Finding Your Element Puts You In The Zone

Peak Experiences and Going With The Flow.

Today we’re returning to some more thoughts from Sir Ken Robinson’s book ‘The Element‘, but first we’re considering a book that was published in 1974 – The Inner Game of Tennis, written by W. Timothy Gallwey. Reviewing this book in Psychology Today, Maurice Yaffe said, “It is much more than an approach to tennis: it is a whole philosophy of life.” The same thing can be said about Sir Ken’s book – it’s much more than a philosophy of learning, or a book about personal development and approaches to creative education.

Both books consider the concept of ‘flow’ and how we need to live and to work (and learn) in ‘the zone’.

Gallwey dedicates his book to Guru Maharaj Ji “who showed me what Winning is”. Both books deal with what 3Di thinks of as spiritual intelligence, as well as all the other sorts of intelligence – physical, personal, emotional, social, instinctual and intellectual.

“It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”

All teachers will be aware of the highly negative effects on children when they experience lapses in concentration, nervousness, self doubt and self-condemnation. The question for teachers of all subjects is, how do they help children overcome these obstacles, and have they received any training in how to do so?

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard. He aims at the kind of spontaneous performance which occurs only when the mind is calm and seems at one with the body . . .

Good teachers know that more than anything else they need their students to be relaxed, calm, receptive and concentrating hard on whatever they are doing. It’s also extremely beneficial if they find themselves doing things that are intrinsically satisfying and stimulating. All subjects and all areas of learning can be satisfying and stimulating when approached in ways that engage the creativity and the imagination of learners.

There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realise. It is similar to the process we all used as we learned to walk and talk. It uses the unconscious mind more than the deliberate ‘self-conscious’ mind, the spinal and mid-brain areas of the nervous system more than the cerebral cortex. This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to UNlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.

To explore the limitless potential within the human body is the quest of the Inner Game.

Gallwey then goes on to discuss what he calls the Zen paradox of ‘effortless effort’, and what he calls the ‘master skill’ – the art of concentration. This is what Zen philosophy calls mindfulness. Gallwey emphasises the need to achieve a state of mind in which we feel concentrated, focused and still.

The mind becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts. The ability to approach this state is the goal of the Inner Game. The development of inner skills is required, but it is interesting to note that if, while learning tennis (etc), you begin to learn control of he mind, to concentrate the energy of awareness, you have learned something far more valuable than how to hit a forceful backhand. The art of effortless concentration is invaluable in whatever you set your mind to.

Only when the mind is still is one’s peak performance reached.

Listen to how DT Suzuki, the renowned Zen master, describes the effects of the ego-mind on archery in his foreword to Zen in the Art of Archery:

As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualise, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes . . . The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target . . . Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in . . .

Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness.

The thought which occurs to 3Di is – what might happen if children are truly allowed to be children and to remain children? To retain their true childlike nature? What if they, and we, never have to re-learn ‘childlikeness’?

Gallwey goes on to say,

It is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious, and true expressions of love are said to come from a source which lies beneath words and thoughts. So it is with the greatest efforts in sports; they come when the mind is as still as a glass lake.

Such moments have been called ‘peak experiences’ by the humanistic psychologist Dr Abraham Maslow. Researching the common characteristics of persons having such experiences, he reports the following descriptive phrases: ‘He feels more integrated’, ‘feels at one with the experience’, ‘is relatively egoless’ [quiet mind], ‘feels at the peak of his powers’, ‘fully functioning’, ‘is in the groove’, ‘effortless’, ‘free of blocks, inhibitions, cautions, fears, doubts, controls, reservations, self-criticisms, brakes’, ‘he is spontaneous and more creative’, is more here-now’, ‘is non-striving, non-needing, non-wishing . . . he just is’.

In short, ‘getting it together’ requires slowing the mind. Quieting the mind means less thinking, calculating, judging, worrying, fearing, hoping, trying, regretting, controlling, jittering or distracting. The mind is still when it is totally here and now in perfect oneness with the action and the actor. It is the purpose of the Inner Game to increase the frequency and the duration of these moments, quieting the mind by degrees and realising thereby a continual expansion of our capacity to learn and perform.

