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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Light Watkins. Light Watkins has been a meditation and spiritual teacher for more than 20 years. He’s the author of The Inner Gym, and he hosts a weekly podcast about hope called At the End of the Tunnel. Light became nomadic in 2018 and now travels the world giving talks on happiness, mindfulness, inspiration, and meditation. With Sounds True, Light Watkins has written a new book. It’s called Knowing Where to Look: 108 Daily Doses of Inspiration. Light Watkins is a leader. Listen to him describe the leaps of faith that he takes in order to follow his heart, and in so doing inspires us to do the same. Here’s my inspiring conversation with Light Watkins.
Light, at the very beginning of your new book, Knowing Where to Look, you talk about how in May of 2018, which would be about three years ago now, you decided to basically sell almost all of your possessions, as long as they could fit—you kept the stuff that could fit in a backpack and a small overnight suitcase, you got rid of everything else, and you went on the road and have been living a nomadic lifestyle. Let’s start off. How’s it going, three years later?
Light Watkins: It feels just like yesterday, when I started. It feels great. It’s not something you really get used to, I don’t think, because you’re definitely living from a capsule wardrobe. That’s interesting. You’re always seeing the same items in rotation. Every three or four days, you’re wearing the same thing. Yes, it’s been great. I love it. It keeps you on your toes. It’s not for the faint at heart at all. People keep asking me, “Where are you going to be this summer?” I have no idea where I’m going to be past May. My current situation is up at the end of May. I have an option to extend it. But I may be somewhere else. I don’t know.
But that’s the norm, that’s the new norm, is you don’t really know what’s going to happen beyond two or three months out. Before the pandemic, it was really two to three weeks out. I would have some sort of tentpole events scheduled throughout the year, and then I would just build around those. I’m fortunate in that I’ve created a lifestyle where I can work on the road, and it gives me an excuse to travel to places and get paid for it. But since the pandemic has happened, I’ve been more stationary but still living out of the backpack. Yes, and just having fun in the process. It’s a lot of fun seeing how little I can go without.
TS: What inspired you to do this?
LW: I just got this feeling. It’s like in the book where I talk about inspiration being a feeling of something pushing you in the direction of something that excites your heart. I think it was less of a tangible thing or person, and I just got the feeling. I did have a friend or two who had been living that lifestyle for a little while.
But I think what got me over the hump was just that urge, and honestly it was the same feeling I had, like I mentioned in the book, in that story of traveling to—getting a one-way ticket to Paris after quitting my first “real” job. It was that same feeling, and I’ve become so familiar—that was 20-something years ago—I’ve become so familiar with that feeling that when it bubbles up from inside, I know to take it seriously. I didn’t just get it the week before. I got it probably a year and a half before, and I spent that year and a half thinking to myself, OK, I’m going to take this leap, and it’s getting closer, and it’s getting closer, and it’s getting closer. Then finally, it became real when I put my 30-day notice in for my two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica and started listing my items for sale or just to come and get them on Craigslist, and having people coming over and doing yard sales, and telling my car lease company that I was no longer interested in renewing the lease after May of 2018.
That’s when it became very real. That’s where the heart rate starts to go up a little bit. But the funny thing about that kind of inspiration is once you take that big leap of faith, it’s initially scary in the same way that maybe jumping into the Ganges River in India. It’s a little bit murky. You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. It’s freezing cold. But once you’re in there, it’s like, “It’s not as bad as it was in my head,” and I feel like inspiration is a lot like that for a lot of people. It’s scary to take the big leap of faith. But once you start down that road, it becomes less scary and becomes more logistical and strategic, and it’s just like, “How am I going to continue navigating this in the best possible way?”
TS: Now, like you said, there’s a feeling that you have come to recognize. You had this feeling 20 years ago when you made a big change, took a big leap of faith. What’s the feeling? What does it actually feel like?
LW: It’s scary, and it is anticipatory. It’s something you look forward to, but it also makes you very nervous and maybe even a little bit anxious. The telltale sign is you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But you also know that it’s going to stretch you in a good way, in a positive way. It’s going to get you into a place where you have to be very present and that you’re going to learn something about yourself or about the world or about life. It’s a combination of all of those feelings.
TS: Yes. You’ve described it as a leap of faith. What’s your faith?
LW: Well, the faith part is you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It can apply to any religion or any spirituality or any of that kind of stuff. But my personal relationship with faith is that it’s a trust in a higher power or higher intelligence that where I’m being guided is where I’m supposed to go. There’s this internalized subconscious or spiritual or karmic destination that has been encoded within my spiritual DNA. Certain opportunities light up my heart more than other opportunities, and I believe this is true for everybody. But we may call it different things. When we’re able to take action on it—
The first dose in the book is about the Mark Twain quote, which he says, “Your two most important days are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” I said a third day, that’s also probably most important, is the day you take action on your why. When you build up enough courage to take the action step, that’s where the pieces start to fall into place and you understand, oh, that’s why I was in that traumatic situation 10 years ago. It was preparing me for this thing that I’m experiencing now. That’s why I was forced to drop out of college and get a job at the car wash. It was preparing me to navigate the situation that I’m in now. You start to connect the dots in hindsight, and I think that’s what solidifies your life calling and your purpose.
