New York City has no shortage of music festivals and outdoor spectacles, but The Big Quiet offers something different. An outgrowth of Medi Club, a self-described “place for modern meditators,” The Big Quiet hosts mass collaborative meditation events in scenic locations such as Lincoln Center and Central Park. The events typically feature vendors, musicians, and a mostly millennial crowd, but the crowd turns out for the central meditative experience as much as the other trappings.
The Big Quiet’s blend of wellness and community has struck a chord among its followers: In July, the group took over Central Park’s SummerStage, selling 2,000 tickets. Founder Jesse Israel sat down with the Innovation Group to discuss meditation culture and purpose-driven experiences in the age of technology.
What’s your background, and how did The Big Quiet get started?
I grew up in Los Angeles and I came up to NYU for freshman year when I was 18. When I was 20 and a sophomore, my roommate and I started a dorm room record label managing the band MGMT, back when it was a college band. We created this record label so we could put out their first album. By the time we were seniors at NYU, MGMT was a global sensation and we graduated right into running the record label, signing bands, and throwing events and concerts.
A few years later, we raised a technology fund, so we could invest in startups and help them navigate the music industry. We found a lot of tech startups that were building great products but knew nothing about the music industry, and we would get equity for helping them navigate the space. I did that for nine years, and when I was 29, my heart was falling out of love with the work. I had gotten into meditation in my early 20s, because running a record label and a tech fund right after school is overwhelming. You experience a lot of stress.
I left the company and traveled for a little while, and around November or December 2014 I started Medi Club. It really just came out of this idea that I love meditation and bringing people together and building community around a shared interest. At the time, it was one of the only consistent things in my life. I was noticing that all of my peers from the music and tech industries were learning meditation, but there was no place for these young, active people to practice together.
We did our first Medi Club in my buddy’s design loft in December 2014. I knew at that first night that we had something special on our hands, that people were just really hungry for that experience. We did our next Medi Club the following month and maybe 35-40 people showed up, so this big design loft was getting filled up with people. People who were interested in meditation were coming, but what was really lighting them up was the type of people who were meeting there, who were like-minded and similar but willing to talk about stuff that they’re not used to being able to talk about with people, especially in a social setting.
Through that meditation and doing it in our cool Medi Club way, we realized there was an opportunity to share the values and the experience on a larger scale with the rest of New York, and that’s how The Big Quiet was born. When I speak about why we do something and get really clear about our purpose and mission, it really lights up this generation, and that’s the approach that we took with the Big Quiet.
How have you seen interest in meditation grow, and what’s driving that?
About two years ago, when I ran my record label in SoHo, I used to meditate on the couch every afternoon. People would always ask me what I was doing and what was up with it—musicians, other people from the music biz, and people from the tech world. I would share my stories and people were always interested in joining or learning more. I probably sent about 200 colleagues to a couple of my meditation teachers in New York and LA. There’s real hunger for this. With enough people learning, I realized there was no place to learn together and that what people really wanted was to share the experience of meditation with each other.
We’re a stressed-out generation, and meditation is an obvious source for stress reduction. On a deeper level, as our generation is connecting less with religion and more with technology, there’s we have this hunger, almost like a scrambling, to find more meaningful ways to connect with other people and with ourselves. I think a lot of people are finding meditation as a result of that, and that’s also why people want be able to share it together.
Is there any aspect to what you do in Medi Club or The Big Quiet that is religious, or is it totally non-religious?
It’s completely non-religious. We don’t even tell people the fastest type of meditation—it’s totally non-denominational. We have a technique for first-timers, but encourage everyone to learn everything. We always acknowledge the different meditation teachers at our events. We had our Big Quiet one-year anniversary a couple of weeks ago. We had 2,000 people come, and we asked all the meditation teachers to stand up so everyone could see the different teachers and styles and would be encouraged to talk to them.
With Medi Club and Big Quiet, we facilitate rather than teach. It’s less about stating the facts and saying this is what this is, and it’s more about sharing personal experience and encouraging others to do the same.
Have any other additional practices like sound baths or having live music always been a part of Big Quiet events? How do you those contribute to the experience?
Each Big Quiet’s been a little different, and we’re really starting to find our formula now. Sound baths always happen, and we feel that it’s important to create a little bit of a soundscape and a sound bubble, to help create a container for us. For the past two at Lincoln Center and the most recent Summer Stage Event event, we focused on having a handful of musicians each perform one song after the sound bath. The vibrations of the music help people relax.
We always blend in elements of culture—DJs, musicians, performers, art, cool brands, music—and the culture element is a really critical piece to what we do and the brand that we’re building. Our belief is that meditation isn’t a lifestyle—meditation is a part of how we live our lives. Moving away from the notion of this as a yoga event, we’re very interested in this feeling like an event that is in line with how you live your life. We’re celebrating the blend between culture and well-being, not just meditation.
What’s your take on apps that help you meditate and guide you through a practice?
I think those apps are cool, because they’re helping a lot more people get into meditation and making it acceptable and bringing real benefit to lots of people. My one hesitation is that I would hate to see people feeling like they have to use an app—that if their phone’s dead, they can’t meditate.
If you’re interested in meditation, a lot of people want to share it socially and experience it with other people, and a lot of people don’t know why until they come to a mass meditation and realize how energetically charged that experience is. I do think that we’re drawn to experience it.
What do you hope to see looking forward for the future of community-driven meditation?
I hope to see that it sticks with people—that it’s not just a trend right now, when wellness is booming, but people are actually learning how to benefit so that they can incorporate it into large experiences. I would love to see people sticking with it and making it part of their lives and part of their children’s lives, so it becomes part of how we live as opposed to an extracurricular hobby or practice.
As for what we’re doing, I’m really interested in meditation as a gateway for people to come into this community, to be able to have an experience that incorporates well-being and culture and sets the stage for a deeper way to connect and socialize. I’d love to see our generation come together through something like Medi Club or through Medi Club and really become a global, empowered community. We’re only one year into it, but we’ve had host requests for the Big Quiet in over 150 cities and countries. I’d like to see this happening everywhere and at a faster pace.