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Zen and the Stars with Mark Westmoquette

Woman doing yoga silhouetted by the sunset.

Astronomer, Zen Buddhist, author, and mindfulness teacher Mark Westmoquette shares how connecting with the night aids in well-being.

Portrait of Mark Westmoquette.
Portrait of Mark Westmoquette.

Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and what you do. I have a PhD in Astrophysics and worked as a professional astronomer for a decade, including at the European Southern Observatory in Munich, Germany. But in 2013, I decided to switch gears—I quit academia and took up teaching yoga and meditation.

How did you first decide to combine wellness practices with astronomy?

After writing a few speculative articles on my blog, I was contacted by a publishing company and asked if I would write a book called Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers, which was published in 2019. This got me seriously thinking about how to combine mindfulness and astronomy, and it blossomed from there. I wrote a second book called The Mindful Universe, and now I run events and retreats around the concept of “mindful stargazing.”

How does spending time under a starry night sky, or in natural darkness, boost human well-being?

Firstly, being in the dark before bed helps us sleep better by causing a surge in melatonin and supporting our natural circadian rhythm. Secondly, immersing yourself in the experience of here and now—looking up at the night sky and listening to the sounds of the night—helps us to slow down and allows the usual whirlwind of thoughts and worries to quieten down. And thirdly, tuning into the enormity of the universe and our place in it can help us feel connected to that which is bigger than ourselves. This instills a deep sense of wonder and awe, which has been proven to improve mental health. We realize we’re not just citizens of our country or even Planet Earth. We’re citizens of this universe, in all its wonderful, multi-dimensional beauty.

Group of people at a stargazing event.
Mark leads a mindful stargazing event at the Yorkshire Dales Dark Skies Festival, 2022

How have you seen your clients or loved ones benefit from these practices?

I regularly see people fall into a silent, awe-filled reverie when they realize that the universe isn’t just “out there,” but that we’re an integral part of it, and literally made of it. This kind of perspective change can have radical consequences for how we see ourselves and our lives. A regular at my events talks about how her worries just melt away after connecting to the universe like this. You are also a Zen Buddhist teacher. What wisdom does Buddhism offer about connecting to the natural night? Zen is associated with the color black and a minimalist aesthetic. In the West, we associate black with death and mourning, but in Zen, we see it as the color of “no-mind”—that is, pure potential, just like the darkest peat is the most fertile. Immersing ourselves in our view of the dark sky, we see this black space of potential all around us. Instead of fearing or shying away from it, Zen teaches us to let go into it.

What advice would you give to someone new to night sky wellness?

Put aside the technology (apps, telescopes, cameras, etc) and try to remember what it was like looking at the night sky as a kid. Lie down, make yourself cozy, and marvel at the countless twinkling stars. Try making up your own constellations!

Blurred timelapse photo of stargazers at night.
A mindful stargazing event and meditation under the stars with Mark at the Tawny Hotel in Staffordshire, U.K.

Mark’s try-at-home mindful stargazing activity

Make yourself comfortable looking at the night sky. Purposefully soften and relax your body. While your eyes are adjusting to the dark, close them and tune into the feeling of gravity. Sense the gentle pull of our Planet Earth—our home. Open your eyes and notice what you see. Become aware of your whole field of vision. Don’t worry if there are clouds around or the glow of streetlights. Mindfulness is about noticing things as they are and putting aside any wishes for how you would want things to be. Allow your eyes to be filled with the vista of the night just as it is. Don’t worry about working out what star you’re looking at, or which constellation is which. Simply immerse yourself in what you’re seeing and appreciate the view.

Take in the sights, but also the sounds around you. Be conscious of your breath and how your neck feels as you look up. There’s nothing to do here—just be. Appreciate the wonder and magic of the moment.

Connect with Mark

Instagram: @westmoquette
Facebook: @MWestmoquette
YouTube: MarkWestmoquette