TS: Specifically, when I’m thinking of the leap of faith that you took to become a nomad, here’s what I’m curious about. There’s several things I’m curious about. When I think of giving away a lot of my possessions, selling a lot of my possessions, turning in the lease on my car, I hear voices in my head that say, “This is really stupid, Tami,” and for me, it might be. But that’s OK; I’m not inspired to do it. But I’m just wondering, did you hear voices like that? That said, “Light, what the heck are you doing? You’re just going to have to buy all this stuff again, and it’s going to cost you a lot more when you go to replace it.” Did you have anything like that that was questioning your decision?
LW: The point I make in the book is that this wasn’t my first nomadic adventure. This is actually my third. It wasn’t my first rodeo. I have an understanding of those mechanics. To answer your question, no, I wasn’t afraid of those things. I’m a big proponent of baby steps, right? I’ve been taking these baby steps for a very long time with practicing listening—
I’m very clear this is a practice, and it’s a process, and you have to do it in small ways. For the people listening to this, in order to build up to that, I—it’s like asking a Cirque du Soleil performer, “Are you afraid of doing a backflip?” It’s like, “Well, I’ve done a backflip from 500 feet up.” You’re so used to it, the little things don’t really make you afraid.
What it was was inconvenient, though. It was very inconvenient for—because my life was as busy as anyone else’s life. It was at the time that I was releasing my last book, and I was doing a bunch of appearances and things on my schedule to talk about that book, and that was—but I flipped it. I used that as an opportunity. I said, “OK, I’m going to be on the road for the next 12 months doing all these book events. Let me use this as an opportunity to practice being nomadic again.” But this time, much more intentional about doing it for an extended period of time, which I think once you make it bigger than yourself—
Because I also thought to myself, I’ll write a book about this one day, and so let me really go into it so I can really help people with real-world experience on how to minimize whatever is unnecessary in life, so that you can maximize whatever it is you truly want to be doing in life. I went into it with a very, very specific purpose, and I think that helped to overcome some of the busyness. If there was any fear, it was a fear of not getting things done while I was going through this process.
TS: Minimizing to maximize, I like that. What are you working on maximizing?
LW: Your presence, mostly. Being present, right? Because what I noticed was when I was on the road before that, I’d be in this beautiful environment and I’d be thinking, “Oh, I got to move my car next week. Oh, I got to make sure such-and-such, the landlord can get in and do whatever. The gardener’s coming.” Every time you think about these kinds of things, it makes you less present to whatever’s happening around you, and it’s like you spend your life caring for this—I’m going to use fairly harsh language, but essentially a storage room with a bed in it is what our houses are. It causes us to put a lot of emphasis on the sentimental value of the stuff that’s in our house.
Meanwhile, there’s sentimental things happening around us all the time, and really that sentiment can come with you anywhere you go. It was a simulation of putting myself in that space, in that internal space, and just to see what—it was an experiment. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to miss all of my stuff. I didn’t know if I was going to crave that same level of stability, and honestly, I haven’t. It’s been wonderful. It’s been probably the—I haven’t missed anything. I lived in New York for seven years, and that was wonderful. I love New York. Every time I would leave and come back, just the energy would envelop me and I would just be so excited to walk faster and dress in all black and do the whole New York thing.
Then I got to a point where I decided I’m done with New York. I think this is it. I’ve spent my time here, I’ve enjoyed every second of it, and now it’s not so enjoyable. Now when I land in New York, it doesn’t feel that same way. Then that was my hint from the universe that it’s time to switch it up, and it was the same kind of pattern, in that once I left all that apartment stuff behind, I didn’t miss any of it. That was my confirmation that, “Oh yes, I listened to the right voice,” because there are a lot of voices inside. Right? There’s the pain voice, the trauma voice, the stress voice, the social conditioning voice, the political, all the voices that we’re encountering, parental voices.
But then there’s also the still small voice, and when you can learn to hone in on that still small voice—and that’s going to be the quietest one. Because the other voices you talked about, “Oh, you’re crazy, you’re stupid, what are you doing?” Those voices are in there too for everybody. You can listen to them, or you can quiet down and see if you can tap into the still small voice. That’s where meditation comes in handy. I’ve been meditating like clockwork for 20 years. We can’t discount that, because that creates that space to be able to hear those more-refined subtle voices, and therefore you’re able to listen to them a lot quicker. Again, for people listening, this is not a call to get rid of all your stuff and take a leap of faith tomorrow.
You got to build up to it, you got to get your inner practices going and consistent, you got to start listening to the voice. If the voice tells you on the elevator, while you’re staring at your co-elevator-rider’s shoes, that you should compliment them, then do it. If the voice says, “Hey, they’re attractive. Go ask for their number and invite them out to coffee,” and we start talking ourselves out of it because we’re listening to the other voice, you need to override those voices and go do it. That’s how you build up the tolerance for those negative voices, and you’re able to act upon the still small voice. That still small voice ultimately gets louder and louder, and then becomes a loud, annoying voice, and you can’t ignore it anymore.
