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About The Book

Like most moments of spiritual revelation, this one took place on a landfill in New Jersey.

A young man is standing at an unprepossessing driving range, hitting balls toward a distant fence, when something unusual takes place. As he begins his swing, he has the sensation that his club is drawing itself back on its own; when it is ready, it starts downward, makes perfect contact, and the ball soars off in the right-to-left arc he'd imagined, hitting the exact fencepost he'd been aiming at from 250 yards away. He steps back and wonders if he can do it again. He feels like an observer as the swing begins itself and resolves itself after perfect contact with the waiting ball, which again smacks against the distant post.

He has, for however brief a time, entered “the zone.”

Everyone who plays a sport knows that fleeting, ineffable sensation of everything falling into place: The pitched baseball looks as big as a grapefruit, the basket looks as wide as a trash can, the players around you are moving in slow motion. But as Richard Keefe, the director of the sport psychology program at Duke University, looked deeper into the nature of his experience, he found profound links to the spirit, the brain, perhaps even the soul.
Keefe recognized that the feeling golfers and other athletes have of “being in the zone” is basically the same as a meditative state. And as a researcher with experience in brain chemistry, he went one step further: If we can figure out what's happening in the brain at such times, he reasons, we can learn how to get into that “zone” instead of just waiting for it to happen. This is the Holy Grail of sport psychology—teaching the mind to get out of the way so the body can do the things it's capable of doing. Keefe calls it the “effortless present,” when the body is acting of its own accord while the brain has little to do but watch.

All religions describe some kind of heightened awareness in their disciplines; Keefe explores whether such mystical experience is a fundamental aspect of our evolution, an integral part of what makes us human and keeps us from despair. And he brings the discussion back to the applications of such knowledge, reflecting on our ability to use these alternate planes to achieve better relationships, better lives, better moments. Keefe's true subject is extraordinary experience—being in the zone, in the realm of effortless action. On the Sweet Spotbuilds from the physical and neurological to the mystical and philosophical, then adds a crucial layer of the practical (how we can capture or recapture these wondrous states). It is a work in the proud tradition of The Sweet Spot in Time, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and How the Mind Works.


Chapter One: Spontaneous Generation

I did not really trust the orthopedist who was about to operate on my knee. Maybe that was why I wanted to stay awake during the surgery. A friend of mine who was an M.D. told me it was safer not to have general anesthesia, and I was nervous about the surgery, even though it was minor. I don't really remember why I was afraid. Perhaps it was because I was thirty-two at the time, and my life felt so empty. I had just finished graduate school in clinical psychology a year before, and was having trouble finding much inspiration in my new position as a faculty member in a psychiatry department. Each day of research on the causes of schizophrenia seemed to be fraught with interpersonal battles disguised as politics disguised as scientific inquiry. My personal life had no future either: I was dating a young woman who had just finished college and lived with her mother. I was on the cusp of middle age, and she was dyeing her hair a new color each month and wondering what it would be like to have a job. I guess being with her helped me ignore the fact that time was racing along, and I was stuck by the side of the road with a flat tire. What if I were to die or become crippled during the operation? Who would be there to care about what had happened? Who would know about all the plans I had made?

Lying flat on my back in the operating room, with nothing but a flimsy hospital gown-thing draped over me, I discussed with the anesthesiologist my preference to stay awake during the surgery; she seemed a little chagrined, but accepting. The orthopedist would have none of it: I recall him storming into the operating room, not even breaking stride as he said, "That's okay if you don't want a general anesthetic," getting me to open up in optimistic anticipation, "but I won't be doing the surgery." Punch in the stomach. Now, I had done a bad thing. Of course I would relinquish my tiny little toy gun in the presence of someone holding a nuclear weapon. I had angered a man about to pierce my flesh while I was unconscious. I don't remember what I said next; I only remember someone fitting a gas mask onto my face and counting backward from ten.

