Perspective

Gen Zen: Former Music Maverick Brings Meditation to the Millennial Masses

Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold and The Big Quiet Team Host Pure Golden Hour, SXSW's First-Ever Sunset Mass Meditation

Jesse Israel’s life had to get pretty loud before it could get quiet.

In 2005, while a sophomore at NYU, he co-founded Cantora Records with his roommate and signed the band MGMT. The indie psychedelic pop/rock group blew up overnight, fueling growth of the label’s artist roster and spearheading the launch of an investment fund for tech startups in the music space.

While the journey was fun and fulfilling, the hustle took its toll on Israel, triggering debilitating anxiety and stress-induced panic attacks.

Jesse Israel
Photo credit: Jenna Duffy

He turned to meditation to work through these emotional challenges and avoid burnout. “I had to Google it,” Israel, 35, recalls with a laugh. “This was way before mindfulness apps and meditation studios.”

Meditation proved to be key to Israel’s personal transformation. “It shifted my relationship with toxic stress and anxiety,” he explains. “With greater clarity, I was able to understand what I stood for and what I wanted to contribute to the world.”

He referred more than 100 colleagues to his meditation teacher and began leading sessions at festivals with bands and their management teams.

“It became this sort of subculture within the industry,” he says. “I loved the intersection of music, community and well-being … blending modern culture with conscious living.”

Israel left Cantora in 2014 and, after a few months of travel and soul-searching, created the Medi Club social meditation community. What began as an intimate and low-key gathering of like-minded meditators quickly took off, prompting Israel to think even bigger. In 2015, he created a mass mediation movement called The Big Quiet, which convenes thousands of people at iconic New York City locations like Central Park, Lincoln Center and Madison Square Garden for group meditations, unique musical performances, clean eating and nontraditional socialization.

We caught up with Israel—who also gives talks about community building and modern mindfulness at Fortune 500 companies and teaches meditation to next-generation leaders around the world—on a recent afternoon in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood to learn more about his purpose-driven path.

Was there an “aha!” moment when meditation really clicked with you and opened your eyes to your next career chapter?

No, it was a gradual feeling—at an intuitive level—that came the more I practiced. It was this gut feeling that I was nearing a point where my growth in the music and tech space was maxing out, and that it was time to move on and figure out my next move. So I committed to honoring and leaning into that feeling. And though it was really scary and in many ways against cultural logic to leave a growing business, when it came time for my company to raise its next round of funding, I realized that would mean committing to several more years. And that wouldn't have been fair to my investors or my co-founders.

So I took the leap. And it was really emotional. My transition out of the company was a six-month process, which is like living with a partner you're divorcing amicably. And I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I just knew what I didn't want to do.

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How were the Big Quiet seeds planted?

I never set out to lead mass meditations. After I left the company and was living in New York for the first time as neither a student nor an entrepreneur, I organized a small group meditation for my peers in the music and tech industries (Medi Club). We’d sit in my buddy's loft in SoHo and close our eyes for 20 minutes. When we opened our eyes, we’d talk about real stuff happening in our lives beyond the success stories or headlines on the latest funding round. I remember that in our first session, there was something really uncomfortable and vulnerable about being silent with your peers, and then coming out of the quiet and sharing openly. It was meaningful and validating for us to connect around common challenges and realize we're all pretty much dealing with the same stuff.

How and why did you decide to take the concept to bigger venues in New York?

After that first session, we agreed to meet monthly. By month four or five, there were 100-plus people crammed into the loft, standing room only. I thought, “Something's really working here.” We weren’t marketing the events; it was all world of mouth. The ingredients for success were creating space for shared quiet and honest conversation, and wrapping it up in a way that felt accessible and culturally relevant.

Around that time—which was about four-and-a-half years ago—a tipping point occurred. People were experiencing so much toxic stress. Mental health challenges were becoming more evident, and the burnout path many of us were on was becoming unsustainable. More and more people were interested in the science supporting meditation and eager to give it a try.

So we decided to take the concept to the city at large, and the Big Quiet was born. We held our first one at Central Park SummerStage, and it was a hit. There was just something about the quiet, the beautiful landscape, the great food, the incredible music. It was a conscious party without the spiritual connotations or new age-y stuff that can turn some people off. We’ve always done our best to make the Big Quiet experience as accessible and inclusive as possible. Since then, we've done Big Quiets in some pretty special places in New York, and last year we went on tour to five cities across the U.S. In October, we’ll visit 10.

The irony of the Big Quiet getting its start in New York—arguably the noisiest, most chaotic city in the world—stands out to me. Why has it worked here?

Like you said, this city is so input heavy. There's so much information and energy here. It’s the city that never sleeps. Because it’s such a loud, crazy place… all the more reason to give people here access to a space where they can come together with people who share their values, sense of community and desire to incorporate elements into their lives that allow them to show up as best and as fully as possible.

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Why is mindfulness and meditation now more important than ever?

Most of us experience such a tremendous amount of information input on a regular basis that it’s becoming a burden on our nervous systems. So much is happening. There’s so much information to process, so much constant contact, and such expectation to perform and deliver. There's pressure to operate at this “hustle, hustle, hustle” pace. So much is happening that's so far away from how our bodies are designed to operate biologically.

A lot of the work I do around meditation is around helping people reset their nervous systems. An interesting stat shows that in a city like New York, our “fight or flight” response—a survival mechanism—is triggered about 25 times a day. Our physiology changes for about an hour each time this trigger happens from things like reading a negative email or a comment on social media, or hearing a taxi blow its horn—things that don't put our lives at risk but shift our physiology into that hyper-stressed survival mode. As a result, insomnia is at an all-time high. About 90% of doctor visits are related to stress. It’s impacting how we work, how we lead, how we engage with other groups, and how we show up in our love lives and friendships.

We’re also surrounded by millions of people, yet often can feel quite alone. Social isolation and loneliness levels are very real right now, and I think that plays a role in the mental health epidemic we're experiencing.

While I try not to get too heavy, I do think it's important to address the reality and understand from a physiological standpoint what's happening in our bodies when we don’t take care of ourselves—and what happens when we lean into wellness. For me, it’s all about bringing people into these tools and practices through a blend of well-being and popular culture.

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