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How The Big Quiet Founder Jesse Israel Brings Mindfulness on the Road

If you’re like me, you look up to entrepreneur Jesse Israel. Physically, he’s 6’4’ and towers above the crowd of people he’s often surrounded by, sporting jeans, sneakers and a hoodie. He’ll look you in the eyes when you approach him; it’s one of his techniques for connection to make those around him feel seen. And as you travel from his face down his body to his toes, he might not be wearing shoes, but instead colorful socks as he prepares to sit down for a 20 minute vedic meditation practice.

But beyond his physical presence, Jesse has made an emotional and spiritual impression on thousands of people as the Founder of Medi Club and The Big Quiet, which builds community around modern meditation experiences in New York and other major cities around the United States. The two brands — which serve the same mission but come to life on different scales —  started as an experiment. What would it look like to gather 20 close friends and share a moment of quiet in the middle of a busy, chaotic city? What would it feel like to pause together? As it turns out, people were hungry for moments like this where they could find respite from careers and busy minds in the comfort of peers. As word got out about Medi Club (some events saw upwards of 300 attendees), Jesse envisioned what the next phase of community meditation could look like.

Photo by Genevieve Kim

Enter The Big Quiet, a cultural event that brings people together from all walks of life for sound-based meditations and live musical performances in iconic locations. Most recently, The Big Quiet made headlines by taking flight for its domestic tour, selling out mass moments of meditation in 10 cities at places like The Guggenheim in NYC, the Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Boston Public Library. Jesse celebrates the fact that the tour sold out in every market, but more so how the tour provided a unique access point to meditation for people who might not have a first-hand experience.

I sat down with Jesse who — among his wealth of projects and frequent travel — has managed to master the art of slowing down. Below, we chat about his essential tips for maintaining balance and ritual while touring for a month straight, how he starts his day at home and on the road, and what it means to take care of his mind so he can live in his full potential. The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

When we are building ritual or routine—especially in this day of productivity and hustle culture—it’s really easy to feel like we need to optimize and do a billion things to be our best, superhuman selves. 

Simone Spilka (SS): Can you walk me through your morning routine?

Jesse Israel (JI): I usually don’t wake up with an alarm, and I work towards going to sleep at a reasonable hour so I can get the sleep that my body needs. If I do use an alarm, it’s an analogue alarm clock that’s battery powered, and I never have to my actual iPhone, computer or ipad in my bedroom. I keep all of that stuff in my living room on airplane mode so I don’t see my phone first thing in the morning.

I meditate for 20—30 minutes first thing in the morning, and once I’ve done that then can I turn on my phone. I’ll usually listen to a morning podcast like The Daily, but sometimes that’s a little too heavy for me and I choose to listen to Discover Weekly on Spotify instead. I like to have a light breakfast and then based on the weather I either ride my bike, walk or take the subway to the gym. After I have a protein-rich breakfast, and go into my office or some working space. I don’t work from home. It’s important that I work out of a space that’s not my home. 

Photo by Genevieve Kim

I don’t take any meetings or phone calls during the first part of the day from 9AM—1PM. It’s my focus block. This is something that I’ve been doing since I ran my record label, and it’s a really important to getting on top of the biggest things for the day and knocking out my first priorities.

SS: Do you set an intention in the morning?

JI: One thing that I do when I wake up is I tell myself that I love myself. It’s the best way to start the day. If I’m experiencing a point in my life when anxiety manifests in my body, it usually kicks in in the mornings. I find a great anecdote to that is spending a couple of minutes before I get up just going over some of the things that I love about myself. It warms me up and usually just melts away the discomfort.

Photo by Genevieve Kim

SS: What are some tips you would give to someone who wants to create more ritual in their life?

JI: I think it’s great for people to try different practices to see what works for them. I know people that do a couple of Kundalini moves in the morning to help move their energy around and settle their nerves or anxiety. I’m a big proponent of meditation and learning a technique that you can use every morning, even if its a 5 minute meditation. You can learn from an app (INSCAPE) or (1GiantMind), or take a training.

When I go through dark times, I have a practice that is super helpful. In the morning, I grab a journal or piece of paper and write down things five things I’m grateful for. One of those things should be sensory, like feeling the breeze on my skin or the sun on my face. Then I write down five things I’m looking forward to that day and one intention for the day which can be something like ‘Go with the flow.’ That’s really valuable when we’re going through tough times. I’d say, just try different stuff and see what clicks until you find something that’s right for you.

When we are building ritual or routine—especially in this day of productivity and hustle culture—it’s really easy to feel like we need to optimize and do a billion things to be our best, superhuman selves. I encourage people to not over-do it because that can get really tiring. Find 1-2 things that are helpful and practice them. If you miss a morning routine, that’s fine. It’s gonna happen and that’s part of being human. 

Photo by Genevieve Kim

SS: How do you describe The Big Quiet to someone who hasn’t experienced it?

JI: We bring thousands of people together for mass meditations at some of the most iconic places in the world. We do this to bring a sense of humanness and connection back in our lives, particularly when our lives feel intense and overwhelming. We slow down collectively, feel into our bodies collectively, talk to people we don’t know, practice techniques like meditation and vocal toning, and soak up beautiful musical performances that really give us a sense of ourselves and something greater than ourselves.

I don’t think we can have a healthy mind without a mind that loves itself first.

