Jesse Israel is a master connector based in Brooklyn who has led some of the biggest meditations in the world. He's the founder of The Big Quiet, events that bring thousands of people together for mass meditations at some of the most iconic places. He regularly speaks to Fortune 500 Companies about building meaningful and supportive communities and also teaches a form of meditation that gives people all of the tools they need to create a doable daily practice.
Why is self-care important?
From my experience building community around mindfulness and teaching meditation, I think the bar that has been set, and the level of output that we are supposed to bring to our work and then to show the world, is so unsustainably high that many of us are on a path of burnout and breakdown. The demand, interest and need for really taking care of ourselves first and foremost so we can fully do our work and show up for others is so important. There’s very limited leadership around this, especially male leadership.
Why do you think there is limited male leadership around self-care?
Because it is in the process of evolving out of an old paradigm mainly based on external validation — money, ownership, objects, external power, sex, looks. These things are not bad, but they are not sustainable as priorities. As that unsustainability becomes more clear, the demand for self-care becomes more real, and with that, a movement to change the paradigm.
What’s your self-care ritual?
For me, self-care really means self-awareness. To really embody self-care, I first need to have a level of self-awareness to see that my well-being is off. And then having a level of self-awareness to do something about it — this is foundational to self-care. And this is part of why I’m so passionate about teaching meditation, especially when people practice meditation regularly, because it refines the self-awareness around when our systems are off-balance, and then to actually take action on it.
The other piece is boundaries: when it comes to leadership and role models, there’s not a lot of communication around how important it is for an individual to know their boundaries and to understand when they can say “no” so that they can have the space to nurture themselves.
Boundaries are a big part of your personal practice. Can you tell us more?
Because of the idea around how much we are supposed to be doing — hustling and out there and creating on social media — there’s not a lot of respect around the word “no.” We have to be able to create boundaries so we can say, “You know what, attempting this business deal at this period of time when I’ve got this much going on — yes, it may generate more money for me, yes it may generate more scale and growth for my company. But the truth is, it will push me past a boundary, keeping me from being able to show up for myself and take care of myself or other people in my life.”
"I feel like we cross boundaries so we can achieve what we feel like we need to achieve or are supposed to achieve, at the expense of our own self-care. So self-awareness and boundaries feel like really important starting points."
You talk a lot about self-love as self-care. Why are the two linked?
When I’m making time for myself, there are different formats of self-care that I explore. The first is around more mental self-care: daily practice around self-love. When I have my dark cloud days — which by the way, are important days to have, but they’re tough — it can be really hard to have a self-love practice. But what I attempt to practice when I see that I’m beating myself up, comparing myself to others, or feeling like I’m behind in regard to whatever thing I’m trying to tackle is to take a bit of space, even if it’s just a minute or two... I take a moment to pause and just acknowledge the things about myself that I love. I acknowledge the qualities about me that make me the man I’m proud to be. Even if those are qualities that make me imperfect, they’re beautiful. And when I’m able to acknowledge those things and say, “I’m proud of the man I am,” it reframes that internal dialogue that I can have around whatever I’m beating myself up about. This is applying self-love.
Why are "dark cloud days" important?
For someone who experiences mental and emotional health challenges, the second piece that is really important to me when it comes to self-care is noticing when I’m experiencing that mental or emotional challenge — I’ll refer to it as a “dark cloud.” Instead of fighting it, beating myself up for having that experience or trying to make sense of why it’s happening, it’s about allowing it to be experienced, allowing it to be there, allowing it to melt away, and just being accepting of the weather that changes (within my brain). That practice is so valuable for me. It allows the weather to just change, as opposed to trying to hold on tight to the clouds. So self-love is allowing mental and emotional challenges to come and go.
What are you focusing on right now in your own practice?
It’s a major thing for me in 2019, so we’ll see how I do: doing less and focusing more. My tendency is to take on so many different projects or to take on so many things within a project, as opposed to really just getting my “everything” to one or two things, so that I can have the space beyond that to grow and take care of myself — or just chill. My tendency is to take on so much that I get overwhelmed, and when I get overwhelmed, all the other things become more challenging. So doing less and focusing more is like a mantra for me. Those are the mental pieces of my self-care.
"I also love alone time. For my personality type and because I’m so engaged with community and people, having solo space is so important; it’s how I recharge."
