Lotus and Rose

The Zone

The Zone

By Joan Tollifson

One night in Chicago, I turned on the TV and happened upon a pre-Olympic women's figure skating competition. Michelle Kwan, who won the gold medal that night, smiled as she skated, gliding through the air in utter bliss. She was in the zone, as they say. She seemed completely and utterly at ease as she twirled, leapt and spun around like a Sufi dervish. Her body performed amazing feats, but she made it look effortless. To skate like that, you have to abandon yourself completely. There is no way to "do" it. You have to completely let go.

Part of the beauty of it is the possibility of failure. It is held in absolute vulnerability. For every winner, there is a loser. There is the young woman who falls during a triple twirl, her dreams shattered in one second.

A year or so later, I was watching the women's figure skating competition at the winter Olympics. A sixteen-year-old girl named Sarah Hughes gave one of the most remarkable performances ever. Sarah was in the zone. And this time, Michelle obviously wasn't. Sarah won the gold medal.

Sarah had no fear of losing, since she was in fourth place and had no real hope of winning, so she skated "for fun," she said. She was clearly mind-blown by her own performance, and being sixteen years old, she was totally out there with her surprise. She kept saying over and over to her trainer, "Wow! I never skated like that in my life! Wow!"

That's the zone. It is never a permanent state.

Once we know "the zone" is possible, there is, of course, the urge to repeat it, especially when the whole world is watching and so much seems to be at stake. And yet it can't be willed into existence, because it is precisely the opposite kind of thing: a surrendering of all control. Words never quite catch it, since the necessary surrender in the case of these skaters also requires phenomenal precision, concentration, skill, discipline, rigorous training, presence and energy.

Any attachment to results is clearly problematic. Sarah Hughes thought she had nothing to lose; Michelle Kwan thought she had everything to lose. In the quest for enlightenment, the attachment to results is again the obstacle, and yet such attachment cannot be willed out of existence. It can only be seen through every time it arises. In fact, the very notion of enlightenment is the biggest obstacle, for it creates the illusion of a future attainment.

In the quest for enlightenment, we imagine that the "goal" is to be "in the zone" all the time. But if anything, it's more about seeing the fleeting, insubstantial, dream-like and impersonal nature of everything – winning, falling on our ass, being in the zone, being out of the zone – and resting as that which includes and transcends all duality.

And what is that? Is it something terribly mysterious and far away? Or is it the most obvious "thing" of all: bare being, present awareness?

And is this awareness a particular experiential state of mind, or is it the unbroken wholeness that includes and transcends all states of mind?

Enlightenment is not about having a sustained experience of any kind, or being in a state of uninterrupted mindfulness twenty-four hours a day. It isn't an achievement. It isn't personal. And yet, this is precisely how the mind imagines it. The mind is forever at the Spiritual Olympic Games, looking for the Gold Medal Realization. And for every winner in such a competition, there has to be a loser: hungry seekers gathered at the feet of mythologized finders.

The finish line exists only in the thought-generated mirage. Bare being is always free and complete. Even when the mirage appears, there is really no-thing there! The only "problem" is that there is some idea that "you" (a mirage!) need to be liberated from mirages. It's like trying to save a movie character from the movie! Joan does not wake up from the illusion of Joan; that would be absurd! There is no one real to be saved! The dream characters do not get enlightened because they have no separate, permanent, real existence, except in the mind. The one who thinks she is having the mirage is part of the mirage!

The dream character is not the dreamer; she's the dream. It's a lingering confusion of identity. It's like those people who come to Nisargadatta and say, "I see there is nothing at all. Now what do I do?"

How quickly the mind reasserts itself!

"Am I really here yet? Is this it? Is there more? What do I do now? Am I done?"

Absurd questions. Funny. Makes me laugh every time when the bubble breaks.

Awareness has no problems, no sense of lack. It is only the character we take ourselves to be who feels inadequate and frustrated, who seeks something better like "enlightenment." The truth cannot be found or seen in the way that you can find or see your car. Because you are not outside of it. It is not an object. It is not somewhere else. Simply see the illusory nature of the separation. See that the entire story, the main character, and all the ideas of what should or should not be, are made up. You are awareness itself, totally free, always present.

Even if the story comes back, even if there is identification with the character, even if there are old habits and upsetting emotions, even if the bodymind contracts in fear, awareness is unharmed in any way. The only damage is in the story. It's make-believe, like the fire in the movie. If the false keeps arising, who cares? Only the false.

All of it is the play of Consciousness. Enlightenment is not a one-time event that transforms "you" into a spiritual superstar. It's this, right here, right now: the sensations of acid indigestion, the screech of brakes, the faint aroma of someone cooking lamb chops down the hall, the direct experiencing of anger or hurt. Nothing at all! Not exactly what the seeker had in mind!

Watch a  video interview with Joan Tollifson on the Photos & Videos page.

Check out Joan Tollison's Web site.

Excerpt from Awake in the Heartland,  pp 110-112
By Joan Tollifson
Published by Trafford
© 2003 Joan Tollifson
Electronically reproduced on Lotus and Rose by permission.