On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
In January, we were honored to have Justin Michael Williams join us on #tethrtalks. Justin is the author of Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us, a transformational speaker, top-20 recording artist, and fellow Modern Elder Academy alum with our co-founder Addison Brasil. Below, we've collected some of the infinite wisdom he's shared with tethr, from reflecting on Black History Month, to making meaningful changes in your life. He even covers celibacy (and his take might surprise you).
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month has a much deeper meaning for so many people this year, because for the first time, I think the rest of the world has a richer understanding of the Black American experience. This allows people to truly celebrate with us in a more meaningful way, but also to recognize the reality of our hardships and why a month like this was created in the first place. For me, this month is about honoring our past, yes—but also about going much deeper. It’s wonderful to read “I Have a Dream” and read inspiring stories of Black leaders, but we must acknowledge the shadow too.
How would you guide someone who wants to celebrate Black History Month from a wellbeing perspective?
Dig into the shadow. One of the tenants of wellbeing is being able to name, own, and feel the truth of what’s real in your life. Black History Month gives us the perfect opportunity to practice that. How we approach our healing matters. Do you just focus on the light? Or do you also welcome the pain? Because without welcoming in the pain, you can’t heal it. This Black History Month, don’t just look at the inspirational speeches and the Black people who have done incredible things, also look at the incredible harm that has been done so you don’t repeat it unknowingly. My favorite books: mine (of course) and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
Who inspires you historically?
This is both history and present—but the most inspiring Black person on the planet to me is Oprah Winfrey. She is the living embodiment of healing and truth. There’s no one I’m more inspired by. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for the path she carved.
Being fans, we have heard you say what doesn't heal, repeats — how do you think that phrase translates to BHM and the Black Lives Matter movements?
“What doesn’t heal, repeats” is one of my favorite quotes because it’s so true. We’ve all seen it in our lives, and we also see it in the movement for social impact, equality, and change. When we lean into the truth of our history (ps.. the Black American story is ALL Americans’ story) we can become intimate with our real past, and finally create a new future that we all want to live together. Let’s not repeat the past, let’s grow from it.
How will you personally be celebrating - anything in February we can tune in to?
My nonprofit The Dream Bigger Foundation has started an “Ending Racism Grant & Scholarship Fund” to help people come together across divides. This month, I’m celebrating by empowering others! We’re raising money to help people become more effective leaders in the movement for change.
Why is it important to heal yourself before you look outwards?
I feel really grateful to be here because as a man, having grown up in the closet, and around a lot of toxic masculinity, literal physical abuse in my family, and lots of different things. One of the things that has become most important to me is understanding how my own internal work and my own healing can actually help impact the external world. One of the quotes that I live by is that there are lots of conversations about change, but very few conversations that actually change something.
The reason why it's important to me is because my mission anywhere that I show up, whether it's in my music, whether it's through my books, whether it's through speaking, whatever form I'm expressing through, is to actually help people change something. And that change has to start from within.
What I really mean by that, and we're seeing it in the world right now, is things change all the time. We change presidents, we change days, we change clothes, we change where we live, so many things change. But if we haven't actually done the work that it takes to have that real revolution within a real transformation within a real healing within, then none of the changes that happen ever have any lasting impact. That's why I'm here to help us do the internal work so that all this external stuff that we're doing, can actually matter and have the impact that we wanted to have.
I closed my eyes and I felt this roar of emotions coming up and I wanted to cry.
Several years ago, my grandmother — who I was super close with — got diagnosed with stage four cancer. She had a couple months to live. When this happened, it was a huge shock to our whole family. She was 67, seemingly healthy, seemingly young. I flew home to the East Bay in Pittsburg, California. Right when I walked in the door, my grandmother pulls me back to her back room. And in that moment asked me a question that changed the trajectory of my whole life. She said, ‘if you were in my shoes, and you knew you were gonna die in two months, what would you do?’ She said, ‘close your eyes, get still, do that meditation thing you're always talking about and don't open your lips until you're ready to tell me the truth.’
I closed my eyes and I felt this roar of emotions coming up and I wanted to cry. But I didn't cry. Because when I was a kid, they said only faggots cry. I just blurted out, ‘I would quit everything that I'm doing. I would record an album, I would do music, I would speak, I would teach, and I would stop hiding myself behind the scenes.’ My grandmother looked at me and was like, ‘I know.’ She made me look her in the eyes and promise her that I would do it.
I always wanted to step into the forefront and use my art and use my voice in the world in a big way. I stopped myself because I got teased and bullied when I was a kid about being gay, about being different, about growing up in the hood. All the teasing and bullying make me think I sucked at everything. So when my grandmother asked me this question, it woke something up inside of me that I thought was gone. She made me look her in the eyes and promise I’d stop hiding. And I don't know about y'all. But if I make a promise to my grandma, I don't break it.
What does it mean to 'leak energy'?
Based on our trauma, we learn some ways to adapt, right. Part of the adaptations that I have came with all these numbing mechanisms. Using caffeine to numb, using drugs to numb, using alcohol to numb, using sex to numb, using everything around to not feel it, to just keep being productive.
Over the last several years, I've given up, which I'll reframe for you in a moment, a lot of things. I've given up alcohol, a few years ago I gave up smoking weed, then I gave up caffeine. I was getting ready to write the book. One of my mentors says to me, ‘Justin, you've given up all these things, to try to create a space for you to be the full expression of who you are but you're missing your most distracting thing of all.’ And I’m thinking girl, I'm not giving up sugar. She was like, ‘boys and sex, your energy system is leaking.’