TS: Very good, very clear. There are so many quotes from Knowing Where to Look that are memorable, that are the kinds of things you want to write down and stick on your wall someplace. But here’s one I really liked. It was about bravery. You write, “Bravery isn’t about being fearless. It’s about loyalty, loyalty to yourself.” I thought that was so powerful, and I wanted to hear you say more about the type of loyalty you’re talking about.
LW: Yes. Just using an example that I think everybody’s familiar with, your GPS, right? The reason why we enter in a destination on our GPS is because we’re not quite sure how to get to this place, or what the most efficient way to get to the place is. But that doesn’t lock us in to that particular route. It just maps it out for us, and it gives us cues and prompts on how to get there most efficiently and how to avoid the traffic, and there’s an accident on such-and-such freeway, et cetera, et cetera. We have free range, we have full freedom, to take any route we want. We can even go in the opposite direction, but that doesn’t stop the GPS from saying, “You want to make a left here at the next corner,” or if you missed that corner, “OK, go up another two miles, make a left.”
It’s going to keep rerouting us back to the destination. When I’m talking about being loyal, it really is being loyal to your heart. Your heart is that GPS. The destination has been encoded in your spiritual DNA, and that’s why you feel charmed or called to go to architecture school instead of marine biology school, because there’s something in that direction of architecture school that is a part of that routing towards your destination, whatever that is. That’s why some people are called to have 10 kids, and some people don’t want to have any kids. That’s why some people want to have snakes, or some people want to have pugs, right?
Whatever your thing is, whether it’s playing video games or helping the homeless, that daily dose is really saying be loyal to that because that’s not coming from you. You would do that anyway. You would do that if nobody was watching, and that’s how you know it’s a milestone along that route towards your karmic destination. If you listen to whatever you’re passing by saying, “Hey, don’t go this way,” no, your GPS has the most accurate information around where you’re going. The person on the side of the road telling you to go back, they don’t know where you’re going. Only your heart knows where you’re going. You’d be benefiting yourself the most by being loyal to that.
TS: All right, Light. Now I’m going to be a little confessional with you. There are sometimes these things that I recognize the truth and value in them, and yet there’s a part of me that’s also like, “Oh, really? Is this a bunch of woo-woo nonsense?” Both happen at the same time for me, and it’s probably why I’ve been hosting Insights at the Edge for so long, is that I have the kind of personality that sees things that way. But here’s one of them. When people talk about the synchronicities on their path, and how this person showed up and then this person, it all confirmed and it all worked out.
There’s a part of me that thinks, “Yes, that’s how it works when you’re in the flow. All these synchronicities happen.” Then another part of me thinks, “Oh, here’s one more magical-thinking person who’s projecting synchronicities to justify the way that they’re going.” You tell stories in the book that are beautiful stories of synchronicity. I’m wondering how you view this, because I have a sense that it’s safe to ask you this question that comes from both sides of myself, if you will.
LW: I can top that, actually, because I have one that bugs me, which is the manifestation conversation, right? Like manifest abundance, manifest this, manifest that. My question is, when are we not manifesting? Because if that’s true, that if we can project our mind or our vision onto something and it sprouts forth, then it’s also got to be true for when we’re unintentionally projecting our thoughts onto a situation, and if something bad or negative comes from that, then that’s also a part of the manifestation principle. But I will say that in my understanding of things and in my direct experience, it’s all synchronistic, in the sense that it’s all connected to our path.
Even if it’s something that feels detached or random, it doesn’t—our path is not contingent upon us being aware that we’re on a path, is the point. We can be in a situation that feels completely unconnected, disconnected from whatever we feel like should be happening, and yet we’re still on our path. With all the biographies and memoirs you’ve published, it’s really easy for anybody to go back in history and see, if that hadn’t happened, then this wouldn’t have happened and that wouldn’t have happened and X, Y, Z, and you can see a bread crumb trail all the way up to that, whatever the success or whatever that moment was in someone’s life where they felt like they found themselves, they became self-realized, as they say over in Eastern philosophy, right?
But when you’re in it, as Steve Jobs eloquently noted, you can’t connect the dots moving forward. I think that inability to discern whether or not there is such thing as synchronicity or coincidence or serendipity or any of the manifestation, I think that’s a part of this that’s encoded in the system, and that’s to make things a little bit more interesting and to make the idea of a leap of faith more potent, right? If there’s a hack or you can know that the net is going to appear, it’s not as interesting to take a leap of faith. Everybody would do it, so what’s the point, right? But the idea—it’s like a kid going through the little house of mirrors or something like that, the fact that you don’t know how to get out.
But as an adult, you know there’s a way out. We know there’s a way out. The fun is finding the way out, right? I feel like life is like that, to an extent. It’s encoded from whatever that higher intelligence is, which is probably us, it’s a way to make life that much more interesting. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I like it. I like that we’re asking these questions. At the highest level of being in this space, this space of talking about spirituality and you—we don’t know. Nobody really knows definitively what is going on, and I like that. I like that. We’re even talking about it.
TS: Yes. You made this beautiful comparison, I liked it too, a Cirque du Soleil person who is doing a backflip from 500 feet and saying, “I’ve done …” Here you are. You’re someone who takes these leaps of faith, and you have. I’m curious, how do you use synchronicity when you’re navigating your life? How do you use it?
