God’s Great Experiment

This story was first published in Inspiration-Letters #25, an online magazine of articles, written by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre around the world. The theme for this edition is “Living in the Now”.

This story was first published in Inspiration-Letters #25, an online magazine of articles, written by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre around the world. The theme for this edition is “Living in the Now”.

My father forwarded an email to me this morning — one of those circulars sent between batches of friends and family. I always read them; I know my own friends and family would only share with me those topics that had profoundly moved them or amused them. This one must have been going around for years, and yet the story was new to me. Maybe you know it already.

It was the morning rush hour, some time in early 2007, at an especially ordinary subway station in Washington DC. An unassuming busker played violin, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. During his performance of 43 minutes he made $32. Not a bad haul, until you find out he was Joshua Bell, one of the most highly acclaimed virtuoso musicians in the world. Three days earlier, one of the cheaper tickets to see him play at Boston Symphony Hall would have set you back $100. In concert he can earn something in the region of $1,000 a minute: the same man playing the same pieces on the same violin.

The violin was hand crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, during what was known as his ‘golden period’. The performance was to begin with Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. According to Bell, it is “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.” [Source] It is also considered one of the most difficult pieces to master for solo violin, and is said to celebrate the very breadth of human possibility itself.

And almost nobody noticed.

Only one woman recognised Bell, and was responsible for $20 of his $32 takings. Most of those who seemed to pick up on anything special were children, but they were whisked away by harried parents in the rush to work. Others threw in a perfunctory handful of pennies as they passed, perhaps just out of duty or habit. Some did recognise this was no ordinary busker, but a man demonstrating considerable skill and a deep connection with the music he was offering. Woefully few noticed anything much at all though, buried in their own thoughts and iPods, fixed on some future moment — the start of a working day, a business meeting, a deadline. Many queued to buy lottery tickets at the top of an escalator, well within earshot, not knowing they already had a winning ticket to see and hear one of the greatest performances they may ever witness in this lifetime.

I am not saying getting to work on time or getting children to school is unimportant; I am not saying I myself would have recognised Bell — far from it — but just reading about it saddened me and made me wonder about this age of stress and bustle. Are we so ruled by clocks and achievements that we have nothing spare for beauty and expression? Are we even looking and listening at all, or are we quite literally losing our senses? It was a deliberately tough challenge on the part of those who set up the experiment — rush hour commuters caught in their routine are bound to be a fairly downbeat and inflexible crowd, especially in such an uninspiring setting — but the response is still saddening.

It certainly made me think.

How can I augment my own tiny jigsaw piece of this world, treasuring it more and thus perhaps in some microscopic way raising the general awareness of its wonder? This world is itself God’s great Experiment. Will I then rush past it, flinging behind me a few spare pennies at His creation? Or will I let myself be ravished by His constant outpouring of surprise and adventure?

* * *
I remember a few months ago walking through a railway station somewhere in the north of England. There was a series of hoardings, each featuring a photograph of a destination that could easily be reached from there by train. One was a stretch of moorland, reminiscent of some enigmatic Brontë novel, fading back for miles, as though into the very mists of time. Another was a futuristic angle on a city, all glass and metal, like the winning project in some architectural award scheme. I was not reading the words, but only glancing at the pictures, imagining the sounds and smells that might go with them. A third was of higgledy-piggledy shops and houses, so bent with age they were nearly leaning into one another’s facades across a cobbled alley. The scene was almost ridiculously quaint, like a fairy-tale illustration born of an over-active imagination.

“Imagine living there!” I thought to myself for a tiny moment of childlike joy, before I realised where it was: York. I do live there.

