Rainbows and Light and the Absence of Free Will

1990 photograph of Pluto and Charon. Taken by ...

I want to blame Pluto.

Not Uncle Walt’s golden and gloriously floppy-eared animated canine of indeterminate breed.  Nope.  I mean the recently demoted former planet, now dwarf planet, Pluto.

According to my favorite stargazing Texan Pluto teased its way into my sign back in 1995 a few weeks before I sold everything I owned and took off for my “lost decade” in Ireland with little more than an overstuffed duffel bag and a guitar.  Now, sixteen years later, cold little Pluto has hemmed, hawed and finally committed to leaving the astrological sign of Sagittarius.  I’d like to say “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” and “good luck, Capricorns!” but can I really blame a lump of rock a couple dozen astronomical units away from sunny California for events over the last twelve months?  Given that an astronomical unit is about 92 million miles it seems unlikely.

Then again, 2011 was the year when the thinkers among us speculated that free will doesn’t exit.  Of course, philosophers have always pondered the nature of free will, but for one moment in 2011 the existence of free will garnered more water cooler buzz than a Hollywood tartlet’s lip plumped wedding.

So who knows?  If I had no choice over my choices, then perhaps it was a rock 2 billion miles away that provided all the entertainment the previous twelve months.

Personally, though, I’m putting my money on the absence of free will.  I know.  It sits in my craw kind of funny, too. But isn’t it liberating to discover we’re not the general contractor of our lives?  Knowing that the control we believe we have doesn’t exist eliminates any need for goals or resolutions.  We can stop struggling.  There’s no need to swim upstream.

Surrendering a belief in free will doesn’t mean I’m waving a white flag and crawling under the duvet for the remainder.  On the contrary, the absence of free will has a clarifying effect.  The intentions I’ve set for my life seem certain and reasonable.  Moving toward those intentions in the absence of control makes their achievement all the more precious.

The absence of free will makes all that yoga talk about ‘Being Present’ and ‘Embracing the Now’ sparkle.  If we don’t have free will, then it follows we should be content with this perfect moment because we are exactly where we are meant to be.  If that place is dark and frightening – and sometimes it is – know that things change.  And if that place is light and wondrous? Know that things change.  Embrace it all.

What About the Space Between ‘Here’ and ‘There’?

English: Wall sculptures at Ellora Caves. A sc...

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In between Downward Dogs my client Bob told me that to celebrate his 70th birthday this autumn he and his wife were going to take a trip around the world.

A trip around the entire world!

I immediately thought of all the places I’d like to see:  the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Grand Viaduc du Millau designed by Norman Foster, the South Island of New Zealand, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Petra, Prague and thanks to recent photographs posted by a friend the Ellora Caves in India.  Closer to home I’d like to visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the state of Maine and Montana, too…

We moved from Downward Dog to Child’s Pose and I asked Bob where he planned to go.  He rattled off a few places:  Shanghai, London and Paris. The way he named cities seemed strangely nonchalant. I handed him a bolster and we moved into a supported Fish Pose.

“Aren’t you missing a pretty big chunk of the world?”

Bob laughed and explained,

“It’s not about where we’re going, Mimm, it’s about how we’re getting there.”

My client is a plane geek.  Bob will celebrate his 70th birthday by taking a seat in all the aircraft he’s every wanted to fly in, including the new Airbus A380.  And he wants to use his Frequent Flyer Miles, too.  We laughed and I asked Bob to take a reclining twist.  He complained, of course (“You want me to do what?“), and then we laughed again.

The twist was released and we held our knees to our chests.  Quiet at last,  I thought about what Bob said:

It’s not about where we’re going; it’s about how we’re getting there.

Maybe life is really all about the space between here and there.

Follow the Signs: Reconsidering the Resolution

There was a time I was the Queen of Setting Goals.  I had rigid lists, sub-lists and categories:  goals for writing, goals for yoga, goals for saving money.  A five-year-plan and – always – the goal to lose ten pounds.  A complex map for my life.  A set of instructions to follow.

That’s how this year began.  With a list of detailed plans.  Such plans.  All typed neatly, printed on bright white paper, color coded and taped to my linen closet door.  I reviewed them each day and charted my progress: word counts, workouts, submissions and queries. I knew where I had been and where I was headed.  Didn’t I?  Of course I did – it was right there in black and white on my linen closet door.

That lasted about six weeks.  I stopped looking at my linen closet door around the beginning of February.  By late spring they were history.

