Heavy Lies the Crown

Winners are lonely. To fix that, Jesse Israel is making them vulnerable.

The Big Quiet draw thousands of people to meditate in cool locations. They've meditated at Pier 70, in the Oculus, in Central Park, and in middle of a snowstorm. In March, 1100 of them will take the long elevator ride up to the One World Observatory at the top of the new World Trade Center. There, they will meditate and listen to string musicians. Mostly, however, they will connect. And connect in a way that people used to looking down from the heights usually avoid.

Jesse Israel's twin meditation projects, Medi Club and The Big Quiet, seek to be as inclusive as possible. At an event in Harlem, for example, he offered 500 free tickets to members of the local community to attend an 1800 person meditation at the historic United Palace. However, there's no denying that the cores of his projects are composed of coastal elites like Jesse himself.

Jesse discovered MGMT in college and was a music and tech executive in NYC for nine years. Despite his success, he felt like something was missing, like he wasn't actually engaging with the people around him. So he left his company and started a cheeseburger club. Then a cycling club. Then a meditation club. Eventually the emptiness began to fade. Here's what he figured out...

Some people I’ve spoken with have described you as the perennial “cool kid.” How did the perennial cool kid become a meditation group leader?

I ran a record label and a technology fund for nine years. I started in my 20s. We signed the band MGMT when we were students at NYU, had this really great run working in music and tech. I actually got into meditation in my early 20s just as a result of the stress that I was experiencing being an entrepreneur, living in a city, all that stuff.

About three years ago, I left the company that I had spent nine years building. I wasn't really connecting with the work that I was doing, and had this sense that there was more to be explored and that I had sort of a greater calling. I left this thing. It was the only thing that I had known and really defined me for all of my 20s.

I traveled for a little while and got back into the city, and for the first time ever I wasn't a student and I wasn't running a business. I just had nothing to do. I had no sense of community. I wasn't working. I felt like all my friends and everyone around me, they were sort of kicking ass and it was really isolating.

Back when I was in the music industry, I was always interested in building community in my life outside of work. I found the music industry to be pretty isolating too, and my first experiment was this cheeseburger club. It was something I started in my mid-20s. It was ten guys and I. We'd come together and have a different cheeseburger every two weeks, and we were on this mission to discover the best burger in New York. But what was really happening was that we had men's support group. We had this sense of bonding and brotherhood that I never really had before.

Did you really feel like you’d never experienced male bonding before?

I think the way that I connected with men was always sort of mirrored by how I saw other men behaving. You connect around chasing women. You connect around how much money you're making, or how disruptive your startup is. As a very privileged white guy who grew up in a very nice neighborhood in LA and went to a very nice school, these were the things I looked at in regards to masculinity. My friendships all revolved around that stuff. Maybe there could have been a sense of support and connection and community through something like religion, but I grew up as a Jew and didn't really connect with Judaism.

Yeah I think a lot of people use religion to find community. Do you think that the lack of religion amongst privileged Millennials is part of the reason we yearn for community so much? Or do you feel like that’s something that people of less privilege also yearn for?

To answer that I've done a lot of research. I actually spoke at the World's Fair in San Francisco two weeks ago about the future human connection. Post-agricultural revolution, modern society shifted away from tribal society. In tribal society, we had this strong sense of support and deep community. Today, we're surrounded by people, but we're deeply alone. A lot of us are. That’s never happened before.

There’s a great book called Tribe by Sebastian Junger that reveals that it’s middle upper-class societies, predominantly white, that tend to have significantly higher levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. People in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries. What they see is that, in poorer communities, there’s a much deeper sense of community. People are forced to support each other.

The Big Quiet did a pop up meditation open to the public at the Oculus in NYC.

The Big Quiet did a pop up meditation open to the public at the Oculus in NYC.

Wow. Yeah I think that’s really true.

When we existed in tribes, a huge part of our purpose was supporting and helping others. One of the beauties of our modern age is that technology, advancements in science and medicine, even things like ambulances, have prevented us from needing to fulfill that role of helping others. There is this strong sense that I can just be fully me solo, doing my thing, and not be needed by anyone else, and that's very isolating.