When I awoke, my red-haired girlfriend (wasn't she blonde when I went under?) and a friend of mine who was a psychiatrist at the hospital were there. I had hoped that having nearby a friend who was on the medical staff at the hospital would somehow get me better treatment, or even save my life if it were endangered. But my orthopedist, who obviously preferred to have people unconscious, had little respect for my psychiatrist buddy, whose job it was to make people less unconscious. As it turned out, though, I needed someone with a caring demeanor to break the news to me: The orthopedist had enlisted my friend to explain to me that my years of playing sports had completely worn down my knee, and that the little pain I was having was the burning friction of bone against bone. I would never again be able to participate in vigorous athletic activity.

I was devastated initially, but this feeling strangely lifted after about an hour. When I had recovered enough from the surgery to be discharged, and the anesthesia diminished to a pleasant afterglow, my girlfriend drove me home in my convertible. We stopped along the way for her to go to a hair appointment, and I waited in the car, pondering my loss of identity as an athlete so intently that I didn't even notice that when she got back in the car she was a brunette.

We drove along through the older, richer, back roads of Westchester County, and passed a vast expanse of fields and trees, encircled by a century-old, waist-high stone wall. The April afternoon was warm and cloudy, pregnant with new life and the possibility of rain. On the other side of the stone wall, small groups of people were hovering near each other, moving in clumps along the field. My cognitive functions had been slowed by the pain medication and, for about a full minute, I did not know what they were doing. I felt a longing to be with them, engaged in their activity, but I had no idea what it was. The emotional centers of my brain were unaffected by the lingering effects of the medication, but my analytical abilities were shut down. I did not dwell considerably upon what I didn't know about their activity; rather, I bathed in my longing. I felt a primal need to be with these people, doing whatever it was that they were doing. I did not even know if they were working or playing. It seemed to be both. Farther up the road, the sight of a woman pulling a flagstick out of the ground broke my state of cerebral numbness. Golf. They were playing golf.

I immediately became excited at the prospect of it. Perhaps this would pull me out of my little identity crisis. I would still be able to walk, and I could probably swing a club without hurting my knee, although I'd have to test this when I was healthy again. Yes, I was excited about this. The embarrassingly intense longing that I'd felt could, in fact, be satisfied. When I was a teenager I had had a period of playing golf every day for a single summer. At the time, I'd quit because I began to feel like I was playing an old man's game, and was pulled into the local orbit of my buddies playing team sports. Now, ironically, I associated golf with youth, and didn't even think about how the swift insertion of an arthroscope into my knee had sentenced my body to middle age as quickly as Dr. Knock-you-out could say "sedated." Golf meant endless adolescent summer days to me: Warm up by putting on your shoes, then play forty-five; go home for dinner, come back the next day. Only in retrospect can I see the human resiliency in my sudden revitalization. Part of it may have been a quirk in the timing of my brain's recovery from the pain medication: I could recall my intense, youthful joy without quite knowing what was making me happy. I felt as though a course had been set: I would play golf. My knee would not hinder me there. I was young again.

I found that my knee injury did not affect my swing at all, and the walking was therapeutic. I started off slowly at first, hitting balls occasionally, practicing my putting, then playing six-hour rounds when I was able to get onto the crowded New York area courses. Several months later, after haircolor girl had told me on Thanksgiving night that she was seeing a younger man -- while we were in the bathtub together -- I met my future wife. She was friends with a group of tennis players who also played golf, and I began to play and practice with increasing frequency. The depth of my relationship with this woman, and with the game that would infuse my life, grew in parallel. One of her friends, as well as her parents, lived in Suffern, New York, which permits residents to play at Spook Rock Golf Club, one of the finest municipal courses in the United States. Since she never had the patience for golf, she would socialize with our group on the practice range, then visit her parents while I played.

As I warmed up on the range, my focus on golf would begin to narrow, and my attention to her and the others would become fleeting, almost false. As our foursome packed up to head for the first tee, she would kiss me goodbye and say, "have fun," but I had already left. It was as though we were now characters in two completely different movies. She was in a romantic comedy, making jokes with her husband and their friends, immersed in the interaction of the people around her. I was in a war epic; my kiss goodbye was dramatic, perhaps final, as I headed off into an unknown land of potential heroics and unspeakable lurking horrors. My return was much the same: I had battles to speak of, some of them bloody. She asked incomprehensible questions, such as, "Did you have a nice time?" The contrast in our communication was like a dream, where bizarre and incongruous events are treated with nonchalance.

