Plato is reported to have said that “all of life stands in need of a right rhythm.” Another old idea has it that “rhythm replaces strength.” Finding the right rhythm or tempo in one’s life can be more important than developing outer strengths or simply following a plan. Elite athletes are known for rigorous training, setting explicit goals and laying out intricate plans. Yet, many of them can be seen prior to a game listening to music on headphones that block out all but certain rhythms and songs. When all the training is over and game time is close, most are trying to attune to the right rhythm and hoping to get “into the zone.”
The zone is a magical place where time slows down, perception becomes enhanced and actions seem to flow without conscious effort. If they can find their way into the zone, extraordinary things can happen. Not just scoring big or winning, but they might catch that special feeling where everything falls into place and it seems that you can do no wrong. Regardless of outside pressures and inner concerns, an athlete in the zone can become extremely focused and physically relaxed at the same time. Not only is there low anxiety in the zone, but also access to high energy, and uncommonly strong self-confidence.
If the game happens to be basketball, the basket can look huge just before a shot. At the same time, the shooter can anticipate the movements of other players who become unable to defend him or her. Beyond the outer elements of achievement, being “in the zone” can have a blissful quality — not just reaching an optimal condition, more like finding a heightened state of consciousness that can be mind-altering.
After seeing someone play in the zone, observers, including other athletes, remark that the performance was “incredible.” It wasn’t just remarkable; it was truly “unbelievable.” Of course, it’s not literally unbelievable, they just saw it happen and it will likely be replayed instantly and even endlessly on video. It was witnessed by many; yet it remains implausible and hard to believe. Something about the exceptional performance remains incredible and “unreal.”
After the fact the story has to be told over and over. It becomes mythologized, both to prove that it happened and to give reverence to the sense that it involves something astonishing and compelling. Being in the zone means participating in a mystery; that’s why it seems so unbelievable each time it happens. Often those who were closest to the action find it more incredible than others. It may be available on replay; but to really feel it, you had to be there. If you were there, you may have felt the exhilaration of being in the zone yourself. Moments in the zone are unforgettable as well as unbelievable. The magical moments extend beyond the players so that those nearby can also be pulled into the zone and be altered by it as well.
Although most modern athletes envision great performances and prepare for them, no one actually knows when the moment might come. It turns out that practice never makes perfect, that something unseen and elusive must enter the situation in order for the state of elevation to occur. Plato might say that the rhythm must be just right, that exceptional deeds involve a kind of genius, and that genius has its own timing and can add a shine that makes things seem incredible.
Being in the zone is a life-enhancing human experience that can make anyone feel like they are untouchable and “on a roll.” And it is not only athletes who go there. Something similar happens to musicians who find a “groove” that allows them to slip behind the musical form and areas where a profound sense of harmony and moments of grace are waiting to be found. Getting in the groove means slipping out of the restrictions of regular time and shifting into states of heightened awareness where both time and space become fluid.
And it is not just musicians who go there. An artist under the spell of a new vision, a scientist becoming engrossed in an experiment or a writer catching the golden thread of inspiration all enter creative zones where time stops and space becomes altered, where everything becomes extra-ordinary and anything can become a vehicle for creation, invention or the expression of beauty. Being “in the flow” can be transcendent as well as creative, and it can feel like a religious experience.
Contemporary terms for this extraordinary state of being include peak experiences, optimal performance, even nirvana. The ancient Irish simply called stepping into the Otherworld, a magical realm that exists right next to the “real world” where everything becomes enhanced and all the potentials of one’s life can be found and even be renewed. I call it the “genius zone” because one of the most consistent ways to get there is to follow where one’s natural talents and unique genius lead.
The genius zone is the place where incredible and unbelievable events happen all the time and happen to all kinds of people, because each person has some genius and therefore some way to feel the flow and access the zone. Genius refers to “the spirit that is already there” at the birth of each person, embedded in them from the very beginning no matter how humble their origins might be. Genius is one of those things that is “just born” and not made.
The presence of genius marks not simply the exceptional person within the norms, but more importantly the innate style through which each person can escape the dull trap of normality. In order to prosper, the inner genius must be recognized by its host and be confirmed by others as well. Once recognized, the inner genius can act as the intuitive guide and guardian of one’s destiny.
Genius involves specific talents and gifts, but it also includes deeply subjective qualities and elements of originality. There have been many great cello players, but only one Pablo Casals. There have been many scientific inventors, but only one Madame Curie; many wondrous painters, but only one Leonardo. Genius involves each person’s unique way of perceiving the world and unusual way of expressing themselves in it. There can be no end to the shapes and sizes of human genius. When it comes to personal genius, the point is not to compare oneself with others as much as to find the unique form and shape that genius takes in one’s own soul.
Surprisingly, the genius zone is always nearby, partly because it is inside each person. The trouble is that the doorway to it is a moving target. When the door does open, it is often because the heart and mind have become connected. Catching one’s natural rhythm and finding paths with genuine heart are ways to find the threshold more often.
Since the inner genius is the genuine star in each person waiting to be discovered, the best way to educate young people is to help them discover the genius they already carry inside. Since most young people get into some form of trouble, it is helpful to know that genius can be the source of trouble until it becomes recognized for what it is. The best way to improve or reinvent education may be found in rediscovering the role of individual genius in human life.
Developing “genius-based education” may open the zone where learning becomes creative enough that the flow of excellence can be experienced by a great many people and in innovative ways. In the midst of worldwide troubles that threaten both culture and nature, access to the genius zone may be one of the few ways to face “impossible problems” and handle intractable issues. Although the presence of genius does not guarantee goodness, the lack of it tends to elevate mere cunning and false virtues. When the common world becomes shadowed by uncertainty, riddled with conflicts and dominated by an inauthenticity it is a good time to find the genius zone more often.
Not only might there be an increase of creativity and meaningful invention, but natural leaders might rise to the top and help shift both business and politics to more genius levels that serve the greater good instead of the lowest urges for power and wealth. The inner eyes of genius have always been able to see surprising ways to shape paths of meaning, purpose, and healing where others see only darkness and confusion. On one level, we are only frail beings trying to survive in a rapidly changing, often fearful world; on another level we are nascent geniuses trying to contribute meaning, intelligence and beauty to the world around us.
The next blog in this series on Genius will be about the levels of Genius.
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