Jesse Israel is a human of many talents. He’s a prominent social entrepreneur, meditation teacher, public speaker, and community leader. The Los Angeles native moved to New York for his studies, and in the meantime kickstarted his career as a music industry executive. The wunderkind co-founded Cantora Records and signed the multi-platinum psychedelic rock band MGMT. After finding himself at a crossroads, anxious and overwhelmed, he started focusing on creating and leading communities. He is the founder of the mass meditation movement The Big Quiet. Just a few months ago he shared the stage with Oprah Winfrey and led some of the largest meditations in the world.
We asked Jesse about the brave decisions he took throughout his career and how those decisions lead him where he is now. He is aiming to help people slow down a little and get in touch with their real selves again to find some quiet in this noisy world. We discussed the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, the powerful feeling of leading a mass meditation with 17,000 people, the importance of sharing vulnerably, and what to do if you know you need help but you’re unsure how to get started. Jesse is a true inspiration and an endless source of wisdom, hope you can get some important takeaways from our conversation!
You have a background in the music business and previously you have experienced the same struggles that so many music creatives face nowadays. With changing careers, you’ve embarked on a tough but exciting journey. How do you feel about the path you’ve taken if you look back at your past today?
I’m very grateful and feel proud of myself for having made this transition. Right now I feel great about it, but it hasn’t been an easy journey. I very much identify with being a person in the music industry. From the age of 20 to 29 I ran a record label and signed bands, and we had a tech fund where we would invest in startups and help them in the music industry. That was the whole work world that I knew. I’d never worked for anyone else or worked on anything else. It was just Cantora and the business that I built.
How did you get interested in meditation?
I’d gotten into meditation when I was in my early twenties. I felt burnt out from working so hard and from finishing my studies. I had the label while I was a student and that was overwhelming.
That sounds like a handful for someone in their early twenties…
Yeah, it was a lot. I didn’t understand how to have work boundaries. The music industry is a lot of concerts, going out late, partying… and I also had to focus on my business. This wasn’t working for me and I was experiencing pretty debilitating anxiety. Felt quite stressed and confused because I had this cool, sexy job that was growing and doing well, and people were excited about it. Felt grateful to be doing it, but internally I was unhappy and didn’t feel well.
I started looking into ways to cope with it because it didn’t feel like something to talk about publicly – I could talk about it with my parents, but it didn’t feel like a conversation I could have in the music industry. I discovered meditation just by searching online. Found the Shambala Center in New York, started to practice and I found it to be incredibly helpful.
What were the indicators that suggested that meditation was working for you?
I stopped getting sick as much, I was able to sleep better. Managed to respond thoughtfully to challenges instead of just reacting stressfully to all the shit that would come up running my label. I enjoyed life more and was more thoughtful about how I wanted to contribute to work, to my relationships and friendships. It definitely didn’t cure me of stress and anxiety but lowered it so much. It quieted the noise, so I was able to have a greater hold and stronger self-awareness around how I needed to make a change and show up in the world to be able to enjoy my life more.
How did you get started practicing meditation in groups?
I started practicing meditation with music managers and bands. We would be backstage at music festivals and we would make the space go quiet together, surrounded by so much noise. During these gatherings, I started to hear people in the music industry talk about the stress they were experiencing and their own personal mental health challenges. That’s when I realized I’m not the only person going through this. So many of us are.
This gave you the idea to start The Big Quiet?
I left my company not knowing what I wanted to do next. But I knew that I wanted to create spaces where people could practice and learn tools to help them feel human. I wanted to help them accept, embrace, and transform to be able to live the lives that they want to live. I was hoping to help them break out of the suffering that so many of us experience when we go through things on our own. Being able to do things like practice meditation and talk about mental health and our real challenges in groups felt really important.
I have always enjoyed cultivating and combining personal practices and social spaces, so I started self-organizing. Every month I would gather people to meditate and to talk at my buddy’s apartment. This thing grew into what became The Big Quiet and we started doing it on a large scale.
You make it sound so uncomplicated but it was probably far from being easy…
The process has been kind of scary and crazy because I haven’t had a model to follow. When I ran a label, we had the model of how to run record labels. We had great advisors and awesome people to help us make sense of it. How to sign bands, how to do record contracts, how to evolve with technology… When I moved into this career, I didn’t have a framework or a blueprint for how to organize mass meditations. I didn’t even know it’s what I wanted to do. But my compass was getting really clear about what I sensed people needed. I’ve always been great at building communities, I’ve always had a unique form of leadership powered by vulnerability. I’ve always loved doing things with a balance of modern culture and wellness-like practices. So I just blended those things together and started experimenting.
