Justin Michael Williams: Stay Woke

TS: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True. I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.

TS: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I’m here in the Sounds True studio with Justin Michael Williams. Justin is just turning 32 years old, and he’s the author of a new Sounds True book, Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us. In addition to being an author and a meditation teacher, Justin is a top-20 recording artist. He uses music and meditation to wake up the world. Justin Michael Williams has dedicated himself to bringing the meditation practice that he calls “Freedom Meditation,” a particular, empowering form of meditation, to young people who are living in communities that are impacted by racism, poverty, and social injustice; communities that are similar to the type of community in which Justin himself grew up.

To achieve this goal of introducing freedom meditation to young people, Justin is partnering with the Sounds True Foundation to create the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour. He’ll be traveling to cities like his hometown of Pittsburg, California; and Flint, Michigan; and Atlanta, Georgia to introduce young people to freedom meditation, give away copies of his new book, Stay Woke, and make available a 40-day audio meditation series to any young person interested, which will be delivered via text message. You can learn more, and if you wish, choose to support the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour at staywokegiveback.org.

Now, here’s my conversation with Justin Michael Williams. I’m here in the Sounds True studio, face to face with Justin Michael Williams. Justin, welcome.

JMW: Thank you, Tami. It’s so good to be sitting here again.

TS: For our listeners who are meeting you for the very first time, can you share with them a bit of your background—the arc of how you came to write Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us?

JMW: Well, I have to start with how I even got into meditation in the first place. I think there’s a lot of people who grew up like I did, but with a lot of trauma. I think many of us have so much trauma that’s underneath. I grew up in a home with gunshot holes outside of my bedroom window and domestic violence, like quite literally seeing my mom get choked, and abused, and beaten really. I remember one time in particular, her getting hit in the face with the remote control ,and I’m the only other guy in the house and too little to do anything about it.

TS: This was by someone she was dating, or …

JMW: My stepdad, my stepdad, and they were together for a long time. Just so much trauma happening in the home, and then hiding in the closet—I was gay but not out, and just all these different things happening. What I knew to do at that time and what I thought I needed to do was, “Ok, if I’m just really smart—because this is the one thing that nobody can mess with me on—if I’m just really smart, then I can get out.” That was my only mission at that point as a kid, was to get out. And I’m grateful to say that I did. I ended up getting a full-ride scholarship [in] academics to go to UCLA.

So I get out, I go to school, and I’m getting good grades, I’m doing all this. But inside, I still felt exactly the same, if not worse than I felt when I was at home dealing with all of that. I was like, “What do I do? If this doesn’t work—I’m living in freaking Westwood, in an apartment with extra money, and none of this is changing anything.” And the low point for me is—so I’m about 5’11″, 6 foot, depending how high my hair is [Laughs] and I weigh like 160, 165 now. I had an eating disorder in college that I think was just a manifestation of all the trauma coming up. I weighed 115 pounds at my lowest, which was really tiny, and one of the things that got recommended to me was to try yoga.

At first, it was just a physical practice. For me, I was like, “Yoga? What?” I’m just this 18-year-old black dude, didn’t know any black people doing yoga. I had to ask, I was like, “Isn’t that like a cult? What is that?” Luckily, UCLA has a great yoga program. So I start with the physical practice, fall madly in love with it, and start getting something really beautiful and spiritual from it. Which was really powerful for me, because when I left high school, I grew up Catholic and really ran far away from that when I left to college. This was introducing me into spirituality in a different way.

Then meditation got recommended to me. I tried to go to a class and I didn’t like it. I really had the experience that I think a lot of people have their first time meditating, just like, “This does not work. What’s going on? I’m hungry, I’m tired. Oh my God, I’m watching the clock. I have to sit here for how much longer?” And then that night—this is one of those divine intervention moments, where [I] go to this meditation class that day [and] that night, my friend calls me and is like, “Hey, come with me to this party.” I’m like, “Ok.” I don’t even know whose party it is.

Go to the party, sit down in a chair. Within 10 minutes of arriving at the party and this older guy comes and sits next to me. Just giving people a picture, he’s 60-something-year-old, older white man. I’m an early 20-year-old something, young, black, gay dude who’s totally flaming with like—I think I was wearing a deep V-neck American Apparel t-shirt that was highlighter pink or something. He just was like, “Hey, young man, how was your day?” I’m like, “Oh, it was good. I went to this meditation thing. Have you ever heard about meditation?” That’s what I said to him. Little did I know, I was sitting next to Lorin Roche, who is a Sounds True author, meditation scholar, Sanskrit scholar for all these years. He didn’t let me on in that moment to the fact that he was a teacher. He just was like, “Oh, well, why do you want to meditate?”

So I start telling him about the gunshot holes outside of my house. I start telling him about everything that I was trying that wasn’t working and about how I grew up. He just took out a piece of paper, and wrote his name down on the corner of this page, and tore it off, and hands it to me. He’s like, “All right, kid, if you want to learn how to meditate, come meet me at the beach at 9:45 tomorrow at Ocean Park Boulevard.” I grabbed this paper and I was just like, “What the hell? This man is trying to pick me up. What is going on?” Then one of my—my friend who invited me told me, “No, Justin, he’s not trying to pick you up. This dude is like—here’s who he is,” whatever.

JMW: Needless to say, I skipped class and I go to the beach the next day. Everything changed. Everything changed that day. I just remember the way that I felt when he initiated me into my first real meditation practice. I’m talking the first time I didn’t feel like I was trying to meditate, like trying to get my mind to stop, but I actually dropped into that space that I loved, like that Dan Siegel calls the plane of possibility or this space of pure awareness to just go there. For somebody like me who I think had been just jacked up all the time, anxious, and nervous, and afraid all the time, it was such a big deal.

