In The Zone

In The Zone

It’s a real thing, for sure… an almost mystical feeling one gets, almost like an out-of-body experience. For me, it was always playing the piano without thinking, a feeling of being “at one” with the music, and nothing else in the whole world mattering at that moment. It is like being the right person in the right moment, doing the right thing for the right reason.

A pro basketball player once described being in the zone as a special time when he stopped thinking and simply played the game. He found himself always at the right place on the court at the right time He would get the ball, knowing he would shoot and make the shot, and he did. Every time.

As jazz musicians, we have talked about it and shared our experiences with it a lot. And yes, even 60 years ago we called it “in the zone.” It’s powerful, other-worldly in some ways. And not only musicians can experience it, but other artists, athletes, all kinds of people can, from time to time, drift accidentally “into the zone.”

As far as I know, no one knows how to make it happen, no one has been able to control it. In my experiences, it’s very Zen-like in that it’s a lot like chasing enlightenment. One will never attain it while seeking it… it comes only when one does something creative and unselfish, with a purity of intent.

In trying to analyze where my thoughts are when I accidentally slip into the zone, I realized that at that moment I’m focusing on absolutely nothing, except the music, and the wondrous beauty of it all. I forget where I am, with whom I might be playing, everything, except that magical moment.

Purity Of Intent

For me, the purity of intent has always been a key, an opening for slipping into the zone. I remember sitting on the dock of my lake cabin on Lake Burton one summer afternoon in ’91, not long before I sold it. I was watching a light breeze ruffle the surface of the lake barely perceptively, and I realized that truth, real truth, lay in nature, in all the facets of nature. The waves were exactly the size they should be, given the amount of breeze of the moment… and here was real truth, pure truth, the kind of truth I was finding less and less in everyday life.

My cabin on Lake Burton

A slight digression there, please forgive. I had been sitting there, trying to piece together the elements of some recent special musical moments at EJ’s jazz club in Atlanta, where I had experienced a most wonderful late evening piano dual with Lyle Mays. He would play, then I would play, and we traded off that way until nearly 4 a.m. He was a genius, and he inspired me to play beyond myself. This one time I played, I forgot everything, forgot where I was, and just played spontaneously for probably 20 minutes. I think I might have gotten a “not bad” from a smiling Lyle.

In trying to understand what really happeed, I remembered loving what I was playing, being so grateful to be able to play it at all, and immersing myself in the moment of creativity and sharing. And then it came to me… what I was doing at that moment was as natural as these tiny waves, which were being created by the slight afternoon breeze. A response to the vibrations of life, of possibility, of a love of beauty and of immersing myself in it. And all because at that moment I was playing only for the joy of it, for the love of being a part of it. I was playing with purity of intent.

It turns out that our purity of intent is a driving force for slipping into the zone. The closest I’ve been able to come to purposefully activate that “in the zone” feeling is a combination of doing something I dearly love, then concentrating totally on it. Even then, it’s anything but a sure deal. All I know is that those two elements are present when the zone takes me over.

Years later I have worked on, from time to time, my “purity of intent” in other areas of my life. In that regard, I got all kinds of assistance from the Buddhist monks who knew (at least those who could speak any English) exactly what I was talking about. A few of them told me they reached that zone almost every day, and that chasing it and wanting it was the one sure way to never get it… again, just like enlightenment.

And, of course, Vibrations

I have a theory on all that, which I will share with you as you already know I’m at least half crazy. It has everything to do with vibrations. We are a vibratory animal, the universe is a vibratory animal, and at the very least we have to acknowledge that vibrations, while mostly invisible to the naked eye, are the main vessels of transmission from our observable reality to other times, places, and perhaps other dimensions. Vibrations… invisible, powerful. Animals are acutely attuned to them. Us, not so much. But I feel it’s the musical vibrations which can more easily transport us if we’re in the right frame of mind… purity of intent.

Albert Einstein said these things – “Everything in life is vibration”
“Concerning matter, we have been all wrong. What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses.”
“Everything in the universe is vibrating in some way or another. Even what appears to not be solid, fundamentally at a source level, consists of vibration. Sound is comprised of vibrations, even our thoughts and feelings are comprised of vibrations.”
“Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe,”

So see? It’s not just me. Being “in the zone” is a real thing. Vibrations are a real thing, and one’s purity of intent actually reflects one’s life to one degree or another, because as we know, every action has a consequence. It should be at least an unwritten law that the better we become at accessing our heart’s purity of intent, the better, fuller and more complete our lives will be.

Yes, life is funny that way. We are not born as a blank slate, as some say, for our genealogy has something to say about all that. However, we do come into this world with myriad possibilities and challenges. Sometimes it feels like a lifelong test to somehow succeed and build character, or fail and have to live with it. I know that none of us like the second option, and for that reason nearly all of us lean into our challenges, and overcome them as best we can.

It can be a long and difficult path we’re on… is there not some reward for this seemingly endless persevering and overcoming of life’s challenges? Sure, there are usually many rewards along the way, both big and small. But are they enough? Hell, I don’t know, we’re all so different, with so many different needs and desires.

But I do know this… if we’re able to do the things we love over a long period of time, a peaceful wisdom of ourselves in this life might begin to slip into our consciousness, asserting that we really are in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time. And maybe, just maybe, from time to time, we might get that extra reward, that magical momentary space that takes us away and lifts us, with loving kindness, into the zone.

Steve Hulse


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