Though I’m quite a bit out of shape to play nowadays, I’ve always had a love for the game of tennis; especially watching the tennis greats over the years, and thoroughly enjoying the pure artistry in their playing. Having played a bit of competitive tennis myself – albeit, nowhere the level of my tennis idols – I have a good idea of the hard work that goes into being good. These guys and gals make the game look so effortless that it shadows the fact that they literally spend hours each day developing their craft.
Within the past couple of decades, I have been privileged to witness history being made in tennis. In the 90′s it was Pete Sampras who had won an unprecedented 14 major singles titles. That guy was an absolute machine! No one at the time could even match that! But early Sunday morning, between 12:30 am – 3am PST, I witnessed Roger Federer become the first man to win his 16th major singles title, and the thing that hit me afterward was that I’ve had the fortune to live in a time to watch the greatest tennis players to ever walk the planet play.
Watching these guys play, the one thing that strikes me is their absolute calm and focus on the job at hand. Few visible outbreaks of emotion. Just patiently playing and doing their thing – and this is important: Responding, not reacting, to different situations; adapting their games to fit with the current conditions. It’s as if – though I’d say there’s a bit of truth to this – they are hyper-aware of everything that is going on around them, and sculpt their play in response to whatever may come at them. It’s thought-filled as well as instinctive.
The Zen term for this hyper-awareness and “intuitive instinct” is called “satori,” which literally translates to “understanding.” Satori is the first step of enlightenment to achieving nirvana. Japanese martial artists liken this state of satori as thought being the equivalent of action. Western cultures refer to this state as “being in the Zone.”
The Zone is a state of duality: Extreme focus and hyper-awareness; analysis and action; emotion and stoicism. In other words, being completely centered in your consciousness. We’ve all experienced “being in the Zone” in some way, whether we’re writing, running, or just sitting quietly, though it is most often associated sports or something active. But here’s the rub about being in the Zone: It doesn’t require any expertise at a particular activity. And while many people have experienced this sporadically and spontaneously, it is actually possible to get into the Zone at will.
Okay, I’ll pause for a moment and ask the question you’re all probably thinking: What does have to do with guitar?
Simple. Playing guitar in the Zone – no matter your experience level – is the difference between playing purely mechanical and playing with true expression – what’s really inside you. I know that people may argue that you should have some expertise and mastery of your current level of playing to really get into the Zone, but remember, being in the Zone is completely independent of any mechanics. It’s a state of mind, and that doesn’t require any expertise. Furthermore, I will also posit that playing in the Zone makes learning much easier because your heightened awareness and “centered-ness” makes you more open and much less analytical.
So given that, as I mentioned above it is possible to actually get into the Zone at will. But this takes a bit of practice, and a bit of mental preparation. People have different ways of getting into the Zone, but there are some fundamental things that you can do to get you on your way.
- First, breathe. It’s amazing how much we constrict our own breathing. I won’t give you any breathing exercises, but take note of and be aware of how you’re breathing. The more even the better.
- Relax your mind. Relaxing your mind is not that you block out everything going on around you, you just don’t allow your mind to wander onto things that are outside of your focus. This is a key of getting into the Zone. From a neurological point of view, relaxing your mind means quieting your alpha waves, so your more creative beta waves take precedence.
- Relax your body. This doesn’t mean go limp. You could be jumping around on stage and still be relaxed. More to the point, relax your chest, which most of us have way too constricted.
Simple things, and I know they may sound a bit nonsensical, and for those of you who are more familiar with relaxation techniques, these steps are akin to getting into a meditative state. Being in the Zone is very much like being in a meditative state. Your mind and body are relaxed, and your attention is focused. But at the same time, you are completely aware of what is happening in the periphery of your consciousness.
To practice this with guitar, pick a piece that you know really well. But this time, do those preparation steps to quiet your mind a bit, then try to play it with your eyes closed. I suggest this so you’re playing completely by feel. Listen to what you’re playing, and just for shits and giggles, play the piece in response to things you hear around you, trying to express the emotional imagery you get when you hear the sounds. I do this occasionally when I’m trying to work out a phrase in a song, and I’m just not “feelin’ it.”
Don’t buy it? I’m not surprised. But there’s a reason that martial artists have practiced relaxation techniques for thousands of years. A quiet mind allows you to respond to any given situation with clarity; with a mind not cluttered by things it shouldn’t be thinking about – especially in the heat of battle where even a slight hesitation due to mental distraction could mean the difference between life and death.
Granted, with playing guitar, we’re not talking about a life or death situation. But imagine the level of expression – no matter your level – that you could experience when your mind is quiet, and you’re playing with the intensity of purpose that comes from absolute focus. That’s never a bad thing.
Give it a try. You may surprise yourself at what you create. From my own personal experience, whenever I’ve been in the Zone, I’ve created my best music be it on stage or in the studio.