interview & words by Nick Ramsay
This article is part of Greenroom's "Creative Inlet" series, an on-going exploration of modern meditation practice, told through interviews with an eclectic mix of artists and creative professionals.
Tonight, Jesse Israel will be one of 600 New Yorkers boarding a three-story boat turned-Bedouin lounge. Once filled to capacity, this floating refuge will drift out onto the Hudson, and all 600 passengers will share in 20 minutes of communal silence.
This actively tranquil gathering will be the third installment of The Big Quiet, a first-of-its-kind series of massive group meditations held in New York City. Although the organization of this event can be credited to Mr. Israel, he’s likely to offer-up praise to the power of “community collaboration” and “human connection” before accepting any personal accolades. And from the looks of it, he may be onto something.
You could say that Jesse has done a few interesting things in his 30 years of life, notably starting with his sophomore year of college at NYU when he started Cantora, the record label that went on to sign MGMT, GZA, Gordon Voidwell and a number of others. Or last year, when his bicycle-riding club raised $47,000 to buy bikes for 1,000 Tanzanian grade school children. Jesse’s latest effort? He’s started “a place for modern meditators,” a group called Medi Club.
Check out the interview below to find out what drove this people-organizing Jedi to shift his focus from manifesting concerts and parties to bike rides, and now silent meditations.
full audio, if you're into that sorta ting:
Greenroom Magazine: I’ve been paying attention to Medi Club ever since reading a story about The Big Quiet event that you guys organized earlier this Summer in Central Park. I’m excited to be attending my first Big Quiet event this Monday, which is a billed as “A Mass Meditation. On a boat.” So, first of all, what is “The Big Quiet” and what’s going to happen when I get on that boat?
Jessie Israel: The Big Quiet is a creation of Medi Club, which is a collective of several hundred New Yorkers - Medi Club comes together once a month. It’s entrepreneurs and creative types. We get together and share 20 minutes of silence and meditation, and then we have a discussion. We also like to collaborate on projects.
The Big Quiet is the first collaborative project out of Medi Club, and was designed, essentially, to give what we create out of Medi Club to all of New York. Because when we do Medi Club, it’s in the design lofts in SOHO and it’s only so big, so we were looking at how we could extend the values of having a meditation practice as a young modern person living in New York City, and having that be normal. The idea is to share meditation on a large scale throughout New York and eventually other cities, and to create awareness for meditation in a way that feels relevant, and perhaps different from the way that a lot of people are used to seeing it.
So, in Central Park, we did a mass meditation before the Ibeyi and Jungle show, and more recently we had DJs play at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg and had our mass meditation before their outdoor party.
And for this one we’re taking a three-story boat out on the Hudson River to share 20 minutes of silence. There will be about 600 of us meditating on the boat and we’re going to have 4 sound bath practitioners to bring us out of that meditation and to create a really unique experience using sound bath tools, and that will be going on on all the stories of the boat.
GM: I’m excited for the sound baths. I keep hearing about these sound bath and audio-visual meditation shows but I’ve never experienced one myself.
JI: Yeah, it’s pretty cool man, I’m stoked to experience it within the setting of the boat. We’re turning the boat into a Bedouin lounge vibe, putting in carpet and pillows, string lights and flowers, and creating a cool interior, so it should be a cool space to experience that.
GM: As I was preparing for this interview, I discovered that you’re one of the two original founders of Cantora Records, a very successful record label— I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between meditation and music.
JI: That’s a good question, you know, it’s a new thing that I’m starting to explore. I was running Catora for 9 years— I’m no longer with the company. So, for 9 years I was working in the music business and sort of learned it from the ground up. We signed MGMT when we were sophomores at NYU, and sort of figured out the industry and how to run a record label and manage bands, and get the word out and do concerts and the whole thing. Just by doing, we learned by doing.
I wound up sort of burning out along the way, and felt like I was here on this planet to give other gifts. And as I started to get more involved with meditation and events and experiences and products built around human connection, I learned that there’s actually a cool tie between the stuff that I’m giving myself to now and the work I was doing before.