My home is just outside the city walls — a two-mile circuit of stone begun by the Romans two thousand years ago. Through the middle ages, York is said to have been England’s second most powerful and consequential city after London. It also then became the northern capital of the Church of England, and the building of its imposing cathedral was soon under way. Known as a ‘minster’ — originally a missionary teaching church — it is now the second biggest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, after Cologne. It holds the single largest example of medieval stained glass in the world, some of the other windows dating back to the twelfth century. With the rise of York’s importance, the protecting city walls became increasingly fortified, and its four portcullised entrances more elaborate. Since then, apart from retaining its religious status, its power and influence have faded almost to nothing. Its modest size and relative insignificance have thus kept it safe from war damage and inappropriate development. It remains a rare jewel of England, a delicious layer-cake of eccentricities, a living picture book of almost impossible charm.

Appreciating this city is never a conscious effort for me; each time I walk to town, the sight of it really does take my breath away. The streets are so small and condensed, the buildings such a raggle-taggle patchwork of styles and eras, only a slight turn of the head can reveal a whole new undiscovered story. Admittedly some days I appreciate it more than others. When caught in a downpour of hail, or when the ice on the bald cobbled pavements has not been gritted, or when I am quite simply in a rush to get things done, no I do not stop and wonder at the enchanting marvelousness of it all, I just want to get home. But today, sobered by the story of the violin, I am running all my errands at an ambling pace, and via all the tourist routes. Not exactly a hardship on the first sunny Saturday of Spring.

One of the things I love most about this place is that people are almost always here because they want to be. There is no significant business other than tourism, and although it sits exactly halfway between London and Edinburgh, York is not really on the way to anywhere. People visit here from all over the world precisely to be fascinated, to be swept away by legends of conquerors and gladiators and Viking ships, to walk into a living folk tale or a ghost story. Many are children, and those who are not are either escorting children or taking a childlike view. They walk slowly, smilingly, gazing in all directions. They pause to point out a gargoyle in a nook, they queue patiently for a table at the best teashop, they listen attentively to buskers; they are constantly stopping, looking and listening, because that is exactly what they came for. This is perhaps the opposite end of the sensory spectrum from a Washington subway station in rush hour.

Naturally it is a slightly different matter to see these sights every day, to do the shopping and other chores in the middle of a tourist attraction, but today I give all my attention to the people around me, and immerse myself in their wonderment. Two girls walk hand in hand, tiny feet in great big boots, smiling and laughing at a shared story, talking all at once in a Japanese jumble of memories. A hen party gabbles across the bridge, bursting with loud and insalubrious laughter, high precarious shoes, identical devil horns covered in pink feathers. A regatta is under way — teams of university rowers heaving red-faced along the gloss of the river. An elderly couple cling to one another for strength or out of familiar habit. A tiny child peeps out from a fabric sling on the chest of its father. A little boy strides ahead of his parents with a blunt wooden sword and a plastic Roman helmet, protecting them from sudden marauders. English in countless accents, languages I have never heard; faces I have never seen and will never see again. Everyone is looking, listening, stopping, smiling, captured only by a constantly unfolding moment; ordinary people doing ordinary things, fully engaged in God’s virtuoso Performance.

Walking home along the tops of the city walls, I hear the peal of church bells fading behind me. I peer over the battlements to see the long green banks full of daffodil buds, ready to explode into their annual sea of yellow any day now. Stepping down at Micklegate Bar — the old main entrance to the city — I pass one final cluster of visitors, and a woman’s voice is the last I hear. Glancing at the heavy bag of vegetables on my shoulder, she turns to her companion:

“Imagine if you lived here…”

My life must learn
How to become
The life of the world.”
–Sri Chinmoy

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6 replies on “God’s Great Experiment”

What a great post, Sumangali! I closed my eyes and imagined myself by the Roman wall, in amongst all the higgledy-piggeldy shops, listening to the church bells. Thanks for sharing your golden moments with us.

