In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context? A famous public experiment says we don’t and we see something else. Similarly, we see pre-recorded images of reality daily, especially when it comes to spiritual life.


It was a cold January morning, 7:51 am. He emerged from the metro at the L’Enfant plaza station Washington D.C. and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station.

Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was 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 kid 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 $32.17 — yes, some people gave pennies. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.


A public experiment on perception

As it happens, no one but just one one person recognised Joshua Bell, one of the top musicians in the world, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn’t know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell’s free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn’t about to miss it.

Joshua Bell played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a Stradivari violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

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. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the 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 most beautiful music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Journalist Gene Weingarten was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his outstanding and thought provoking analysis of the experiment. Weingarten discusses the ramifications of Bell’s subway experience. What role does context play in our perceptions? To what degree is our perception of beauty influenced by our mindset at the particular time we perceive it? He notes:

It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?


Joshua Bell started his one-hour set with “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.” If you think that sounds effusive, consider what other composer, Johannes Brahms, had to say about the same piece of music in his letter to Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife):

“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”


For Joshua Bell this was a tremendous experience. He noted:

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

“The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along …” — and begins the next piece.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”


Pre-conceptions in spiritual life

But was Joshua making too much noise? There’s a simpler explanation for his doubt — people were observing not Joshua ‘making noise’, but noise inside their own heads. Joshua was facing a fundamental truth of the reality we perceive: recorded seeing. As quantum physicist says, “We don’t see what we see; we see what we remember we see. And you can replace this phrase with smell, taste, hear, sense, and perhaps even think. When we see objects out there, we not only see them, we replay all the previous information connected to them through past information recordings.

People didn’t expect a world class virtuoso playing in the metro station in the cold morning, for in their minds that place next to rubbish bin was reserved for poor musicians playing for a few dollars. They’ve projected a pre-recorded impression in their minds and thus couldn’t reach new conclusions, admire beautiful performance and gain new insights.

For majority places for admiring art are galleries, museums, concert halls, not a metro station. Similarly, when it comes to spirituality people perceive analogous pre-recorded messages and follow clichés. Many see spirituality as attendance to Sunday mass or a temple program, Christmas festive and fasting before Easter, observing Sabbath or Janmastami, but not as a spontaneous expression of compassion, kindness and love in everyday environment. Or perhaps insights and inspiration beyond those recorded in scripture.

In the case of Radha-Krishna devotion, they’re taught to expect it to see in a certain Indian ambient. Many will want to have a guru who has lots of followers, who was born and/or resides in some Indian place of pilgrimage, rather than a westerner for example. Their mind will experience comfort when it gets framed into the pre-sketched landscape of secret mantras, strict daily routine and comprehensive set of rules to obey that will ‘set them free’. But their minds won’t be able to perceive a wider world of spontaneous, natural devotional expression available for free.

People in the street dancing dressed in saffron and saris will be perceived as devotees, but many will smirk upon someone in everyday jeans and shirt who say to be a devotee as well. Even if such an everyday person is perceived as a devotee, to many he or she will be of lesser degree and importance than a monk in dress, and people will adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Subjects outside the pre-recorded perceptual frame will be perceived similarly as Joshua Bell — as a poor musician begging for a few dollars to buy, perhaps, a hot soup in the cold January morning. An invisible nobody.

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