Music can play a pretty powerful role in a meditative experience. I’m just starting to understand the power of it. At Medi Club, we had been doing our 80-person meditations and then coming with live music and having the musicians focus on hard opening chords, and uplifting sounds to re-energize people coming out of the meditation. It’s a really cool way to experience the end of the meditation.
And with sound baths, you know, I’ve only done a few, but it’s pretty powerful to experience audio resonance in ways we’re not used to and allowing our bodies to relax, and allowing the music and the vibrations of the music to help us get into that meditative mind state.
So, I think there’s a lot of room to explore, and it’s just starting to become more popular and people are just starting to catch onto the power of using music and instruments during meditation. But it’s something that I definitely plan on playing with more and sort of seeing how we can better incorporate that into the mass meditations that we’re doing.
GM: You’re from Los Angeles. Does New York need meditation more than California?
JI: (Laughs) I think that both cities— I think the whole country needs meditation. I don’t think it’s as much of a question of who needs more or less— I just think it’s an important thing for people to be aware of, and to understand that you can live in a city, whether that’s L.A or New York, and have a practice in your busy modern lifestyle. You know, you look at L.A, and if you look at Venice and Santa Monica, you see a lot more of the wellness vibe. But you also have Hollywood and tons of other communities that aren’t as much on the wellness tip that could benefit from meditation just as much. And that’s true of New York as well. So, I’m all about spreading it to whoever is looking for it.
GM: Another thing I came across while preparing for this interview was a very touching article that you recently wrote about your grandfather, who passed away. In the article you talk about the importance of doing work that you love. I get the sense that you're someone who could be doing whatever you set your mind to, and you've chosen Medi Club and The Big Quiet. Why do you love the work you're doing?
JI: Great question man. I'm really-- I'm going through a process right now. Which is really figuring out what I want to be giving myself to, really figuring out what my greatest gifts are, and how I can, you know, align my work and my relationships, and my life around giving those gifts, and sort of stepping into my purpose.
The approach that I'm taking as I discover those things is really by doing and by trying and by experimenting. And Medi Club came out of those experimentations, you know?
Before I left Cantora I was already running the Cyclones, which is a bike club community that I organize, and really just found myself feeling so alive whenever I was organizing these giant group rides, and I loved seeing people come together through adventure and exploration and really connect in a way that I wasn't seeing people connect at concerts or parties or whatever. And it made me realize that I could be doing more of that in other ways.
So when I left Cantora, I was hungry to start experimenting and playing with those gifts in other ways, and that's how Medi Club was born. It started in December last year when it was too cold to ride bikes. So I sent an email out to maybe 30 friends who meditate, and said, "Hey, let's build a community around young people who live in New York that share a meditation practice, because it doesn't exist anywhere else. And it's grown from there.
We've now got about 600 members in Medi Club. And from Medi Club came The Big Quiet, and that's touched thousands of people. So it's really just been an exploration phase and looking at what feels good and what comes out of that, and how I can work with other people, and also challenge myself.
And that's something that hasn't been talked about as much in regards to Medi Club-- After we meditate I usually share something challenging that I'm going through with the group and then open it up to the group to allow others to sort of speak on and share if they're going through similar things. It's proven to be a really meaningful process for myself and for others.
So, as I've been doing Medi Club, this component of open dialogue and self-growth has come into play and made me realize that's an area that I think I can really step up and help people grow and build in. And, I'm seeing that Medi Club and Big Quiet are really just vehicles for business opportunities outside of them for me to step into more of these gifts, and other interests and things for me to explore.
So, I don't consider them to be, you know, the full-time things that I want to do now, I look at them as vehicles for growth and exploration. As I go into the new year, I plan to announce a business that sort of pulls from all of these different things, that offers some pretty cool stuff within this space of human connection.
GM: How did you start meditating and what advice would you give to someone who's on the fence about it? I meditate, and it's become an important part of my life. I have a lot of friends and a significant other who I've tried to share it with, and they're like, "It's cool, but it's not for me. I sit there and I can't stop thinking."
