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As someone who has taught yoga and meditation since high school -- not to mention tried every adaptogen and self-care DTC product on the market -- I have a passion for all things holistic health. I’ve been a huge fan of The Big Quiet, a mass meditation movement founded by Jesse Israel, since I first discovered it in college. And, after reviewing Zak Williams’s brand, PYM, for TQE earlier in the year, I’ve since become a loyal customer. In this conversation, I wanted to bring Jesse and Zak together to talk all things self-care, mental health, and building brands in this incredibly important -- but often stigmatized -- space.
You both have created companies that are designed to heal our collective levels of stress, anxiety, and mental health challenges. What brought you both to this space? Is mental health something you’ve always been conscious of or comfortable talking about?
Zak: Actually, I only became comfortable speaking about mental health about five years ago. Prior to that, I had experienced and dealt with a lot of anxiety from an early age. But I was mostly self-medicating to manage that anxiety. After my dad died by suicide, I found myself spiraling. I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, and was self-medicating -- using alcohol heavily. This put a huge strain on my relationships; it became very clear that I needed to address my own personal well being.
For me, service was very healing. Committing to mental health advocacy as a form of healing required me to really address my own biases, and relationship with stigma. And in opening that up, I realized that there is this whole set of considerations that I really wasn't willing to address. In part, that’s one of the reasons I started PYM -- as an advocacy-focused brand, to catalyze mental health hygiene, and break down the stigma. And from another lens, it was really about my journey to breaking down my own bias associated with mental health.
Jesse: Thank you for sharing that, Zak. For me, when I was a college student, my sophomore roommate and I started a little dorm room record label. We started working with a band, MGMT, and they were college students. And when the band took off, suddenly, we had a real business. And by the time I was 23, and had just graduated from NYU, we were really going hard with the business. We had gone from being full-time students, to being full-time business owners. I had no real context for how to take care of myself. And in the music industry, you go hard, party hard. There's no conversation around how to look out for oneself. I was dealing with debilitating anxiety, and panic attacks. But I just didn't understand it, because it wasn't something that people were talking about -- it wasn’t a conversation you had in the music industry. As a man, I didn't feel like it was something that I could voice, because I was mirroring a lot of the male business people or entrepreneurs that I had seen in my life. No one was talking about this stuff -- mental health, stress, anxiety, panic attacks. So it felt like this really bizarre, isolating thing, because on the outside, I was young, seeing success with my business. But on the inside, I was really having a challenging time. And it was confusing.
So for me, it started with exploring ways to help me move through and grow through some of that challenging internal weather. That's how I found meditation. It was a very personal, quiet, isolated experience -- I didn’t have to talk about this with other people, and I could hopefully just work through my own shit. But it helped me tremendously. It brought so much relief, and it became such an important part of my life. And I'd be at music festivals, meditating -- and my industry peers would ask me what I was doing. Eventually, they'd start sitting with me. And then I'd be at festivals, and there'd be little groups of us meditating together.
There was something really powerful about sharing quiet, in the face of all this noise and chaos around us. Gradually, other people started opening up to me about their experiences with what they were going through, and how they felt like they couldn't talk about it. And that's when I realized: so many of us were going through the same thing, but didn't really have space to talk about it. And the more that I realized how healing and validating it was to talk about this, and just to be in the experience of quiet and exploring how we can feel better together in the industry, I realized -- as Zak said -- there was a calling to address the need, and to find a way to be of service to allow more people to experience this, to talk about it, but also to learn meditation and to create that space for quiet. And that's what led me to start experimenting with group meditations. And that's what led to The Big Quiet, eventually, being born.
You’re both alluding to this need for conversation and community around mental health -- and how that sparked the beginning of both of your companies. Did you find that, because of this, it was challenging to speak to your consumer? While it’s so necessary, there’s also a significant barrier to speaking about mental health, or to seeking mental health care, when the mainstream instinct is to self-medicate or just suppress that experience.
Jesse: I’ve been interested in how more people can access what we're talking about, these practices -- how to make it more inclusive. In particular, through the lens of it feeling like something that you could fit into your lifestyle. Before I started to take care of my own mental health, it just didn't feel like this stuff was stuff for me. It felt very much not within my world! I was in the music biz, I was partying pretty hard, riding my skateboard everywhere around the city. This conversation felt like it was for yogis, but I didn't feel like it was my world.
I always look at meditation as a part of who I am, not simply the way that I define myself. I could go to rock concerts, and still party, and love my cheeseburgers, and have meditation in my life, and have space to talk about real shit with people I cared about -- all of those things could be included.
