A selection of stories, musings, poetry and more

“Yes, we have that but not today”

By Merle McKinley | Apr 16, 2019 |

The first time I heard the phrase, it came with a big smile. I was in a café in Ethiopia and had ordered a cappuccino. I was a bit taken back and inquiring, was told, “Today we have no milk.” Right… “I’ll have an iced tea, then.” This was a big come-down for me, as Ethiopian coffee is one of my favs.

My friend Sarah and I looked over the several-paged menu and made our choices. Sarah ordered a salad. We received the same response. “We have that, but not today.”

“Well, what do you have?”

“We have fish.”

“Okay then, we’ll have fish.”

“That was easy,” Sarah said, and we quickly moved on to enjoying the view and discussing our afternoon plans.

Again and again, I saw how the Ethiopians dance with what life brings, seldom missing a beat. They live from what looks to me to be an ethic of being present to and curious as life unfolds before their very eyes.

In the West, I believe part of our low-level suffering (negative mood) or subtle dissatisfaction stems from too many choices, coupled with the expectation of many choices. It seems there is a media channel or show for every 10,000 people. “How can I choose!!??” “What if I don’t like my choice?”

A recent study examined the consequence of too many choices. Paralysis can happen: “I just can’t decide.” Or with many options, “I am overwhelmed! How can I choose?” Apathy can be another consequence, asking, “What’s the point?” — as if the choice will certainly be wrong.

A major warehouse retailer has what seems to be acres of merchandise. When looking closely, only two choices are offered — their brand and a name brand. Two choices. Not five or eight — two. The choice is simple, the shopper chooses and quickly moves on, just as Sarah and I did when ordering our lunch in Ethiopia. Limited choices suit their business model.

During my time in Ethiopia, I was reminded of the ease of few choices. The people “blend” with what is and move on from there. There is no disappointment in having just a few choices. Instead, they are natural adapters. In a mood of acceptance and resolving, they invent with skills of resourcefulness and collaboration.  And, given their history, they have been practicing this for hundreds of years.

In many Western cultures, life looks routine and abundant. Our job is to take and to consume. We work hard to control our lives (and that of others), becoming angry or resentful when expectations aren’t met.

But life is unpredictable and unconcerned with what we think about it. Life is authentic and represents itself with no agenda. What if we practiced observing how we automatically relate to life?  What if we practiced moving toward life, not away?

Working hard to shift or control life and others seems to produce only negative moods. When I find myself frustrated or not satisfied, I practice pausing long enough to ask, “What is the expectation that is not being met, and how does my expectation differ from what is so right now?”

To support myself, I bring my attention to my breath, allowing it to drop lower into my belly. Once settled and having dropped into my belly center, I can then generate (make requests, promises and offers) from what I care about (housed in your belly center). Then I am able to better take care of what matters to me.

While I may have found myself in a situation, through re-centering and language, I can place myself into situations. I am better equipped to blend, reflect and design a future with others where we both are satisfied. For me, this is moving with life, not against life. What are your thoughts?

Embodying Presence through a Martial Art

By Merle McKinley | Oct 11, 2018 |

I’m proud to announce the publication of my article “Embodying Presence through a Martial Art,” which appeared in International Coach Federation’s Coaching World. It combines my two loves — coaching and Aikido.

I hope you enjoy it and find the practice of becoming more embodied useful.

Aikido, often called the “Art of Peace,” is a practice that cultivates connecting and blending with a partner. I strive to do this, even before I physically connect with my partner. There is an energetic connection that precedes physical contact. Through that connection and contact, I guide my partner throughout the technique. We remain energetically connected as the physical technique is executed and completed.

I do not lead or pull my partner. Instead, I practice remaining present and connected, first to myself, then my partner, trusting “us.”

Continue reading here.

Resilience – That which gives us hope

By Merle McKinley | Jun 26, 2018 |

It has been eight months since the Tubbs Fire gave me the opportunity to observe myself under intense, life-threatening pressure… and recovery. While I would not wish not this on anyone, it has given me an opportunity to use myself as a “lab.”

No question it was traumatic, and I suffered with a mild case of PTSD for about six months. I noticed last week when the evening winds picked up, my biology automatically perked up. I found myself going outside and sniffing the air. I quickly determined it was only wind – my biology relaxed, I felt safe, and I returned to my reading.

I have also witnessed in myself and the collective, the life force that is inherent in all of us – resilience. It is the automatic outpouring of our life force manifested as positive emotions – love, care and commitment to something bigger than ourselves.

Resilience is a somatic experience, not intellectual thought.

Resilience is also more than “good coping skills.”

As adults, we have developed strategies for dealing with upset, disappointment and the unexpected. Resilience is different. It naturally arises, leaving us feeling more connected, more open and with a greater sense of safety. We are ready to take action toward a better future for ourselves and others. We have a wider range of sensations and emotions with resilience; it is okay to feel more, rather than avoid and become disconnected from ourselves and others.

Resilience is not an overlay or bypass used to cover or avoid other emotions such as sadness, despair and shame. It is the way our life-force energies come forward in the positive, allowing our bodies to feel goodness, hope and renewal. Our nervous system is reminded that sensations, while sometimes generating negative emotions, can also generate positive emotions.

