is a very good reason that the samurai and other martial artists valued meditation and the state of mind it produced. Thank you!
A very good article. I think you are correct the place to reach in meditation is to be the witness observing all that is happening.
Good one David. I think you did a fine job at describing what can’t really be described 🙂 Being in the zone has and continues to change my life, though I don’t get there nearly often enough. One of the ‘tricks’ I use to shut down my thoughts is to stop using language and words, to let go of the incessant urge to identify and define everything around me. I look forward to trying your method, personally I believe life should be about balance, learn from the past, plan for the future and live now. Thanks David
Thank you David. Not using language and words and letting go of the urge to identify and define really does get to the heart of this. And, I agree with you about that balance. 🙂
This may be slightly tangental but I think that real human intelligence is always observationally oriented. What you’re talking about is about seeing what is instead of thinking about what isn’t. We have a need to systematize and reason about things, but often we are overly oriented in this direction and need to have the humility to just look, listen, smell and touch, making observations but being slow to put them together into larger theories. Often it’s the unconsious mind which is the best “systematizer”.
Heightened consciousness of the present moment can be experienced whenever one is doing something really dangerous. It’s really thrilling, but dangerous…. Look up Andrew Ucles on youtube…. Try 100 mph on a motorcycle. I tell my young friend to slow down but he claims he’s safer because he takes what he’s doing with all his being and an almost out of body consciousness, and there’s nothing careless about the way he rides. I still disagree with his habits.
Another thought. I’ve found my shifts at work go quicker when I wear an analog watch instead of a digital one…. It’s amazing how something that simple can alter one’s experience of life.
Excellent point Ben, regarding intelligence being observationally oriented.
I also agree with you regarding heightened consciousness when doing something “dangerous”, although in many cases that might not be something I would recommend. There was a book written many years ago that said something like this: When what you are doing is on the same level as your max performance level, you will be in a flow state. You will be required to devote all of your mental resources to the present moment. If what you are doing is far under your max ability, you will be likely to be lost in thought or not deeply involved in the process. And if what you are attempting to do is beyond your max ability, you will simply be overwhelmed. So I think that doing something “dangerous” is often by definition where the action matches your max ability. Of course, as you said, this is not a good idea on a motorcycle!
My martial arts practice had a very big impact on my meditation practice. The two practices complimented each other greatly, for exactly that reason.
Thanks for your thoughts!
Thank you for a very thought provoking piece David. I can’t throw much light on this topic, having always shied away from meditation. Interestingly though I achieve some of these things in a slightly different way. For me I’ve improved my performance in many things by changing the way I think about things. I read about the term “plastic brain” somewhere and this has helped me to increase my well-being and decrease negativity in my life. Simply by turning negative things (e.g. uncontrollable noises around my home like barking dogs, police choppers, screeching birds) around into positive forces. I try and think of them as friendly reminders that if you can still hear us, then you’re alive…..and you still have time to get off your butt and do all the stuff that you said you would do! Every time I hear that awful obnoxious bird screeching in my tree now, I just laugh and say “hello my friend, yes…..thank you for reminding me to get X,Y & Z done ! So by deciding to have a plastic brain it helps me to adapt and remold my negative thoughts into helpful productive ones. Life is short & one day it will all be over. In the meantime, perhaps I will explore meditation too – thanks to David’s positive thoughts.
Thank you Chris. That’s a great perspective you mentioned, and very useful. 🙂