One of the things that really stood out to me when we started to do these group meditations: it was a place to have mental health and wellness and meditation be a part of a modern lifestyle. Instead of it being THE lifestyle. I always look at meditation as a part of who I am, not simply the way that I define myself. I could go to rock concerts, and still party, and love my cheeseburgers, and have meditation in my life, and have space to talk about real shit with people I cared about -- all of those things could be included. So when The Big Quiet started to grow, my team and I just continued to make that a part of the DNA of what we offered. Meeting people at the level they're at.
And this is a big part of why we work with popular musicians, why we do our meditations at museums or institutions that celebrate the arts, or sports venues that people wouldn’t necessarily think of as a wellness event. Yesterday, I did an Instagram Live with Common -- we did a meditation together. To be able to celebrate a rapper's new single with a meditation on Instagram like that -- it embodies so much of what gets me excited. You then have all of these fans of this great rapper who start to think: maybe meditation is something that can work for me. I love breaking down those barriers, creating those access points.
Zak, I think PYM is similarly approachable. When I tried and reviewed PYM, I really found it amazing how you had taken these maybe esoteric or inaccessible compounds and adaptogens, and turned them into a small, literally bite-sized chew you can take daily. It’s a great reminder to think of your mental health daily, as something that takes maintenance.
Zak: Yes. I mean, there's two ways to think about it. One is the “root fix” way. What is it that's underlying the anxiety, the stress, the depression? In part, we seek to establish balance in your system, your neuro-endocrine system. We see PYM as a catalyst for other mental health-oriented activities. That's why the ethos of taking a pill, or buying a product to solve all your problems in life is really the opposite of what we stand for.
The other component that we really think about is the community oriented approach, how we stand for a cultural movement associated with breaking down the stigma. We're an advocacy-focused brand. I'm seeking to make a difference in the private sector, by establishing a brand that stands for the mission of breaking down the stigma. In terms of your other question -- how do we engage people around this movement? It’s a process. People are acclimated to managing their mental health in certain ways that might not necessarily be productive in the longer term; eating too much, drinking too much, potentially self-medicating. Ultimately, you’re masking over the issues associated with your mental health. We’re trying to go a level deeper, and we find it resonates with people. And that's why we're so bullish on meditation, talk therapy, CBT, mindfulness -- different methods that address those underlying considerations. We care about the body holistically, on a systemic level. And when we get that message across, it resonates with people because it gives them the opportunity to actually do things they want to do! Without needing coping mechanisms just to get through the day.
People are acclimated to managing their mental health in certain ways that might not necessarily be productive in the longer term; eating too much, drinking too much, potentially self-medicating. Ultimately, you’re masking over the issues associated with your mental health. We’re trying to go a level deeper, and we find it resonates with people. And that's why we're so bullish on meditation, talk therapy, CBT, mindfulness -- different methods that address those underlying considerations.
If you've been in this mindset for a long time (speaking from my own experience), you probably have rituals or practices that keep you on track. But it's difficult to commit to a laundry list of things that make you feel good every day. So I'm interested to hear what your daily non-negotiables are, or reliable rituals that keep you grounded -- especially amidst the instability of this last year.
Zak: So I break it down into a mental health hygiene ritual. One component is the mindfulness and meditation sphere. I do some meditation, but I really benefit from gratitude exercises as they relate to mindfulness. Human connection is very key for me. I'm very active in 12-Step, because I identify as an alcoholic, and so I take care of some of the underlying issues associated with that. I also really appreciate spending at least some time per day calling and speaking with friends.
Being out in nature -- I like to go on walks, I like to take my dog out. PYM is a part of it also, managing mood and neurotransmitters associated with optimal mood. There's an extended nutritional component -- no processed foods, and trying to limit sugar intake -- and sleep! Getting a proper night’s sleep. The mental health hygiene ritual extends throughout the day.
Jesse: Those are awesome, Zak -- so many similarities for me, as well. I’ll only touch on a couple things that Zak didn't mention. One that's been really helpful, and proved to be particularly helpful during last year, is the relationship with my phone and technology. I find that it's foundational. When my rituals, and my practices and boundaries around technology are tight, I do have a noticeably stronger foundation for whatever comes my way. And my mental health does feel more resilient.
Zak mentioned the importance of sleep. If I'm able to turn my phone off an hour or more before I go to sleep, I do sleep better. I don’t take it off of airplane mode until I've had time in the morning to get up, meditate, spend some time with myself, then I slide off airplane mode and access the world. I’ve also turned off all of my notifications except for phone calls, so my screen is always calm. I check my phone when I want to, and it's not always telling me to check it. That’s been a game-changer. A few other non-negotiables -- one is my morning meditation, every single morning for 20 minutes. Often I do a second one in the afternoon or evening. Another big one more recently has just been getting in the sun, because it's so easy to stay indoors. During the pandemic, I would go days without leaving the house. It feels so unnatural. So I love hearing that Zak, you’re able to go for these walks. Just making space to get some sun on my skin, even if it’s just having lunch or taking a couple calls in the sun.