Can opening your eyes to the dark let some light in?

There’s been an uptick in the popularity of my posts about stargazing since the beginning of the pandemic. Although I’m sure some amateur astronomers have used an increase in free time in the evenings to dust-down their telescopes and get out into the backyard, there’s likely to be just as many who have found the time to do something they’ve never done before—look at the stars. 

After all, it’s been a great six weeks in that respect, with the planet Venus a bright beacon in the west in twilight, a couple of supermoons, and many hundreds of SpaceX’s Starlink Satellites piquing everyones interest in the night sky. 

“If people are stuck at home on furlough then there’s ample time and energy for other hobbies, like stargazing, to come into focus because people might be able to stay up later into the dark nights if they don’t have to get up for work so early in the morning,” said Mark Westmoquette, an astronomer-turned-Zen yoga teacher whose book “Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers: Find your inner universe” outlines how thinking about the wonders of science—“from the tiniest quark to the vastness of space”—can be an inspiration to live with more awareness. 

It’s well-timed advice, with stress associated with the pandemic potentially on the rise. “Whilst some people’s lives have become quieter during lockdown, others have become busier and out of balance, but at either ends of the busy-ness spectrum there’s a great deal of stress and fear,” said Westmoquette. “If you find yourself lying awake at night, the familiar constellations and the slow wheeling of the heavens can be a reassuring source of comfort.”

Looking up at the stars, said Westmoquette, can become a silent retreat into wonder and awe. “When we concentrate on the here and now, on the act of looking up at the majesty and grandeur of the starry sky, then our worries simply disappear—even if just momentarily,” said Westmoquette. “I find that considering the enormity of space and time and the existence of our tiny planet within that, always helps put my personal worries into perspective.” 

So what is “stargazing for mindfulness?” “Mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the present moment, however that is and whatever is happening,” explains Westmoquette. “Looking up at a beautiful star-filled sky, you almost can’t help but be mindful—your vision filled with darkness punctuated by twinkling stars, the gentle breeze on your skin and the sounds of the night entering your ears.” 

A much mis-used term in popular culture, mindfulness is largely about concentrating on the present moment. “As you’re looking up, if you get distracted by thoughts about other things—like what you’re going to do tomorrow, or how you really need to mow the lawn—as soon as you notice these thoughts, guide your attention back to what you’re seeing above you,” said Westmoquette.  

Westmoquette knows what he’s talking about. A scientist researching astronomy at the European Southern Observatory in Munich and at UCL in London, Westmoquette used to go on ‘observing runs’ to various mountain-top observatories. “I’ve seen some of the most spectacular night skies on mountains like Mauna Kea in Hawaii and Paranal in Chile, but sadly, as a professional astronomer, most of the night is spent in the control room at the computer, guiding the telescope and watching as the data arrives on the screen,” he said. However, he would always nip out and steal a look at the night sky with his own eyes.

Westmoquette got disillusioned with professional astronomy. “I found myself increasingly isolated in my job, communicating with colleagues and collaborators only over Skype, spending a lot of time in front of my computer, and being caught in the ‘publish-or-die’ mentality,” he said. “I didn’t fall out of love with astronomy, just with my academic career.”

He currently lives on St. Helena, a remote volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean. “The skies here are tremendous,” said Westmoquette. “The Large Magellanic Cloud is getting lower now, but Carina, the Southern Cross and Centaurus are rising, and the band of the Milky Way is spectacular!” 

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of astronomy in “Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers: Find your inner universe”, but in a way that induces wonder. Westmoquette references Joseph von Fraunhofer, Frank Drake and William Herschel as much as it does the Buddha as he takes the reader on a journey of a photon, into the nebula of the Small Magellanic Cloud, and the discovery of the first exoplanet. Does modern astronomy sometimes overlook the wonder it reveals? “Yes and no—in astronomy it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity and otherworldliness of things very quickly,” said Westmoquette. “If we, as astronomers, stopped to really think about what we were studying, our minds would be blown on a daily basis!” 

Westmoquette used to study galaxies in the “nearby Universe”, which in astronomer-speak are around 3-10 Mpc (mega-parsecs) away. That’s easy to conceive of; 3-10 are on human scales. “Astronomers have a habit of making up new units so that the numbers they’re dealing with end up on these human scales and they don’t get overwhelmed,” said Westmoquette. “In more familiar units, these galaxies were 2×10^20 kilometres away—that’s 2 with 20 zeros after it!” 

That’s far enough that the light takes around 20 million years to reach us.

Of course, the clouds are always a threat to successful stargazing. Or perhaps not. “It doesn’t even have to be clear for you to practice mindful stargazing,” said Westmoquette. “If it’s partially cloudy, then your view of the stars might be more like fleeting glimpses through the gaps. If it’s totally cloudy, try observing the clouds themselves—how they’re moving, how they’re lit up by the moon or by lights from below.”

That’s a laudable attitude, but stargazers starting out do seem to experience frequent bouts of anger and disappointment over clouds and anything that doesn’t go their way—like comets fizzling out. It cuts-short stargazing careers forever. “Mostly people just get frustrated and annoyed again and again (and) for some, this puts them off stargazing all together,” said Westmoquette. The cure is to cultivate a calm, forgiving attitude that recognises that, no, the Universe doesn’t care one iota about you or what you can see/not see.

Westmoquette takes this further by outlining the “three poisons” of how the Buddha described the forces of want (for example, wanting the clouds to clear), of aversion (hating clouds or the cold) and of delusion (running 10 minutes on the treadmill waiting for the clouds to clear, and so feeling we deserve clear skies). They are our sources of suffering. “We get stuck when we start wanting or wishing things to be different from what they actually are, right here and now—the further our wish is away from reality, the more we suffer,” said Westmoquette. “So when it’s cloudy, the only thing we can do is accept it’s cloudy.” 

As someone who’s traveled across the globe to see a solar eclipse only to be faced with cloud, I know the frustration that weather can bring to stargazing and amateur astronomy. I also know that accepting it as something that cannot be controlled is actually pretty easy—you get good at it … or you just take up cloud-spotting, too.  

“When we look up into the night sky it may seem like everything is remote, distant and far removed from our daily life, but it is the contrary—we and all the stars inter-are,” said Westmoquette. “We could not exist without them, and they could not exist without us. They contain you, me, love, warm summer days, chocolate ice cream, a clogged drain, crumbling monuments and everything that has ever been.” 

“That is what makes stargazing so amazing.”

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes