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NEW YORK “I’ve never felt so powerless,” explained Jesse Israel, the co-creator of the Big Quiet, a mass meditation movement that hosts giant moments of silence. His latest event had been canceled by the venue—with just 48 hours to go.
The group, in collaboration with clothing company Kit and Ace, had planned to take over the World Trade Center’s new transportation hub called the Oculus in downtown Manhattan on October 16. The property, which is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was to be the latest venue added to the Big Quiet's roster of unique spaces that includes Central Park's Rumsey Playfield, an industrial farm in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, and even a boat on the Hudson River.
Inspired by the building’s architecture and curvature, Israel and his team had constructed 1,000 seats in concentric circles for the mass meditation; the event was also supposed to feature a 360-degree string quartet, vocalists, and live DJs. The plans were approved, a documentary film crew was ready, and tickets were sold. But then organizers received word on October 14 that the event was off. Israel said that they weren’t given much explanation or cause for the cancellation from Westfield Corporation, the company that operates and manages the hub’s concourse-level shopping center where the meditation was to take place.
Joseph Pentangelo, a public information officer with the Port Authority, said that the group had applied for a permit, but it was never affirmed. Israel said that the group “would never have moved forward without approvals.” Despite the confusion, Israel stressed that the real estate developer has been “very accommodating,” granting the group use of another Westfield venue for a future event, as well as compensation to cover production costs and ticket refunds.
The Big Quiet events usually sell out the day of or days before, but this event had sold out in 48 hours after tickets went on sale, he explained. “Tickets were going for three times the price [of $30] on Craigslist and Stubhub,” he said. There were 1,000 expected attendees, some of whom had lost family members on September 11, 2001, and had traveled from around the globe for the event. With such a highly anticipated event, “I was not willing to take no for an answer,” Israel said. So he and his team decided to go rogue, planning an impromptu, flash mob meditation—without chairs or a stage, without amplification, and without an official OK.
“Even if you’re fully prepared, shit’s gonna happen,” he said. “How do we come together? How do we make lemonade? And make the most of the situation?”
The group informed ticket-holders of the change in plans, and the news soon spread on social media. Israel was warned that security would break up the event. “I was afraid of how it would affect the group’s reputation,” he said, if police intervened.
But they didn’t stop it—some even joined in. About 900 guests formed a giant circle on the floor, creating a spontaneous mass meditation that included performances by a string quartet and the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus. Israel said the experience ended up being “more inclusive” and that there was a “spontaneity of that moment that you can’t spend money on.”
Transit workers, along with NYPD officers and Port Authority and Oculus security, watched from the sidelines, and Israel said some asked how they could start a meditation practice after the event. “The experience was the most powerful I’ve ever had,” Israel said.