We finished the practice that day, and he helped me create my own mantra that day, and the rest of my life was different from that moment on. Basically, what happened is I finished that practice and he said, “All right, kid, go try this for two weeks every day. Check in with me every day. If it works for you, I’ll teach you everything I know.” I’m like, “Why? Why would you want to do that?” He just said, “I’ve never seen someone who looks like you, who’s been through what you’ve been through—” you have to remember, this is a decade ago— “Never seen somebody who’s been through what you’ve been through and has the makeup that you have, interested in this practice. I’ve never taught anyone like you. And I think one day there’s going to be people who need to hear your voice, who don’t need to hear mine.”

So I ended up apprenticing with him for three years, and traveling, and helping him build his teacher training program. He’s still a great mentor to me today. That’s what got me on the path, first, to just practicing, then slowly, I just started sharing this very casually with people. Then I started getting asked to teach, and then now a book is happening. It’s just the biggest blessing because people always ask me like, “Why do you teach meditation?” Because they know I’m a musician, and this and that. I say, “Well, there’s no way I would be who I am today without this practice.” No way. I’d probably be doing drugs somewhere in a basement in New York with a bunch of people. This practice has saved me, and helped me overcome so many obstacles, and helped me take action in my life, and helped me find my purpose. It’s just so important to me to share this with everybody, especially people who are overcoming struggles like I had to overcome when I was a kid.

TS: The subtitle of the book, Meditation for the Rest of Us, how is a meditation guide for the rest of us different than all of the other meditation guides that have been published? The many, many, many hundreds, thousands of meditation guides.

JMW: Yes. Can I read a little section—

TS: Sure.

JMW: —for you from the book for a second? I think this is a really important thing to say because one of the first things—when we were actually writing, I didn’t have this in there before. It was one of the pieces of feedback from our first readers that they said, “Who’s ’us’? Who is ’the rest of us’? Is this for me? Or is this only for black people? Is this only for whatever?” So I put this, it’s on page three. It says, “For my black brothers and sisters, this is for you. For my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters, this is for you. For my women who’ve had enough, this is for you. For my starving artists and workaholic creative, this is for you. For my conscious entrepreneurs who want to make an impact, this is for you. For those who have been discriminated against for their otherness, this is for you. For my social justice warriors, this is for you. For my tree-loving planet savers, this is for you. And for all people of color and everyone who is woke enough to understand why I’m even pointing that out in the first place, this is for you. This book is for us, for the people.”

That’s a really important part of the book for me and really the reason why I even said yes to writing it, because I haven’t found any book or teachings that name and put the context in which these communities are, and the issues and very unique struggles that these communities are facing, and intersect that with the meditation practice in a way that’s very direct. Like, here are things that you are overcoming, here are things that your community is dealing with. I have practices in the back of the book for social justice and for dealing with privilege, and for dealing with prejudice, and when you don’t belong, and for people who are in the closet, and for the environment. I don’t see a lot of books calling us to action. This book really helps us take action through the practice of meditation.

TS: You’re right. We need a type of meditation that doesn’t pretend that struggle doesn’t exist. How is meditation taught differently when we’re not pretending that struggle doesn’t exist?

JMW: So I think by now most people probably listening to this have heard of the word “spiritual bypassing” at this point.

TS: Sure.

JMW: I find that so—well, let me not name what’s wrong with other things. I’m just going to say what I think this does a little bit differently. What I do is I take people through a process of deciding what their vision is for their life and for the world. And that really expands this definition of what we think we are as a separate self. As we learn to identify who we want to become and what our vision of service is for the world, and for justice, and for equality, and for the planet, we look at that and we use the practice to help us identify those things so that it comes from our heart and not just from our heads.

Then we go into the second stage, which for me is called alignment. It’s like, ok, here’s the vision of what I want for the world. Now, how do I align with that? Not in this like woo-woo, let me align my vibration. Yes, we do that. But in your actions, in who you are being in the world, in what you’re thinking, what toxic habits and patterns and beliefs have been implanted to you or passed down to you from generations—like, you look at black people as African-American men, like, some of the patterns and beliefs that are ingrained into my programming are things that have come from slavery. How do I actually look at these things and take—

TS: Can you give me a specific example of that?

JMW: Yes, I’ll give you a very clear example. There’s a few, and I’m wanting to think of which is the most potent to share with you. I think what’s wanting to come through is this thing about the church, and religion, and these practices, and mindfulness practices, and these different teachings being against our religion. When I was younger and I started meditating, my grandma and my mom literally tried to have an intervention. They thought I joined a cult. They were like, “What is this stuff that you’re doing? You’re selling your soul to the devil,” all these different kinds of things. I’ll name religion as one because it’s not unique just to black people. In black and brown communities, I literally cannot even get them to hear me talking about meditation if I don’t name this right at the top. When I was just teaching in South Side Chicago, I asked—first off, I said, “How many of you think meditation is worshiping the devil?” There were 60 women in the room, about 20 of them raised their hands. Today!

TS: Wow.

JMW: This was just a month ago. This is what is being fed to these communities. But the thing is, is when we look at the history of how these religions were even passed on to and why they were brought to these communities as a system of control, to keep you in your place so that you can be doing these specific things that the slave owners want you to do. When we look at actual African diaspora religions, and even Christianity as a religion in Africa before slavery, we see that the way Christianity actually looked and the way religion for African people before America actually looked when it was so inclusive, and it involved nature. It involved crystals. It involved the sun and mindfulness—not with that name. It involved all of this. And all of that got stripped away, and given this dogmatic thing.