I thought I had failed.  The truth is I hadn’t learned the lesson.


Yesterday I was in Sunnyvale, headed back to Palo Alto.  It was the morning of the day after Christmas.  Traffic

A historical marker situated along El Camino Real.

was light and I drove north on El Camino Real.  I was content to let my CRV stroll the six miles back home, even if I hit every red light.  Until I reached the intersection of Highway 237. On a whim, I turned right.

For those of you who know the area this is no big deal.  Unless you also know me.  When I’m driving I don’t do “whims.”  The car doesn’t move unless I know where I’m going.  I need to see that the path ahead is clear.  Last September the suggestion that I should drive an unfamiliar car, on an unfamiliar freeway following an unknown route was enough to turn me into a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  So turning right on 237 was a very big deal indeed.

And guess what happened?

I followed the signs, avoided heading toward Milpitas and sure enough, after taking the Middlefield exit and turning left on Ferguson I found Central Expressway – a faster, easier way to my home.

I know.  It was a simple thing, turning right on 237 instead of driving straight ahead.  But it revealed a big truth.  Narrowing our focus to a list of resolutions taped to a closet door has nothing to do with life.

There will be no list this year.  This year I have only one resolution.

This year I’m going to follow the signs and find my way home.

Eknath Easwaren’s Passage Meditation

At first I was put off by Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation.  The prose was too anecdotal, the advice too simple.  The book was for beginners.  Didn’t I already know all of this?  I wanted the answers to my deeper questions, not a parable on the hectic pace of life.

But because I promised my meditation teacher I would finish the book, I continued to read. And once I tucked my ego and arrogance away (and admitted I am a beginner!) I discovered that this book is a gem of subtle yet powerful insights.

Embracing a daily meditation practice requires discipline that, quite honestly, isn’t easy for me to summon.  I keep trying.  There are rare mornings when finding my seat and watching my breath feels like my natural state.  As if this is how it has always been and always will be.  On most mornings, however, the clarity and stillness I’m looking for spends most of the thirty minutes competing with random thoughts about clients, classes and topics for my next blog post.  On these days I sit, I breathe, I wait and then, when the timer sounds, I smile.  Have I failed?  No.  I showed up.  And as long as I continue to show up I know that eventually the days I feel meditation is my natural state will outnumber the days when stillness has to compete with my chattering mind.

Tonight I was reading about the power of thoughts and control of the senses.  Easwaran writes that this is our goal:


When we stimulate the senses unduly, vitality flows out through them like water from a leaky pail, leaving us drained physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Those who indulge themselves in sense stimulation throughout their lives often end up exhausted, with an enfeebled will and little capacity to love others.  But when we train the senses we conserve our vital energy, the very stuff of life.  Patient and secure within we do not have to look to externals for satisfaction.  No matter what happens outside – whether events are for or against us, however people behave towards us, whether we get what pleases us or do not – we are in no way dependent. 

Then it is that we can give freely to others; then it is that we can love.


Initially I thought I’d write that Passage Meditation is a simple book.  It feels like a simple book.  But once the heart and mind are open to its teaching, it becomes a rich and layered set of ideas that will move us forward in our practice.



This Present Moment: Adventures in Meditation and the Arrival of a Mantra

English: All Solutions By Yogi Tamby Chuckrava...

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It began with the purchase of my iPhone, this new bad habit.  The cold weather, this cold apartment and my laptop encouraged me.  I began to love curling up under the blanket and surfing in the hour before sleep.  And if I woke in the night, which I do sometimes, I’d pick up the phone or the computer and surf again.  When the harp sounded on my iPhone alarm in the morning, guess what?  Out came the laptop.  I just needed to know if Matt’s gig in Oxford was a success, if it was snowing in Michigan or if I could chat with a friend in Nevada I’ve never met.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve a stack of books next to my bed, too.  And sometimes I even read them.  I jest.  Of course I read.  Since ditching the cable and television I’ve had plenty of time to read.  But it’s clear to me this new bad habit is filling the gap those ten-year-old episodes of “That 70’s Show” once held.

If I really want to quiet Monkey Mind and to have a life long, transformative meditation practice, then I need to break this new bad habit and begin a new good habit.

