The Big Quiet brought strangers together to meditate under the Fernbank’s dinosaurs

What I learned while meditating with more than 250 strangers at the Fernbank Museum

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The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Photograph by Brendan Ek

When was the last time you observed a moment of silence just because? Was anyone else around to share it with you?

On October 2, about 280 people gathered under the clear dome and iconic Argentinosaurus cast at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum to do that for the Big Quiet, a mass meditation experience designed to promote wellness and observe mindfulness in a social setting.

The nationally touring event, founded by Jesse Israel, combines breathing exercises, a sound bath, meditation, and live music from local artists for a cleansing experience aimed to help the mind, body, and soul recalibrate in an overstimulated world. Atlanta was the second stop on the tour, which started October 1 in Chicago and will conclude October 27 in Boston.

Prior to founding the Big Quiet, Israel found success by starting a record label and signing indie synth-pop band MGMT while he was a college student at NYU. He began practicing meditation as a way to cope with the pressures of the music industry, leading meditation groups backstage at festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza. Israel left the industry five years ago and eventually gravitated toward hosting more group meditation meetups in New York City. Fast forward a few years later, and the relationships and connections those meetups beget have become a nationally touring event. The first official Big Quiet took place at Central Park in June 2015; past venues have included Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, Madison Square Garden, under the 94-foot blue whale model at the American Museum of Natural History, and more.

The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet

Photograph by Brendan Ek

“When it came time to go on this year’s tour, some of the first places we looked at were museums of natural history,” Israel said. “There’s something [authentic] about doing [meditation] in a place that celebrates history, nature, and great powerful creatures.”

The event’s mission is relatively simple: Bring together people who struggle with burnout, information overload, isolation as a result of social media, and other issues of the digital age. The event incorporates live music and offers “freebies” such as seated cushions, Smartwater bottles, and full pours of kombucha to provide participants with something to show and tell afterward. (The use of phones during the actual meditation is discouraged however; the point is to minimize technology dependency.)

The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet

Photograph by Brendan Ek

Jackie Cantwell, the director of MediClub in NYC and a sound practitioner, lead the group in breathing exercises that set the tone for the rest of the mass meditation, lead by Israel. The first exercise, the ha-breath, had participants breathe, raise our arms in the air, and then pull them down into our ribcage while audibly letting out every breath in our lungs to the sound of ha! This process happened for an entire minute, and the chants became noticeably louder as the process went on. Cantwell says the technique recalibrates the nervous system.

Next, she lead a boxed breathing exercise: inhale, hold for four seconds, exhale, hold for four seconds. Repeat again for an entire minute. Orchestrating your breath in such a way allows your head and heart to be at peace while enabling your mind to find clarity and focus, she says.

The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet

Photograph by Brendan Ek

The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet

Photograph by Brendan Ek

Cantwell then switched to her instruments for sound meditation—crystal singing bowls, a Shruti box, koshi chimes, and an ocean drum—as Israel lead the group meditation experience, asking participants to channel their breathing, energy, and voices into their deepest vulnerabilities: a memory with a loved one, a vote of love and blessings to someone with whom they’re in conflict with, and finally the loudest and most passionate call of love, peace, and om to oneself in the name of self-love. (Israel said this last breath, right before the inhale, is the most important one. And afterward, it’s as if your mind’s eye can see the room from a dinosaur-eye view.)

After the meditation ended, a few local musicians—curated by the Big Quiet’s music director—played a selection of songs that brought the moment full circle. Israel is big on music as a form of therapy. The performances at the end helped the group settle back into the world that was temporarily vacated. And at the end of it all, I became aware that I had shared my vulnerabilities and my true self with the strangers around me, but still walked out feeling reinvigorated, revitalized, and reborn—which is exactly what I needed.

The Big Quiet
The Big Quiet

Photograph by Brendan Ek

A few of my personal takeaways form the experience:

  • Control what you can, but understand life isn’t in your control.
  • Leave your insecurities behind and be fearless about what (can) happen next.
  • Try to find moments of stillness amongst the chaos.
  • Sitting on the ground made me feel truly connected to the Earth, and the magnitude of the dinosaurs at Fernbank cannot truly be grasped until you sit on the floor and look up at them.
  • It only takes a few minutes each day to explore the depths of your consciousness and serve yourself with love, gratitude, respect, and courage.
  • I had to let out emotions of resistance, regret, and rejection in order to let in feelings of humility, clarity, and confidence.

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