GM: What do you say to those people?
JI: Yeah, that's a good question. So, I learned meditation almost 5 years ago. I first started practicing at the Shambala Center in New York, and I was learning a Buddhist technique. And about 8 months into building my own daily practice around that I met someone named Light Watkins, who is a Vedic meditation teacher, which is a mantra-based practice. And I did a course with him, and since then I've mainly been practicing Vedic meditation. And I sort of fuse in my own mindfulness practice as well. But I've been going pretty strong with that for almost 5 years now.
In regards to friends, I know what you're saying man, I've definitely experienced that quite a bit, and hear that a lot from people. You know, one thing that I hear a lot is "Oh, that's cool that, you know, you sit and do your meditation thing-- for me, my meditation is playing music, or for me, my meditation is running." And I think those practices are wonderful, but my feeling is that those are different than sitting meditation. There's a broad use of the word meditation.
When you're actually sitting and using a technique to practice meditation, it's quite different than an active practice like playing piano or going for a run. What I've seen is that people that have those types of creative practices or exercise practices-- if they meditate it will often enhance those other practices in their lives. So I'll sometimes talk about the difference between your meditation and my meditation, right? And just say like, this is something that everyone can share, and just, sort of another experience for you to have.
A lot of people will say, "sitting meditation's not for me. That's not my type of vibe, I'm more of this type of a person." And to me that's like saying, you know "sleeping doesn't really work for me, you know, I'm not much of a sleeping person, I'm more of a whatever--" To me, silent meditation is a sort of universal practice. If someone is interested. I'm all about only spreading it if people are interested in it.
But yeah, silent meditation is a practice that can benefit everyone and can be incorporated into everyone's lives, regardless of what they're into or what they're not into. It's just about helping people understand, and sort of breaking down the misconceptions around what meditation is about.
Often I'll hear people say “meditation's not for me, I can't stop thinking, you know? I’ve tried, it's just too frustrating." And I'll often share with those people that it's the same thing for me. And it's the same thing for everyone. You know, to try to stop thinking is so challenging. The more we put energy into trying to not think, the more we think.
So, understanding that that's not necessarily what meditation means, and understanding that there are other ways to practice meditation, besides sitting there and trying to clear your mind, is a really helpful way to introduce people to other forms of meditation.
And I also will share an app with people called 1 Giant Mind. It was created in Australia by some friends who spent 4 or 5 years researching and building this thing. They're a non-profit at heart so it's a totally free app. And what's great about it is that it trains people in a mantra-based technique, and then, after you do a handful of sessions with it, you no longer have to use the app, you can put it away, and then have your own practice at home. It’s kind of like a teacher in your pocket, as opposed to some of the other meditation apps which sort of encourage people to rely on their phone to meditate. So I'll also share 1 Giant Mind as a free and simple way to get people going and a lot times I'll see people will try that out if they're on the fence. They'll say, "I might as well. It's free. I'll give it a go, it takes 10 minutes." And that's kind of an interesting way to bring people into a practice that uses technology.
And the last thing that I'll say about it is-- I'll just remind people that it's such a modern practice. If you were to come to Medi Club you would see that the room is filled with a bunch of really active, awesome, entrepreneurial, creative individuals. It's not a group of overtly spiritual new-agey hippies or anything. Some of the most dynamic and successful people that I know have a practice and have put the time into learning the different types of meditation, and found the right meditation that works for them. So I try to help re-contextualize meditation for people, and help them understand that it's a very modern thing and it's the type of thing that can really enhance your life.
And I don't get too caught up in the benefits and the results. because, when I used to bring people into meditation, it would come from me talking about, you know, how I saw stress reduction from meditating. And people would ask how, and they'd be curious. And with their inquiry I would then share more about meditation, and introduce them to a teacher. And I found that if that was the way I was bringing people in they were instantly expecting results and looking for results, which sort of changes the idea behind the meditation practice. So, I try not to get too caught up in the benefits when I talk about it. I look at it more from the viewpoint of lifestyle and general well-being.