I: That two-tongued half-lizard, half-man is going to kill us!

She: Tea?

As my interest in golf flourished, I looked for any opportunity to play or practice. I developed a real love of hitting balls. I would practice for hours, standing behind the ball, picturing the exact flight that the ball would take, the exact swing that I would make. Then, I would approach the ball, get into my stance, and try to make the image I had created transform itself through me into a golf shot. When I was successful, I felt a great inner satisfaction. I felt as though I had a special gift, that I was able to enter into a mental state where I could turn my inner pictures into real events in the outer world. It was this extraordinary feeling, more than any other, that drove me. I felt, in each swing, that I was creating a work of art. I was making an internal image come to life. The process made me feel powerful and confident. I recalled the time in my youth when I had rejected golf, feeling that it was a meaningless activity; quite the contrary now, I felt there was something elemental in what I was doing. I felt such a basic intensity that I could have been running through the jungle, chasing my prey fifty thousand years ago, or confidently making a complicated, delicate maneuver to dock a spaceship to a space station, far in the future.

This intensity brought a tremendous joy to my life. I practiced in the evenings, played on the weekends, and spent the rest of my free time with my wife-to-be. The progress of research into the causes of mental illnesses moves slowly, and uninspired researchers like me at the time can easily get lost in the meandering crowd if they wish. I had plenty of free time if I wanted it; I didn't miss any important meetings, but I missed the unimportant ones. In a research career, there are nine bad ideas being pursued for every good one. I simply cut loose a few of the projects that were going nowhere. I sometimes worry that, by doing so, I cut loose the cure for mental illness. This is unlikely; when I looked around my department, I saw a number of people who were wasting a lot more than a few ideas. I again felt as though time were racing along, but I was no longer an observer; some of the others now seemed stuck by the side of the road, while I was flowing with the traffic in the open air. The breeze was light and the sun was warm. I felt my hands as they grasped the wheel.

When my wife-to-be and I became engaged to be married, I moved from Westchester County, New York, to Bergen County, New Jersey. This move tore me away from a region steeped in some of golf's greatest history and tradition, to an area that was ranked as the third-worst county in the United States for golf. There were four county courses, and each one was terrible. I played them whenever I could. After all, the closest I've ever gotten to the Westchester courses like Winged Foot was watching Davis Love III win the PGA championship on television. Furthermore, a mile from our apartment in Edgewater was a driving range with a putting green. It was located on a converted landfill along the Hudson River, in the heart of a Korean section of the county, and the owners of the range were Korean, as well. It had the only snack room at a golf practice facility I have ever seen that sold a variety of green teas. Some evenings, with the 100 or so stalls two-deep in people waiting to pound jumbo buckets of 200-plus balls, I was the only non-Asian there.

I took comfort in the company of my equally obsessed brothers-in-arms. I sometimes practiced deep into the evening, as the lighted range was open until midnight (a happy fact that prompted a lawsuit by the tenants of the Manhattan apartment buildings across the Hudson, who were kept awake by the glaring lights). During the winter, the range was heated, and each stall was encased on three sides by thick, insulating plastic. During a strange weather period that included a series of ice storms, the range was covered in a thick blanket of ice, and each shot skittered and bounced along as though frictionless, until it found the net at the back of the range. This was the first time that I had been able to work on my swing through a winter, and the dramatic improvements made me wonder how professional golfers could ever be raised outside of southern climes.

At times, when I practiced, I had a vague feeling of a presence with me. It was sometimes the inner chattering of my mind, perhaps half words and part phrases directed toward improving my swing: Hands there...loose, uh-huh...through to finish, like that...felt the big muscles that time...yuh. When the chattering died down and my focus improved, the presence remained, hanging there. One day, quite suddenly, a warm and pleasing sensation spread through my chest. I felt happy and sad at the same time, and I felt vulnerable, yet safe. I was somewhat confused by all this, and was reminded of the time when I had first fallen in love with my wife. As I stood pondering all these different feelings, I developed a distinct and startling impression that I was not alone.