I’m not saying that Christianity is bad. I’m not saying that in any way, I want to be clear. I’m saying that some of the things that we are taught are not for us, end up blocking us from becoming who we were meant to be, and blocking us from being able to do more. That’s an example of something that gets passed down without us even thinking about it. It’s just what we knew to be true.

There’s many other ways that this shows up for people. In this book in particular, I named them. And I say, just about religion in particular, that this practice, Freedom Meditation, the type that I teach, it doesn’t have to be religious. What I believe is that if you are a religious person, what this practice will do is it will help you connect more intimately, and more deeply, and more directly with your source of higher power, whether it’s God or the universe or whatever. If you’re not religious and you don’t believe in any of that, which I’m pretty sure most people listening to this have some kind of spiritual practice, but that’s fine. It just helps you connect to the highest version of yourself.

So, all beliefs are welcome. What I really believe is that prayer is when we speak to our source of higher power, and meditation is when we listen to the messages coming back to us. So many of us spent so much time asking, “Show me the way, what do I do? Show me. Show me.” But we never get taught how to listen to what we’re supposed to do.

So just naming some of this—you should have seen in this room with these women who literally raised their hand and said, “Worshipping the devil,” and they’re devout Christians—to see them excited about their mantra and excited about meditating. I don’t know any other teacher that I’ve ever been to who started their workshop with that question.

TS: Now you mentioned that when you are on the beach with Lorin Roche, you said he initiated you and that you discovered your mantra. I have to be honest with you, Justin. When I got to the part of the book, Stay Woke, where you talk about how we can each learn our own mantra and you talk about it as discovering our unique energy signature, I really lit up. I’d never heard this anywhere before. So I’d love to know, what happened on the beach, and then how do you teach people how to discover a mantra that’s not based on some foreign language or something that they have to pay thousands of dollars through an organization? I’m going to find my own mantra.

JMW: Yes. I really believe—and this is something Lorin said to me early on, that the real point of meditation is to realize the gurus inside of you. So why do we always have to look for these external things to tell us what it is that we need—airquotes, “need”—to be OK or to be fulfilled?

What happened to me on the beach that day, it was a game changer. So, perspective. When I arrived on that beach, I was completely miserable inside—even though the outside of my life looked like it had everything that I had tried and set out to do, I was totally miserable. I think at that point I had just finished a ridiculous—I did a 10-day ice fast when I was dealing with my anorexia and all this kind of stuff. And really feeling so stuck going towards a major that I didn’t really want. Everything was off. I realized that I had built my life—I realized this really in hindsight, but that I was building my life based on everyone else’s expectations of what they wanted me to be. Because that’s how I learned as a kid to be loved. If I shapeshift into this for you, you’ll love me. So I became this chameleon but didn’t know my center.

So Lorin—what actually happened, I’ll tell exactly how it happened. We’re sitting there with our feet in the sand. Sun is shining. The waves are coming, crashing up pretty close. He just says, “Close your eyes.” He asked me, he said, “If you could be bathed and soothed by any energy and if that energy could help you become the person that when you close your eyes you know you were put on this earth to be, what would that energy be? If you could get it out of an ATM anytime you needed it, if you could let it fill you up and bathe and soothe you in every crevice of your inner and outer being, what would that energy be? Name it. Use one, two, or three words and name it.”

Instantly, I just said, “Complete authenticity.” That’s what I needed. In that moment in my life, I needed complete authenticity because I knew if I could be myself—if I could get to the point where I actually could be completely and fully authentically Justin, then everything would change because nothing in my life was authentic. I didn’t even know what that meant. So if I could cultivate that—huh! I just felt this resonance with it so deeply that like, that is what I need. And it wasn’t—you know as I went to some other classes, Om Shrim Maha Lakshmiyei Namaha. Great, yes, I’d love to manifest abundance. And I used those kind of mantras sometimes, too. There’s nothing wrong with those. But there was something different about this one because it came from within.

TS: When you teach people to find that unique energy signature and to language it, how then do they work with those words, two, three words? “These are my words.”

JMW: Yes. In the book, I take people through several steps of trying on the mantra. I describe it really interestingly. It’s kind of like the first time with it is like a first date. Like, “All right, do I like this or do I not?” Or even like trying on a new pair of jeans. First, you look at it on the shelf and you’re like, “Oh, these look cute.” Then you put them on and you’re like, “Oh no, these jeans are not going to work. Make my ass look, like, square.” Sometimes that happens with people’s mantra, so the first thing I tell them to do is try it on. The way that I encourage people to try it on is in a few different ways. It’s saying the words either out loud in your practice—first, taking a few breaths, getting silent, closing your eyes if you’re comfortable, and then trying to say the words out loud. And if saying them out loud doesn’t feel good, fine—try repeating it silently in your mind. If repeating it silently doesn’t feel good, try whispering it very tenderly, see how that feels and try even repeating it in rhythm with your breath. Inhaling your mantra and exhaling your mantra. If those don’t resonate, imagining that the essence of the mantra as a color or an energy coming in and out of your body as you breathe.

There’s so many ways that we can experience that our mantra is more than just this like, japa-style, repetitive, repetition that we’re trying to block our thoughts out. That’s not the way that I teach. I like to use the mantra as an anchor point that we have permission to drift away from, but that we also have a place to anchor back to so that we don’t get too far off. What I really believe is that any thoughts that come up—not all of them, but oftentimes the thoughts that come up in our meditation—if you’re saying your mantra is confidence, like, “I am confident,” then usually the thoughts that come up are the things in your life that you’re not feeling so confident about; or the places that you are confident, places you could exude more confidence, the places that you’re holding back.

