"Get into it!” -- How to drive progress by improving moment-by-moment engagement
You can use these links for navigation through the course:
Lesson 1 - Inner and outer games, progress, and engagement
Lesson 2 - Sorting Cards into Books for Time
Lesson 3 - Card sorting for time, second series
Lesson 4 - What guarantees peak productivity and well-being at the same time?
Lesson 5 - Monitoring real-time engagement to Improve Emotional Intelligence
Lesson 6 - General four-step approach to accomplishment, creativity, and change
Lesson 7 - What is the zone of peak experience and performance?
Lesson 8 - Build an Engagement playing field
Lesson 9 - The range of our participation
Lesson 7 - What is the zone of peak experience and performance?
Questions for Lesson 7:
● In peak experience the frequent absence of our 'typical' self, or identity stricture is usually accompanied by a remarkable sense of freedom from the habits, personality complexes, and relationship issues that are built 'on top of' the self stricture.
● Zone experiences can be characterized by the words flow, glow, and zero, with varying proportions of these attributes in different experiences.
● Flow is a dynamic, most often timeless, sense of frictionless energy or unobstructed movement. Things feel as though they do not require effort against some friction, pressure, or resistance. This is in contrast to the 'normal', lower-level sense of time flowing in ways that seem to require effort, strain, or struggle on our part.
● Glow is a multidimensional luminosity that accompanies perceiving, thinking, and knowing. Instead of apprehending particular content from a single 'point of view', awareness is felt to be nonlocated, not bound to a center, observer, or owner.
● Zero represents dimensionless or multidimensional, nonextended surfaces and forms pervaded by an undivided openness that reflects deep relaxation.
● Zone experiences are not characterized in the least by the presence or absence of particular ordinary objects, processes, or events.
● Zone experiences are characterized by a remarkable absence of strictures (recurring structural features of experience), including size, world, felt distance, here-there, and substance, constant time flow, linear time, before-after, now-then, duration, effort/self-control, self or identity, inside-outside, felt distance, here-there, and knower-known.
● The ultimate or deepest zone experiences--perhaps of those who are called self-actualized or enlightened--would be devoid of all traces of all strictures.
● Any activity is optimized during absorption in the zone of flow, glow, and zero.
● The zone is an important, natural meeting ground of the individual worker's concern with fulfillment and optimal well-being with the organization's concern with optimizing productivity and quality of product and service.
The zone defined
When people talk about ‘being in the zone’ they're talking about having a peak experience that fosters, or at least accompanies peak performance, an exceptionally rewarding or successful way of doing something, such as sports or work. A peak experience is an inherently fulfilling state that Maslow defined as "a generalization for the best moments of the human being."
For most of us, the zone is a nearly magical state of supernormal performance that, at best, we might 'fall into', almost accidentally. Precisely what this state is, and how we might facilitate its more regular appearance, is largely a mystery. This is a sad state of affairs, since the zone brings our most fulfilling and productive human experiences. How can we hope for more 'super' moments--during work, education, sports, spiritual pursuits, etc.--when we know so little about it?
To get more clarity, suppose we pick some of the statements people have made about the zone, and try to compare them to our ‘normal’ Western experience. What might we discover? What is the nature of the zone? How can we characterize it? Is there anything in common to all zone experiences? What if there are several very different kinds of zone experiences? Anything we can learn will probably be helpful in finding the zone ourselves, or at least in avoiding any dead-ends ‘on the way’ to the zone.
Discovering absence of the identity, here-there, and distance strictures
Let’s examine some anecdotes about changes in the sense of identity during zone experiences. When in the zone, what was people’s experience of identity like? How was it compared to that during ‘normal’ experiences? Did people feel identified, united, or even merged with another, their work, a religious or spiritual object, some aspect of nature? Or did they feel independent, individual, separate, or even isolated? How did they relate to their usual personality? Was consciousness or awareness different?
Here’s a report from a Japanese swordsman: “When the identity is realized, I as swordsman see no opponent confronting me . . . . I seem to transform myself into the opponent, and every movement he makes as well as every thought he conceives are felt as if they were all my own . . . . (ITZ, p. 130) This swordsman in the zone feels identified with his opponent, losing his ordinary identity. With my ‘normal’ sense of myself, I feel like an independent individual who is separate from other people, rather than identified in some way; and an opponent usually seems even more separate, more ‘different’ from ‘me’. Perhaps even more remarkable, the swordsman seems aware of “the other’s experience,”–which usually is private, internal, or unknown–as if his own.
