Today, Silver Disobedience sits down with Mark Westmoquette
Mark completed his PhD in Astrophysics at UCL in London in 2007 and went on to hold research fellowships both in the UK and Germany, specializing in the fields of star formation and galaxy evolution. In 2013 he decided to change careers to follow another passion of his, yoga. After completing his teacher training, Mark’s journey led him to study mindfulness and Zen meditation, becoming a Zen Buddhist monk in 2015. After a short training period, he left monastic life and now teaches yoga and meditation full-time.
What is your background?
I had a fairly traumatic childhood that I reacted to by shutting off my emotions and distancing myself from people. I think one of the reasons I chose to study astrophysics was to focus on something that was as far from everyday life as possible! I did well academically and went on to do a PhD and then research, but after a decade or so I realized that my life was very unbalanced. My yoga and Zen practice, together with a few years of psychotherapy, was showing me new ways of being and relating to others. I decided to take the leap and change careers in order to dedicate myself to understanding the inner universe and helping others where I can.
What inspires you to create?
I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly creative. For a long time I (along with many people I suspect) thought that scientific research doesn’t involve any creativity, but I see now that scientific research requires ideas, innovation and lateral thinking – and that needs a great deal of creativity. Nowadays I create yoga classes, safe spaces for people to practice, and more recently books like “Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers”. My inspiration is the beauty and awe of the vast outer Universe and the even more vast inner universe. In the book I tried to weave these two threads together with an intention to pass this inspiration on.
How has your career influenced your passions (or vice versa)?
I think passion has completely driven my career from the beginning. In my astronomy days, I was at my most passionate when I was giving talks about my research at conferences or on visits to other universities. Although I fell out of love with the way academic research works, I never fell out of love with the subject itself. And these days, I’m very much driven by my commitment to the practice of yoga (which literally means the bringing together of the body/outer with the mind/inner) and Zen.
What is something that you must do every day (by choice)?
I’ve learned that we suffer when we cling onto things, wanting or wishing them to go ‘our’ way. It’s like a wheel with a gummed up axle that gets stuck as it turns. I try not to be too rigid about things, but I do find doing a minimum of 30 minutes of meditation on a daily basis really helps me to let go of things and keep my ‘wheel’ turning easily.
What are some things that you would tell your younger-self, if you had the opportunity to offer advice retrospectively?
I was probably at my lowest emotional point in my mid-20s – I was struggling with friendships, family relationships and had never had a girlfriend. If I could, I’d like to reassure myself at that point that I will find my way through the thicket of entanglements from my childhood trauma and meet a beautiful woman who will become my wife.
If you could be answering these questions from another location, anywhere in the world, where would that be?
Actually I’m answering these questions from the most unlikely spot – somewhere that I’d never even heard of before last year. My wife and I are now living on the tiny island of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the south Atlantic over 1000 miles west of Africa and 2500 miles east of Brazil. It’s a remarkable place and right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!
Who are some role models in your life?
My Zen teacher, Julian Daizan Skinner, is certainly one of them. Others that embody compassion, sensitivity, respect and intelligence are Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. I also very much respect Ruby Wax and her journey into mindfulness. On the astronomy side of things, I’m a huge fan of Carl Sagan.
What are some common misconceptions about the older generation that you’d like to change?
There’s now a good deal of research that shows that older people can benefit from yoga & mindfulness. Yoga improves balance and stability (very important for preventing falls), improves joint health (including arthritis; Cheung et al 2014), and reduces stress, anxiety (Woodyard 2011) and hence blood pressure (Patil et al 2014). Mindfulness practice is known to improve mood (Shook et al 2017) and memory (Gard et al 2014), and reduce stress, digestive problems and systemic inflammation (Fountain-Zaragoza & Prakash, 2017). So get started!
What is something that you appreciate now that you hadn’t before?
In my teens and twenties I’d thought that life follows a straight line. What you do at university sets your direction which you follow for the whole of your life. Now I see that life can throw curve balls and our path can twist and turn in very unexpected ways. I never thought I’d be an author and be writing about the connection between astronomy and mindfulness.
What’s a lesson you learned within the last year that you’d like to share?
It’s probably a lesson that I’ve been learning gradually over my life, but it’s been quite prominent in the last year. We have far less control over our lives than we think. Living is like swimming in a great river. We can try to control the direction of flow, but it’ll be very hard work and ultimately we’ll be overwhelmed by the current. It’s much easier to learn how to let go and be carried along. That doesn’t mean we should resign to being passive passengers though. It’s important to learn how to take the right branch over the left when the river forks, and to learn the skills needed to safely navigate the rapids when they come upon us.
What kinds of relationships are important to your work?
Human relationships – ones based in honesty and kindness. The trick is to learn how to be honest and kind to ourselves first, then it can’t help but spill over onto our external relationships.
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