Meditation 101, with Light Watkins

19 Jun Meditation 101, with Light Watkins

My guest today is Light Watkins. Light is a former GAP fashion model. He started attending yoga classes and meditation circles back when he was doing casting calls in New York City. Since 1998, Light has been active in the wellness space, first, as a practitioner and then he’s gone on quite a journey with meditation.

This journey led to a trip to Northern India, to a little hamlet nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas to become a master in meditation. After about three months there and over thousands of hours of meditation, he completed his training. He now travels the world giving talks on happiness, mindfulness, inspiration, and meditation.

He teaches meditation to A-list actors, big name entrepreneurs and a whole lot of regular people because he does it in a unique way.

He just got a real practical approach. He introduces all of that in his most recent book called Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying which was released earlier this year.

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INTERVIEW:

Light, welcome to DREAM THINK DO.

Thanks, man. I’m so excited to be here.

Our mutual friend, Antonio Neves introduced us.

Antonio started talking about your book Bliss More as you were launching it. I started to dig into it a little bit, and I was like, “Gosh, meditation can be such a heady thing.”

I loved how you were very transparent in your story. You didn’t try to set yourself up as some mountain top guru; you’re a regular guy who’s had mountain top experiences through meditation, so I love that. It’s a real practical approach. It wasn’t that you sat down and immediately had just these incredible experiences. Tell us a little bit about how your journey with meditation got started.

Yes, sure. I got introduced to meditation through taking yoga classes. Everybody always talked about meditation. I was reading a bunch of the new age spiritual books that everyone’s familiar with, the Eckhart Tolle book, Power of Now, The Seat of the Soul, The Celestine Prophecy, Conversations with God. There were always mentions of meditation or meditative states, and you figure, if something is hanging around for thousands of years, there’s got to be something to it.

Yeah, right. If it’s been hanging out this long, then maybe, maybe I should dig into it just a little bit.

My curiosity got the best of me, and I started going to these French meditation circles in New York City. This is back in the ’90s, so I didn’t know anyone else who was interested in this which kind of made it more interesting to me. You always want to feel like you’re in on something that no one else has heard about yet so then you can then introduce everyone else to it.

In those early days, it always frustrated me and fascinated me at the same time that I didn’t feel like I was having the experience, the advertised experience. I wasn’t going to nirvana. I wasn’t having the bliss experience. You don’t know what you don’t know, so I didn’t know that there were different approaches to meditation. I didn’t know that there were monastic techniques and there were householder approaches.

I was mainly doing monastic approaches, and that’s one of the reasons why I was having such difficult experiences. After three years of knocking my head against the wall, I stumbled upon a teacher who showed me some of the householder, meaning regular people, approaches to meditation where you sit on a couch, or you sit in a comfortable chair, and you meditate there. That’s where I finally found the bliss that had been eluding me for a very long time. Then everything made sense.

It started to click. Well, I love that. A lot of people think of meditation, and they think of the discipline, the monk who deprives themselves of all things to have this experience in meditation. How would you say the householder approach is different?

I think the monastic approach has been adopted by our culture up until recently as the gold standard for meditation. So if you aren’t able to be monk-like in your life, then you would not be a good candidate to succeed in meditation.

In my experience, you start meditating in a way that suits your lifestyle and then gradually, over time, your lifestyle will start to refine itself around your practice so that they both become integrated seamlessly. It’s not about trying to live so that you can enhance your meditation; it’s about using meditation in order to enhance all the different important priorities in your life.

Such as getting better sleep and having better relationships and communicating better and becoming a better father and husband and mother and wife. When you approach it in that way, meditation becomes this wonderful little thing that you do once or twice a day that no one ever really even knows about or sees you doing. They can all feel that you are showing up in a way that’s more present and is happier and is more fulfilled than you’ve ever been before. Probably more so than most other people around you, so it makes you stand out for good reasons.

Right. In the book, you say, “Bliss is more about what you experience and exude outside of meditation in your life. It’s a state of being that can be felt by others the moment you enter the room.” I love it.

You continue to say, “The true value of meditation is not what happens to us during meditation but how we show up in life as a result of our daily meditation practice.” I think some people disqualify themselves thinking, “Oh well, I can’t go that extreme. I can’t be the monk,”

But that’s not what it’s about. I’m a Jesus guy. DREAM THINK DO-ers know I’m big on prayer. It’s a big part of my life.

I love talking about meditation because we can learn so much from so many different approaches and aspects of this and learn from it each other. Years ago, I was a pharmaceutical sales person, so I sold drugs legally which is great. One of my doctors, he was a Buddhist monk and a pulmonologist.