A judo teaching manual has a similar statement about changes in our normal identity: “When judo is practiced properly, ‘there will be no curtain to separate you from your opponent. You will become one with him. You and your opponent will no longer be two bodies separated physically from each other but a single entity . . . .’” (ITZ, p. 32) Maslow reported that during peak experience, a person “is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formerly not-self, e.g., the lovers come closer to forming a unit rather than two people, . . . The creator becomes one with his work being created, . . . The appreciator becomes the music . . . .” (p. 105, TPB) In the zone there is a kind of merging or fusion or unity.
From these statements we see that several strictures, or somewhat stable structural features of experience are not part of these zone experiences: the feeling of being a continuously existing individual separate and distinct from other individuals (this stricture is often called self, or identity), the sense of being here rather than there (the here-there duality), the feeling of having a private inside realm of experience contrasted with a public area where we coexist (inside-outside), and the feeling of distance or separation between physically separate bodies (felt distance). In the latter stricture, we’re not talking about physical distance or separation, but the feeling of separation, which can change considerably, leading us to say we feel closer or more distant from another.
Since in ‘normal’ experience our problems feel ‘everpresent’, it’s worth highlighting that in peak experience the frequent absence of our ‘typical’ self, or identity stricture is usually accompanied by a remarkable sense of freedom from the habits, personality complexes, and relationship issues that are ‘normally’ dependent on, or built ‘on top of’ the self stricture. It’s almost as if the foundational self ‘rug’ is pulled out from under more superficial psychological problems. As an example, Charles Lindbergh said that for a while during his flight, he felt “free from the gravitation that binds men to heavy human problems of the world.” (ITZ, p. 65)
Now we can turn to a statement by weightlifter Yuri Vlasov: “Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on.” (ITZ, p. 119) Let’s compare this to Tarthang Tulku’s description of what happened with his ‘knowledge’ as he discovered a new vision of reality: “The conventional limitation that confines observation to a single ‘point of view’ situated in space and time had less hold. Knowledge itself seemed to be opening, like a light that had previously been obscured by now was radiating from all directions. This knowledge was . . . Less a possession to be obtained than a luminous, transparent ‘attribute’ of experience and mental activity.” (Tarthang Tulku, Love of Knowledge, LOK, 1987, p. xlv) The latter statement contrasts our usual way of knowing and observing things from a single point-of-view (the ‘knower’ pole of the knower-known stricture), with a more open way of knowing or being aware involving a multidimensional or–perhaps equivalently–nondimensional luminosity. This luminosity or unpositioned knowing could be what weightlifter Vlasov said was “clearer and whiter than ever before.”
Glow: Multidimensional, Pervasive, Centerless Luminosity
Now, having considered various aspects of experience related to identity and knowledge, we might say, as a shorthand expression, that zone experiences can often be characterized by the word glow: a multidimensional luminosity that accompanies perceiving, thinking, and knowing. Instead of apprehending particular content from a single ‘point of view’, awareness is felt to be nonlocated, not bound to a center, observer, or owner. Peak experience lacks the ‘normal’ strictures of self or identity, inside-outside, felt distance, here-there, and knower-known. This might seem farfetched if these strictures are thoroughly ingrained in your experience.
Dissolving common time strictures
Next let’s examine a few anecdotes discussing time, movement, and energy flow. In the zone, what was people’s experience of time like? How did time feel to them? Did it move fast, slow, or did it change speed? How did their zone experience compare to ‘normal’ experience? Was it timeless, did the flow of events seem ‘greased’, without friction or effort? Or was it friction-filled, or rushed?
Here’s one report: “There is a common experience in Tai Chi . . . . Awareness of the passage of time completely stops.” (ITZ, p. 47) Here’s another, by football player John Brodie: “Time seems to slow way down . . . . It seems as if I had all the time in the world . . . and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me just as fast as ever.” (ITZ, p. 42) Normally, in Western cultures at least, adults experience a very constant, even relentless flow of time among past, present, and future. We might call this stricture constant time flow. However, in these statements we see alternative experiences, time slowing way down, or even stopping. As with distance and separation discussed above, we’re not talking here about physical time, but the feeling of time flowing, which may be independent of physical time.
