‘Rebranding’ Meditation for Millennials

The Big Quiet’ offers free group meditation Saturday in Central Park as part of SummerStage

Organizer Jesse Israel, left, meditates with the Medi Club in a loft in Nolita.ENLARGE
Organizer Jesse Israel, left, meditates with the Medi Club in a loft in Nolita. PHOTO:ANDREW HINDERAKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In 16 city parks throughout the five boroughs this summer, SummerStage will present an eclectic slate of programming that ranges from show tunes and opera to funk, reggae and Yiddish soul. But for the first time in its 30-year history, this season organizers are including a sonic experience possibly more rare in New York City than any other: silence.

“The Big Quiet,” a free event taking place on Saturday in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield at 5 p.m., allows New Yorkers to partake in a 20-minute group meditation. While there are dozens of mediation groups in the city, this may be the only one that includes a rollicking afterparty, the silence followed by a concert by Jungle, a London-based soul band, and the up-and-coming Afro-Cuban and French band, Ibeyi.

“This is for city people who want to take a break and recharge,” said 30-year-old event organizer Jesse Israel.

There’s nothing new about meditation, a quieting-of-the-mind discipline employed by a variety of religious traditions for thousands of years and made mainstream over the past decade with the growing popularity of yoga. But “The Big Quiet” is explicitly agnostic and fits in with a more recent trend taking place in such disparate settings as cancer-treatment centers, corporate retreats and prisons in which the benefits of mindfulness aren’t tied directly to spirituality.

SummerStage Executive Director Ian Noble was excited by Mr. Israel’s pitch for the event immediately. “It seemed like a great idea at this time when people are dialing back, seeking some solace, disconnecting,” said Mr. Noble. “I think there’s a movement.”

Mr. Israel, who was born and raised in Los Angeles and came East to attend New York University, was introduced to meditation four years ago at Chelsea’s Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, and later studied with Light Watkins, a Los Angeles-based meditation teacher and author of “The Inner Gym.”

Mr. Israel’s desire to organize group mediation is an outgrowth of his earlier endeavors, he said. As a college sophomore in 2005, he co-founded a record label, Cantora Records, whose roster includes MGMT, Bear Hands and Francis and the Lights.

In 2013, he founded the Cyclones, a social cycling group with over 1,500 members on both coasts. During a vacation in Tanzania in the summer of 2014, he noticed that children faced miles-long commutes to school on foot and raised funds, through the Cyclones network, to create bike-share programs for rural elementary schools. In July, the nonprofit Globalbike, with funding from the Cyclones, will break ground on a bike-and-rental shop in Tanzania to be owned and operated by women.

Through these projects, he said, he perceived a need for “a new dictionary” about spiritual experiences that would broaden meditation’s appeal to a mainstream audience turned off by the traditional new-age or religious contexts.

“We’re making these tools more socially acceptable,” he said.

In December 2014, he formed the Medi Club, a collective of several hundred young New Yorkers, predominantly entrepreneurs and creatives in fashion, entertainment and technology. Once a month, they gather in a Nolita loft belonging to Men in Cities, a men’s accessories company, to meditate and have frank conversations about work, relationships, sex and other facets of modern life.

“Millennials are hungry to talk about personal growth,” Mr. Israel said.

Mr. Israel doesn’t aspire to be a guru. “Absolutely not. The entire time I’ve looked at it as collaborative community,” he said.

Shoes outside the Medi Club event.

At a recent gathering, more than 50 especially attractive and stylish people in their 20s and early 30s arrived and set aside their chic shoes and handbags at the door.

“They’re hipsters, let’s face it,” said Mr. Noble, who was in attendance. “That’s why we’re pairing it with Jungle and Ibeyi. We want a reason for people to come and a reason for people to stay.”

Mr. Israel sat in the center of the group, facing a half-circle of members and extolling the benefits of their meditating together—specifically that the intimacy and vulnerability created had a way of making people more grounded and open.

After a session, he said, “We may be more empathetic with our roommates, our partners, our parents. We may be more mindful and relaxed if we have sex tonight. We may be more conscious when we send emails or post images on Instagram.”

Then they sat together, eyes closed, cellphones silenced for 20 minutes. Afterward, he opened a discussion about “The Big Quiet.” One member spoke to their unique opportunity to “rebrand” meditation. Another suggested strategies for digital development. A third spoke of her gratitude for finding like-minded meditators, after years on the spiritual path.

“I did the ashram thing. I went to India,” she said, adding: “Everyone here is so normal.”

Mr. Israel asked them to contemplate the potential ripple effect of filling Rumsey Playfield to its 5,000-person capacity.

“I like to think about how many people we might impact. A couple hundred thousand? A couple million? It may seem idealistic, but I believe it.”

Tibet House US, the Cultural Center of the Dalai Lama, has been hosting weekly meditation classes, with different teachers emphasizing different styles, at its West 15th Street headquarters since 1997. But Executive Director Ganden Thurman does not condescend towards the agnostic intentions of the Big Quiet “rebrand.”

“I think it’s fine, its good,” he said. “And maybe life in general is spiritual. Getting in touch with yourself is probably inherently spiritual.”


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