‘Mindful stargazing is not about understanding scientific concepts or cosmological theories, reading star maps or using technology,’ says Mark Westmoquette.
‘It’s about developing a first-hand, experiential knowledge of what it is to ‘be’ in this vast universe of ours.’
Mark is an astrophysicist, turned Zen meditation teacher and author of The Mindful Universe: A journey through the inner and outer cosmos. With a PhD in astrophysics, Mark was a scientist, researching astronomy at the UCL in London, when he left to become a Zen monk in training for a summer. He walked a pilgrimage through the UK, from Dorset to Lancashire.
Mark now teaches Zen yoga, mindfulness, and delivers mindful stargazing retreats.
Here Mark talks to Metro.co.uk about why the secret to happiness is reaching for the stars.
What is mindful stargazing?
It’s the pure, immersive experience of being with the starscape above. When we look up with curiosity and wonder, instead of the stars seeming cold, distant or irrelevant to our life here on Earth, we feel more in touch with the cosmos. It helps us put our own worries into perspective, and increases humility and compassion by reminding us there’s more to life than our own needs.
Remind me what mindfulness is again?
Mindfulness means bringing 100% attention to what’s happening in this moment. It also means not judging what you find to be good bad, better or worse, or wishing it were different.
You can practise being mindful in many ways: by sitting quietly observing your breath, walking in the woods, or chopping a carrot. But you can also practice being mindful when you look up at the stars at night.
When you start to observe things mindfully, just as they really are, you’ll start to find the secrets of the Universe revealing themselves before your very eyes.
Where do we start?
You don’t need a telescope. You don’t need binoculars. You don’t need a star map. You don’t need to know anything about what you’re looking at. But you can go out into the garden or the park and enjoy just looking at the stars.
You don’t need to drive out to some really, really dark place. I stargaze in the back garden in London. Ideally, find yourself a sun lounger or some kind of deck chair and a few blankets and then just sit and look.
It’s about immersing yourself in moment. Listening to the sounds, notice what you smell and focus your eyes on one point in the sky. And then without moving eyes, become aware of the whole of your field of vision. Stress narrows everything down so when we take a broader view we’re automatically feel more relaxed.
You don’t need a telescope. You don’t need to know anything about what you’re looking at
How long does it take?
It takes about 15 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark. And that dark might include the light pollution, it might include seeing aeroplanes or satellites. Just notice all these things. You might hear some sounds in the far distance, you might notice that some stars twinkling, you might notice that some stars are different colours. Just notice and become still with this experience.
Notice how you feel about the dark. There are many health benefits for being in the dark as much as there is in the light. For our circadian rhythm, it is as important to be in the dark as it is to be in the light of the daylight.
Looking at screens just before you go to bed basically upsets your rhythm, and your body thinks it’s daylight. Why not try something else instead as part of your bed time routine? Mindfully sit in the dark and look up at the night sky and notice what arises. This is mindful stargazing.
Why does stargazing help our mental health?
When we feel stressed, or worried or anxious, or depressed, there is a kind of narrowing of our perception, of our life’s view of what is possible. When we get very caught up in our own problems, they can feel very big. Connecting with the stars gives you a broader perspective. We go outside, and we look up and we realise that we are here on the surface of this little tiny ball of rock orbiting the sun, within this vast cosmos of billions and billions of light years and stars. And it’s far bigger than you and your problems. It puts our worries into perspective and adds a new perspective. There’s been some research to show that regularly feeling a sense of awe can really help our mental health.
How can we keep that perspective during the daylight hours?
During the day, you can also see the moon as well as the sun, and you can become aware of the rhythm of the day. Yes, it gets dark but the sun always rises. It’s not going to remain dark forever.
We can be challenged by our problems and think it will stay like that forever, but a direct lesson from the solar system shows us that it’s going to change because everything is always changing.
Why don’t we need a telescope?
Most often what happens is that people buy a telescope and realise that the learning curve is very steep – with the different lenses and trying to figure out what’s what in the sky. I’d say forget all the technology.
Just go out with your deck chair and just sit and look with your own eyes. Don’t worry about star maps or trying to identify anything, just be in that place and experience the magic.
There’s been some research to show that regularly feeling a sense of awe can really help our mental health.
Why did you study astronomy?
My science teacher was very inspirational. He got me studying astronomy and I remember being captivated by the beauty of the images of the stars. I also had a difficult time at home as a teenager so I think there was some sense of wanting to kind of disappear into the furthest reaches of the universe to escape.
How did you become interested in Zen?
I did some yoga at university in my gym class and the teacher was a Zen master. And it just felt completely different, grounded, and genuine, and it allowed me to reconnect with what was going on in my body and all the stuff I had been repressing from my teenage years.
Zen meditation is a practice where you get to face yourself. You sit, and you minimise other distractions, and you’re here with yourself. The idea is to allow whatever needs to arise to arise. You don’t judge it to be good or bad, you just let it come and let it go. And that way, we come closer and closer and closer to seeing ourselves as we are.
You’re able to look at something that everyone from the beginning of time has ever seen
It’s a commitment to exercise kindness when we’re present with ourselves. We notice things that are arising and we are doing our best not to run away or edit or cut it out. And that itself is a deep act of self love.
Why is stargazing a great mindful practice?
During the history of humanity on this planet, maybe 300,000 years, everything on our planet has changed. Sea levels have gone up and down, there have been volcanoes, glaciers and the only thing that’s been the same for us humans, ever since the beginning of time has been the night sky. It’s the same view, the same arrangement of stars, the same patterns, and that can feel like a deeply connecting moment, when you realise that you’re able to look at something that everyone from the beginning of time has ever seen.
How to stargaze in bed
Visit Mark’s website for more information about mindful stargazing retreats.
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