It starts with dimming my lights in a particular way. I’m a big mood lighting guy, so getting the lighting right in my home is really important. I’m also a big essential oil diffuser guy, I have a couple of them, so getting a nice essential oil blend going. I really like a citrus blend from Now and also peppermint for post-meditation. I love taking baths with Epsom salts and essential oils. I’m huge on facial mask products, although I’ve been making a recent commitment to generating less waste so I’ve been cutting back on sheet masks and moving more towards other kinds. I don’t know how much masks actually do anything for my skin but it doesn’t really matter because there’s something about the act of being in my bathtub with something on my face — it just feels so nice. Then I have a couple different robes that I rotate between — I received a huge white fluffy robe from a random customs website with my name embroidered in gold cursive and I love it. I’m also a big candle guy, so I have a few different options based on the scent that I’m looking for. I just got this thing called a Hypervolt — it’s a new massage-gun technology and it’s designed so you can really massage yourself deeply and it generates blood flow in a really meaningful way. It’s a little intimidating looking but you use it on yourself and it’s really quite helpful — you do a little foam rolling and you’re good. I’ve also been loving this app ENDEL for self-care time — it creates personalized background sounds for relaxing or focus. When I have a night of that, it will really recharge me.
Is there a product you don’t leave the house without?
One of the products that I really love right now that I have at home, at my office and also when I travel is the Saje Halo essential oil peppermint roll-on. I find that it serves a lot of great purposes: One is when I have tight muscles from exercising, if I rub it over those areas it really opens them up. The other is that I have sinus issues a lot and when I rub it over certain sinus areas it opens it up. The third is after a meditation, especially if I’ve had a more restful one, putting it on my head wakes me up in a nice way. It’s a great product.
Do you take any supplements or herbs regularly?
"CBD is more of a recreational thing for me — sometimes instead of having an alcoholic drink I’ll have a CBD drink and feel good."
What’s your favorite uplifting quote?
My Dad has definitely dropped some wisdom on me over the years, and the one that is most ingrained in me is the concept of being able to find a way to smile in the face of whatever adversity or challenge you’re experiencing. This is a little tricky because adversity and challenge can mean trauma for some people, and encouraging people to smile in the face of trauma is maybe not the best solution. So with that framing and context, for me oftentimes when I’m experiencing adversity, being able to take a step back and find a moment to smile or bring some humor into my life in the face of whatever the challenge is allows me to move through it more effortlessly, with more love.
What does your home meditation practice look like?
Meditation has really shifted my relationship to experiences that I used to think were stressful. I meditate for twenty minutes twice a day using a mantra, and I have found that that practice has not only rebuilt a lot of damage that I’ve experienced from stress in the past, but it has also shifted the way I perceive stress. One thing that’s stressful to one person is not stressful to another person. The same stressful experience that happened to me ten years ago may not stress me out now.
"Meditation is the most powerful tool that I’ve experienced through all of the things I’ve tried in the wellness space. Having a daily meaningful practice doesn’t feel like a bandaid; it’s foundational and regenerative."
As important to me as having my solo meditation practice is having people in my life that I can speak to about things that are emotionally challenging for me. To be heard and supported by other humans and have authentic connection and belonging. That’s a big part of the work that we do at The Big Quiet — there’s meditation and then there’s space to talk about stuff that matters. They go hand in hand in a beautiful way.
What’s your favorite meditation app or meditation?
The 1giantmind app is great — its fully free and provides people with the know-how to have a daily practice.
What’s one thing you wish you could tell your younger self?
I wish that I had really learned about self-love earlier in my life. I think some conversations around that would have been really nice. And also, if there was a way for me to have had meaningful conversations around empathy, it would have helped me a lot with relationships: work and romantic. Perhaps if I was better equipped with the tools that would allow me to understand what people go through and be able to put myself in other people’s shoes more seamlessly, that would have been helpful.
It’s one thing to have self-love. But what do you do to cultivate more worthiness, gratitude and self-love?
I think that self-love is like a muscle, like so many of these practices with our bodies or minds. There’s something about doing the work around it and making it a regular practice — writing about it, talking about it, making the space so I can go there with myself.
"There is a strengthening that occurs when we are devoted to self-love. It’s about devotion. So I guess where I’m at in my journey right now is making the space to go there."
Editor's notes: interview conducted on January 9, 2018 and edited for length and clarity.