Great guy. We were talking one day; we were supposed to be talking about a study or some sort of updated something about the drug I was supposed to be selling. We started to talk about meditation and meditation practices. We sat down in his office, and we wound up talking about meditation for probably about an hour and a half.

I totally lost track of time and just comparing our notes on what my experiences were with prayer and what his experiences were with meditation. It was just this awesome thing, learning from each other. So when I saw your approach, it just so reminded me of what his approach was, and you could see that bliss, that joy just came out of him.

There are doctors out there that know everything there is to know about the body but still are not happy. Bliss is the farthest thing from what they know so it was just like he stood out and I know is such a big part of this.

That’s why I want to shift and talk a little bit about the how-to, some of the things that you’ve learned over time that really form the foundation. You coach A-list actors and powerful people, along with ordinary folks. What are some of the basics? I know you do a great job of covering this in the book but for our DREAM THINK DO-ers, what are some of the basics of getting started with meditation?

Well, the three pillars of the approach that I teach are really about setting yourself up to have an experience. One of the things that I think a lot of people do unknowingly is they position themselves physically in a pose they think is THE meditation pose – legs crossed, back straight, fingers laced together.

That is a misconception. You don’t have to sit in that way in order to meditate effectively. In fact, if you want to meditate effectively, which I define as meditating in a way that allows you to have a tangible experience of something other than your surface of mind, you don’t want to sit like that. If you sit in that way, you’re not going to have that experience.

It doesn’t matter who you are; it doesn’t matter how much you know about spirituality and those kinds of things. It’s not going to happen because you’re using physical activity to hold the position. Anytime you are employing physical activity; you’re going to keep your mind active. It’s the same thing as trying to sleep while you’re standing against a wall, you’re not going to be able to sleep in that position. It doesn’t matter who you are; it’s the law of your physiology.

If you sit with your back supported in a comfortable seated position, that will position your mind to settle very, very easily. It shouldn’t be something that you have to force or control. It’s something that happens as a byproduct of your body position and the way that you interact with your mind, your thoughts.

The second pillar is this idea that, “Oh, I have to control my mind. I have to fight the mind; I have to reject the thoughts. What we know, without even having to meditate, is that you can’t control your mind. I write this in the book, and I opened my TedTalk with this story of the white polar bear effect.

A Harvard psychologist wanted to test if you could suppress your thoughts by getting some of his students to sit in a room for five minutes and first, to try to think about white polar bears only for five minutes and to ring a bell if they got distracted. Then for the next five minutes to not think about white polar bears and if they thought about the white polar bears by accident, they need to ring the bell.

What he found was when they weren’t supposed to be thinking about the white polar bears, they were bordering on obsession. That’s all they could think about which is white polar bears. Of course, when they were supposed to think about the white polar bears, they could barely even think about the thing because they kept going to their to-do list and the conversation they just had before they walked into the room and all these other unrelated things.

The mind has its own tendencies which will keep it from being able to focus on anything for longer than six or seven seconds without being distracted. If you try to resist what it’s thinking about, it will multiply that same thought, and that would be all you can think about. If we negate this nature of the mind because some misinformed meditation guy told us that we needed to discipline our mind and try to notice the white light and all of that, it just ends up being a breeding ground for frustration and shame. We start bullying ourselves, “I knew you couldn’t meditate, this is not for you.”

I knew this isn’t for me. I can’t do this; my brain doesn’t work this way, yeah.

We start thought shaming ourselves and start position shaming ourselves. I mean, it’s awful, and in some meditation circles, if you start nodding off and getting into deeper states, they come around with a stick, and they whack you on your back so that you’d get back to this focused conscious level. What we’ve done is we’ve adopted this backwards approach to meditation as a correct practice, and anything other than that is, “Oh, you’re not meditating right because you’re not focusing, you’re not sitting with your back straight.”

In my experience, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind, and it doesn’t make good common sense, and there’s no real-world way to track progress in that approach. That’s why I think that this conversation was necessary to be introduced to the general public. Just by choosing your sitting position and not fighting your mind, allowing the mind to do what it needs to do will set you up for having a very powerful experience.

Then the third pillar is, everyone’s heard of mantras before, and my personal practice is transcendental meditation. I went into transcendental meditation, and I now teach what’s called Vedic Meditation which is basically an offshoot of TM because I’m not affiliated with the TM organizations. That’s a whole another conversation. We use mantras, and there are certain sounds that have been discovered to trigger a settling effect in the mind.

This doesn’t mean you should just go on the internet and find a mantra to use. It’s more subtle than that. You don’t even really want to see the mantra written down and that’s why, historically, mantras had been given by teachers, by people who’ve mastered how to use these things because it doesn’t come easily. It’s not intuitive; it’s very counter-intuitive in fact.

