It was an iconic moment in sports history or, rather, an iconic eighteen seconds. It was the first round of the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. The Indiana Pacers were playing the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. With eighteen seconds left, the Pacers were down by six, and even their own coach assumed the game was over.
And then there was Reggie. Reggie Miller. He took an inbounds pass just inside the arc, stepped back and lofted a three-pointer – nothing but net. Reggie then stole the Knicks inbound pass, ran outside the arc and lofted a turn-around jumper – and suddenly the score was tied.
The Pacers fouled John Starks on the inbound pass. Starks, a great clutch player, missed both his free-throws. Patrick Ewing got the offensive board for the Knicks, but missed an eight-footer and – who else – Reggie Miller cleared the rebound and was fouled. He sank both free throws and won the game for the Pacers. He scored six points in less than six seconds, and eight points in less than nine seconds.
What was Reggie thinking about during those nine seconds? Was he worried? Was he feeling confident? Or was he planning his attack on his opponent like a chess master? He was almost certainly doing none of these things. He was scoring points, not thinking about scoring points. He was, as athletes put it, in the zone.
A person in the zone, whether a sports star, musician, soldier or teacher, is not thinking about what to do next. He or she is just doing it. In the zone, there is room to do incredible things, but there is no room to think about oneself. The self disappears for the duration of the time a person is in the zone – usually only for a matter of seconds, rarely for a couple of minutes. People lose themselves in the zone.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave the reason for this disappearing person act in a TED talk he gave on being in the zone, or “flow,” as he calls it. He explained that our nervous system is incapable of processing more than 110 bits of information per second. It takes about 60 bits per second just to hear and process what another person is saying – which is why we can’t really listen to two people talking at once. When a person is using all 110 bits in concentrated form, he or she temporarily disappears.
While Reggie Miller was nailing threes and stealing passes and sinking free throws, he was using all the bits of information he was capable of processing. There was none left over to think about himself or tomorrow night’s game or next week’s cover of Sports Illustrated. For a few seconds, Reggie ceased to play basketball; he became basketball. He became one with the game.
It is in those moments, according to Csikszentmihalyi, that humans experience the greatest fulfillment. Isn’t it ironic? People are most fulfilled when they think least about themselves. This explains why using the 110 bits of information to secure oneself or one’s image is, even when successful, always so unsatisfying.
Entering the zone or flow is often associated with eastern religious practices. But Jesus understood human psychology and knew how best to find fulfillment. He told his students, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”
As always with Jesus, this is more than mere word play. It is not a religious platitude masquerading as wisdom. This is how life really works. Jesus understood it because he lived it. Living for oneself is a dead end. Selfishness is a bust. Only by losing oneself – the clamoring, insecure, grasping false self – can one ever hope to find the true self God has in mind.
Jesus invited people to lose themselves for him and his cause. That probably didn’t sound any more appealing then than it does now, and only a few people took him up on it. But those who did changed the world. They talked about experiencing oneness with Jesus and extolled it in terms of glory and joy. They lost themselves but found, as Jesus had promised, a life that exceeded anything they had ever known.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/30/2017