LW: I don’t think that anyone gets to a point where they’re free of fear, necessarily. I feel like you just start to operate at a higher and higher level, which usually means you operate in spaces that are larger than just your individual needs. Personally, I’m not worried about am I going to have food to eat tomorrow? Am I going to have a place to stay? Even though I don’t have a lease anywhere, I know that I’m going to be OK. I’m not wealthy, I’m not rich, I don’t have a bunch of assets and trust fund. I don’t have that stuff. But I have trust that if I keep doing what I’m feeling called to do, that all of my needs will be met. Then also, I know that I have a platform and I have relationships that give me an opportunity to tell my story. I can tell my own story, and then I have relationships such as with Sounds True that allow me to tell my story on a wide basis, and that can inspire other people.
I think about all of that when I’m making decisions and experimenting, because for me it’s very much still an experiment, that if it works out or if I can dissect my experience in a way that brings some value to me and I share that with other people, then other people will have more trust or more faith. It’s very much I’m taking a leadership position and seeing my life as a—I’m like the mad scientist out here trying things out on myself and on my own life, not so that anyone can emulate everything that I’m doing, but so that people can look at what I’m doing and I can hopefully explain it simply and intelligently enough that they can cherry-pick whatever they want, whatever smaller-scale experiments they want to try, and then hopefully work up from there. That’s how I see my own role in all of this.
TS: Well, first of all, you are a leader, Light, and I want to thank you for that and thank you for the loyalty you’re showing to your own heart and path and the way you’re doing it. I noticed right here in this conversation, you inspired me to question what is real security? What is security and the ideas I have about security? That’s powerful. Thank you. OK, back to your book Knowing Where to Look. You tell a lot of stories in the book. But here’s one that really got to me in a good way, it made me really think, and it’s a story about an African king and his close friend who would say, “This is good,” even when really difficult things happened. I’m going to have you tell the story, and then we can talk about why this story made such an impression on me.
LW: Sure. Would you prefer me to read it or just tell it? I can do either. It’s up to you.
TS: Why don’t you read it? That sounds fun.
LW: OK, because if I tell it, I can drag it on. But if I read it, it’s very succinct. All right, “This Is Good.” “An African King once had a close friend with whom he grew up, and the close friend had a habit of looking at every situation that occurred in his life, positive or negative, as good. He would constantly remark, ‘This is good.’ Well, one day the king and his friend went on a hunting expedition, and it was the friend’s job to load the rifles. The friend had apparently loaded one of the guns incorrectly because when the king pulled the trigger, it backfired and blew off his thumb. After examining the king’s thumbless hand, the best friend remarked as usual, ‘This is good,’ to which the king replied, ‘No, this is not good,’ and in a fit of anger, the king had his close friend thrown in jail. About a year later, the king was out hunting in an area known to be inhabited by cannibals, and he ended up being captured and bound.
“And as the cannibals began preparing the king to eat, one of them noticed that he was missing his right thumb. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone who is less than whole, so they set him free. As he returned home, the king realized that his dear friend was right after all. Getting his thumb accidentally blown off was indeed a good thing. He immediately freed his old friend from prison, apologizing profusely and telling him all that happened with the cannibals. ‘I’m so sorry for sending you to jail for all this time,’ he said remorsefully. ‘It wasn’t right for me to do that, and I hope that someday you can forgive me.’ ‘No, no, no, no,’ his friend interrupted. ‘This is very good.’ The king snapped, ‘This is not good. You have to stop saying that. This is not good. How could sending my best friend to jail for one year possibly be good?’ The best friend said, ‘No, it is good, because if I hadn’t been in jail, I would have been in the cannibal village with you.’”
TS: All right then. The reason I love this story so much is I very much relate to the character of the king in this story, saying, “What? Stop saying this is good. This is not good.” I very much relate to that. In fact, often, when I know people who will say to me, “This is good,” I’m like, “Oh, come on. Come on. Please shut up. Just shut up.” How do you avoid falling into a Pollyanna pitfall, but at the same time appreciate the truth of this story?
LW: It really just comes down—I think it comes down to accumulated experience with it, combined with keeping the camera rolling. Because you won’t understand why it’s good, maybe not until the end of your life, maybe not until you transition to the next dimension, and you’ll be able to look back and see how all the dots connected. For myself, that’s where faith comes in, that’s where trusting comes in, and unfortunately, you can’t get around that because when you really get granular about it, there’s nothing that we control, there’s nothing that we can predict, right? Nobody predicted the pandemic of 2020 and that the whole global economy was going to shut down. Not even the most spiritual people knew that that was going to happen. Evidently, there’s a whole aspect of life that’s completely out of our control.
I find, in my experience, that the more I can embrace that aspect of life, the more I can see the silver lining in the moment-to-moment instances that may not line up with my preferences, and be OK with it. I was actually having a conversation with my brother earlier today, and I was being silly when I said this, but there’s some truth to it. I said, “I think the key to happiness is just to have lower expectations. And if anything, you’ll be pleasantly surprised all the time.” Because things just don’t happen the way you want them to, but if your expectations for life being perfectly aligned with your preferences are fairly low and your ability to adapt to change is fairly high, which I attribute my meditation practice with, then I think you will end up converting most of your experiences to something positive, some sort of opportunity.