When you say a mantra, talk to us about that. Is it a sound? Is it a word? Is it repeated over and over? Talk to us a little bit about that.

Well, in the book, in Bliss More, I referred to the mantras for the meditation as settling sounds. Again, the word mantra has been bastardized a little bit, and it now has come to mean something a word or phrase that gets repeated over and over and over. That’s not necessarily the way that you would use it in this particular approach to meditation.

I like settling sound as a description because it describes what’s happening. It’s a sound. When you say a word, a word implies association; it implies that it means something, it’s related to something that you’re familiar with, etc. When you say sound, you can be talking about the sound of a bird chirping; you can be talking about the sound of the ocean, you can be talking about the sound of dust settling.

Even if you can’t hear it, it still makes a sound on some level. There are certain sounds that have a pulling effect on the mind, and these sounds can settle the mind away from your gross surface awareness where you have the busy thought experience, into a very subtle state of awareness where the mind appears to be completely still and then everything in between that spectrum. I introduced a generic settling sound in the book for people to use while they meditate.

I teach them how to use it in a way that allows it to do what it’s designed to do. If you focus on the sound, if you chant the sound, it’s not going to work in the way that it’s designed to work. If you use it properly, which is to say if you use it passively and easily during the practice, then you’re going to have very powerful and profound experiences.

Those are the three pillars: sitting comfortably, not resisting tendencies, the nature of the mind and then if you can employ one of these sounds that will be sufficient for taking the mind away from the gross surface thinking state into a quieter state. You can create for yourself a very powerful meditation experience that can be directly verified by you in real time. That something is actually happening, and it’s not your imagination.

And you can feel that. Well, I love it. For me, it was very freeing to realize I didn’t have to sit a certain way.

Then your concept that all thoughts are valuable and to fight it is actually going to not help you in this process. It’s going to hurt you in the process so don’t fight it, just value those thoughts as you’re doing it. The mantras though, I needed more on that. Talk more about the settling sound.

I just have a couple more questions on that, and then I’ve got about four or seven other subjects. I know you give the settling sound in the book but give us an example of what that might be like in the mind. A lot of people think, “Oh, meditation,” and they’re doing the um, um, over and over again. If I’m understanding you, what you’re saying, it’s not necessarily a timed repetition thing, but talk more about what it is.

Well, one of the resources that I have provided for people who read the book is I’d record it myself going through what it would sound like. It’s on my website, Blissmore.co. You can go there and listen to me going through it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not really about how you experience it as much as it’s about your attitude while you experience it. This is a very important point because what I’m describing now is the art of meditation. Anybody knows that there is a scientific benefit to mediation. If you don’t know, you’ve been under a rock.

Right, exactly. It’s amazing the scientific data that exists now, especially in the last 20 years or so. It’s incredible.

There’s a lot of wonderful things but there’s an art to it that can make all the difference in you enjoying it versus you seeing it as a chore. One of the approaches which requires practice and refinement is adopting the passive attitude.

You don’t have to have a particular cadence, that’s also some level of focus. I think people need to have their own point of reference for what passive feels like.

Then when they find themselves resisting it in any way thinking, “I’m doing it too much or too hard or too this or too that,” then the art of it is just reminding themselves, “No, actually it’s perfect. It’s okay.” To go a step further if they can and celebrate their experience. That’s what’s missing in the meditation approach is there are too much condemnation and not enough celebration. A lot of us, we go into something like this after hoarding 30, 40, 50 years of accumulating stress and we expected to work in a week or in three days.

Right. Well, 15 minutes. Come on, Light, 15 minutes. Seven-minute abs, right? Seven-minute bliss.

Yes. Our expectations dwarf our commitment, and it’s like anything else, you’re not going to be a star basketball player or a ballerina or a painter after 15 minutes. You need to practice and show up and understand the fundamentals, and it’s through the practice and repetition that you start to refine. I think that we have a warped perception that meditation, it’s this thing that’s supposed to work because after all, I’m just sitting here with my eyes closed, what’s the big deal?

Well, the big deal is your mind and body have been hard-wired in such a way over all these years of just accumulating stress and anxiety and lack of sleep, some of that hard wiring needs to get broken down and in the process of deconstructing it so your body can rehabilitate itself. It may make the mantra rev up on its own, or it may make your mind feel busier than it usually is. That does not indicate that your meditation is broken or is not working, it just means you’re in the process of rehabilitating, and it takes time.