Another stricture in our normal experience of time is what we might call before-after, wherein one or more events are felt to occur in a series rather than simultaneously. This stricture seems almost constantly present in experience. Nevertheless, there are other possibilities. Baseball player Tom Seaver reported: “As Rod Gaspar’s front foot stretched out and touched home plate, in the fraction of a second before I leaped out of the dugout . . . my whole baseball life flashed in front of me . . . .” (ITZ, p. 47) Apparently we can experience many ‘normally’ sequential events or memories all at once. Meditation master Tarthang Tulku confirms this. “The boundaries distinguishing five minutes from one second are unreal in a certain sense, and so any amount of experience constituting five minutes could also be had in one second. The ‘small’ interval is not really smaller, nor is the ‘larger’ one really larger.” (Moon and Randall, Dimensions of Thought, 1980, pp. 41-2)
Now, considering movement and energy flow during peak experience, we find a report about football player Red Grange: “[he] runs . . . with almost no effort. . . . There is only the effortless, ghostlike, weave and glide upon effortless legs.” (ITZ, p. 86) From golfer Bobby Jones: “I was conscious of swinging the club easily . . . . I had to make no special effort to do anything.” (ITZ, p. 86) Normally, whatever we do takes a degree of effort and involves a feeling of control during the activity, what we might call the stricture of effort/self-control. This stricture can be absent during peak experience, as Maslow reported: “[An] aspect of fully-functioning is effortlessness and ease of functioning when one is at one’s best. What takes effort, straining and struggling at other times is now done without any sense of striving, of working or laboring, but ‘comes of itself.’ Allied to this often is the feeling of grace and the look of grace that comes with smooth, easy, effortless fully-functioning, when everything ‘clicks,’ or ‘is in the groove,’ or is ‘in over-drive.'” (TPB, p. 106)
Flow: Frictionless or Unobstructed Energy and Movement
Now, having considered various aspects of experience related to energy flow and time, we might say, as a shorthand expression, that zone experiences can often be characterized by the word flow: a dynamic , most often timeless, sense of frictionless energy or unobstructed movement. At the level of the zone, things feel as though they do not require effort against some friction, pressure, or resistance. This is in contrast to the ‘normal’, lower-level sense of time flowing in ways that seem to require effort, strain, or struggle on our part. Peak experience lacks the ‘normal’ strictures, or repetitively recurring structural features of experience, of constant time flow, linear time, before-after, now-then, duration, and effort/self-control. But this might seem farfetched if these strictures are thoroughly ingrained in your experience.
Dissolving common space strictures
Having explored the zone experience of time, energy flow, identity, and knowledge a bit, now let’s consider the zone experience of space. What was people’s sense of space compared to that of ‘normal’ experiences? Did space seem like just an empty container that separated things, or did space itself have some particular qualities? Did people feel more distant from or closer to other people and things? Did they feel more connected or separated than usual? Was the usual feeling of size of things and regions altered somehow?
From his extensive research, Maslow wrote that in peak experience “The astronomer is “out there” with the stars (rather than a separateness peering across an abyss at another separateness through a telescopic-keyhole).” (TPB, p. 105) Thus again, as in the swordsman’s statement above, we see an absence of felt distance, as well as the here-there stricture. Our ‘normal’ frame of reference is absent, involving the subject-object stricture, a sense of an observer or subject or perceiver separate and distinct from what’s observed or perceived or experienced.
Another aspect of our typical experience of space is the size stricture, whereby we feel magnitude of linear dimensions, objects, and areas–again, this is in contrast to actual physical measurement. Golfer Jack Fleck said: “I can’t exactly describe it, but as I looked at the putt, the hole looked as big as a wash tub.” (ITZ, p. 38) Size–both as physical measurement, and as subtle feeling–is usually presumed to be constant, but as this statement indicates, our experience or feeling of size is not constant. The ‘normally’ limiting stricture was absent. From Maslow’s research on peak experience: “One small part of the world is perceived as if it were for the moment all of the world.” (TPB, p. 88) The size and typical frame of reference strictures are not there. Also, the world stricture, whereby we have a very subtle feeling of being within a large world or universe–another feeling that is taken for granted, considered ‘normal’–is not there. According to auto racer Jochen Rindt, “You forget about the whole world and you just . . . Are part of the car and the track.” (ITZ, p. 23)
Also related to space, we can consider the typical feeling ( a substance stricture) that things seem to have a kind of substance or reality rather than being something akin to images in a dream, fantasies, illusions, or hallucinations. In contrast to the ‘normal’ sense of living in a substantial world, long-distance runner Bill Emmerton said, “I felt as though I was going through space, treading on clouds.” (ITZ, p. 17) And another runner, Ian Jackson said, “My body seemed insubstantial like some ethereal vehicle of awareness.” (ITZ, p. 135) Pilot Charles Lindbergh wrote, “All sense of substance leaves. There’s no longer weight to my body, no longer hardness to the stick. The feeling of flesh is gone.” (ITZ, p. 116) None less than Einstein claimed that “Everything is made of emptiness and form is condensed emptiness.” (Einstein) Though normal, the perception of substance may be an unnecessary limitation. Tarthang Tulku suggests that the sense of emptiness or transparency depends on our level of relaxation: “Surfaces can appear as such and still be more transparent, because—in a sense—they ‘reflect’ the degree of our own relaxation.” (Tarthang Tulku, Time, Space, and Knowledge, 1977, p. 16)
Zero: Nonextended and Undivided Openness
Now, having considered various aspects of experience related to space, we might say, as a shorthand expression, that zone experiences can often be characterized by the word zero: dimensionless or multidimensional, nonextended surfaces and forms pervaded by an undivided openness that reflects deep relaxation. Peak experience typically lacks the ‘normal’ strictures, or repetitively recurring structural features of experience, of size, world, felt distance, here-there, and substance. This might seem farfetched if these strictures are thoroughly ingrained in your experience.