But by doing what you’re doing, do you ever feel like you're forcing it? What I mean is, would you would prefer “community” be more naturally-occurring in your world?

I've never dealt with that sense of forcing community, but I've definitely been a part of communities where I feel like it's being forced. I've never, ever believed in pushing something on someone, telling someone they need something, or saying, "You really should come to this thing." Those words don't really come out of my mouth. It's like, "This is what we do, and if you're interested, join us." As a result, I think that we've built something that doesn't feel forced.

What are some examples of communities that do feel forced?

I'd rather not specifically point fingers, but I've seen people want to build communities with really great intentions, and it really just feels like they're begging people to be a part of it. I don't think that that's the right energy.

How does Medi Club avoid being sales-y?

We don't have a website. We don't even have a place to point to or sell what we do. It's been organic.

What’s the thesis behind not having a website? That's gonna be the next thing...

We haven't needed a website because it's worked organically. It's finding that balance. We want to be open to people. We want people to learn about it. But we also don't want to sell it to people. A website hasn't been a priority until recently.

How do you avoid being exclusive while still being something people feel good being a part of?

With Medi Club, we say anyone's welcome. If you have a financial hardship, we work with you. But you're not going to like it if you're not interested in talking about real shit and meditating, so it's more of like an interest barrier. It's self-selecting in that way.

What’s an example of something cool that’s happened at Medi Club or The Big Quiet?

At a Medi Club about 9 months ago, a member of our community got up in a group in front of a couple hundred people and spoke about a trip that she went on. A group of her friends went swimming and she was uncomfortable to get in the water. There were women, there were men. Because of the group that she was with, she didn't feel comfortable with her body in the bathing suit she was wearing. This is a woman who's a leader in our community. She was running brand and community for a major clothing company at the time. She's beautiful. She's charismatic. A lot of people really look up to her. She's very comfortable on her social media, and it just blew people's minds that she got up in front of the group and shared that. Again, if you look at our community, there’s a lot of active people in, you could say, influential positions who aren't usually communicating about this stuff.

Jesse leading the Big Quiet in Lincoln Center

Jesse leading the Big Quiet in Lincoln Center

Wow, a couple hundred people. And that was one of the smaller Medi Club ones. You forget how huge these things are…

Yeah. About a month after the election, we did a Big Quiet at the United Palace in Harlem for eighteen hundred people. It was the first time we had done a Big Quiet outside of the downtown Manhattan or Williamsburg zone. We shared 20 minutes of meditation with lots of different people from different areas of New York. They looked different, and they showed up from different ways to have this shared moment of quiet. Then for the performance piece, we had over 80 performers: choirs, drum circles, string quartets. The youngest performer was three. The oldest performer was 80. I think it was controversial for some people, but ultimately what I felt was a sense of belonging and togetherness.

Controversial? Why do you say controversial?

I think that for some people it felt forced. I think for some people it felt like, how can we just invite a bunch of different people that we don't know to come and be a part of this thing, or come on stage and perform. You know, black people playing drums. It's black people performing for white people again.

Ay. You’re going to get haters no matter what you do, particularly if it’s successful.

Yeah. All we can do is stand for what we believe in, do it authentically, talk to the community about how to do it in a way that feels true, and do it. If people don't like it, then I can't do anything about it.

Here’s the curiosity that's forming in my brain. You’re around all these hyper-successful people, and they're kind of opening up to each other for the first time. These are people who are so used to operating, to being “on” all the time. I think one of the reasons why people are so lonely at the top, the reason why LA, for example, is such a fucked up place sometimes, is because everybody is manipulating each other. Instead of saying what they really think, they're saying what they think they should say in order to get ahead. So do you feel like what you're standing for is a larger movement of trying to get past that? Or are you saying, hey, this is something I really needed in my life and I'm offering it as a service to other people?

I'm not sure if I totally understand the difference.

I guess I'm saying are you more interested in offering a solution to people who are struggling with the same things that you were struggling with? Or are you a leader of a larger movement, of a societal movement that's saying, hey, let's not treat each other as strangers anymore?

I see, I see. What gets me most fired up is figuring out how we can create a platform, you can call it a movement, but say let's call it a platform, that allows people to support one another in expressing truth. Whatever that looks like.