Well, it’s funny because I will admit when I saw the title, Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying, I thought, “That’s catchy, that’s enticing.” But as I read the book, I realized how foundational that is.

It’s literal. Exactly, that’s a literal interpretation of the approach that I’m suggesting people take.

I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but I do love that it does take time. I loved the example you gave of the Cessna. I’ll let you just use that as examples from the standpoint of it does take time.

A fourth pillar would be consistency. Meditating once a week is not going to do anything. You’re not doing anything. I don’t care if it’s the Dalai Lama himself is coming to guide you through meditation, if it’s only happening once a week, it’s not going to stabilize. The whole point of meditating is so that, at some point, it starts to feel more and more stable. The effects that you’re having from the practice feels more stable.

It needs to be a daily activity, and of course, no one is going to want to do anything every day if it doesn’t feel good. That’s why on some level, the way I gauge success in meditation is it has to feel enjoyable. When things feel enjoyable, you look forward to doing it. If it doesn’t feel enjoyable, it doesn’t matter how good it is for us; we’re not going to do it.

I don’t care who you are; nobody has that level of discipline to do everything they should do that’s good for them. We need meditation to get out of that chore category which is where it is for a lot of people. We need to put it into the Sunday brunch or the glass of wine category which is something we look forward to doing after a long day. It soothes you and salves your worries.

It’s an oasis experience as opposed to something you’re trying to get away from. I guess that was one of my other questions to you too is that with consistency. For some of us, to do something without really trying can be hard. I’m a high achiever, I’m a relatively laid back in appearance but a driver deep down inside.

When I think about my experiences with prayer, I realize if I’m forcing prayer, if I’m jamming and rushing prayer and trying to make it a to-do list experience, it’s very similar to what you’re talking about, with meditation.

One of the questions I have for you too is that for the consistency. I think these things can become over analyzed. Are there things that you would even recommend like 5 to 10 minutes before you start to meditate that seemed to help the experience? Not the meditation itself but even that prep for meditation, are there things that you find optimize the experience more?

That’s a good question. Obviously, yeah, I think there are things, but it’s more preventative than anything else. One thing, for instance, would be that you don’t eat a big meal before you sit down and meditate. Another thing is you don’t drink a big cup of coffee before you sit down and meditate. That’s just because you and your body is processing food or caffeine, which creates more physical activity.

Just being in a very natural state and sitting comfortably are your two biggest factors when it comes to optimizing the experience of the practice. The other thing, again, is going back to consistency. People come up to me all the time, and they tell me different reports, “I had the purple light come through a meditation, what does that mean?” or “The Buddha came to me and told me some really amazing thing in meditation, what does that mean?”

When people tell me these things, it almost sets off an alarm bell. It tells me that they don’t meditate that often because when you only meditate once a week or once every other week, then you put a lot more emphasis on these things that are happening in your meditation versus when you meditate every day or twice a day. There’s so much that’s happening, you don’t care. It’s like when you shower every day; no one goes to work and reports what happened in the shower.

Just doing it more consistently, you transcend the need to analyze all these things, and every experience starts to feel the same which is good because it feels good. Just like a shower, overall, feels good. Having water running down your back feels good. It doesn’t have to be a remarkable experience in and of itself, but the fact that you’re doing it feels better than not doing it.

While we may resist it after the fact, as soon as your second footsteps out of the shower, you forget about it. You’re now enjoying the pampering and drying phase, and there’s a tingly sensation that you enjoy for the next few hours because you showered. That’s how the meditation should also be in our lives, regarding our relationship with it. It’s not something you have to talk about or think about much after you come out of it. You just go, and you do your thing, and you benefit from having done it.

You have a gift, Light, for taking the pressure off. You know what I mean? I think there is so much pressure and expectation. The expectation that every time is going to be nirvana and I’ve got to be able to report into somebody that this amazing thing happened. No, sometimes it’s just the experience itself.

One question I always love to ask authors like yourself that are actually willing to be real and transparent. I guess that sometimes we teach what we need to be reminded of continually ourselves, right? When you think back to what you write about in Bliss More, what’s one thing for you that doesn’t come naturally? What’s something that either didn’t or doesn’t come as natural to you when it comes to meditation?

For me, looking back at my whole process, the writing didn’t come naturally to me. Sitting down and writing out my thoughts, there’s an understanding that people can’t properly learn how to meditate from a book, so I had that in my mind as I was writing. I took it on as a challenge but at the same time, I wanted to be true to my understanding of what it takes to meditate properly.

I acknowledge I’m not the best writer. A lot of people say, “Oh, I really enjoyed your writing,” but I know that I can do a lot better. In terms of being more poetic and all of those things that I have aspired to.