Oftentimes, I find the mantra that you choose is like this bait that uniquely lures these places in your life that need healing. Then the mantra bathes and soothes it and either shows you where you need to do more work in your life or it just heals it and helps it release. It becomes this really magical experience for people.

My favorite mantra that anybody’s ever said to me, and I actually included it in the book is, “I am Beyonce.” [Tami laughs] Yes, I remember this kid. It was so cute. We were going around the group and I have everybody share their mantras. Everyone is like, “Peace,” and “Love,” and “Safety.” I get to this kid named Galen and he goes, “Beyonce.” [Laughs] I was like, “I got you, kid. I got it.” So, it could be anything.

TS: Well, what’s so interesting to me, not just about this mantra practice, but the way that you teach meditation for the rest of us is you make it really—I’m just going to say a three-letter word, fun! Enjoyable, luscious, alive, vibrant. You actually come out pretty strong that meditation doesn’t need to be boring. You even go so far as to say something that I thought was kind of taboo—stillness is overrated. And you introduce the idea that our meditation can have a level of dynamic movement in it. Talk some about that and how your whole view of meditation for the rest of us takes it out of this monastic, renunciate form and brings it into this different kind of alive—I’m using the word “luscious”—

JMW: I love it.

TS: —because that’s the way it felt to me and the way you teach meditation.

JMW: Thank you. That’s my intention. Because really, it doesn’t have to be so damn serious. It really doesn’t. I think that’s the reason so many people are turned off by it. Like, ok, there are a lot of people meditating in the world and I would say—and there are even more people who are not. Then of the people who are “meditating,” many people are saying they’re meditating, but really what they’re doing is like, beating themselves up in their heads the whole time because they feel like they’re doing something wrong. They’re thinking too much and they’re trying to stop thinking. No. It’s like, why would we spend all this time practicing beating ourselves up? Let’s practice something that makes us come more alive.

That’s really why I teach meditation so that we can become more connected to our passions, more connected to our purpose, more connected to our emotions—the full range of them—and to the people that we love, and our social justice movements, and our movements for equality. Let’s use this practice to connect us more deeply. I think that many styles out there—which, again, I think there are uses and benefits of all of them. But for me, the styles that disconnect me or try to disassociate me from my emotions or from my thoughts or from what’s going on and what I’m feeling in my body—like if my leg is hurting in meditation and you’re telling me I can’t move, why? Explain to me why. Those are the questions that I have. Because really, the neuroscience says that if my body is uncomfortable, my brain’s going to have a harder time dropping in because the body-mind system is going to keep forcing me to try to be more comfortable. Why don’t we allow ourselves to move?

When I really got into my practice, something that really helped me was allowing myself to pulse and sway a little bit. I have this practice in the book that’s called “Pulse” for—

TS: Let’s do it. Let’s do it.

JMW: Let’s do it? OK.

TS: Let’s pulse.

JMW: Cool. Let’s do it. It’s really simple. You just sit however you want. In the book, this is called “Pulse: For People Who Hate Sitting Still. ” What you’ll do is—well, you would first incorporate a mantra into your practice. Feel free for now to just use any word that you feel like you might need to cultivate more of this energy in your life right now, just for this moment. It can be a temporary mantra. As you breathe in, imagine yourself filling yourself up with the energy of that mantra. As you breathe out, allow yourself to let go of anything that is out of alignment with that mantra and intention that you have.

Now, as you breathe, I want you to let yourself just subtly sway forward and backwards with your breath. You’ll notice that naturally as you inhale, your body expands a little bit and maybe moves back or sideways. As you exhale, your body naturally contracts and maybe collapses a little bit. Keep just moving with the rhythm of your breath. Now for the sake of this practice so you can feel it, I want you to exaggerate this a little bit. If you close your eyes, it makes it a little easier to get comfortable. Exaggerate the movement to the point where you let your head and neck even roll around a little bit. But keep the mantra present, and keep the rhythm of your movements attached to your breathing patterns.

Now we’re going to push this even just a little bit further. I like to push this further so you can come back. As you pulse, now just let your arms sway up and down a little bit with your breath. Maybe inhale. Let your arms come up just a little bit like wings or however feels good to you. Then as you exhale, let the hands and the arms drop down a little bit. Keep letting yourself pulse in the head and neck roll. For three breaths, just keep doing this on your own. With each inhale, infuse your body and your energy field with your mantra like you’re doing a slow dance through water, through honey. We’re not doing any choreography, we’re just letting the body just move. We’ll take one more breath in. On the exhale, just come back to center, and open your eyes. What did that feel like for you?

TS: I loved it. It made me feel a little bit like a snake dance of some kind. But it also made me think how in the Jewish tradition, people daven, or go back and forth when they’re praying. It made me think of the black church and the movement and singing. Your work of meditation for the rest of us, not locking people in to an Eastern imported tradition, working with Sanskrit language as we talked about before with the mantra. And that really what you’re doing, and I want you to be really explicit about it, is by having a personal goal of teaching and introducing meditation to people who have not felt drawn to it in the way, perhaps, that it’s been taught previously, you’re having to make these adjustments. I mean, that’s how it might catch on.

JMW: Yes. The real thing is, Tami, first of all, for some people, they hate the movement. What I love about this is, that’s fine. You don’t have to move. I’m just offering it as an option. Some people were like, “Oh, wait. I can move what I meditate?” For people normally, I don’t recommend standing up and doing a whole dance routine. Maybe you can try that later. But what I know from my experience and from the experiences of many of the communities that I’m in and have taught in and have lived in, is healing in communities of color, and to heal—it looks like dance. It looks like song.

