Eight years ago, Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist, was asked by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post to play near an entrance to a Washington, D.C., subway station. His performance was videotaped so that the reactions of commuters could be studied. Bell selected what he considered the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. He stood for hours in a busy station playing one piece after another. Only a few people even noticed him, and at the end of the day, he had collected less than thirty dollars in tips.
Yet all the children who passed him wanted to watch and listen. On the video we can see them tugging on their parents' arms and turning their faces toward Bell even as they are being led away.
One woman did recognize Bell, and as thousands of fellow commuters rushed by, she listened in amazement to his entire performance. Mostly, though, his playing wafted past ears that, in a workday rush, had no room for music. Of course, no one was expecting him in a subway, and many people have no exposure to classical music. Still, they missed an opportunity for transcendence. Since I read about this experiment, it has become a metaphor for me. I have asked myself, "Do I want to rush past Joshua Bell?"
My thinking is that moments are discrete time, complete in themselves and utterly distinct from the habit-bound wave time in which we all live much of our lives. While minutes are earthbound and can be measured, moments both merge with eternal time and exist outside time altogether.
Not all minutes are created equal and only a few become moments. We tend to greet every minute with demands such as: "I want this. I don't want this. I want more of this. I want less of that." We have ideas about what our minutes should or should not be. We want sunshine or rain, quiet or company, work or rest. We are such yearning organisms.
If we are lucky, occasionally we experience a sparkling moment when we break out of our trance of self and are fully present. Sometimes these lead to epiphanies, which present us with aha moments of new understanding. Or our thoughts simply may be "Isn't this wonderful?" or "Isn't life amazingly rich and complicated?" Or even, "Doesn't this look beautiful or taste delicious?" What makes moments distinct is that we are celebrating what actually is.
As a therapist, I shared many moments with my clients. I recall one with Wanda, a large, plain, thirty-year-old woman from a small town near Lincoln. At first, she had seemed a rather quiet, bland person, but as she slowly opened up and told me about her life, I realized she was remarkable.
When Wanda was eight, her mother died of breast cancer. She lived with her father, who was a long-distance trucker. When he was home, he was a taciturn TV watcher who had little interest in his daughter. Her mother had been an only child, and her dad was estranged from his family. After her mother's death, she was pretty much on her own.
Wanda cooked, cleaned and did her school work. Elementary school was lonely because she had no parent to come to programs and help with events. She liked high school better because of the activities. She was in Spanish Club and Pep Club, but she had never been asked on a date. She cried when she told me that.
Wanda wasn't dating and didn't feel attractive. However, as we talked, I realize she had everything she needed to be loved. I remember the day she discovered that. She wondered if anyone would ever love her, and I asked her to name all the people she loved. She surprised herself with the length of the list. I asked softly, "Do they love you back?"
After a while she said, "I guess I am already lovable." She smiled, her eyes glistening with tears.
When we radiate joy, we attract it. On my best days, when I am out running errands, I try to really look into the faces of the people I encounter. That involves making eye contact and, in my heart, wishing them well. I'll try to beam happiness their way. When I am capable of this, people often respond by beaming back. Their facial muscles will soften and their voices will be lighter and warmer. This meeting can be a matter of milliseconds, but it turns an interaction into a moment.
Of course, I don't walk around joy-filled every day. I am still impatient and easily rattled by stress. I have days when I am lost in a fog of self-pity or soul-draining misery. Many mornings I still wake up in a sour mood, and I can ruminate over a casual remark to the point of absurdity. Even now, my fallback expression is a deep and furrowed frown. I continue to hold my rank as the worst Buddhist in the world. But I am more capable of inviting joy into my life.
In all my years as a therapist, I have never seen people as rushed and distracted as they are now. Everyone is too busy all the time. We have become a nation of multitaskers. By definition, multitasking means the mind is divided and not fully focused on any one event. A very simple definition of mindfulness is doing one thing at a time. If we are planting some turnips, we are doing it properly. If we are reading to a child, that is all we are doing.
I spend much of my time mired in habitual thinking and monkey mind, but I am now aware that our ordinary ways of seeing are but curtains that cover the radiance all around us. When I am fortunate enough to see that radiance, I am comforted. I am less frightened and more optimistic. I trust the universe and my place in it. I do not fear death for myself or for others. I sense that ultimately everything will be all right for all of us.
The universe seems to be much kinder than I ever imagined.
This blog is excerpted from "Stopping for Joshua Bell." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!
Jon Kabat Zinn
Mary Sykes Wylie