“The Guru is Within”: Insight from Musician and Author Justin Michael Williams
As the crow flies, the distance between the Oakland suburb where Justin Michael Williams spent his childhood and his more recent Los Angeles home is not vast—but his journey has been epic. Raised by a single mother amid layers of violence and poverty, Justin beat considerable odds to rise as a recording artist, author, and motivational speaker who is committed to uplifting folks most in need. Along his path, meditation has served as an “integration ground”, he says, where he can bring together the threads of his wide-ranging life experiences.
Originally from Pittsburg, California, Justin rode out of his low-income neighborhood on a full academic scholarship to UCLA. Once in Los Angeles, he discovered yoga and ventured to try a meditation class, too—but emphatically hated it. The same day of his first failed meditation class, he wound up at a party with renowned spiritual teacher Lorin Roche, an encounter he describes as ”life changing”. This chance encounter led to a three-year apprenticeship with Lorin and a new life direction.
Justin penned Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us for audiences that might not typically gravitate toward meditation. The book has been called “godsend” by Jon Kabat-Zinn and "clear, empowering, practical, and joyful” by Jack Kornfield.
We at iRest Institute asked the charismatic and multitalented Justin to share more of his perspective (below). As well, he joined Richard Miller and Kamala Berrio-Hayward for a recent Sangha Session. Replay the session here>
What is Freedom Meditation and why is it so powerful?
Meditation is not about relaxing. It's about becoming more alive. Becoming more alive means having the full capacity to paint with all the colors on our emotional palette and on the palette of our lives.
When I’m teaching, I don’t actually tell people what to do. I give them ingredients and a recipe and then invite them to use as much or as little of those ingredients as they want. This can include how long they meditate, the mantra, what they meditate with, or what their practice is focused on. This way, people can really understand that they have the agency and answers within them and that ultimately the guru is within them.
Your book is subtitled "A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us". Who is "the rest of us" and why are you compelled to reach such an audience?
So many of us have been taught that meditation is something that is disconnected from the reality of our lives; or that we do to escape from our lives. But meditation helps us become more of who we really are.
What the world needs now, more than ever, is for all of us—the conscious people, the spiritual people, the woke people, those of us who believe in justice and equality, and people of all colors, genders, and social and economic identities—to come together, to step into the full power of who we are.
Can you speak to why you are passionate about reaching audiences of color?
What I have found, historically, is that many of these practices—meditation and mindfulness, crystals and astrology and tarot cards, and pretty much all of the spiritual practices that we do in our community, come originally from people of color.
At some point in history, these practices got demonized, colonized, corporatized, and then sold back to us in a way that we often feel like “Oh, that’s not for us!” in a way that we can't relate to. So it’s an honor for me to play a role in bringing these tools back to our communities.
When people come to these practices, they feel like they're coming home to themselves. This is essential for all of us: that we come home to ourselves.
How does your style and approach confront the issue of spiritual bypassing?
I have a section of the book called “The Magic is in the Mess”. People think that meditation is supposed to make you feel good—and I think that's a lie. Meditation is supposed to make you feel, period.
We often have to push things down to survive in the very real world we're living in. But if we keep pushing things down, they seep into our lives in places where they don't belong. I invite people to welcome their challenging emotions and dive deep into the shadows so that we can learn why it’s all happening and release it.
What doesn't heal repeats. If we bypass it, it just keeps going, in ourselves, in our lives—same cycles, same bullshit, over and over. If we don’t heal it, we pass it to the next generation. So we have to do our best here!
Talk more about what “toxic” means. That word gets thrown around a lot these days. You say that nothing in the universe is toxic. How is the word useful, and when is it less so?
I don’t use the book to shame or blame people in whatever habits they’re doing. I don’t think it works, and I don’t think it’s useful.
What I do is invite readers to look at any habit in their life—what they’re eating, the thoughts they’re having, how they spend their time, even things that are seemingly benign—and I ask a different question. Is that habit or thing taking me closer to who I want to become, or further away?
That’s it. There’s no middle ground. Every choice we make, every action we take, every thought that we have, everything that we do, is taking us toward our vision or further away from it. One of my aims is to help people look at the ways in which we become our own poison.
Does meditation practice shape your musicianship, and vice versa? Have you felt that meditation has changed your artistry, and if so, how?
My entire practice has informed my artistry and my best artistry has come from my practice. Music for me is not just about art or entertainment. Music can minister into our hearts and bodies. My mission with music is interwoven and integrated into everything I do. It has to go beyond words and be about feeling, embodying, going deep within where change really happens. Music is a key that unlocks the door to the space within us that activates change.
Why is it helpful to find a personal mantra? How does your book help folks do that?
The real point is to realize that the guru is inside of us. So often we are told that we have all the answers within, but no one ever tells us how to find them.
When people source the answers from within, they usually end up enjoying their practice much more because they get to be with something they love. Meditation, then, turns into a treat. It’s like taking a vacation with yourself; having a moment to fill yourself up with the energy that you really want.
In guiding this process, I’ve heard so many mantras—everything from the typical “Love”, “Peace”, and “Discipline”, to things like “Beyonce” and “Salty Rocks”! It's super important that people form mantras in their own native tongue; in their own languages.
There was someone who I was working with whose mantra was “I am the sun” but it wasn’t connecting. I realized his native tongue was Spanish, so he changed it to “Soy el sol brilliante.” It changed everything. And suddenly, he loved his practice.
What is your own meditation practice like?
Prayer is when you speak to your source of higher power and meditation is when you listen to the messages coming back to you. I practice every morning. It's the first thing that I do--I check in with myself and with spirit before I check my phone, for sure! My practice is the most important thing I do in a day because it plugs me into the right energy center.
I encourage people to practice when they can and remember that meditation is not some extra thing that you’re doing to take a break from your life. It's what we do to become more alive.
Learn more about Justin's work and find his book for sale>
Replay our recent Sangha Session featuring Justin Michael Williams, Kamala Berrio-Hayward, and Richard Miller>
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