The first skill to learn is the art of letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad. Letting go of the judging process is a basic key to the Inner Game. This is the key to a concentrated mind, and thereby the secret that reveals all life’s other secrets and the source of truth and joy.

When we UNlearn how to be judgemental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, concentrated play.


Western psychologists and intellectuals have been thinking and writing about these issues for at least 40 or 50 years, whilst Eastern philosophers have thought about them and taught about them for some hundreds or possibly thousands of years. And yet worldwide ignorance persists. Why is this?

At the heart of Zen thinking is a concern for both meditation and ‘non-attachment’. Through meditation it’s possible to calm the mind, and to restore an equilibrium of mind, body and spirit. Through an attitude of ‘non-attachment’ we can reduce our egos to an appropriate and healthy size by calmly and objectively considering our actions, our strengths and our weaknesses – without being judgemental or emotionally engaged in the process.


This is Ken Robinson’s take on finding your element, living with ‘flow’ and living ‘in the zone’.

What Is The Element?

The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. [People in their Element] are doing the thing they love, and in doing it they feel like their most authentic selves. They feel that time passes differently and that they are more alive, more centred, and more vibrant than at any other times.

Being in their Element takes them beyond the ordinary experiences of enjoyment or happiness. We’re not simply talking about laughter, good times, sunsets and parties. When people are in their Element they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose and well-being. Being there provides a sense of self-revelation, of defining who they really are and what they’re really meant to be doing with their lives.

How do we find the Element in ourselves and in others? There isn’t a rigid formula. The Element is different for everyone. In fact, that’s the point. We aren’t limited to one Element.

The Element has two main features, and their are two conditions for being in it. The features are aptitude and passion. The conditions are attitude and opportunity.

Musicians love the sounds they make, natural writers love words, dancers love movement, mathematicians love numbers, entrepreneurs love making deals, great teachers love teaching. This is why people who fundamentally love what they do don’t think of it as work in the ordinary sense of the word. They do it because they want to, and because when they do it they are in their Element.

Creativity uses much more than our brains. Playing instruments, creating images, constructing objects, performing a dance, and making things of every sort are also intensely physical processes that depend on feelings, intuition, and skilled coordination of hands and eyes, body and mind. In many instances – in dance, in song, in performance – we do not use external media at all. We ourselves are the medium of our creative work.

The Zone

Being in the zone puts [people] face to face with the Element.

To be in the zone is to be in the deep heart of the Element. Doing what we love can involve all sorts of activities that are essential to the Element but are not the essence of it – things like studying, organising, arranging, limbering up, etc. And even when we’re doing the thing we love, there can be frustrations, disappointments, and times when it simply doesn’t work or come together. But when it does, it transforms our experience of the Element. We become focused and intent. We live in the moment. We become lost in the experience and perform at our peak. Our breathing changes, our minds merge with our bodies, and we feel ourselves drawn effortlessly into the heart of the Element.

More about ‘the zone’ tomorrow.

In the meantime, let’s consider how the lives of so many children and young people could be transformed if our education systems deliberately set out to help them find their Element at an early age. And if that happened, let’s think about how our societies could be transformed. How many angry, frustrated and disenchanted young people (and older people) would we still see on our streets? How many more people could be constructive and creative rather than apathetic and destructive? Or self-destructive.

The thing is, we can do this. We can transform our education systems and we can personalise young people’s learning. In fact some countries are already doing these things. Those that do not do so will, in time, be left far behind, and they will bitterly regret it.


So far in Britain the discussion about personalising learning has been focused on the benefits of greater ‘personalisation’ from the point of view of raising attainment in timed tests and examinations. Obviously 3Di considers this to be a completely impoverished view of what personalisation ought to be about – which should be to enable children to find their Element, to learn in ways that are appropriate and engaging, and to raise their enthusiasm for learning for its own sake and for their own sakes.

“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”

― W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis:

“In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.” – Wikipedia


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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