Now I'm in a place where I have such reverence for how important this energy is. Whoever gets it needs to be able to match me energetically so that it's worth the exchange.
It wasn't like I had this crazy toxic relationship with it. But the way that she described it was like I was in a hot air balloon and using the fire of my transformation and all my personal work to let the balloon go higher and higher. Then I would get to a certain height, where I wasn't quite where I wanted to be yet but I also wasn't on the ground anymore. I would get lonely somewhere in the middle. Then I would throw down a rope, or create a leak in my system. That leak was keeping me in this weird in between stage, never feeling fully connected to where I was, but not getting to where I wanted to go. She said wanted me to do six months celibate. I said I'll do three.
So I do three months. At the end of those three months, I felt such a dramatic difference. Such a dramatic difference in my creativity, in my energy, in my healing. Once I pulled all of my sexual energy back, even flirting, it was really fascinating to watch who disappeared from my life and who stayed.
When Brenda, who was my mentor, told me about this, she said to me, Justin, I don't want you to think about it as being celibate and cutting yourself off from your sexual energy. What I want you to think about it is redirecting your energy. It's not shutting down and not wanting it. But instead of your sexual energy having you, I want you to learn how to have it, how to direct it, how to use that creative energy for what you want. I said I would not be able to do it for six months, I did it for three, then I did it for six. Then at the end of six I was like, I'm gonna go till I'm done with my book. So I went for nine.
Then after nine months I thought I wanted to go back out there. I tried a little something and I felt totally overwhelmed. I wasn't quite ready. So I pulled a boundary back to myself. It's now been longer than I should say, like, two and a half years. Not because I'm even trying to be celibate. Now I'm in a place where I have such reverence for how important this energy is. Whoever gets it needs to be able to match me energetically so that it's worth the exchange. I’m not promoting celibacy, I'm saying look at your leaks. Look at the leaks that you have. And then understand how you can patch those leaks up so that you can start to grow and change and evolve.
Somebody asked, is there another word we can use besides celibacy? Yes, actually. I’m saying it now for context but I never use the word celibacy. I am redirecting my energy, I'm redirecting my creative energy.
Here's the thing: no one's getting their mind to stop thinking. And anybody who says that they did is lying. Because what is the idea that you got your mind to stop thinking? A thought itself.
Do I hate meditating or was I just taught it wrong?
Stay Woke is a meditation guide for the rest of us. It's really a meditation book for people who think they would never buy a meditation book. Getting your mind to stop thinking is not possible. If you're alive, it's just not. The idea that you can get your mind to stop thinking would be like me saying, alright, everybody, we're gonna get our hearts to stop beating, 123 let's meditate!
If for some reason, you had a whole roomful of people who were saying, ‘oh, I got my heart to stop beating, it felt so good,’ then you would feel like you were doing it wrong. Like ‘how come I can't get my heart to stop beating?’ Here's the thing: no one's getting their mind to stop thinking. And anybody who says that they did is lying. Because what is the idea that you got your mind to stop thinking? A thought itself.
We've been taught, and programmed through kind of inaccurate propaganda of meditation, that we should be wanting our minds to slow down or stop thinking. That's not what we want. What we want is our minds and our thoughts to start working for us instead of against us. How do I get this mind to work in favor of my growth and of my healing, instead of always sabotaging me and dragging me down?
People think that meditation is about relaxing. Meditation is not about relaxing, meditation might feel relaxing sometimes. But it's about becoming more alive. That is the most important thing that I can say to you. It's about becoming more alive. To become more alive means to become more connected to your emotions, more connected to your passions, more connected to the causes you care about, the things that you believe in.
We think that meditation is just supposed to help us feel the good feelings, right? It's supposed to give us the capacity to feel all the feelings without it breaking us down. The quote that I'll give people to remember, when you meditate, is meditation is not about feeling good. It's about feeling, period.
How do you stay on track and become the person you want to be?
When you're deciding what to give up and what not to give up, right, if you take anything from me today, please take these two things. Number one is you have to have a vision for who you want to be. If you don't have a vision, you don't have a way to choose to direct your energy. When you're thinking about your different habits, or the things that you want to give up or not, you ask yourself this question: who do I want to be? What's the vision of who I want to be? And is this habit or this thing in question, taking me closer to that, or further away.
Nothing is inherently bad for you, it's more about, who do you want to become? Is the habit that you're asking about taking you further or closer?
Now the second thing that's around this is when you are choosing to give up something or get rid of something, we think about putting a wall up to push away. When you're pushing something away, that takes force, it means something's trying to come towards you. I can't drink, I shouldn’t eat this, I shouldn't text him. I shouldn't go on that app. I shouldn't do it.
Instead of thinking about what am I pushing away, it’s what am I protecting? That changes the perspective completely. Because then you go, ‘oh, I'm actually doing this because I love something, there's something in my life that I'm trying to bloom.’ Just like a mother protecting their children. So it's not about pushing away. It's about ‘what do I love?’
You have to look at who you want to become, what is the vision that you have for your life, whether you're trying to create it, like I was trying to create my book. Then everything you do, every habit you have, from watching TV to exercising to when you sleep to who you talk to, you ask, is this thing that I'm doing, taking me closer to who I want to become or further away? If it's further away, and you're making a conscious choice to do it, then you're at least making a conscious choice. Then that will help you even get back on track as we all fall off track.