I am really excited to introduce you to Zen Buddhist and mindfulness teacher, Mark Westmoquette of Your Universe Yoga. Mark is a London based Zen yoga and mindfulness teacher. To tie in with the up-coming launch of our new E-Book, Your Healthiest Life Guide, Mark gives us an insight into his approach to mindfulness and all things meditation.
Mark, What does wellbeing mean to you?
To me it starts with the physical aspects – sleep, diet, exercise, physical health, material comfort – and continues on to include our mental and emotional state, the state of our relationships and our sense of connection and love, and, of course, the situation in our work life.
How physically healthy we are is measurable, but many of the other aspects are not so easy to assess. The problem is we often measure wellbeing via what some call the “eight worldly concerns": loss & gain, pleasure & pain, praise & blame, fame & bad name. These are all about external attributes: power, success, beauty, strength, intellect, opinion of others, etc.
However, this always leads to problems because what we’ve got or what we’ve achieved never seems enough. In my opinion, wellbeing is better measured through our sense of vitality and purpose in our lives, through our ability to be aware of how things are in the moment, how good we are at putting aside our judgmental attitudes, our kindness and willingness to help, and our resilience to difficulty.
What led you to your interest in holistic wellbeing, meditation in particular?
I was an avid target rifle shooter in my early years at university, and one of the books I read recommended yoga to help with fitness, flexibility and breath control. So I did! I started going to the class at the university gym and somehow ended up back there every week. Some years later, the teacher changed and the new person turned out to be Zen master Daizan Skinner. He was starting a meditation class so I went along. For me, studying science, yoga and meditation were like doing an experiment inside my body: try this practice and see what happens... whatever you find is your answer.
Tell us about the style of meditation and mindfulness that you practice and, why it's a big part of your life...
It took me about 6 months of attending meditation classes with Daizan before I realised that what he was teaching was Zen! He never really said and there were no formalities in those early days. Zen is a school of Buddhism and emphasises the experiential practice of finding, for yourself, your true nature. Much of that enquiry is done through quiet, still meditation, but Daizan’s flavour of Zen also includes a number of movement practices too. In all of these, there is a strong thread of mindfulness – cultivating your attention and awareness of the moment with a quality of kindness and non-judge mentality.
Over the years I’ve found that mindfulness has enabled me to re-connect deeply to the reality of life, encouraging me to experience negative and difficult emotions without impulsively wanting to push them away, and allowing me to experience the delight and wonder of life as it comes and goes. It’s not easy, but the results are absolutely worth it.
We know that like us, you're interested in helping people change their emotional relationship with food through mindfulness, can you tell us a little about this?
It’s not really the food that’s the problem – everything is ok in moderation – but it’s our relationship to it that can cause problems. Personally I’ve never had any major eating disorders or issues – in fact I’d say I’m a fairly good instinctive eater – but I’ve seen how our relationship to food can cause so much suffering. I feel it’s an area that's extremely worth-while to explore. Taking a mundane example, but one I think most of us can relate to: I often find myself having lunch in front of my computer, writing e-mails or reading the news. All that effort I put into making (or buying) a nice lunch goes wasted because I didn’t notice any more than a bite or two. I was completely absorbed in my computer to the point that sensations were blocked out. I myself have a tendency not to eat enough in these situations, but others may eat too much – all because we fail to take notice of what we’re doing. Not only do we fall into the trap of mindlessly eating, forgetting to notice when we’re full or satisfied, but we also miss out on the enjoyment and taste of the food itself.
Mindfulness teaches us how to be fully present with our bodies, our sensations, thoughts and actions. When we listen, we can discern when we’re hungry, where our hunger is coming from, what our bodies need, and when we’re satiated. Like this we can learn how to be at peace with our food so that eating can become enjoyable, satisfying and nourishing.
What are your non-negotiables when it comes to everyday health?
A good night’s sleep, 30mins sitting meditation per day (minimum), ideally 20-30mins movement practice (like yoga) per day, good quality vegetarian food including a solid breakfast of muesli and fruit.
What have been the biggest lessons you've learnt since starting a meditation practice over 8 years ago?
Facing the reality of your inner landscape every day for years takes discipline and commitment. I remind myself regularly, though, that what I’m making is a commitment to myself and my wellbeing, so well worth it!
I’ve also found that whenever I recognise thoughts arising around comparing myself to others then I need to stop and look at what’s going on. Comparisons usually come up because of anxiety or insecurity, and these arise because we see ourselves as separate to everything around us. Yes, in one sense we are separate (obviously I am not you), but when I start worrying about myself I’m forgetting there’s another way to see things: that we’re all just expressions of one Universe and you’re about as separate to me as my right hand is from the left. When I remember that, the comparisons naturally fall away.
And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to anyone wanting to take up a regular mindfulness practice, what would it be?
Go on an 8-week mindfulness course. They’re designed specifically to get your engine started. I run courses, and there are many other excellent courses out there, so go for it!
Mark is running a Mindful Eating retreat day on 28 January in Brixton. Find out all the details here.