Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., Light Watkins said he struggled — in a place that was both the “birthplace of the civil rights movement and part of the Bible Belt” — with never feeling “connected to religion or Christianity” but also with having “really big questions like, ‘What is God?’ and, ‘What is the purpose of life?’”
It would take years before Watkins found the answers he was looking for, and those answers came through meditation. Now he is one of the most in-demand meditation teachers in the country, his approach resonating with the thousands of people who connect with his belief that not only is meditation good for us but it can be entirely personal. As Watkins puts it, you don’t “have to look at a sculpture of the Buddha for meditation to work.”
Not that the path to enlightenment — or becoming a meditation author, teacher, and entrepreneur — was linear. After attending college in Washington, D.C., Watkins moved to Chicago and worked in advertising.
“It took about five minutes before I realized I wasn’t comfortable working in an office, that I wanted to do something a little more free and travel the world,” Watkins tells Yahoo Lifestyle. So he decided to trade his day job in for a focused effort to launch a career in modeling, and went on to work for seven years doing just that. But then the itch for more hit again.
“At this point, I was in my late 20s and I wanted to contribute more to the world than standing in front of a camera,” he explains.
When a friend moved to Los Angeles in 2003, it inspired Watkins to do the same — and with the move came an increased focus on yoga and a desire to train as a yoga teacher. Which is what Watkins was doing when, three months after his move, he met a meditation teacher, and just like that everything changed.
“Meditation was always something I was interested in, but it always seemed like this difficult thing, something laborious,” Watkins notes. “I’m 6’3″ — I am tall and have stiff hips, and even as a yoga teacher, sitting straight was just torture for me. But I saw the value in the mental experience. And then I met this guy, and he had been teaching meditation for 40 years around the world. He taught an approach that was easy and enjoyable. When I left the room with him for the first time, I knew being a meditation teacher was my calling.”
Watkins devoted himself to studying, shadowing, and training with his teacher, ultimately going with him to India. There he spent time studying ancient Vedic texts, an experience that gave him “the language about things I was curious about my entire life,” he says. “I could trace it straight back to those days in Alabama and asking questions and getting answers that didn’t satisfy my curiosity — and then learning that there was this whole population of the world that had been asking these questions and studying to get to the answers for a very long time.”
Watkins says the traditions of Eastern meditation reinforced his inherent beliefs that “all of us are connected” and that unlike the problems he had felt growing up surrounded by Christianity — “that you have to take someone else’s word for it, that there are no direct experiences” — he immediately connected to the way meditation gave him unfettered access to the asking and the answering.
It’s no surprise, then, that Watkins says his other biggest “aha” moment in dedicating his life and career to meditation was when his mom came to visit him in Los Angeles after he had started training with his meditation teacher and she had just finalized a divorce from Watkins’s father. He took his mom with him to a meditation class, and even though “she was never into any of this stuff — she’s a Southern church lady,” Watkins says his mom took to meditation “like a fish in water.”
The feeling was so revelatory, Watkins explains, that it “became my whole thing — being the guy who makes meditation easy and accessible for others.”
A self-published book three years ago — The Inner Gym: A 30-Day Workout for Strengthening Happiness — achieved viral fame, sending publishers knocking at Watkins’s door. His first book with Random House, Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Even Trying, hits shelves on Jan. 18.
Watkins describes his forthcoming book as “the quintessential how-to guide for meditation for millennials” — which largely is about “keeping it simple so regular people like me can understand the practice simply enough to enjoy it.”
Watkins says a big problem with meditation is that too many people who attempt it face a lack of joy as a result of thought-shaming themselves and position-shaming themselves.
“They resist their mind, resist their thoughts, look at their thoughts as an obstacle to meditation instead of part of the process. And you can sit on your couch, in your car, in your bed,” Watkins says. “Remember that your mind is working on your behalf and not against you. When you start your meditation and then you start thinking about your to-do list and your mind then goes to your memories, your desires, and all those thoughts that don’t seem meditative, instead of thinking about them as wrong and incorrect and your mind being mischievous, understand that this is part of the practice. Everything in meditation goes through your thinking mind.”
Or as Watkins further explains, “Your mind is like a swimming pool, and you’re going to have to get wet to get to the bottom of the pool. If you go in resisting the water, you will drown. But if you go in and connect with the water, it will be a very enjoyable experience. If you resist thoughts, you will drown in thoughts — it will only create more thoughts. But if you work in concert with the thinking mind and embrace it and surrender to it, you will have a very deep meditation experience.”
And Watkins says a deep meditative experience is something we could all benefit from right about now. “There is so much information coming at us at all times,” Watkins says, adding that it’s a dynamic that creates more anxiety.
“You can’t escape the information anymore; the information finds you. We are all overwhelmed with information and comparison and the belief that others are doing better than we’re doing and are happier than we’re able to be. It creates a sense of the pose of success based on acquiring more money, likes, friends, followers. The body is really resilient and can handle all of this — if you give it time to shut down and rest on a regular basis,” Watkins says.
In other words: We all need to meditate.
“Anxiety inhibits our ability to rest,” Watkins says. “We end up not being able to sleep well at night — we’re experiencing a sleep-deprivation epidemic. Some of us are waking up after seven, eight hours of sleep a night, and it’s like we didn’t sleep at all. Our sleep didn’t work. And this is bad for our work, bad for our health, bad for weight loss, bad for being equipped to make most of the choices we have to make. For those of us who are very busy and productive, we don’t have a large enough margin of error in our lives — if we make a mistake, it impacts a lot of people. People think of meditation as being something for people with a lot of time on their hands, but meditation is really for people with not enough time, people who are running companies and decision-makers who constantly have all eyes on them.”
But that’s not the only way Watkins describes those who stand to be best served by meditation, including himself.
“I think it’s important to distinguish myself from what people normally think of meditation teachers being, which is someone who is up on a pedestal somewhere, spiritually speaking. What we do as people is use those kinds of images of people who are so-called enlightened to get ourselves off the hook when committing to something that could benefit us in the same way,” he says. “I’ve shaped my own position as someone relatable enough that someone who hasn’t even considered themselves a candidate for meditation could look at me and say, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ Our humanity is still present, even though we practice meditation.”
That said, Watkins clarifies, “You’re not going to become Gandhi or Mother Theresa next week because of meditation. You’re not going to stop having anger-management issues overnight. But it will evolve you in ways you can’t even imagine right now. It’s not about being calm and peaceful inside — that’s just a caricature of someone who meditates. Meditation just makes you a better version of you. There are real work benefits, and it’s important to understand that those will look different for everybody.”
And most significantly, Watkins says, those benefits are going to change how you feel.
“When I first met my teacher, he was probably the happiest person I had ever seen. And I consider myself to be a very happy person! But he was emitting this rare quality of happiness I had never seen. I had been around a lot of wealthy people, a lot of people who were very successful — but I had never seen that. He gave me a point of reference for what someone could be like if they made this kind of practice their priority. “
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