A few weeks later, as I practiced at the range in the summer, I again had the feeling of a presence with me. At first, it was like background music -- a nice accompaniment that seemed to comfort me as I hit each shot. It then became fuller and more encompassing. My swing felt particularly fluid that day, and I was amazed at my ability to visualize the exact trajectory of where I wanted the ball to go, and then to manifest that same image by hitting the ball just right. I worked on moving the ball from left to right and right to left around the different flags that covered the practice area, and never felt more in control of making the ball go wherever I wanted it to. Yet, I had a strange feeling that it was not me swinging the club. It wasn't that I felt as though I were possessed, or taken over by an alien force, or anything weird like that. It was just that I felt I didn't need to put forth any effort to swing the club. The initial part of my swing, when I first brought the club back, was happening on its own. It seemed at times that the club was swinging itself. I had an impulse to head out onto the course and play a quick round, figuring that I shouldn't waste all these great shots on the practice range, but I was so enthralled and focused on what I was doing, I just kept hitting away.

I decided to experiment. I aimed at a telephone pole that held up the net at the back of the practice range, about 250 yards away. The ground was very hard and dry, so my best drives could hit the net after a few bounces. I got behind the ball and aligned myself toward the pole, then saw a picture of my drive sailing off toward the net, bouncing twice, and landing solidly against the pole. I even heard the distant plonk of the ball smacking against the wood, like a broom handle on a coconut. As I got into my stance and readied myself to swing, I completely let go of any feeling of trying to hit the shot. Years before, I had read a book about Zen Buddhist archers who draw back their bows then, rather than shoot the arrow, wait for the arrow to be loosed toward the target. I followed the same approach: I waited for the club to be swung. I did not try. I only waited. When the club finally began moving back, I felt almost as though I were an observer. I knew they were my hands, and my club, and my torso twisting my weight onto my right foot, but I felt that the swing was being started, and completed, as if of its own accord. Just as I had pictured seconds before, the ball rocketed toward the telephone pole on a straight, unwavering line, took two hops along the same line and bounced up against the pole.

Goose bumps raised along my neck and shoulders. I didn't initially feel a sense of pride; what I had just witnessed seemed merely a statement of fact. I had fully expected to hit my target and, when my goal was accomplished, I wasn't surprised. I decided to repeat the experiment. Again I pictured the ball sailing toward the net, bouncing twice, then hitting off the pole. Again I let the club swing itself, and again my picture was brought to life in my swing. The third time, I pictured the ball bouncing three times before hitting the pole, and I saw the trajectory of my drive being a little higher than before. My shot matched my picture exactly, except, at the last moment, it bounced just to the side of the pole, missing by inches. This felt like a cosmic wink -- an assurance that, indeed, I was not in control of this mechanism, it was. I became so excited at what had just happened, and at the possibilities that might lie ahead for me in my golf game, that I put down my club and walked over to a pay phone to call my wife to share my excitement with her.

When I told her the story of what I had done, she, too, became excited. She wasn't just happy for me; she could tell that I had come upon something important. She often felt that I didn't believe enough in myself, and she hoped that I had now found a way to be more confident. After listening to me and sharing my excitement, she said to me, "This is wonderful! There are so many things you can do with this. You could even use it in your work."

Her statement jolted me out of my reverie, and annoyed me; she was suggesting that I melt down the key to heaven, and sell it as scrap metal! I wanted to delight in the moment, to share this experience, and look at it as an act of creation; she wanted to know what its use was going to be. "But I'm not talking about my work now," I said, the irritation showing in my voice, "I'm telling you about an experience."

"Yes, but there is so much more you can do with what you've found," she said, almost pleading. "It's not just golf."

I had trouble with those words being put side by side. I became cartoonishly defensive, unreasonable, and arrogant. "Just golf? Just golf? This experience, this moment, is golf! When I allow the club to swing itself, golf is everything; there is nothing else."

