Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World

Vy Higgensen's Gospel for Teens performs its finale at the Big Quiet.
Vy Higgensen's Gospel for Teens performs its finale at the Big Quiet.
Chris Jones for the Village Voice

Jesse Israel, 32, who has already gone through a few incarnations in New York, including managing the popular band MGMT while still a sophomore at NYU, began suffering from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks in his early twenties.

“I was having an identity crisis,” he said on Sunday, a few hours before eleven hundred people showed up to 1 World Trade Center for his event, “the first ever mass meditation atop the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.” Tickets were $45 a pop.

Israel, a Vedic meditation practitioner and the founder of the Big Quiet, a New York–based meditation group that organizes “massive meditations for modern people,” told the Voice that “we are having a loneliness epidemic.”

After leaving his music management gig and finding himself feeling increasingly isolated, Israel concentrated his efforts on the “BQ.”

“It’s probably the first time in history that whether you live in the city or a suburb, you can sit right next to people and feel totally disconnected from them,” he said.

Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (2)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice
Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (3)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice
Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (4)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice

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While the event isn't religiously affiliated, organizers want the Big Quiet to probe issues of spirituality and digital “cordoning off” by bringing people together in a sort of “be-in” throwback. Their events feature hip partnerships and good music — Sunday’s included classical violinist Jenavieve Varga and live DJs.

Rachel Perrie, a punchy fourteen-year-old who wants to be a singer in musical theater, was the very first in line, waiting with her mother to brave the elevator that would take her to the ear-popping 102nd floor of One World Observatory. “I need my mind off,” she explained.

In keeping with the times, the ticket also included a take-home meditation cushion from Kit and Ace and a salad from Sweetgreen. “Where does dinner fit in to meditation?” one participant wondered. As it turned out, right before the om-ing, when participants were encouraged to connect and “network” before they turned off their cellphones and closed their eyes.

Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding both said a few words. The group’s mission is “to reduce tensions among diverse racial and ethnic communities.” Rabbi Schneier decried the Trump administration’s decision to declare “open season” on Muslims, and compared the current climate to the ninth biblical plague, “the plague of darkness, a darkness that affected the heart...when we do not see one another and do not care for one another.”

The meditators, sitting in lotus position on their cushions, were then instructed to breathe in deep to the sound of new-age drums and bells — and the occasional electronic chime from a cellphone. Moments after the doula guide, Latham Thomas, told us to “listen to your heart” and let go, there was a prominent “Sorry” from Siri heard in the audience. Later, we were instructed to “Sigh it all out together.”

At the end, Israel took the stage and asked for a moment of silence for all the people killed on the site. He suggested our meditation was working: “The planet can feel it.”

Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (5)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice
Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (6)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice
Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (7)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice

As we came to, the mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings turned to one another and reflected on the experience.

“We are all leading digital lives — it can be scary spending time with yourself,” said Ali Salem, 33, a business analyst at Morgan Stanley. He was there with a friend, Mathew Shurka, 28, who said others had bailed on the event when they learned they had to shut off their phones during the 48-minute session.

“Today we have to pay to remove ourselves and be quiet,” said Jake Sargent, 29, an entrepreneur focused on sustainable design.

“Who doesn’t want to meditate on top of the World Trade Center?” said Andre Torquato, 23, an actor training as a yoga instructor at Sky Ting. Torquato recalled coming home from school in Brazil when 9-11 happened. “The day the whole world changed,” he said. “I hope some of the energy we create goes down through the floors.”

Turning Off and Tuning Out on Top of the World (8)
Chris Jones for the Village Voice

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