Through my own experience with playing tennis in the zone, I have found a deeper meaning to sport that goes far beyond the notion of peak performance. Peak performance is always a part of the equation, but more than peak performance, it’s the state of unity with the game that becomes the essence of the practice. Oneness with the game, oneness with contact, that’s why I play tennis nowadays. In that oneness with contact comes a deep sense of moment-to-moment flowing presence as well as a sense of presence with the eternal now moment – the ever-present emptiness in which the game arises, in which I arise, in which my opponent arises, the ball, the court, all of it arises in its moment-to-moment play of creative advance.
And as I go deeper into the zone, I realize that even the zone arises in this vast backdrop of emptiness, and I find myself watching my own performance and all that arises as a silent observer, watching without intrusion, without judgment, without any desire to win, nor any fear of losing. Only witnessing, only watching, and at my deepest level of awareness, I know that I am one with all that arises. Not just one with the game I am playing, but one with everything – one with the whole of the universal game, and that sense of oneness includes oneness with Spirit, with God, with Buddha Mind, Christ Consciousness, call it what you will, but it brings with it a sense of eternal peace, infinite love, the ever-present embrace of the Divine, and at this deepest level of oneness, I am one with the Divine.
At first, this was hard for me to accept, hard for me to believe, but when an experience like this continues to happen, not only does it become believable, it also becomes very real. Almost 40 years and thousands of hours spent in the zone has shown me experientially what I never believed was true intellectually. The notion of being one with the universe was crazy talk, mystical hogwash – until it happened, until I experienced that infinite and eternal oneness, that unity with all, that divine self that is me, that is you, that is all of us. At our deepest level, not only are we one with each other, we are also one with the Divine.
I used to think that was crazy talk too. How can all of us be so very different, and yet beneath all of that individuality and diversity, how can we all be one, much less one with the Divine? It just didn’t make sense to my rational mind, but then playing in the zone never made sense to my rational mind either. All the things I was doing to get into the zone went completely against my rational training as an athlete, especially the fact that I was defocusing from the action on the tennis court and focusing instead on the empty space of my contact zone. Not focusing on the ball in a fast-moving ball sport was about the most irrational thing you could ask an athlete to do, but what I was finding out through direct experience was that this seemingly irrational approach to focus was actually a transrational approach to focus. A more inclusive, more expansive, and more comprehensive way of focusing than the traditional way I was taught to focus.
And it has been through the continuous practice of this transrational focus that I have come to experience the deepest reaches of my own identity. For me, playing in the zone has become a spiritual practice. A far cry from my upbringing as a Missouri Synod Lutheran. And yet the oneness with God I feel when I am in the zone is even a farther cry from the separation from God I felt while sitting in the pews of the various churches of my youth. In the past, God was always "out there" somewhere, sitting up in heaven, which was also out there somewhere. Never was God “in here”, in me, never did I feel at one with God in here, at one with the universe in here. Never that is, until I started playing tennis in the zone, and even then it took time before I realized there was something more, something deeper, something always there in the background, always watching, always aware, and although I could ignore this ever-present witness, I could never avoid it. I could never escape it. I could only learn to embrace it just as it had always embraced me, until finally, I recognized the fact that this ever-present presence was me, is me, is my deepest Divine Self.