She realized that she had stepped on my toes, which were often in the way when it came to golf. She knew I was conflicted about playing the game and devoting so much of my attention to it, and she knew that there was no way to get me to see the larger picture of my experience this time. With the deftness of a bullfighter, she stepped gracefully to the side of my oncoming charge. "Well, I didn't mean to rain on your parade." She even resisted her impulse to add, "but there's so much more here," and we hung up.

When I got back to the range, I still was able to hit good shots but, initially, I had the petulant feeling that the wind had been taken out of my sails. I continued to hit balls until again I relaxed into a nice zone. Each shot began to feel crisp again, and I began again to visualize exactly where the ball would go. I started to believe that there was no limitation on how accurate I could be. I could hit any target. Twice, I hit the exact flag I intended to hit. And then something really unusual happened: I realized that my wife was right. This wasn't just about golf. If I can visualize what a golf ball will do, then allow that picture to become manifest by swinging a club, what other possibilities are open to me? I fully felt the power of this belief, and again had a strong sense of a presence with me, within me. I wondered what this presence was, and I thought about where I could turn to get answers to the many questions that were coming to me. Had I accessed some kind of natural brain mechanism that allows us to perform our best when we awaken to our potential? The more I thought about these questions, the more I felt I had to follow them wherever they would lead me.


Many golfers have described feeling as if the club is moving on its own. Athletes from other sports have said the same thing. During their epic home run battle in 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire independently described a similar experience. McGwire said that, when he was at bat, he sometimes felt as if he had lost control of his body, like he was outside of himself watching in slow motion as the bat connected with the ball perfectly, solidly, creating a force and a power that was generated from outside him.

Years after I first felt that golf club swinging on its own, Dan Brooks, the women's golf coach at Duke, relayed a similar experience when he returned from watching Jenny Chausiriporn play against Se Ri Pak in an eighteen-hole playoff for the 1998 U.S. Women's Open. On the day before the playoff, a group of us who had just played at the Duke University Golf Club watched from the snack bar while Jenny battled to tie Pak. When she made a twisting forty-foot putt to tie for the lead on the 72nd hole -- a putt Johnny Miller later described as "the most dramatic putt in the history of the USGA" -- the snack bar, filled with middle-aged men and the pro-shop staff, erupted. Several of us were so excited for her (and perhaps wanted so much to latch onto her success) that we looked into hiring a private plane to fly from Durham to Wisconsin to watch the playoff. The Jennymania was eventually nixed since the Duke pro-shop guys would need financial support for the endeavor, and Athletic Director Joe Alleva rightfully decided that would probably violate seventeen different NCAA regulations, as well as three tenets of common sense. The end result, however, was that Dan Brooks got on a plane to fly out to Wisconsin to be there with Jenny. He told me what Jenny had described about her forty-footer on the 72nd hole: "She was so far into the zone that the putter seemed to move on its own." The look of complete shock on her face after she made the putt confirmed that she felt somehow removed from her tremendous achievement.

This experience, associated with a performance so extraordinary that it borders on magic, underscored the importance of the phenomenon. The putter didn't move on its own when she was tapping in for par, which would seem more likely, since tapping in for par is so easy and automatic that the brain could be busy doing something else. No, it moved on its own when this twenty-year-old amateur was standing over the ball peering through the threshold of history. How was it that she and I had had such similar experiences while executing shots that wound up being so phenomenally good? Was this just the way that people overinterpret chance events? Or was there some brain mechanism in operation? What would cause the brain to do this? Was there some adaptive value in parts of the brain dissociating themselves from particular intense experiences? Or were there more specific brain processes involved? The idea that we can be taken over by an outside force that moves our bodies seems highly unlikely but, at this point, I was open to any possibility. And, more than anything, that made me feel like I had come upon the right track.

Copyright © 2003 by Richard Keefe

About The Author

Photo Credit: Butch Usery

Richard Keefe, recognized globally as an expert in neurocognition, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and psychology at Duke University Medical Center and adjunct professor at the Duke-University of Singapore Graduate Medical School. His work for the past twenty years has focused on applying innovative strategies in neuroscience to measure human cognition.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 4, 2003)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416584902

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