Tami Simon: I understand that it’s easy to be cynical about human nature when we look at the division and unnecessary suffering in the world, or we look inside at all the ways we don’t treat ourselves with kindness. How can we come to the conclusion that human nature is essentially good? And yet, Tara Brach makes the case for our innate goodness with her stories, her compassionate perspective, and most of all with practices that help us experience the true gold of our essential heart. You can learn more about Tara and her new book, Trusting the Gold, at trustingthegold.com.
TS: Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of times your meditation practice and that you’ve been meditating now for something like two decades and are a meditation teacher. Tell me a little bit about how you made the decision to become a meditation teacher, how that opened up for you as a path for you?
LW: Sure. One of the doses actually launches off into that story; it’s called “Wiggle Room” for those of you all who have the book, if you want to read it in more detail. But long story short, I was curious about meditation because I had been practicing yoga. I was curious about yoga because I saw some pretty women going into a yoga class one day, and I followed them in there to see what was going on, and got hooked on the practice and then heard about meditation. This is in my mid-20s, and in my late 20s I crossed paths with a meditation teacher, someone who properly works with people over the span of many days, weeks, and months and gets them into a state of self-sufficiency with their practice.
He learned it in India from his teacher. The roots of it go all the way back, I think it’s 2,000 or 3,000 years, to a guy by the name of Shankaracharya, whose whole deal was everything is connected. The way you transcend the intellectual understanding of that is you have to have a sensual experience of it. He devised this style of meditation that gets you away from your surface mind, where we tend to intellectualize things, and into your settled mind or your heart, where you feel things. You can feel them without being aware that you’re feeling them. But when you come out of the meditation practice after 15 or 20 minutes, you have a greater sense of connectivity to whatever’s around you.
Yes. I started meditating in this way, and I was like a fish to water. It was everything I’d hoped for, and more. Then after a few years, he invited myself and some of his protégées to India to train us to become teachers, and I came back after a few months and started teaching meditation from my one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, California. Turns out, I wasn’t so bad at it because I had been teaching yoga for a few years prior to that, and I felt like a complete sham, a complete fraud at the front of my yoga classes. I could do the whole soft voice, “OK, now, let go of your this, and observe that, and witness,” but inside, I didn’t feel any of that, and it was like the emperor’s new clothes.
But now that I had the actual experience of what people call samadhi or nirvana or oneness, I was speaking from a place of authenticity, and I could speak to the objections that most people have when they first start off, which is, “I have a monkey mind, this is too busy, and that’s too chaotic,” and I could help talk people down off the ledge with their meditation practice and get them to a point where they actually started enjoying it. That just spread from there. I started traveling all over the world and writing books, and here we are.
TS: Let’s talk to that person who says, “I have a monkey mind. I know I’m supposed to meditate. I’d be more in touch with my intuition and my feeling if I did, but yes, it’s never really worked for me. It’s never really worked for me. Can you help me?”
LW: Well, I would start by saying if you feel like it doesn’t work for you, then there’s probably some aspect of meditation that you’re not understanding, and it’s probably because it hasn’t been explained to you simply enough. I would equate meditation to swimming. Meditation is just like swimming, right? If someone knows how to swim from one side of a pool to the other side of the pool, and someone else with two arms and two legs says, “I can’t. Swimming doesn’t work for me. I can’t swim.” It’s like, “Well, no. You just don’t understand how to move your body through the water in such a way that allows the water to support you and help you glide across the pool.”
Once you understand those mechanics and you practice them a few times, you don’t have to think about getting to the other side, you just do the mechanics and you’ll start moving to the other side. The same thing is true for meditation. Once you understand how the mind operates in relationship to the meditation practice, then you don’t have to think about quieting the mind, your mind will naturally become quiet. It’s the same concept of “what you resist persists.” Most people go into the practice trying to force something to happen, trying to quiet the mind, and that ends up giving you the opposite of what you ultimately want, which is a loud, busy, chaotic mind.
TS: Can we do a little experiment right now? Can you introduce the way you approach meditation in a brief experience? Can we meditate together for a few minutes, Light Watkins style?
LW: Yes, but what I think would be—we can, yes. The answer is yes. What I think would be also helpful is to do a little thought experiment to illustrate that no one’s mind is broken. The thought experiment actually comes from an actual experiment that was conducted back in the ’80s by this Harvard psychologist. It was called the White Polar Bear study. Have you heard of the White Polar Bear study?
TS: I have. I think it’s a great one, and I think it’s a great one to share with our listeners.
LW: Yes. The way the study went was this person had a roomful of students, and he had little bells set up in front of each student, and he had them put their index finger on the bell or the button and just sit comfortably in a chair and close their eyes. He told them for five minutes to think about white polar bears. Now, we’re not going to do this for five minutes. But if you want to while you’re listening to this, if you’re in a safe place to close your eyes for say 10 seconds, I want you to close your eyes and I want you to put your attention on white polar bears, and try not think about any other thoughts except for a white polar bear. Then open your eyes.