Historically, when you see African children at a funeral or going through trauma, what are they doing? They’re dancing in ritual. Throughout human history, we look at the Native American traditions and Latino traditions—so many really, even Indian traditions really—there’s movement in everything. It’s an important part, and I think it’s something that is often been so disconnected in our meditation practices. There are many reasons for that, and I think that bringing these things back which are so natural us make the practice more fun, more accessible, and easier to integrate into our lives. Because we’re not being asked to do something that feels so stiff, and boring, and unnatural to us.

TS: Now I’m going to take a little bit of a flyer here—

JMW: Go.

TS: —and try something on you, Justin. Because now, I’ve known you for about six months. We’ve worked together. We’ve worked together to create with the Sounds True Foundation, this Stay Woke, Give Back Tour that we’ll talk more about as our conversation progresses here. What I’ve seen is that there’s a type of light inside, a creative light, that’s turned on in you. It’s like the lamp inside has been lit. It’s on, and you know how to access it, and now you know how to help. You’re a torch bearer now, you’re helping light that in other people. And the type of meditation you teach, you call it Freedom Meditation, which I just love.

JMW: Thank you.

TS: If you were to summarize, how does the way that you both learned meditation from Lorin and the way that you teach it turn that light on inside?

JMW: Yes. Thank you. Thank you, Tami, for that. Thank you. I think—not I think, I know from my own practice and from the way that I’ve experienced now sharing it with other people is when you’re allowed and given permission, oftentimes we just need permission. People are always asking me, “Is this ok? Am I doing this right? Is this all right?” When we’re given permission to access the creative energy that is within us all—this power is in every single one of us, but it’s been shut down, and muted, and covered, and blocked by so many different things—by the traumas and the things that we’ve faced, and by many of our churches or religions or our parents or whatever external circumstances have told us, like, we’re not good enough for it, this is not for us, or we’re going to look stupid, or whatever it is.

We get these thoughts and these limiting beliefs on ourselves, and what I find—I appreciate you telling me that I’m carrying the torch, but I think I’m just creating the space for the fire to burn within everybody that’s already there. I don’t ever find that anyone’s fire is completely turned off. It’s, that light is not completely turned off, it’s just so covered and oftentimes so dim and blocked by so many things. What I find this practice does is it helps you see the things that are blocking it, and when you’re in a regular practice and when we come at it from a place that we’re really enjoying it and with the purpose of becoming something more for ourselves, then we’re able to let go of a lot of these layers in a very direct way.

That’s why the way that I teach is not like, “Oh, by just happenstance, we’re going to let go of our toxic habits that are holding us back.” I have people in the book name and go through a guided meditation that helps them look at what are those habits in your life? Let’s write them down. Let’s figure out what they are and then make an action plan, that we’re going to use mindfulness to help us stay in alignment with it to actually let these things go and release them in our lives. Some of these things, like I said in the beginning, have been so ingrained into who we’ve become and who we think we are, but they’re blocking us from who we really want to be. So that’s how I help people turn on the light.

TS: Can you give an example from your own life of a toxic habit that you transformed that was blocking your light?

JMW: I have many that I’ve had to go through. I’ll share probably my most recent and most vulnerable one with you.

TS: Complete authenticity.

JMW: Yes. I was silent for a second. It’s like, “All right, are we going to go here? Yes, we’re going to go here.” A year and a half ago—and I just want to give you some context, I’ve been really, really focused on, for the last five or six years, on prioritizing my connection to spirit above everything else that I possibly can. For me, that meant looking at the ways that I was my own poison in my life and the things that were keeping me cloudy in that way. Over the last five years, I gave up drinking alcohol, I gave up porn—which for guys can often be a big habit—and gave up caffeine, and gave up smoking weed—and you know, being in California, all these things in a creative space can be a really big deal.

I want to say before I go into this, because I think this is a really important point, is that I don’t believe that anything is really inherently toxic. Most things, pretty much everything is just neutral. But what I tell people is you have to look at who you want to become. Who do you want to be? What is your vision for your life and for the world? Who do you want to be? Then when we look at any habit or any action that we’re taking in our lives, we have this vision as a filter. We ask ourselves, is this habit that I’m questioning or that I’m engaging in, is it taking me closer to who do I want to become, or is it taking me further away? Closer or further away?

In this way, we learn that something can be toxic for me, Tami, but not for you. Or toxic for me now, but maybe not later. I like to say that anytime I talk about this, because alcohol and caffeine and none of these things are inherently bad. But if you’re somebody who says, “Oh, I want to go after my passion project or I want to write a book, but I don’t have any time. I never have time,” but you’re watching four seasons of whatever on Netflix every night, then watching TV is actually one of your biggest toxic habits that’s taking you away from your goals. Is TV toxic? No. For you, it might be.

For me, very truthfully, when I was just getting into the process of starting to write this book, one of my commitments to myself all the way through was that I will never allow myself to be a teacher who’s not steeping himself in the work and the practices, to be able to teach them from a place that it’s really embodied and really lived. There’s probably nothing I dislike more than meeting one of my spiritual teachers and seeing that they are totally full of shit—maybe trying the best they can, but you know?

So I was talking to one of my mentors and she said, “Look, Justin, I know you’ve done all these releasing your habits, but I think you’re missing one of your most distracting habits of all.” I was like, “What?” I’m thinking, “I don’t do anything.” She said, “It’s boys and sex.” And I’m looking at her like, ugh. Because I actually knew. I knew. And I didn’t want to face it because it was the hardest one. As a kid growing up, I started having sexual activity really, really young—like single-digit age, young. Sex for me became this mode of validation because I was hiding in the closet, hiding who I was in my own home, shapeshifting who I was at school, pretending to be this certain kind of a person who was this guy with girlfriends who was trying to be this popular kid so I wouldn’t get teased or so I could be loved and accepted.

