Awake but Asleep on the D.C. Subway

When my children were about three years old, I got a wake-up call. I realized how unaware I could be. We were dropping off a relative at the airport, at a time when you could still pull up to the curb by the baggage handlers. I noticed that my children were paying rapt attention to a show going on just a few feet above the throngs of people, but invisible to almost everybody. They had noticed that there were owls perched in the open rafters of the airline terminal.

As they have gotten older, they have not lost their acute awareness; while I, in spite of my wake-up call, still lag behind. Given that, it was with more than a little interest that I read an amazing story this morning.

This past January, in an experiment documented by the Washington Post, one of the great violinists of our time, Joshua Bell, played on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million, at the entrance of L’Enfant Plaza subway stop in Washington, D.C. Bell showed up to play in jeans, tee shirts, and a baseball cap.

Among the music Bell played was the “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, which is—without exaggeration—among the most sublime and moving music ever written. That piece was followed by Schubert’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria.”

What is extraordinary about this story is that of the 1097 people who walked by during his 43 minute performance, only seven stopped. It was a full six minutes into the performance until the first person did. If you watch the video of his performance you can see that most seemed not to notice he was there.

Live life to the fullest! Wake up and smell the roses! Our culture is full of clichés about being more alive and present. Yet most of us remain unaware, living proof that exhortations rarely change behavior.

What then would change our behavior? What would make us more present? All that is required is for us to become aware of what is getting in our way.

Consider a D.C. subway commuter. When he woke up in the morning of his encounter with Joshua Bell, he probably did not notice how quickly the mind activity of his ego absorbed his attention. He probably didn’t notice how his ego instantly checked in to its physical and psychological aliments. Back pain? Still there. Afternoon meeting to worry about? Still there. Problematical financial situation? Still there. Good! All systems go. In other words—and for all of us—the ego thrives on defining our identity by our problems.

Before getting out of bed, anxiety about the day may begin to mount. The ego mind will then go into action, scan the world, and comes up with a cause: “I know why I am anxious, I have a difficult business meeting at 3 P.M. today. Joe will be there and he always creates conflicts.”

On the D.C. subway, the commuter may begin to imagine scenarios in his head. “Joe will say this and then I will respond as follows.” His day is almost ruined and it has hardly begun. Having turned to his ego for guidance, the ego stream of thinking continues on the subway ride. “I have got to get out of D.C. I have to find another job.”

By the time the subway ride ends, the commuter is too distracted by his mind activity to even notice the extraordinary music he is about to walk by. One wonders, what quality of work could he possibly perform while in such a state of being lost in his ego?

No wonder that I meet government employees in their 30s and 40s who are already dreaming of retirement. I mention government employees because the Metro station at which Bell performed is in the heart of a myriad of non-descript Federal buildings.

Yet for any of us, the journey to be more aware and more present can begin at any time. The first step is to realize that there is another way to be and that this other way waits on our choice. Although changes in our external circumstances may be called for, the journey towards this other way rarely begins with those sorts of changes.

Instead the journey begins by noticing our ego stream of thinking and then turning from it. If you are able to notice your ego stream of thinking, there must be something present in you other than your ego. That something is the awareness and presence that you are seeking. It is that presence that is the source of joy, vitality, love, and happiness. That presence is always with us, we just have to value it.


6 Responses to Awake but Asleep on the D.C. Subway

  1. askbusinesscoach says:


    Wonderful piece and so true. Eckhart Tolle has been writing on the subject for sometime now and has had some success. I’m in NYC frequently and it’s amazing how many people do stop and listen to the musicians, but I wonder what they are thinking when they hear those wonderful sounds. Would be interesting to see what would happen if Joshua Bell played in the subway at Grand Central at 8:OO AM on a Monday.

  2. Sadly I wouldn’t bet on it being much different in Grand Central. When I have passed through Grand Central I have always been stunned that no one looks up at the magnificent ceiling with its mural of stars.

  3. Robert W. Gast, Jr. says:

    The work of David Whyte is about how individuals find their “souls” through their work and learn to recognize their inner voices.

    Creating this kind of work environment and structuring an organization which supports it requires a different way of thinking about traditional organizational structures. I have noticed that many execs in their mid to late 50’s (and older) struggle with the “new” workplace.

    My experience has been, and I think there is emerging evidence to support this, that allowing more freedom to employees and associates in not only methods and conventions but also in seeking seek new opportunities creates MORE accountability and better performance and results. This seems counter intuitive to many older execs who seem to believe that layered, up/down structures drive accountability and results through control at the top.

    Barry’s piece here which speaks of “letting go” to see the trap of ego-centric thinking, by having an awareness of it, drives us closer to something more substantial and real which can be the turning point towards true creativity and discovery. This is where the most gifted and talented operate from. Management teams that recognize this, will continue to develop structures that support this and they will reap the benefit of finding and retaining the best. In short, this approach aligns the interests of the org with that of the individual and associates who comprise it. Greater accountability is a natural by-product of this approach.

    Bob G.

  4. Bob,

    I’m probably spoiled because individuals over fifty who show up for my classes or seminars usually have an openness for going beyond their current understanding. This is in part because they have self-selected the learning opportunity.

    This past spring a student who had just turned fifty told my leadership class that he was glad that he was experiencing this course now because he was sure that he would get more out of it than they would. This willingness to see another way can occur at any age but sometimes experience makes us more open. The execs you mention may unfortunately choose to go through life “kickin and screamin.”

  5. Bob Gast says:

    For the most part, I have observed the following about those execs who were weened in the sixties, seventies and even some in the early eighties.

    Some see the move towards matrixed and self-organizing organziational structures as another Dilbertesque “fad” (these folks have been shellshocked with severe change over the course of their careers that they were completely unprepared for). Others can simply not fathom that there is a different way of approaching organizatonal structures in order to maximize productivity via personal fulfillment in the workplace.

    My experience indicates that in this latter category you find folks who are very insecure and are holding on. I think most spend their time in a self-fulfilling end game looking to sustain the illusion that they are not becoming irrelevant. Many of these folks are getting out or more frankly are being asked out of the game. Obviously, if they have the courage to learn and become aware of new ways, like the student you referenced above, they gain back their relevance or enhance that which they had.

    The ones in the former group (i.e. shellshocked from unexpected changes over the course of their careers) are usually open to new ways, they just need some belief that these new paradigms will work. The point is that these types are willing to turn and consider new paradigms.

    Bob G.

  6. Bob,

    For exactly the reasons that you mention, I always appreciate the opportunity to work with a group for a longer rather than a shorter period of time.

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