Vulnerability seems to be one of the factors that hold back so many musicians when it comes to talking about mental health. Feeling too vulnerable and not feeling safe to share is a massive problem in the music industry. You’ve been doing tremendous work to break down these barriers. How could someone feel safe enough to share and trust that they will be held?
That’s a great question! We know how validating feeling sharing can be for those of us that can practice it. So how do we get more people to do that? There’s an incredible author called Brené Brown who wrote a book called “Daring Greatly”. The book is about courage through vulnerability and how being vulnerable builds courage in leadership, relationships, partnerships, and friendships. The first thing is to understand that being vulnerable by honestly communicating our lived experience is an act of courage. What people respond to most is courage from the heart, because it’s human.
If sharing is an act of courage, why do you think people are uncomfortable to share?
I think the reason why people are uncomfortable to share vulnerably is because of how they are perceived. They don’t want to be seen as weak or they don’t want to feel embarrassed for showing that they don’t know it all or they don’t have it all figured out. Because so much of our society tells us we need to have it all figured out.
Even though no one on the planet has it all figured out, as far as we know.
And that’s the thing! Once you are able to say ‘hey, I don’t have this thing figured out, this is what makes me human’, other people go ‘oh my god, me too, I can relate to that’! And this is incredibly validating.
Is there anything we should keep in mind once we get to the act of sharing?
It’s good to understand how to most effectively share vulnerably. What we often see is either zero vulnerability or too much public vulnerability. There is a line between when you share privately with your close friends, partners, a therapist, and when you can share publicly, online, on social media, at events. Don’t be vulnerable for the sake of it. Be vulnerable when you are going through challenging times. It’s really important to share vulnerably but to do it privately with people that you know you can do it with. And to ask their permission before you do it.
What happens when we share too much, too soon in public?
If you do that in a public format, instead of a sense of validation it can create a sense of concern for the people that are listening, and this can shift the energy. When sharing publicly, it’s really important that you are at a place where you’ve come out of the thick of it and you can emphasize your learnings about the vulnerable experience. People then won’t be worried about you because they can relate to that learning. It’s important that you share from the scar, not from the wound. If the wound is still bleeding, you’re not ready to talk about it publicly.
It’s fascinating how The Big Quiet came about and how quickly it grew. You started out in your friend’s apartment and fast-forward to spring 2020, you are holding mass meditations with Oprah Winfrey. It was really impressive to listen to the recording, however probably nowhere near as impressive as standing there in front of 15,000 people and listening to their silence. How did that feel?
It was an incredible feeling. Up to that point, the biggest group was probably 4,000 people, and it was at an outdoor music festival. The largest one we did on Oprah’s 2020 Vision Tour was with 17,000 people. We’re pretty sure that’s the largest mass meditation in US history. Over a 10-week period, we have mass meditated with 135,000 people.
How does one get 17,000 people in total silence?
At every stop on the tour, we have used sound balls during the meditation while I was guiding the practice to help people calm their nervous systems. Then we would fade out the sound balls and we would go to 60 seconds of total silence in the entire arena. And all this with Oprah and her special guests in the audience meditating. Everyone is equalized in this moment, feeling that we’re part of something together.
Another interesting thing is the sound of 15,000 or 17,000 people in total silence, which is a sound. You can almost hear the vibration of people’s bodies. It’s almost a noise to the silence. It’s so palpable, so unique, I’ve never experienced anything like it.
It sounds like a really powerful experience!
The energy got so strong at that moment, knowing that we’re all contributing in the same way. Sometimes I felt like the energy was going to explode in the room, like a beautiful explosion. We’d never felt anything like it before. Afterward, we noticed and discussed with Oprah on stage that this was very emotional for people. Through the technique, we were giving people permission to feel the emotions in their hearts and in their bodies, and just to allow them to be there. To not suppress them or block them, but together with 15,000 people to just feel whatever makes us who we are and to know that that’s beautiful. Doing so created a sense of relief and release for a lot of people, myself included. A lot of people cried, released emotions, and it was a really beautiful, cathartic human experience to be a part of.
Mindfulness and meditation is a vital part of our latest initiative, The Wellness Starter Pack. A lot of people feel intimidated and find it difficult to get started. Do you think it’s easier to get started with a group of people so you can share this experience and get a sense of community?
I think it’s really important to learn a personal practice and have some sort of a tool that guides you. That could be an app with guided recordings or learning meditation from a teacher. Having a technique to practice is really important, so you can practice on your own. I teach something called 1 Giant Mind, a form of meditation where I give my students a mantra to practice for 20 minutes once or twice a day. After training them in this technique, they are self-sufficient and able to practice on their own anytime, anywhere. There’s real power in how simple it is to practice meditation. We can do it no matter where we are.
