A friend of mine recently emailed me the following passage. I believe that it has been circulated widely so you may well have read it before.
“A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, continued to walk.
A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the boy stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.
Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100. This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people.
In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”
You can watch the video or read the original article about the experiment as published in the Washington Post here.
After I read this story I started to reflect on a ten-day silent meditation retreat that I went on at the end of 2008 in Herefordshire, England. No reading or writing materials, music devices or mobile phones were allowed. Nor were participants allowed to speak or engage in any form of non-verbal communication. Asking the teacher for assistance if it was required was acceptable but otherwise each day was spent in complete silence. Needless to say, other forms of stimulation such as caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes were also strictly prohibited.
Waking at 4am, we practiced around ten hours of meditation each day. We received instructions from our teacher at various times throughout the day and each evening we listened to a recorded lecture. These were the only forms of external stimulation that we received. The first 2-3 days were spent focusing entirely on our breathe while the remaining days we practiced a meditation technique which encourages awareness of sensations in the body that you would never normally be aware of.
The first few days were hell! I had terrible headaches and strange dreams, I battled boredom and frustration and I even fainted during the first meditation session. However, despite it being one of the most challenging things I have ever done, it also turned out to be one of the most rewarding.
Every day around lunchtime we had an hour free. During the first few days I would retreat to my bed out of sheer exhaustion (meditation on this scale is surprisingly tiring). Towards the end of the retreat, however, I started to use this time to walk around the grounds, along a little dirt track through the woods. During those walks I found myself paying meticulous attention to my surroundings. I started to take a child-like delight in all I saw. As if for the first time, I saw just how extraordinarily beautiful the sky is, the clouds, trees, leaves, spider webs, puddles, insects… During the meditation sessions also, I began to notice that my mind was becoming less easily distracted and that I was more attuned to what was happening within my body.
The experience showed me first hand just how much we really do miss during the course of our daily lives. It is not easy to reconcile the demands of our lives with an ability to pay attention to, and really appreciate, the wonder that exists all around us. I am convinced, however, that regular meditation, or even taking the time to simply stop and breathe, helps.