One Sunday, I was heading off to do my usual 7 am grocery shop when I came across some boom gates that were stuck down. There was a police car with the lights flashing and an ambulance, so of course I assumed the worst. Someone’s been hit, I thought, as a wave of panic washed over me. Then the smell came. That horrible meaty smell you only get with those train fatalities.
I can’t deal with this.
I turned into the next side street and pulled over. My heart was racing, my breath was heavy, my legs were tingling from the rush of blood.
After a minute or two and through all the noise and clutter in my head, I remembered something. I reached up and flipped down my visor and saw the little card I’d put there a few weeks earlier. It was a prompt, something that Kara*, my psychologist, had given me to help with moments like these.
What can I see? I can see houses, I can see cars in driveways.
What can I hear? I can hear the music on the radio.
What can I feel? My hands. They are right here. I can clench them and release them.
Once I had my own attention again, I was able to slow down my breathing. I counted my breaths. In and out, that’s one. In and out, that’s two. By the time I got to 20, I was recovered. I was able to continue on my way, do my shopping and return home. I was worn-out, but otherwise unscathed.
Since then, I’ve gotten better with grounding and the whole mindfulness thing, in general.
It was Kara who first got me thinking about mindfulness. She explained it to me one day and I was pretty sure I understood the theory behind it, but I just couldn’t work out how to put it into practice. Then one day I read about the Joshua Bell subway experiment and suddenly, it all made sense.
In 2007, Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten convinced violinist Joshua Bell to take part in a social experiment. Dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a baseball cap, Bell set up as a busker inside a Washington subway station during a Friday morning rush hour.
This was intended as a study in “context, perception and priorities”. Would people notice one of the greatest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most beautiful music ever composed, on one of the most valuable violins ever made?
More specifically, Weingarten wondered, in an ordinary place at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The answer was no, not really. Bell played for 43 minutes, during which time 1,097 people walked by him. And although a number of these passers-by tossed money his way (he made just over $32), only seven stopped to listen to him.
The original article written by Weingarten is fascinating (you can read it here). It won him a Pulitzer Prize. The footage attached to the article is even more compelling.
(Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Bell is standing against a wall and you can see he’s playing his heart out. And I know classical music is not everybody’s thing, but you would think that even those people who had no interest in it at all would still recognise that something remarkable was happening right in front of them. But hardly anybody notices. They stream past him with their headphones on or their noses in their mobile phones and their thoughts are a million miles away. You can actually see it. They’re there, but they’re not there. They’re stressing over what happened the week before, dreading what they have to do later that day or worrying about what may or may not happen next week.
When I watched that footage, the first thing that came to mind was worker bees. Drones.
The day after I read the article and watched the footage, I was out on my usual afternoon walk when something strange happened. I noticed four or five ducks swimming and diving in a big puddle of water just to the right of where I was walking. Ducks.
I walk the same route every day, along a nice track that runs partly through some local wetlands. I’ve been walking here pretty much every day for the last two years, but I’d never noticed ducks before. I’d been so absorbed in my thoughts and my worries that my daily walk had become one of the many things I was doing on auto-pilot. I’d put on my shoes, put on my headphones and just walk. I didn’t look at anybody or anything. I was there, but not there. Basically, I was just going through the motions.
As I stood there on the walking track that day, watching the ducks, I couldn’t help thinking, what else have I been missing?
Walks are different for me now. Even when I’m just out and about, running errands or whatever, I make a point of asking myself, what can I see? What can I hear? What can I feel? I’ve actually started to look at people and if they acknowledge me with a nod or a smile, I acknowledge them back.
I try to get out of my head. Away from all the noise and the clutter.
(*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of those concerned.)