So group practice would be a complementary addition to that?
I think there’s a really important piece to practicing in community. They teach a lot of the different meditation lineages through self-practice and community practice. Today, people are learning meditation because of stress and mental health levels. They’re turning to apps and getting into wellness, which is beautiful. However, I feel like there is a part of this that is almost lost – practicing in a group, having space to talk about and explore meditation, the feelings and the lived experiences that we have together. As religion becomes something that less and less people connect with, there are less social spaces for us to be spiritual with each other. So while I think practicing meditation personally is incredibly important, I also think that having social practices is critical. Just like we experienced it on the Oprah tour, there’s power in doing this together.
Due to the pandemic and social isolation, physical togetherness is not possible at the moment. You are still trying to bring people together with The Big Quiet and have moved into real-time online meditations called Sit Live With Us. What are the biggest challenges of doing this online?
When we are able to use technology in a way that invites the viewer to participate in some capacity, it does create a sense of human connection, although it’s digital. When you watch a video of someone giving a talk or performing, you’re the audience soaking it up. That’s a beautiful experience. But we are trying to do things differently in our live sessions. People ask questions and we respond to them, we acknowledge their comments. We bring their faces to the split-screen, so they can talk with us. We list out all the places that people are coming from.
When we’re allowing people to participate and be a part of the digital experience, it does create a sense of connection. It’s more ephemeral than in person, but it’s a step further than just sitting there and looking at a screen and not participating. What we really look at as we move more into digital is how can we involve the community in these digital experiences.
In a way, you can reach a larger audience this way, even though you need to compromise on the physicality of the event.
We had people tuning in from India, we had someone from Wichita, Kansas, and places that we’ve never been able to bring The Big Quiet to. That’s a big plus! We will continue to play with these formats, experiment, see and listen to what helps people right now. That’s why we’re really adjusting to digital, and it’s all free right now. We want to be of service to what people need most, and we want to create that.
You’ve touched upon the fact that depression and anxiety don’t just disappear but we can learn to be in control. Besides mindfulness and meditation, other important factors are exercise, sleep, and nutrition. What we tried to achieve with The Wellness Starter Pack is to bring these factors closer and make them more doable. What would your best advice be to someone who knows they need help but don’t really know where to start?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s experience is different. Some independent musicians are capable of running their own social media, handling the booking of their shows, practicing, practicing to perform, performing, promoting their concerts, making music, recording their own music, renting a van, sleeping in the van, touring, dealing with all the emotional components that come with bands, and then trying to get signed.
Too many independent artists can identify with this to-do list you just described…
There is so much that artists can take on when they’re in that developmental phase. Once you start to take off, you have all these other pressures. Performing on tour every single night for two months, what do you say yes to, what do you say no to, being in the public eye… Will your second album be well-reviewed and liked like your first album? As you evolve in your roles in the music industry, there is constantly so much stuff to deal with. Maybe even more than in other industries or roles. Some people are capable of handling that. But a lot of people are overwhelmed by either managing all the things that I mentioned or by being on tour for two months and living on a tour bus, eating shitty food.
What can they do to take the pressure off at least a little bit?
What I like to remind people of is that just because we see it being done a certain way in the music industry and on social media, it doesn’t mean that that’s the way you should do it. The most important thing that you can do wherever you are in your career is to give yourself permission to rest when you need it. Drop this idea that you need to be out there all the time to stay on top of it like everyone else. The reality is that when you push yourself more than your brain and body can handle, your output is nowhere close to what it should be. The brain is not designed to persist, which has become the norm in our culture. The brain actually exists as a pulsing mechanism – it pulses, it rests, and then it works.
If we remove rest from that equation, bad things start to happen…
When we ignore the pulse and we just push in persistence, the engine eventually burns out. This is why we’re seeing so much burnout, and not only in the music industry. Burnout is the overwhelm of toxic stress, which is the overwhelm of anxiety in the body. The body goes into a red zone and it starts to break down. We all know how tough it is to create, to perform, to promote, to write music, to be creative when our brains and bodies are burnt out or exhausted. It reaches a point where we can’t even do it anymore. So what I really encourage people to do first and foremost, is drop all the shit that you feel like you’re supposed to do. Create rules and start prioritizing yourself.
If you take a day off, you won’t fall behind. You will come back so much stronger the day you go into the studio or the day that you’re ready to rehearse for your show. This is the single most important thing that I can share with musicians or people in the music industry. Give yourself permission to rest. Don’t see it as lazy, see it as a form of power.