SS: The tour is quite monumental both for the brand and culturally — what’s your thoughts on blending meditation, pop culture and music?

JI: From a cultural standpoint, we’ve heard from people and experienced ourselves that it’s very overwhelming being alive in this country today. There are several elements that seem to build that sense of pressure. The first is the constant input and information overload that we’re faced with by the amount of stuff that comes our way digitally. The experience of processing all of this information, on top of feeling like we need to be outputting, performing, hitting goals, kicking ass, posting on social media, showing off that we’re doing great, crushing it in our job and moving up the ladder often creates a sense of burnout or fatigue. It can be a real burden to the nervous system, and that is often compounded by a sense of loneliness.

The mental health in our country is at an all time low, so a lot of people are experiencing the challenges that come with debilitating anxiety, toxic stress, depression and panic attacks. When all of these things come together, it can feel really challenging to be a human. 

When we are able to take an experience that we have crafted over the past four years as something that helps bring people back into the goodness of being human—the goodness of being together and having each others’ backs—and extend it to the country-at-large, our hope is it will create a ripple effect that extends beyond themselves and starts to shift culture. 

SS: How did you deal with stress of anxiety that came up on tour?

JI: All-in-all, we did over 15 Big Quiets in one month across ten cities, and we were taking flights to most of these locations. So a typical schedule looked like 1-2 days in each market, flight and then go into production and hosting. Just that much flying in and of itself is really taxing on the nervous system. It’s a very new phenomenon for us to move through space and time at such speed….to wake up in one time zone and then wake up in another within the same day. 

My whole team meditates and we meditate together on the road. That’s was really beneficial for us because I noticed that when we’re faced with stuff that’s potentially really stressful or scary or requires big change of plans, we’re able to think on our toes and work toward solutions with love. We don’t hold on too tight to stuff. 

For me, I made it a priority to rest almost exclusively when I wasn’t doing The Big Quiet or flying. It was tempting in every new city to see friends or take meetings because we were going to these great cities, but my rule was to just rest and take it easy. Having alone time to recharge is so important for me, so I would see the city by going for walks through the city to markets or parks.

I also got reflexology on my days off which I find is really helpful for my body and my general state of well-being. I’d do acupuncture when I had good recommendations. I find it is a great tool for building chi, or life-force energy. When we’re faced with things that deplete us or drain us, we’re able to build out chi through eastern modalities.

In general, I really listened to my body so if I felt really tired one day I wouldn’t go workout and lift weights. Does my body need rest, does my body need exercise? I was just really honoring that and that was really helpful for me, too.

Photo by Genevieve Kim

SS: How did you maintain your daily mindfulness routine through the constant flux or people and travel?

JI: As a team we made a couple of agreements.

Firstly, we made a decision to not drink  any alcohol. We all drink, but when we were going on this tour and dedicating ourselves to a month of this work, we knew that drinking — which is fun, but ultimately creates more of a burden on the nervous system — wouldn’t make sense for us because we were really trying to stay strong.  People were welcome to break it if they wanted to, but we all had support as a group.

The second was making a commitment to eat really healthy and at really smart times. We ate our meals before the event and warm foods that were simple for our bodies to digest based on all of the things that we were going through. We also made sure to allow our bodies at least 12 hours of digestion between dinner and breakfast so we could really give the body the space it needs to heal and repair itself.

We also knew that it was going to be important to maintain our daily practices, so we all meditated twice a day no matter what. That gave us a lot of sustenance and strength. We would also often practice together on airplanes, at Airbnbs, and at the event venues.

Overall, by being able to have these systems in place was prioritizing rest and by having the practices that supported that in place, I was able to show up fully for every single The Big Quiet, despite all of the travel and all of this stuff—and really enjoy it and appreciate the process of being on the road with this great team.

SS: These are great daily routines. Do you find that you’re able to integrate this into your ‘regular’ life in the city?

JI: I talked earlier about the need to have space to not be perfect all of the time, but it is more challenging to do these things on my own. That’s why having accountability groups, peers, partners or roommates that I can practice with gives me accountability.

A sense of community support is critical for how we get things done, and ties back to how we have existed for our time as humans, like living in tribes. So this phenomenon of living fully solo in a busy city like New York is a pretty new thing. However the more we can bring community into helping us achieve something new or get something done is always better.

SS: How do you maintain a ‘healthy mind?’

JI: A healthy mind starts with a very loving mind.  I don’t think we can have a healthy mind without a mind that loves itself first. What I’ve seen through my experiences with life, mental health challenges, anxiety, loneliness is that the foundation for my ability to feel healthy, feel the sacredness of life and appreciate life starts with my ability to love myself. It’s about loving my life even in the face of my challenges that I’m experiencing.

SS: What does living in your full potential look like to you?

JI: All humans are incredibly powerful. We all have a choice to be leaders in our own right if we want to. There’s a lot of circumstances that play into this and it’s often easy to feel disconnected from our power or disconnected from our ability to lead. The first step to living in potential involves where we are feeling blocked in our lives, from our ability to connect with our personal power and apply it to where we’re feeling blocked in the world.

For me, it’s really about having a balance between personal and social practices. I need the combination of meditation, taking care of myself and things that allow me to heal and recover, and a community of people who support me and hear me. I feel that the social piece is just as important as the personal self-care piece, and when those two things go hand-in-hand, we can really give to the world.