What can we conclude? What’s the zone like?
Now let’s return to questions we brought up earlier: How can we describe the zone? Is there anything in common to all zone experiences? Anything that is missing from all of them? Are there several different kinds of zone experiences?
The Zone is Not Characterized by Any Ordinary or Tangible Thing, Pattern, Situation, or Event
First, it’s important to note that essential zone experiences are not characterized in the least by the presence or absence of particular ordinary objects, processes, or events. Indeed, this fact is congruent with the saying that “the best things in life aren’t things.” They’re intangibles, invisible. The anecdotes mention, yet do not isolate or focus on conventionally designated things or events–which of course are precisely what we ordinarily do focus on in ‘normal’ experience. No wonder the zone is so difficult to recognize, or even to adequately describe!
Put differently, it seems that in one sense, forms, events, and appearances ‘don’t in themselves look different’ as one becomes enlightened. It’s not that the ordinary things and events that we experience are different, it’s the way that we experience these same things, or the way that our experience is not structured, that is different, as we will now discuss.
The Zone Lacks Persistent Structural Features of Experience
Second, these experiences are characterized by a remarkable absence of strictures (recurring structural features of experience). Instead of our ‘normal’ frame of reference stricture–the sense of an observer or subject or perceiver separate and distinct from what’s observed or perceived or experienced–zone experience shows a kind of merging or fusion or unity of what ‘normally’ feels separate or independent. Very often absent is our ‘typical’ self, or identity stricture, by which we feel we are continuously existing individuals separate and distinct from each other; instead there’s a sense of freedom from the ‘usual’ constraints of self, including the absence of complexes and personality and relationship issues ‘normally’ built ‘on top of’ the self stricture. There can be a multidimensional luminosity that accompanies knowing instead of the ‘usual’ preoccupation with particular content from a single ‘point of view’. There can be a sense of timelessness, or of time slowing down or stopping instead of the typical sense of time flowing at a constant and unchangeable rate. We might experience many memories simultaneously instead of one at a time. Things may seem effortless in the zone, rather than requiring the effort, strain, or struggle of other times. There can be an absence of felt distance, along with a lack of the sense of here contrasted with there. ‘Normal’ feelings related to size and the world may not be present.
So, based on the anecdotes above, we see that peak experiences usually lack at least these strictures: size, world, felt distance, here-there, and substance, constant time flow, linear time, before-after, now-then, duration, effort/self-control, self or identity, inside-outside, felt distance, here-there, and knower-known. These are common fundamental, stable, and restrictive strictures ‘normally’ inculcated by Western cultures, and possibly other cultures as well. This freedom from ‘normally presumed and persistent’ restrictions is likely what makes zone experiences “so valuable that they make life worth while by their occasional occurrence.” (TPB, p. 80)
The Zone is Probably Devoid of All Strictures
We can extrapolate from the absence of the above list of strictures reported in peak experiences. Although only the anecdotes above do not justify drawing this conclusion, given that there is a great deal of additional evidence, we might reasonably speculate that the ultimate or deepest zone experiences–perhaps of those who are called self-actualized or enlightened–would be devoid of all traces of all strictures, not just those discussed here.