I found myself wondering what Joshua Bell was feeling as he played his heart out to the commuters; subtle amusement, disappointment, wonder at their deafness? I think he mostly was aware only of his own music, like a nightingale caught up in the meaning of it’s song. But somewhere deep down he must have felt a thrill of daring, because he was playing incognito and none of his audience was primed with knowledge of the worth of the music they were listening to and therefore were hearing it with no preconceptions. Which must be a novelty in an audience when you are such a famous musician. When you have paid money for a ticket to a classical concert you are inclined to enjoy it at all costs, to possess it, to feel that you have a part in it, and in some small way that forms our appreciation of it. Whereas if you hear something in a neutral environment, you have no-one to instruct you as to it’s intellectual or spiritual worth; you yourself decide if it is something you want to stand and listen to, if it’s offering you something or not.

I know that despite your modest protests you would definitely have stopped to listen to him, as you are finely tuned in to all kinds of beauty. There’s a familiar moral to the story, isn’t there? A genius turns up and gives a free concert to which hardly anybody listens. The punishment isn’t anything worse than having missed a unique opportunity, but isn’t that a real torture? When something amazing happens and you miss it because you were thinking about something stupid, or wanting to be somewhere else. I’ve had that experience many, many times in New York with Sri Chinmoy. There were times when he was doing something really special, both in general and on occasion just for me, but I missed the full import because I was full of my own old stuff, and there wasn’t any room to take good, new stuff in. I missed a lot of opportunities because I was stuck in some other mental place and wasn’t actually there in the present to receive what was being offered. Not always, I had my perfect moments as well, but I’m just saying that most of us know what it is to miss opportunities and the only thing that can be said for it is that it makes us more alert to future ones.

Here’s to not missing any more!!

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Hita!

How Joshua Bell felt is an interesting question. From the same article I quoted in the Washington Post [here], he says he was more nervous before that performance than he was before actual concerts

‘“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence…”

I found that just as interesting a part of the experiment as the responses of the passers-by. To be reminded that confidence isn’t a given – it doesn’t come from talent, or even the best possible instrument, as they were both equally present on that day. Pretty amazing for someone that talented.

I’m sure you would have stopped to listen to him too, Hita – you are also finely tuned to all kinds of beauty. I know what you mean about special opportunities and circumstances either missed or partially missed because of one’s inattentiveness, ungratefulness, or some other veil of ignorance though! We’ve all been there, right? I’m not really into the concept of regret, as I don’t think it’s very productive, but I do catch myself thinking how much more I would appreciate things now than I did at the time they happened. Even having a simple conversation with a long-deceased grandparent, having adult thoughts and questions instead of a child’s limited perspectives. I suppose these stinging reminders can only make us more alert to the present moment though – the only moment we actually have any control over – so we can make the most of it.

Also I like to console myself with the fact that there are lots of levels of being and awareness. Like for example spending time with Sri Chinmoy, sometimes there would be inner or outer distractions that would complicate an experience. It could be some really simple banal thing like a headache. And then times just sitting at home, even long after his passing, maybe having a really nice meditation, and feeling like he hasn’t gone anywhere at all. And anyway sometimes you feel like you’re not getting anywhere with inner or outer efforts at the time – only later do you start to realise how deeply it’s affected you, right? I’ve felt that for example with going to meditate with Sri Chinmoy in New York, or visiting there since his passing – I sometimes might feel like I’m not able to meditate well while I’m there – sometimes it’s only when I get home that I realise how different I feel, and how much good it’s done me! So I suppose we just have to do the best we can with the “now” we have 🙂

Thanks for the reminders, Hita 🙂

Very inspiring indeed. You’re not secretly working for the York Tourist Board, are you? 🙂
“In today’s rush we all think too much, seek too much, want too much and forget about the joy of just Being.”
― Eckhart Tolle

Yes, Eckhart Tolle, the modern inventor of the present moment! Nice quote, thanks Bhashini. I like the capital letter in “Being” – gives it due importance. I don’t think the York Tourist Board would have me, I only just scraped a grade 5 in CSE History (wasn’t even allowed to attempt the O-Level) so the present moment is the best place for me 😉

Thanks Jaitra! I didn’t think of it as being the lead story as such, but that’s kind of you to say. Very much enjoyed reading the other stories in this edition. Keep up the great work as webmaster – I know that’s no mean feat 🙂

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