And it was the boys, the other boys, and sometimes men who were sexual with me in the backseat of my car in high school who were the people who showed love to me, not the Justin who did and presented. And for me, that created this really crazy entanglement between worthiness, and validation, and sexuality. I’ve known this in therapy, but I just didn’t have the courage or the desire or the discipline at first to give it up. I’m a 30-something-year-old dude living in Hollywood, in the music scene—giving up sex is kind of a big deal.

But Brenda Villa, who’s the woman who was my spiritual counselor at the time, she just said, “Look, Justin, this book is going to require all of your creative energy. You’re birthing an entire new life, entirely new life. It requires every single bit of you so that you can grow the wings that you need to grow so that you can fly.” She said, “I don’t want you giving up. I don’t want you to mute yourself and turn your sexual energy off. I just want you to stop leaking it and redirect it all towards this book and this creative project.”

And so I did. I was super resistant to it at first. I first said, “Ok, I’ll do three months.” Then I said, “Oh wow, this is actually—I feel the difference here. I feel my power and my energy building.” I did six months and started going to therapy, and then did a year. I’m still in it now as we’re recording this, at 15 or 16 months. And what was really interesting, Tami, is I’m not still in it because I still have a boundary around sex. At my year, I said, “Ok, I’m open. I’m open again.” But what happened in that year of me having a reset with my sexual experiences that I had built upon this from being a nine-year-old boy, was it completely changed the way that I relate as a sexual and relational being. Now I’m not just accepting, haphazardly, people into my life because I’m lusty or lonely. I’ve learned to hone in on the skill of being able to have the discernment to decide whose energy I let into my space.

So that’s a very real present one for me that has had a dramatic shift. Again, is sex bad? Hell no. It’s amazing. It’s connection. It’s passion. It’s just creation. But was it keeping me from elevating to the vibration of who I saw myself becoming as a teacher and a leader? Yes. Because when I see myself in my vision as Justin who is on these stages around the world and helping really be a beacon of light and healing for people, is that guy out sleeping with random people? No. That’s not what he’s doing. So I had to make the shift to align myself with that, and I’m so grateful that I did, and here we are.

TS: You know, I mentioned that you call the type of meditation you teach Freedom Meditation. How did you come up with that particular language?

JMW: It’s interesting. Lorin and I actually were talking about it together. And I’ll be totally honest with you, when I wrote the book at first, I didn’t care to have a name of my meditation. That was never a thought in my head. Like, “Oh, this is the style of meditation that I’m creating.” Because what I said was like, “I’m not really creating anything new.” This is mindfulness-based mantra meditation with a new context on it and a mantra that you self-generate. My editor, Jennifer Brown, she was like, “Yes, that’s different. I think we need to call this something.”

And so I was talking with Lorin, and he’s called his—which I think what we lead people to is similar but we come at it from a very different approach, and he’s called his “instinctive meditation,” like learning from your own instincts what it is that you need. For me, I called it freedom because for me it’s about more than just like your instincts and knowing the mantra. It’s about the liberation that comes in your life when you step into the power of what this practice really is. For me, honestly, I only care about teaching meditation as it is a tool to help people transform their lives. Meditation just so happens to be the tool that has worked the most effectively for me, so that’s the tool that I use. But for me, it’s not even really about meditation. It’s about the transformation that occurs because of it. For me, that’s freedom.

TS: I picked up on that because as you were talking about the toxic habit transformation in your own life, I thought, “Wow, you’re freeing yourself from these habits that are keeping you from being at your highest expression of who you are.”

Now, for someone who’s listening and they’re thinking to themselves, well—maybe they nominated four or five different possible habits they could approach. One of the interesting parts of Stay Woke: Meditation for the Rest of Us is you talk about how you can bring into your meditation questions that you have. You described the difference between low-quality questions and high-quality questions. How could somebody right now create not a low-quality question but a high-quality question about what toxic habit it’s perhaps time for them to let go of? How do they get clarity about that?

JMW: Yes. Thank you. Yes, that’s a fantastic question. First thing that I’ll say and the reason why meditation is, like, the glue through this entire book—and I really look at it as like a force that helps us go through this, is you could have me write about this whole book and pull meditation out of it. I’ll say, “Ok, what are your toxic habits? ” like we’re doing right now. Then you write about it from your head. We’re coming at it from, “I think this is my toxic habit. ” But when we bring meditation to the table, now we drop into our heart space. We drop into this knowing that lives deep, deep inside of us And it’s from that place that we want to start identifying what our maybe potential toxic habits are, even asking questions in our lives.

What I ask people to do, and you can do this now or you can do this when we get off this podcast, is to just put your hands over your heart, take a few deep breaths, and really imagine the you that you are in your vision for your life. What does it look like for you to be living the life of your dreams, for you to be in your purpose, for you to be in your calling, in your dharma? What does it actually look like? See if you can see what you’re wearing in that vision. See if you can see if you’re indoor or outdoor, and just trust whatever arises.

See if there’s anyone else there with you in that vision. What’s the expression on your face as you are living your purpose? Then we ask ourselves a question: where am I out of alignment with becoming the person that I see in this vision? You can ask that version of you—where am I out of alignment with becoming the person that I see in my vision? You feel what comes up. Oftentimes, what will bubble up is sometimes it’ll be something you already knew. Every once in a while, it’d be something you don’t expect. Oftentimes, I’ll hear people say, “Whoa, I wasn’t expecting this, but what came up for me was I always say yes when I don’t mean it when I meant to say no, or that I am always gossiping about people.” It’s things that they didn’t think to name.