In fact, this hypothesis is confirmed by these statements:
“We may have had glimpses of a higher destiny, but to shape our lives in accord with that vision, we must learn quite specifically how to activate an inquiry that can cut through the structures of our present knowing.” (VOK, p. 71)
“The whole idea is that we must drop all reference points, all concepts of what is or what should be. . . . Movement happens within vast space.” (Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom, pp. 14-15)
“In itself, the exhibition is simple . . . . There are no fixed points and no fixed identity, but quality and character remain.” (KTS, p. 242)
“A different kind of ‘space’ . . . accommodates the presenting of all ‘things’ and undermines all sense of locatedness and directedness.” (TSK, p. 271)
“Knowledge unfolds without heading in a specific direction; instead, it challenges the reference points that establish directionality.” (VOK, p. 63)
“Since everything reverts to a state of evenness . . . there is no identifiable frame of reference. . . . There is no reference point . . . .” (Longchenpa)
Flow, Glow, and Zero–Features of Peak Performance
Zone experiences can also be characterized affirmatively. Having considered various aspects of experience related to time, energy flow, identity, knowledge, and space we might say, as a shorthand expression, that essential zone experiences can be characterized by the words flow, glow, and zero: qualities of unobstructed flow (time dimension), luminous presence and positionless knowing (identity/knowing dimension), and pervasive, nonextended, and undivided openness (space dimension), with varying proportions of these attributes in different experiences.
flow: a dynamic , most often timeless, sense of frictionless energy or unobstructed movement. In the zone, things feel as though they do not require effort against some friction, pressure, or resistance. Peak experience lacks the ‘normal’ strictures, or repetitively recurring structural features of experience, of constant time flow, linear time, before-after, now-then, duration, and effort/self-control.
glow: a multidimensional luminosity that accompanies perceiving, thinking, and knowing. Instead of apprehending particular content from a single ‘point of view’, awareness is felt to be nonlocated, not bound to a center, observer, or owner. Peak experience lacks the ‘normal’ strictures of self or identity, inside-outside, felt distance, here-there, and knower-known.
zero: dimensionless or multidimensional, nonextended surfaces and forms pervaded by an undivided openness that reflects deep relaxation. Peak experience lacks the ‘normal’ strictures, or repetitively recurring structural features of experience, of size, world, felt distance, here-there, and substance.
Clearly all of these can be present in a given zone experience, as exemplified by Charles Lindbergh’s statement: [For a while during my flight across the Atlantic it was] ” as though I were an awareness [positionless knowing] spreading out through space . . . [complete openness], unhampered by time [unobstructed flow] or substance, free from the gravitation that binds men to heavy human problems [positionless knowing or awareness without personality complexes] of the world.” (ITZ, p. 65)
Any Activity is Optimized During Absorption in the Zone of Flow, Glow, and Zero
Since our investigation here includes all peak experience, including peak performance during all kinds of activities, we can conclude that all activities are best done in flow, glow, and zero.
Thus we have discovered in the zone an important, natural meeting ground of the individual employee’s concern with fulfillment and optimal well-being with the organization’s concern with optimizing productivity and quality of product and service. This is what employee and employer alike are looking for. It is natural because it doesn’t require any ‘alignment’ of personal desires, values, aspirations, special motivational effort, or goals with organizational mission, purpose, values, etc. Being in the zone simply optimizes personal as well as organizational progress. “I came to realize that creating peak experiences for our employees, customers, and investors fostered peak performance for my company. . . . It’s all about where you put your attention. Conley, Peak, p. 13)” “”The person in the peak-experiences usually feels himself to be at the peak of his powers, using all his capacities at the best and fullest. . . . He is at his best . . . . This is not only felt subjectively but can be seen by the observer.” (Maslow, TPB, 1962, pp. 105-6)” “What’s wonderful about . . . being in the timeless now is that the action becomes the reward,” says futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard. (Tao of Time, p. 82) “When we keep our eyes on consistently operating our business by aligning with our core values, the scoreboard does in fact take care of itself! . . . When people are in the zone, all of their attention is on what they’re doing . . . . results just seem to flow from this focus of energy . . . . companies seem to watch only their scoreboard—the bottom line. . . . That gets them out of the zone and invites long-term disaster.” (Managing by Values, p. 49) “When we. . . are totally absorbed by the activity at hand, we become our most positive and productive selves. . . . Engrossed in the now, we slip effortlessly into a no-boundary place in time and space, a timeless dimension where energy abounds and time is irrelevant.” (Hunt and Hait, p. 66)