All right. In the study, he gave them additional instruction, which is if you think about something other than a white polar bear to tap the button so they can record how many times they got “distracted.” I would ask you, as the thinker of the white polar bear, did you think about anything other than the white polar bear within those 10 seconds? Usually, most people’s hands would go up. “Yes, I thought about why I was doing this, I thought about what I was going to do next,” or maybe you had the white polar bear half the time, maybe a third of the time, but very rarely do people have the white polar bear going for the whole 10 or however long you’re thinking about the white polar bear.
Then the next part of the study is to close your eyes again, and this time, whatever you do, don’t think about white polar bears. Try not to have any thoughts about white polar bears for 10 seconds. Really try it out if you can, if you’re in a space to do so. Then open your eyes. In this part of this study, if they were accidentally thinking about the white polar bears, they would tap the button. Right? Or if I was doing this in a roomful of people, I would say, “Raise your hand if you accidentally thought about the white polar bear at any point during those 10 seconds.” Usually everybody’s hand goes up. The conclusion of the study is that when you’re not supposed to be thinking about the white polar bear, people thought about them two or three times more than when you were specifically instructed to focus on the white polar bear.
People thought about them more when they weren’t supposed to be doing it than they were when they were supposed to be doing it. What this demonstrates is the nature of the mind, right? In other words, you can’t suppress your thoughts. If you try to not think about something, you’ll think about it more than if you just let the mind be natural. What I teach people how to do, and we can do this if you want for a few minutes, is to just let the mind roam free. What happens is if you don’t try to control the mind at all, it’ll naturally, after a few minutes, start to become more settled. Settled does not mean quiet; it means it becomes less distracting. Right? You may find yourself dipping into little gaps where you’re not thinking.
Let’s try it out. Let’s, again, sit comfortably. You don’t need to have your back straight for this. Let’s close our eyes. Let’s take a deep breath in. Let it out. As you let it out, see if you can relax your body a little bit more. Let’s do that one more time. Deep breath in. As you release, relax your body a little bit more. Even if your shoulders slump a little bit, that’s totally fine. Even if your chin drops a little bit. Let’s do one more time, just for the road. Deep breath in, and release. Now, let your breathing be completely natural. I invite you to just very, very innocently notice your breathing. That means no breath control. You’re just literally noticing the fact that you are breathing.
What’s going to happen at some point is your mind is going to drift away from you noticing that you’re breathing to something completely unrelated. You’re not going to notice when it happens, initially. But at some point later, maybe you’ll realize, oh wait, I’m sitting here with my eyes closed and I’m supposed to be meditating with Light and Tami, but I’m sitting here thinking about my shopping list. At that point, this is really important, do not overreact, do not feel shameful, do not feel like you did anything wrong. All you’re going to do is very, very nonchalantly begin to notice your breathing again. That’s it. That’s the whole technique. We’re going to practice that in silence for a couple of minutes just to give it a test-drive and see how it goes.
TS: Sounds good. (silence)
LW: Usually what happens is you’ll find that your mind will drift most of the time. Most of the time, you’ll be thinking about unrelated thoughts, and very occasionally you will be thinking about the fact that you’re breathing. But when you eventually come out after a couple of minutes, then you’ll feel more relaxed. This is a way to initiate what’s called the relaxation response, which is one of the primary effects that meditation can have on your nervous system. The doctor who initially researched this said that, in his estimation, being in the relaxation response for 10 or 20 minutes can be more restful for the body than sleeping for those same 10 or 20 minutes.
You get two to three times more rest in your body during the meditation. It doesn’t replace the sleep; it just supplements the sleep. If your eyes are closed, you can slowly open your eyes. But that’s essentially how it works. You can do it anytime on your own. You don’t need someone to guide you through it. You just literally close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and start noticing your natural breathing, let your mind roam free, and then after a few minutes—if you want to go longer, maybe 10 or 15 minutes—then you can slowly come out after that. That can be a nice little reset in the middle of your day, especially if you feel drowsy or if you feel like you’re a little spacey, and you can come back to yourself that way.
TS: Do you call this style of meditation something, Light?
LW: I would just say it’s the relaxation response. Just keep it simple.
TS: Right. What I noticed is it has a looseness to it, for lack of a better word. I hope it’s OK to say that. But “loose” meaning I don’t have to sit up straight. First of all, that’s a big relaxation response right there. Yes, I can come back to my breathing, but in a casual, not in a we’re-doing-concentration-practice-and-you-better-stay-on-it-like-your-life-depended-on-it coming back. That’s interesting. There’s this sort of loose, relaxing, flowy quality to how you approach teaching meditation.
LW: Yes, I consider it to be a meat-and-potatoes style of meditation, as opposed to a Buddha Bowl, ashram style of meditation. This is an important point for people to understand. When people say, “Meditation is not for me,” it’s like saying, “Cooking is not for me” or “Sports is not for me.” There’s so many varieties of meditation, and some of them are pretty rigorous and austere, and a lot of them are not. A lot of them are very relaxing. You just have to find one that suits your specific lifestyle, and a very easy way to do this, if you’re curious about exploring a specific style of meditation, is go to the place where people teach it or people practice it and look around the room when you walk in and just notice how people are dressed.