What I recommend for people right off the bat is not to get too crazy with this. Just pick one habit to start with, and then you pick a specific number of days that you would commit to releasing it. I say 40 days minimum, but just go a little longer that feels comfortable. Then the key cornerstone of this practice is picking a new habit to replace it with. It doesn’t have to be an equal habit. It’s not like, “Oh, I gave up chocolate, so now I’m going to replace it with strawberries.” It’s like, “I gave up gossiping and now I’m going to start practicing guitar.” The reason I do that is because it’s not just by giving up this habit that you’re freeing up physical earth time, but you’re freeing up the energetic time in your mental and energetic space that’s holding onto and pushing this old habit forward. Now we want to replace it with something that is actually taking you forward towards your goals and your vision.

TS: Now I mentioned this difference between low-quality of questions we can ask ourselves and high-quality questions. How would you define that difference for people?

JMW: I find oftentimes when people are meditating or when they’re praying or anything, they ask these questions that are like, even if they found out the answer to them, the answer wouldn’t take them anywhere forward. So the way that I define the difference between a low-quality and a high-quality question is a low-quality question usually just gives you an answer that leads you to excuses and like, “Oh, well, this is why I wasn’t able to do this,” or “This is why I don’t have time for whatever,” where a high-quality question requires you to take responsibility for your life and gives you steps to be able to take action to make a change for it. Sometimes people are afraid to ask high-quality questions because once you get the answer, then you know you’ve got to do something about it.

TS: Can you give me a specific example?

JMW: Yes, yes. I’ll say this. Low-quality questions oftentimes—not always, but oftentimes begin with “why,” and high-quality questions oftentimes begin with “how.” Women oftentimes—this is one I get in class all the time, it’s like, “Well, why can’t I lose this weight?” OK, you can’t lose weight. Let’s say you get the best answer: well, you can’t lose weight because you’re not making time to work out and you don’t like exercising. OK, cool, got that answer. Now what? A high-quality question is, “How can I lose this 15 pounds in a way that is fun and energizing for me?” How?

Now the answer to that question is going to give you steps that you can take. But what’s scary about that is you’ll get the answer and then you have to step up to the plate and do it. If you don’t, it’s a little bit harder to stomach because now you don’t have the excuse of like, “Oh, I just don’t like working out,” or “Oh, I just don’t have time,” or “It’s so hard.” When we ask how—and not every high-quality question begins with “how” but often I find it does—then the answer that the universe will give us is often something that we can work with to make a change in our lives.

TS: I mentioned, Justin, the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour, which is a vision that occurred to you about how to take this book that you’ve written, this Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us, to the people that you envisioned would appreciate and learn from the book that might not naturally walk into a bookstore or think to even go online to purchase it or have the money to purchase it or it would never fall into their hands. The Stay Woke, Give Back Tour began as a vision to bring this book to the people you really intended it for when you wrote it. Share a little bit about the original vision and the tour.

JMW: This is—I’m so grateful, Tami, to be doing this part of the project with you. To me, the book, I’m so proud of it. It’s so beautiful. I’m so amazed by it. And This Give Back Tour is I think the thing I’m probably the most excited about because when we had the idea—for people who are listening, what normally happens when you’re writing a book, you finished writing, you get introduced to the marketing team, and they start planning a book tour where you go to indie bookstores or Barnes & Nobles, and you do readings, and whatever. Cool.

But I was like, “Uh, that’s not going to be enough, because I’m just going to be this token black guy teaching to a bunch of white women in bookstores in the Upper West Side of New York.” I’m fine doing that, and it works, and that’s not why I wrote this book. They said, “All right, well, what’s your idea?” I just went into prayer and I asked a high-quality question. I really did—went into meditation in prayer and I said, “How can I get this book to the people who need it most? How?” And it just came—like someone plugged a flash drive into my head and gave me everything. It was even cities. I mean, you remember when I called you, I had like a whole download. It was how can we go to the most impacted cities in the United States—places like Flint, Michigan, and Chicago, and Atlanta, and Oakland—and go to high schools, and go to colleges, and go to community centers, and do an event that is actually fun and empowering, that involves music, and give the book away to every single person for free, and to do more than just give them a book, but give them actual long-term support with this as well. We created a 40-day guided meditation program that people get access to for free as well.

All of this just came rushing through me. Then just the best part was I’m in Stockholm, I had just finished teaching somewhere there. And I wake up in my meditation in the morning and I had this vision already. I was like, “How am I going to bring this to life?” Something in my intuition, a voice quite literally just said, “Call Tami.” The funny part about this is, and I’ve told you, I didn’t even know who—I was like, “Tami? Who’s Tami?”

What’s funny is, like, Tami in my head, I remember when I heard that name, the few Tami’s that I know were black women with braids. So I’m like, who is Tami? Then I was like, “Oh, it’s Tami Simon.” And we hadn’t met, even though I had been working with the Sounds True team. I didn’t have your email address. I didn’t have anything. It just was clear. So that instant, I reached out to one of my friends. I said, “Can you give me Tami Simon’s email address? Don’t worry of why I’m asking you for this. Even though I’m with this publisher, just trust me.” He gave it to me and I wrote to you and said, “I think there’s something that you need to know about because Spirit gave me such a clear message that you needed to know about this.”

Then I called you and I remember—I can’t say that I was nervous, I was more concerned that I delivered it right, the way that the message came through. I was also like, “I’m about to call the founder and CEO of my publisher and ask her to give my book away for free after all this stuff. She’s either going to think I’m totally nuts … ”

TS: To tens of thousands of people.

