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Looking Inward With The Big Quiet’s Jesse Israel    

Looking Inward With The Big Quiet’s Jesse Israel

Art by FISK

On March 24, Jesse Israel, the founder of the mass meditation movement The Big Quiet, will be taking over The Local Optimist Hotline. He will be answering your questions (you can start submitting them now) and offering helpful insights on meditation and much more. To help you get familiar with Israel and his work beforehand, we spoke with him about his meditation journey.

By Justin Tejada

For Jesse Israel, the road to starting his mass meditation movement, The Big Quiet, wasn’t quiet at all. The volume was turned all the way up. As a sophomore at New York University, Israel started a record label out of his dorm room with some friends. The label would go on to sign indie acts like MGMT and Francis and the Lights. The music business is not exactly known for putting a priority on mental health. And balancing the demands of running a label with being a college student took a big toll on Israel.

Feeling extremely stressed, Israel turned to meditation on the advice of his dad, and it started him on a path that improved both his mental and physical wellbeing. Now he shares that knowledge with others. Israel leads group meditations where attendees can number in the tens of thousands. He has conducted these events with iconic people such as Oprah Winfrey and the band Arcade Fire and in iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden and the American Museum of Natural History. 

We spoke with Israel about how meditation helps his anxiety, the benefits of meditating with others, and how to find time to practice.

How did you first discover meditation?

I discovered meditation through some challenging experiences that I was having running a record label in my early 20s. My roommate and I signed the band MGMT. As the band took off, our label grew. I was experiencing pretty significant burnout, debilitating anxiety, and started having panic attacks. It didn't really feel like something that I could talk about. My dad was really interested in Buddhist philosophy. He told me a little bit about meditation. So I just Googled it. I wound up going to a meditation center. I learned a practice that was really helpful for me. Then about eight months later, I met a teacher named Light Watkins who taught me a style of meditation called Vedic meditation, and I loved it. 

What was it about that teacher and that style that worked for you?

Light Watkins is a very accessible guy. I could relate to him. The technique that he taught, which is very similar to the one that I teach now, was effortless and easy to practice. I had always thought meditation was about not thinking. So anytime I would try to meditate before that, and would think, I thought I was doing it wrong. I thought I was a "bad meditator."  Through this Vedic style of meditation, I learned that we could actually have a very effortless practice and allow ourselves to have thoughts and whatever experiences that are coming up for us. By thinking the mantra that is given through this technique very gently, it allows the body and mind to settle and relax in more deeper states. Anybody can do it. I found that it stripped stress and anxiety out of my system and allowed me to face things that would have triggered a very stressful reaction. Things that once stressed me stopped stressing me as much. I started to find that my body felt better. I started getting sick less, my muscles loosened up, I started to look healthier, and I was sleeping better. 

When was the first time you noticed your meditation practice impacted how you responded to a challenge? 

Before I was practicing, work-related stuff, like a rude email, would really trigger stressful reactions. It would make my blood boil, and it could affect my whole day. The email would not be life-threatening, or even career-threatening, but it triggered me. [After practicing] I started to notice that I didn’t feel as affected by it. I was able to notice that this isn't going to matter long-term. I didn't have control over what someone would say or do, but I realized that I was able to control how I could respond. I used to be really freaked out speaking in front of groups of more than 10 people. Then I noticed when I started meditating that it still felt nerve-wracking, but I started to lean into it. And by leaning into it, I started to notice that a lot of my power and purpose came through in things that I was too freaked out to explore before, like public speaking. Now today, I speak in front of huge groups and it is a huge part of what I do.

Meditation is generally considered a solitary activity. You are known for leading group meditations. What is gained by doing so in a social setting?

When we look at a lot of the great lineages of meditation throughout time, there are often two key components. One is actually learning how to meditate and actually knowing what you are doing. The second piece, which is critical to all of these lineages, is having a community to meditate within.

When we meditate with other people and have that shared experience, it allows us to be more consistent with our practice. There is also something really energetically special about meditating in a group and slowing down, getting quiet together, going inwards. To be able to look other people in the eyes afterward, to be able to talk about the experiences you're going through, there is so much value in that. When we do this in big groups, it is really powerful. When I went on tour with Oprah before the pandemic, we were doing these mass meditations with 15,000-17,000 people at a time. We were in arenas that were so silent you could hear a pin drop. It is really beautiful.

What are some of your go-to tips for people who say they can't quiet their minds during meditation?

Before you go into your meditation, drop any expectation that you have about how it is going to go. Understand that whatever comes up while you're practicing is exactly what your body needs to release stress. Sometimes it shows up through the mind wandering, but it's a form of destressing. Sometimes when we release stress, we have a more relaxed deep meditation. Both of these experiences are really valuable and full of benefits. But one of them is the experience that we think is "right," when, in fact, both are good for us. The other thing I encourage people to do is to actually learn how to meditate. A lot of times, people will just close their eyes, and that can be incredibly frustrating. Download an app and have some guidance. Take The Big Quiet 101 course. Learn how to meditate so you have some understanding of what you are doing.

What's your response to people who say they don't have time to meditate?

It makes sense. We live such busy lives, and there is so much happening. It can feel really tough to introduce a new thing. I get it. I personally practice meditation for 20 minutes twice a day. I remind people that those 40 minutes make up less than 3% of a 24-hour period. And that time spent meditating so greatly enhances the 97% of the time that we are doing other things. It enhances our ability to sleep better, and anything we do with our eyes open gets enhanced by this practice. I also remind people that they don't have to start by doing 20 minutes twice a day. Beginning with just 3-5 minutes, which a lot of the apps provide as a starting point, is really valuable. 

Why is it important for people to practice feeling comfortable sharing things that are traditionally uncomfortable? 

When people come together and have the experience of being seen and heard that creates this sensation of being a part of something greater than ourselves. We feel like we belong to something. What I have seen is that one of the most effective ways to have that sense of belonging is when we can be vulnerable with each other. When we do so, it allows other people to go, "Oh my gosh, I feel that, too. I am not alone." It creates this feeling that we are in it together. That is so healing and validating. Unfortunately, our culture has told us for a while that being vulnerable is a form of weakness. Or that having uncomfortable emotions is something we need to fix. But it turns out that allowing ourselves to feel that stuff and to talk about that stuff is one of the most effective ways to work through it. It allows us to remember that this is part of the human experience.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.