Justin Michael Williams
- The Esalen Institute is a retreat and educational institute that was established in Big Sur, California in 1962.
- Esalen has become known as a moral gathering ground for Silicon Valley executives.
- Esalen instructor Justin Michael Williams said that the real draw is to enhance human potential.
This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Justin Michael Williams, a motivational speaker and instructor at the Esalen Institute. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When I came to Esalen for the first time in 2014 I thought: How does this place even exist?
Esalen is located in Big Sur, California, which is a small, mountainous stretch off the coastline. It’s a rare place where water coming down from the mountains, hot spring water coming up from the Earth, and water from the Pacific Ocean all collide in one place. During your orientation here you’ll learn that the Esselen, a Native American tribe, have been coming to this spot for years due to their belief in its healing powers.
So, it’s not an accident that this place feels spiritual. There are years of intentions and prayers that have gone into this land.
The stories about Esalen suggest that Silicon Valley executives flock to us as a way to clear their soul and grapple with the consequences of technologies they’ve created.
But I wouldn’t describe Esalen as a place that exclusively offers people spiritual experiences. What we’re really trying to do is help people expand their human potential, which can help increase their productivity, and improve their performance.
‘I’m not meditating all day’
Three bodies of water collide at the land at the Esalen Institute which is why it has long be revered as a sacred place by the Esselen tribe.
Justin Michael Williams
Esalen was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, two Stanford grads inspired by ideas of the psychologist Abraham Maslow and the writer Aldous Huxley.
The human potential movement – which posits that there is extraordinary untapped potential in people— was born here.
Sixty years later, our goal is still to help high-achievers reach their potential.
I’d describe myself as a high-achieving, Type A individual. For almost 11 years, I ran a marketing firm called SketchbookLA, and worked with clients like plastic surgeon Dr. Paul Nassif and Fox Studios. I wrote a book on meditation. I’m also a Grammy-nominated recording artist.
Now, I like to say that I’m in the field of “transformation.” I travel all over the world giving motivational speeches and I also teach. When I’m not at Esalen, or traveling, my home base is Los Angeles.
But I’m not meditating all day at Esalen — I’m focused on making an impact in the world.
I spend about 20 minutes every morning practicing a form of meditation called “Freedom Meditation.” Then I take a shower in the hot springs, get dressed, and head to breakfast. A typical breakfast might be bacon, farm-to-table eggs, a fresh croissant, and a green salad. The food here is healthy, yet so delicious, it almost feels a little sinful.
I’ll probably be teaching a class after that. Right now, I’m teaching Come Alive: Meditation for People Who Can’t Stop Thinking. As you can imagine, it draws a lot of over-thinkers.
I might have a few Zoom calls after that and teach an afternoon course. In the evenings, there’s usually a bonfire, a concert, or a hangout by the baths under the stars.
People are coming to us in transition
Given our proximity to Silicon Valley, we do draw people from the tech world. But they’re not representative of everyone who comes here.
We have limited WiFi, and there’s no cell phone signal here, so you naturally have to disconnect a bit. What I’ve observed from those who do work in tech is how they’re taken by the physical world beyond the screen. They don’t even want to be on their devices.
There was a woman here a few weeks ago who said she was putting her phone in a drawer for the first time in 10 years.
I’ve noticed that people often come here in hopes of improving something in one of six areas of life: their career, their creativity, their relationships, their health, their money, or their desire to be of service to a broader community.
Right now, with layoffs hemorrhaging the tech industry, so many people are coming to us in transition. The question everyone is asking themselves across the board is:
“I’ve been working in this job that I thought was secure. Now, how do I figure out a next step that is authentically aligned with what I really care about?
A guest who was recently laid off from his big, big tech job arrived here too scared to admit that he wanted to start his own company. By the time he left, he had written an entire business plan.
People think they’re coming to Esalen to disconnect, but what they find when they get here is how to connect to a greater source of power. Ultimately, we’re here to help people do the internal work to show up differently in the external world.