JMW: Not just 100 books, but … The first city we’re going to has 3,500 people. I just will never forget, Tami, I was standing there on this rooftop and talking to you on the phone. I was actually at Soho House in West Hollywood on the balcony. I remember just talking, waiting for what you were going to say afterwards. You just said, “I think this is amazing. What you don’t know is that we have launched this foundation. One of our big questions with the foundation, the Sounds True Foundation, is how do we bring some of these teachings to the people who don’t have access to or don’t even know about Sounds True? We’ve been looking for people to carry that torch and to be the vehicle, and I think you might be the answer to the question I’ve been asking.” So you were asking this high-quality question in the same energetic space, and then we met at the perfect moment to now launch this tour to the world. I’m really excited about it.

TS: For people who are listening who are interested, you can check out staywokegiveback.org. Currently, Justin will be going to three different cities: Pittsburg, California, which is your—

JMW: My hometown.

TS: —hometown, also Flint, Michigan and Atlanta, Georgia. Our hope is that through sponsorship and partnership as well as through donations and if people are interested in volunteering, from all of that energy coming to meet the Sounds True Foundation, that Justin can continue the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour and go to cities like Oakland, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New York. Tell people what will be happening in each one of these cities.

JMW: Yes. It’s really amazing what’s going on. We’re doing keynote style—think like a Ted Talk mixed with a concert that gives a tangible takeaway so I’m not just inspiring people, but my mission and promise with every talk is that every single person who leaves that room will know how to meditate. Yes, they’re going to have to meet me there with a commitment to practice it on their own, but I’m going to make sure when they leave, that they know how to meditate.

So it will be this talk where they learn how to meditate, and I involve music, and the reason why I involve music, why that’s so important is because it cannot just be about words. It can’t. If it was just about words, everybody would be healed. Right? This has to be about getting people to feel, and believe, and drop into that emotional space where they know something more is possible for them. And the way that we feel, what makes us feel more than anything beyond words is music. This is why it’s used in every church and religion and ritual throughout history. It’s because it gets us to feel. So I incorporate music really not in a performance way, but in a way that we use it to anchor into our dreams.

Then after the event, this is my favorite thing I think about the whole thing, is we created a 40-day guided text messaging-based meditation program. From the stage, I’ll tell the students, every single student who will already be getting a free book and they’re getting this event for free, text message the word “meditate” to this phone number. And they’ll from their phones right there, text the word “meditate,” and every day for 40 days after that, they will get a guided audio meditation that’s 12 minutes, super easy for them to do every single day for 40 days, to help take them deeper into this practice so they can start to learn some of the principles like compassion, and forgiveness, and loving-kindness, and how to deal with anxiety and stress and fear and social justice issues, and all these different kinds of things.

The reason why I wanted to go directly to the students is many of these schools that we’re going to, they’re in such low-income areas where the administration and the teachers are so stretched and so tapped out that I didn’t want to come in and say, “Well, we want to create this meditation program at your school,” that requires them to spend more money and more resources. This is a way that we go directly to the kids on their phones, on their devices, and teach them a practice that can really change their lives.

TS: Again, I want to let our listeners know that if you’re interested in learning more about the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour, you can check it out at staywokegiveback.org. I want to enact my own mantra here a little bit which has to do with really leading with the energy of my heart. The Sounds True Foundation is a real heart effort here at Sounds True to make sure that there are not barriers to the type of spiritual education that we make available through the for-profit part of our business.

But Justin, the part about you and your work that’s so meaningful to me is that it became apparent to me that just lowering the barriers to our existing products, offering scholarships to programs and certification training programs, and donating our books, that it wasn’t enough. That in order to reach people in different demographics, we have to meet people where they are, we can’t just lower the access barrier to where we are. That’s what really moves me about what you’re doing in the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour, is you’re hopping on an airplane, you’re going to a high school in Pittsburg, California. You’re going to your own hometown to where you grew up with your house, with the now-legendary bullet holes outside. You’re going to meet people where they are. That’s what I think is so powerful about this tour.

JMW: Thank you. I think so many of us right now with everything happening in the world, I really deeply feel—I know for me, I remember after the last election, just really getting asked, asking myself like, how do I show up? How do I serve? How do I take action? What do I do with everything that’s happening today? We’re looking at so much, and we all have so much agency to take action.

For me, I remember thinking when I first started going to Black Lives Matter rallies and these kind of things, I remember feeling bad because I wasn’t organizing protests or using my social media to do that. It was really interesting because I kept asking this high quality question in my meditations like, how do I use my gifts, and my skills, and my talents, and the things that I really care about to make a positive impact in the world right now? How do I do that? The answer came so clear to me. It was just, dude, this practice that has changed your life. Think about all the people in the world, all the kids in the world. Think about how our lives would have been had we had these tools taught to us at a young age.

And right now, there are kids who are getting taught this at a young age. But they tend to be the kids who are in private schools or in the most privileged environments, whose parents have disposable income to be able to go to retreats and do all this kind of stuff. That’s just not the reality for a lot of people. So for me, the heart intention for this book was, let’s get it to them. Because my hope is that these kids can look back at that moment when I’m on the stage and in the room with them and say, “That was a moment where something shifted for me. That was a moment where I knew something greater was possible outside of what the media is showing me, and outside of what the fear around me is showing me, outside of what I even see in my own home. There’s something more, and is how I access it.” I think that for me, this was my, what do I do. I think that with so many of us asking that, it just feels like the biggest blessing to be able to bring the community in on this, where so many of us are asking that same question, so that we all can do something that I think for many of us is in full alignment with our values and our vision for the world.

TS: Again, join us, staywokegiveback.org. I’ve been talking with Justin Michael Williams. He is the author of a new book, Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us. Justin, thank you for taking time. Soundstrue.com: waking up the world.

Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at soundstrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.

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