Here’s where I’ve gone wrong:

Rather than dedicating the same time each day to practice, I’ve been fitting it in when I can – four or five days a week, ten or twenty minutes at a time.  The only dedicated periods of meditation are the forty-five minutes a friend of mine and I take prior to a yoga class we attend and the hour of practice I enjoy on Thursday evenings with a local Daoist Meditation Group (I’m new to this group and have only attended twice.  Still, it feels as though I’ll continue indefinitely).

I don’t want meditation in my life as something I practice on a whim.  Meditation should be who I am, not something that simply hovers around me.

Fortunately, I have a mentor who is gently guiding me in the right direction.  He’s the teacher who recommended Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to me – a book I’m now recommended to anyone who is on a path similar to mine.

Last night my mentor gave me the gift of a mantra.  He said it would change my life.  He said it would settle me (how did he know I was unsettled?) and that if I repeated this mantra each day very soon nothing would ever again ruffle my feathers (how did he know my feathers were ruffled?).

Seriously.  All that from one word? Almost less than a word – my mantra is one single syllable. He’s telling me one single sound can change my life?

I surfed before sleep last night.  And when I dreamed about earthquakes I woke and checked the USGS website.

But when my iPhone’s harp began to play this morning I swung around, placed my feet flat on the floor and set the timer for thirty minutes.  I let my hands rest on my lap, right hand nestled in the left with my thumbs touching and I closed my eyes.  And then, for one hundred and eight rounds, I began to repeat…

And Now, a Quick Word from Our Sponsor: January Classes

I thought it was time for me to remind everyone where I teach, how to register and what to expect.  Currently I teach in two studios:  California Yoga Center and Avenidas Senior Center.  I work privately with individuals or small groups in the home and am also available to teach introductory classes and workshops at your school or office.

California Yoga Center

One of the first yoga studios on the Peninsula – and where so many of us were first introduced to yoga – CYC has locations in Palo Alto and Mountain View.   My classes are at 541 Cowper Street in Palo Alto between University Avenue and Hamilton.  I teach three classes at CYC.  They are on going.  Two are Iyengar-influenced “slow flow” style classes and the third is a Yin class taught in the Paul Grilley tradition.  If you’re still looking for a last minute gift you can purchase Gift Certificates for individual or a series of classes.  More information about purchasing gift certificates can be found on the CYC website.

Here’s what to expect from a class with Mimm:

Yin Yoga – Mondays 7:30 to 9:00 PM

Yin is a donation-based class.  Please pay what you can afford up to $17 (the regular drop-in fee).

The long-held stretches characteristic of Yin Yoga help to recover and maintain a full range of movement and flexibility in the joints and connective tissue.  The work is challenging but profoundly relaxing. While Yin should not be confused with Restorative style yoga on more than one occasion students have told me, “I have the best night’s sleep on Yin nights!”

I keep the studio very dark.  Soft futons and bolsters, blankets and pillows are used for support.  Sometimes I’ll use music to help set a tone.

Verbal instruction is kept to a minimum.  Nevertheless, enough suggestions and options are offered to create an environment that feels comfortable and safe.

All the work takes place on the floor and poses are held between 2 and 6 minutes.  For more information regarding Yin Yoga look here.

Iyengar-influenced Hatha and Slow Flow – Tuesdays or Fridays from 9:00 to 10:00 AM

The drop-in fee for these classes is $15.  A 4-week series is available for $52.  An 8-week series is available for $104.  Classes do not have to be taken consecutively and there is no expiration date (this applies to my classes only.  Other CYC instructors may have different policies).

In the beginning, there was Iyengar.  At least for me.  I loved the attention to alignment, the emphasis on safety and the slow, careful pace as we moved from one pose to another.  But things change.

I still love my Iyengar roots, but I also love moving with my breath from one shape to another.  We move at a pace that allows time to settle into the pose and to explore how it feels in the body.  I provide options for anyone not ready to take on the more challenging standing poses.

Both of these classes are Level I/II – suitable for beginning and intermediate students.

California Yoga Center has everything you need for a safe practice:  bolsters, straps, pillows, and blocks.  It’s recommended that you bring your own “sticky” mat.

Avenidas Center

It’s a misnomer to call Avenidas a “senior” center.  Yes, you have to be over the age of fifty to enroll in classes – but what’s a number?  Pre-registration is required, but you can enroll online or drop by the front desk at 450 Bryant Street (cross street University Avenue).  Classes are held in 10-week blocks.  Our winter session begins the week of January 9th, 2012.  There is no drop-in but anyone is welcome to visit and try out my yoga classes before enrolling.  The price for a ten-week session is $60 for Avenidas members and $70 for non-members.  Where are you going to find a one-hour class for $6.00 anywhere on the Peninsula?