The publisher’s editor’s job is to shape your thoughts in such a way that the publisher feels will sell the books and to get people reading and sharing the books. I think like a teacher so I’m thinking, “All right, I really want people to have an experience here and therefore, it needs to be written in a certain way in order for them to have that experience.”

In a very sequential way, there needs to be a lot of exercises and practices. You have to put the book down and actually meditate, and I turn in the manuscript on time, and the publisher came back and said, “Oh, we can’t publish this because you want people to stop reading and actually practice the meditation. We can’t do that.”

If they need a book that people can read straight through to the end on a flight from New York to LA., that negates the whole idea of the book. What I realized was that they wanted a book, not to teach people how to meditate but to show people why meditation works. Do you look back at all the other self-help books in that same genre? It’s the same thing, and that’s been a big part of the problem why my contemporaries may suggest, “Oh, you can’t teach people how to meditate from a book. You need to be with a teacher.”

I wanted to write in such a way that it felt authentic to my voice and also included all the things I knew that needed to happen in order to have someone get the experience. I had to be very creative, and I think, judging from a lot of the feedback, I feel like it was successful. I have had a lot of people report having amazing experiences which have no contact with a teacher.

I think the book is a great start especially if you have no other way of learning meditation or you’re only surrounded by the monastic approach people who want to be sitting in a certain way. Then that can hopefully get you to a place, maybe you go to India or you find someone like me in your area who can give you more guidance from the one-on-one relationship which I think is very important. No one who’s written a book about meditation or who’s created any kind of meditation offering that is valuable and useful for a lot of people learned how to meditate just from a book. No one’s mastered meditation from a book.

I spent some time doing martial arts in the past. There are certain aspects that can be taught about a martial art in a book. There are some wonderful books out, that exist, that will help you to be a better martial artist; that will help you to understand more about the art. But at some point, you do need to go to a school.

Through your book, though, you’re giving people some practical steps to get started, some practical steps to take the pressure off and actually experience meditation. As you do invite people into going deeper, I think you’re also equipping them to be better suited to go out and find someone to spend time with and learn from.

I did want to also mention a fifth pillar. This is something that I have never even seen in another book and this whole concept of making an exchange in the name of your practice-whether that is financial, or volunteering – is very important for getting started. It not only commits you on a deeper level, but I feel like it opens up a vacuum within your own consciousness to be able to receive this knowledge in such a way that humbles you to it.

It allows you to have a little more trust and faith in the process than you would otherwise because you’ve made that exchange. In my normal day-to-day trainings, the easiest exchange for any of us to make in our culture is just financial. You don’t have to make a financial exchange, but I do recommend even volunteering sometimes somewhere, helping people in some meaningful way, giving things away.

I think all of that would help to commit people to their experiences in such a way that it may make a big difference when it gets hectic and that usually tends to be the drop off point for people who don’t have accountability from some teacher who can stand there and question them. You have to put that in place for yourself in order to make yourself accountable to yourself, to your own practice.

No doubt. I agree with that, even in doing a lot of success coaching, I’ve always said that you’ve got to invest in that. Even in times in the past few cases where I felt called to help a client but they really couldn’t afford to pay for it; we did a pay it forward contract and said, “My coaching is valued at this, so I’m going to have you sign a contract that says you’re going to give something of similar value to someone someday. I’m not going to track you down to make sure you do this, but I want you to do it.” They’re like, “Why?” and it’s like, “Well, you’ve got to have skin in the game.”

It’s like you’re saying the exchange or there’s got to be an investment, and there’s so much value to that from an accountability standpoint.

I love what you’re doing, and I appreciate it. One, I really appreciated you being transparent around the writing. Your writing style is very, I found, very conversational. I felt like, Light, you’re a friend because I’ve been spending time with you. We’ve been having a conversation because I’ve been reading your book. Well, how do people find out more about you and the book?

I’m on social media @Lightwatkins and website, Lightwatkins.com and there are links to the book website, Blissmore.co. If you just remember Light Watkins. If you can’t remember Watkins, everybody can remember Light, just Google Light, and meditation and I’ll be the first thing that comes up.

Man, that’s a good combination. That’s yet another reason to have a unique name, so I love it. Well, thanks for spending time with us and I really appreciate it, man. I look forward to having you back some day.

Absolutely. Thank you, man. Appreciate it.

All right, DREAM THINK DO-er. What do you think? What’s something you’re going to do maybe differently, try out based on what Light was talking about? And/or, I know a lot of you are getting more and more comfortable with meditation, with getting quiet, with being present. What’s something that you found that works for you? I’d love to hear from you.  Leave a comment below and let me know!

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