If the people who are operating at the highest levels of that particular style and enjoying it the most, if they’re dressed all in robes and they have shaved heads and you’re wearing street clothes, it’s probably not going to be the best style for you. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t be into it. It’s just probably not going to fit your lifestyle. But if you go into that room and you look around and the meditation enthusiasts of that style are wearing street clothes, and you’re wearing street clothes, or they’re wearing business clothes and you’re wearing business clothes, that’s probably a style that you’ll find very suitable. But you’re going to have to put the time in like everybody else.
TS: Now, I want to ask you a personal question. I’ve heard from some people of color that they haven’t felt very welcomed into the meditation and wellness world, historically. I think that’s changing. I think it’s changing a lot in the last couple of years. I’d be curious to know more from you as a Black man, what it was like to enter the world of Indian-style meditation and become a teacher.
LW: No, I think—this may be a little controversial as I’m thinking about it, as I’m rehearsing it in my head. But I think it really has less to do with the race of the person and more to do with their—I’ll stick to American society—more to do with their economic status, right? In other words, where are they on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
Because when I was first operating in this space, there were some Black people peppered throughout, and most of those people were not people who were surviving. Whereas a lot of people in the Black communities are in survival mode, right? They’re working two and three jobs, they’re trying to make ends meet, they’re existing off of very poor-quality food because they probably live in a food desert. They don’t have the means, the time, or the resources to go to Whole Foods or some health food store, and so their priorities really reflect their place in that sort of economic ecosystem, and that’s systemic. That’s definitely a systemic problem, and we can definitely connect those dots going as far back as slavery, why people are in those situations.
But I think that’s why practices like meditation aren’t as appealing to, or haven’t been as appealing when I first started out, to the majority of the Black population. Whereas people who don’t have those same concerns and who regularly go to health food stores and yoga classes, it seems like a natural extension of what they’re already doing, because they are operating at this self-actualization level of Maslow’s hierarchy. That’s why.
If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t grow up without my basic needs being met. I had plenty of everything that I needed, and so I was in a situation where I felt comfortable and safe exploring beyond the confines of the Black community. Again, I stepped into a leadership position, and I said, “Well, we need more examples of people who are introducing this and who are exceling at this, who are mastering these practices, so that younger kids can look at me and other people who look like me and say, ‘If they can do it, then I can do it.’” It’s always a bit of a lag of time between the people, the haves and the have-nots. The haves get there first, the have-nots come 10 or 20 years later, but eventually they do come. I feel so fortunate that I’m able—I’ve always felt fortunate to be in those spaces, and that I’m able to have these experiences, because I know that I am modeling a lifestyle that a lot of people are going to eventually adopt, and I get to be someone who introduces them—a gateway presence, if you will.
TS: All right. Another thing I want to talk to you about, Light, is your podcast. Here you are, we’re having a little podcast reciprocity, if you will. Your podcast, called At the End of the Tunnel, and you lead people through a retrospective of their dark tunnel moments to reveal how they found, in their own lives, their inner light. First of all, what a beautiful focus for a podcast series. How’d you come up with that?
LW: I have been obsessed with origin stories and the hero’s journey. Five years ago, maybe six years ago now, I started a nonprofit called the Shine Movement, which was like an inspirational variety show in person, and the intention was to shine a light on people who are doing good for the world. We’d have music, musicians who’d overcome some challenges to do what they’re doing, and we’d have a speaker come up and give like a TED Talk but about a movement that they created. I just saw how much it inspired people and how much it inspired me. Once the pandemic started, we could no longer do live events. I had been called to do a podcast for a while, and I kept ignoring it, and I just couldn’t ignore it any longer.
But I feel like the messaging from the media is very negative. In fact, it’s not my opinion. I just read a statistic—it’s 90% negative news in the media—and I feel like we need as much positivity and inspiration as we can possibly get, and I want to be one of those leading voices, and sharing the story so that people know that they’re not alone. Whatever you’re going through, somebody else has gone through something similar to that and they’ve been able to do the most that they can with what they had. If they can do it, then you can do it as well.
That’s what the world needs more of, is people who are following their heart or allowing their inner guidance to dictate their next move. Because if they do that, you don’t have to think about “Am I going to start a nonprofit?” or “Am I going to help people?” Your life is already predetermined to service. We all are predetermined to service, and it doesn’t mean you have to become Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Your service could be raising kids; it could be helping elderly people across the street. It could be anything. Anything that feels right to you; there’s a trillion different ways to serve. The sooner we start to do that, then I feel like the more purposeful we’ll feel like our lives are becoming. I want to just share as many stories as examples of how to do that, what other people have done.
TS: Now, this notion of making our way through dark tunnels, dark tunnel moments. We’ve talked in our conversation so far about some of the leaps that you’ve taken. But I wouldn’t say they were necessarily dark tunnel moments. I’m wondering if you can share with us your own passage through a dark tunnel moment and how you found your light, so to speak.
LW: Sure. By “dark tunnel” I don’t necessarily mean anything that was negatively affecting you or—
TS: Super difficult or something?
LW: Yes. It could be uncertainty, living through a lot of uncertainty. There’s two ways to do that. You can allow yourself to get catapulted into that dark tunnel via some painful moment that usually comes from ignoring your intuition. Because when we’re in a bad situation, usually we were warned about it. Something inside of us told us there’s something that’s not right here, but we keep exploring it until it gets to the point where it just becomes too unbearable and then we have to make a change. That’s one way—it’s the enforced change, right? That’s definitely the more dramatic way to move through that tunnel. The other way is curiosity. In other words, front-loading the uncertainty just from following your curiosity.