I have three classes at Avenidas:

  • Mondays from 1:00-2:00
  • Fridays from 10:30 to 11:30
  • Fridays from 11:45 to 12:45

Because of student demographics these classes tend to lean toward the introductory level but everyone is encouraged to deepen into the work as their bodies allow.  Some students have had years of yoga experience and will have a more full expression of the pose we’re working in.  Others who are new to yoga are given modifications that help awaken the body.

All three classes begin with floor warm-ups, followed by a carefully planned standing sequence and then finishing with seated work and relaxation.  Because of the nature of my classes at Avenidas, it’s suggested that students be able to safely lower and then rise from the floor.  That being said, chairs are available to assist.

Unfortunately, equipment is limited at Avenidas. We have soft exercise mats but I recommend you bring a sticky mat and two bath towels that can be folded into mini-bolsters.  A strap is also handy – this can be a yoga strap or, if you’re on a budget, a man’s tie or belt.  Yoga blocks are helpful, too.

Individual Study

If you are recovering from illness or injury then I recommend two or three sessions of individual study.  Together we can see where you’re at in terms of strength and flexibility.  We can build a program that will support recovery instead of setting it back.

Some clients, of course, simply enjoy how individualized attention deepens their practice. You’ll discover the body responds to the work easily when hands on adjustments and personalized modifications are part of the program.

More Monkey Mind: Finding Clarity in the Muck

It would be fair to say that over the past few days my life has begun to resemble a lamentably bad country and western song:

“My boyfriend left and the car won’t start.  My battery’s dead, I gots a broke down heart…”

So cue the violins.  Stuff happens.  Here’s the thing.  Yesterday I wrote about how Monkey Mind will mess with your head by encouraging you to re-live your mistakes in an endless Groundhog Day-esque loop.

But that’s not her only talent.

When I stepped out the door this morning I expected today to be like most Wednesdays:  I should have been on the road to see clients in Saratoga by 8:15, back to Palo Alto for a 12:45 appointment, up the road for two back to back classes, home for dinner, out to the studio to teach the 7:30 class, home to bed.

But when I slipped the key into the ignition and heard the glurg, glurg, glurg of an engine that had no intention of delivering me to my appointed rounds, Monkey Mind took her cue and started chattering:

“Oh, it’s probably the starter.  Do you have any idea how much that is going to cost?  You’ll probably have to cancel all your clients today…and tomorrow…maybe even Friday!  Your clients won’t want to see you again.  You’re too unreliable.  And you’ll have to call a tow truck.  Do you know how hard it is to call a tow truck?  And that will cost money, too.  Do you have any money?  You don’t have money, do you? Oh and don’t forget about rental car you’ll need while yours is being repaired.  You might as well kiss your savings goodbye…”

And so on.  My little Monkey Mind bounced from one scenario to another – all of them bad.  It would have been easy to just submit to the chatter and allow myself to become more and more wound up, anxious and frustrated.  I mean, that’s what we do, right?  Life hands us a bit of unpleasantness and we give in to it.  We listen to Monkey Mind.

Not so fast.  Maybe we don’t listen to Monkey Mind.  Maybe we see through Monkey Mind’s games and choose an alternative course.

This morning I gave Ms. Monkey about ten minutes of my time before I sat down, closed my eyes and took a few breaths.  And then I found the number for Honda Care’s roadside service.  I rang and the tow truck arrived within thirty minutes.  The driver charged my battery.  I drove to my dealership and purchased a replacement.  Yes, I missed my clients in Saratoga but the rest of the day went pretty much according to plan.

So stick that banana in your pipe and smoke it, Monkey Mind!

I’m not going to try to convince you that today is one of my better days.  But it’s far from the crisis my chattering Monkey Mind wanted to create.  It’s just been a day.  One simple, human day.

Like most habits we are trying to build or break, creating a daily meditation practice is a process full of ups and downs.  I always understood that part of the process was being diligent about setting aside time each to practice.  But I also need to welcome opportunities that allow me to weave what I’m learning into the fabric of my day-to-day life.

When we step back from the muck occasionally thrown our way and examine our lives from the edge rather than the center it becomes clear that the work we’re doing is powerful and transformative.

I know that Monkey Mind will always be lurking.  But today I discovered that she’s no match for me.