I’ve been consciously following that now for many years, unconsciously following that for a while. I’ll share a little story of my childhood. When I was a kid—I remember being nine or 10 years old—and one day, one afternoon … I have three brothers, my parents were together, so very, very fortunate and stable household. But one afternoon, I just felt like, you know what? There’s just too many people around. I got to get some space, my own space. I shared a room with my brother, so I never had that space. I decided I’m going to go for a walk. As a kid, you have your known universe, which is probably maybe a 5- or 10-block radius. This is the place, my aunt lives here, my grandmother there. I walk here, ride my bike there. Well, I got to the edge of my known universe on my little walk, and something inside of me just said, “Just keep going, keep walking.”
I kept walking and I kept walking, and next thing you know, maybe an hour later, I’m miles away. I’m at this shopping center that I’d only been to a few times with my mom driving there. I was actually pretty excited that I could walk there, that it was accessible just through walking. This is before cell phones. I grew up in the ’70s. It was before cell phones and apps and all that kind of stuff. I had some quarters in my pocket, and I went to a payphone and I called my mom from this shopping center and I told her—she goes, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m at such-and-such shopping center.” She freaked out. She goes, “How did you get there?” I said, “I walked here. I just kept walking,” and she just couldn’t understand why I would do something like that.
That made me even more excited about it, because it was like I broke out of this comfort zone for her and for myself. But it was a clue into how you could simulate that in the future. I would do similar types of experiments throughout my life, such as—I remember in college, I had this paid position working at the university that you had to audition for and interview for. You had a great parking space and all that. I was just a junior. Normally, seniors get it. I did a great job at it, and then naturally, naturally, you’re expected to go on and take the same position as a senior because you don’t have to reaudition and interview for it. And I chose not to do it, just because I wanted to see what it was like to give up something that’s very valuable, right?
I ended up having this amazing senior year and working in Capitol Hill and doing all these wonderful things. I never regretted that decision. But I know that, as I got older, I saw how tightly people hold on to those valuable positions, because they think it’s not going to come again. Again, I don’t know why I felt inclined to take on these types of experiments, but it really did help me in a cumulative way in just being present and always challenging convention wherever I found it.
And I feel like going nomadic two years before the pandemic, I didn’t care about quarantine. Quarantine was my life. I already knew how to sit in a room by myself for a long period of time, and how to get by with less and all of that. I felt like I simulated it already. By the time it came, I was able to then launch my podcast and finish writing this book and do all these other things that I didn’t have time for because I’d been traveling around and doing the whole nomadic thing. It’s a cool way, I think, following your heart. Whoever you are listening to this, following your heart is a cool way to stay ahead of the curve of when that change finally comes; you’re already ready for it because that’s encoded in your DNA.
TS: I have one final thing I want to talk to you about, Light, that I was encouraged to ask you about from reading Knowing Where to Look, and it’s a section that you write about called “Everything at Once.” You write, “I believe that everything is happening all at once, and we have the power to inspire our past and future selves.” I thought to myself, I definitely want to inspire my future self—and my poor past self, I think it’d be great to throw some healing at my poor past self. How do we do this? How do we have the power? What do we do to inspire our past and future selves?
LW: The setup for that piece was I was in a café in Southern California ordering some food, and the person taking my order recognized me as the author of my first book that he was reading at the time. He was really into the book, and he found it very helpful. On my way home from the café, I was starting to think back to years before when I was sitting on the couch in my apartment struggling to write this book and finish the book. You know how sometimes when we are in the middle of something challenging and we hear an inner voice telling us don’t give up or to do something very specific?
There was one time I was caught in a riptide as a teenager, and I heard this inner voice say, “Swim along the side of the shoreline.” And I wasn’t a swimmer at the time. I didn’t know this hack to getting out of a riptide, but I heard this voice so clearly telling me to swim to the side, and sure enough, that was what you had to do to get out of a riptide, I found out later. Well, I believe that these inner voices could potentially be us talking to our past selves, and it doesn’t have to be a deliberate conversation, but just even having a thought, “This is how you navigate this situation,” and you reflect back on your past challenges. That connection is a way of transmitting that new information to your younger self. Or again, I think it can go the opposite direction as well. Giving your future self encouragement: don’t give up, keep going, and all of that. It’s the way I see it. I like that. It makes me feel comfortable, and it explains a lot of things, because otherwise how would I know to swim to the side, and where else would I have found that encouragement to keep going other than the person who knows me better than anyone else, which is myself, my future self? That’s how I see that.
TS: What would you say right now to your future self, to Light Watkins 10 years from now?
LW: I think the message we could all use is keep trusting. No matter how crazy it looks, keep trusting that when you are following your heart, when you are well intentioned, when you’re doing what you feel like you’re supposed to do in that moment, keep trusting that everything is working out the way that it should, for all reasons.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Light Watkins. He’s the author of the new book with Sounds True, Knowing Where to Look: 108 Daily Doses of Inspiration. Check it out. Wonderful to be with you, Light. Beautiful, thank you.
LW: Thank you. I really had fun.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.