Building my own

In my case, it took seven months to be able to confront the deep sadness I had about the loss of homes, people, trees and plants in my neighborhood. Soon after the fire, I went to Ethiopia for three weeks. When I returned, I remember saying I was glad I got away and “missed” all the sad stories, the human despair of lost property and lives. It seems I really just put it off.

Nature is where my resilience is renewed. Seeing the devastation of the land and trees, people I used to wave to – the deep sadness I had been avoiding had to be felt. Three months ago, I started my walk up the hill and turned back sobbing. I continued to have this deep sadness that I knew had to be felt.

Last week I again braved my favorite hike, still sad and aching inside. I listened to John Williams’s music and felt the inspiration of one of his movie scores. It was then that I began to see the new growth, new homes being built and vacant lots for sale. I could imagine that the selling of a lot could be renewal for someone. My sadness moved through, replaced by fullness and I am able to engage wholeheartedly again.

Collective resilience can be seen when a natural disaster happens – people help others. They dig, risk their own lives, house strangers, donate money. When asked why, the response is often, “I just had to do it,” or “I didn’t think twice about it.” When this outpouring is stopped, usually due to governmental agencies wanting to assess the situation, this natural outpouring of energy can turn into violence. This is how deep and inherent this energy is in us, and the directing of it, not the stopping of it, is the wiser choice.

Staying connected when we want to run or hide

We live in extremely trying times, and not just here in the U.S. No matter what side or position one is on, people can feel misunderstood, deeply saddened, angry… so many different emotions. Some feel as if their personal or our collective values and ethics are being assaulted and they are helpless to stop it. From my looking, this is akin to a form of trauma, especially when we feel so helpless to effect change.

Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., has studied the brain development of children under six years of age who witnessed trauma or violence. These young people developed ways to “work around” those places in the brain most impacted by witnessing trauma. These children were able to stay connected to themselves and experience themselves and life in the positive through:

  • Spirituality
  • Animals
  • Nature
  • Creativity

If you think back, you may remember as a child that special animal friend who was always there for you and provided a safe harbor when things got a bit rough out there in the real world. You may have run free on the beach, feeling as if you were as big and wide as the ocean and could do or be anything you wanted. I have clients who tell me that from a very young age music was where they went to escape. Others escaped to books.

In my practice, I have the great honor to work with clients to heal old wounds and trauma. Their body is not a source of pleasure and comfort. It cannot determine when it is safe or just uncomfortable. Their nervous system learned, sometimes at a very young age, to feel so overwhelmed that they cannot begin to know what it is like to feel at home in their own skin. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

It is important to note that this is not a psychological choice – it is a nervous system response that people have no control over. They feel unsafe, and it is not a mental choice.

Befriending the body

The courage it takes to befriend and re-inhabit their bodies is enormous. The body is where the pain, fear or rage is. To heal, they must get to know their pain, fear and rage and befriend it.

And we all need to know our own resilience. Resilience is a sensation – sensations that produce the emotions of hope, renewal and the ability to feel our own and others’ goodness and love.

As we face into these trying times, or maybe just our own daily life, remember back to that time when you found and knew your resilience. As adults, the reminder and cultivation of resilience is a practice well worth investing in. Feel the fullness and joy from those times when you felt yourself alive and free – nature, art, an animal or a spiritual connection. Know that you can bring those sensations and emotional response forward at any time. Take a few minutes daily to feel, imagine and know that from this body – full of aliveness and vitality – new ways of thinking, feeling and making choices are right there, ready to be used.

I’d like to acknowledge the work of Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., and Strozzi Institute, both having contributed to my understanding and appreciation of human emotions and biology.


Ethiopia – Going back in time 3,000 years

By Merle McKinley | Jan 20, 2018 |

In November, I traveled to Ethiopia for a 14-day vacation planned earlier in the year. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go due to the evacuation and re-habitation of my home in Santa Rosa from the Tubbs Fire. As it turned out, I was able to get away from the shock and devastation that surrounded me.

Ethiopia was not on my radar as a vacation destination. I went to support the first East African Aikido Association Friendship Seminar – “Harmony in Conflict.” Aikido has a way of transcending personal boundaries and geographical borders. When available to the young people in Ethiopia’s youth centers, Aikido provides a structure and ethic that keeps them in school. Teen pregnancy has also been reduced. Aikido practitioners discover their own sense of dignity, value and worth. They become productive, inspiring and contributing members in their communities.

Aikido is recognized and financially supported by some East African governments through their sports federations. They too have come to appreciate and desire the merit (results) the practice Aikido has on their communities.

Young Aikidoka working with senior student from the West

Practicing back stretch

The highlight for all, I say with confidence, was the attendance of Tribal Kings or Elders from the four main regions of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is 85% rural (farming) and tribal. While the government does provide some structures, a majority of the “governing” of the regions and its people is done by the Elder, who is also the religious leader. The region governed by the “senior elder” in attendance has 4 million people.

In this video, Elders from different regions show off to each other their local dance. These two men had never met before this event.


Christianity is the main religion, and Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of Christianity. Many of the churches that we saw were Orthodox Christian. They presented with beautiful fresco depictions of the life of Christ and many of the early Christian saints.

Elders enjoying honey wine and watching the dancing

Fresco of Saint George

Ethiopia has 80+ languages, a plethora of traditional regional dances and unique customs. Traditions die hard in Ethiopia and many farming techniques are 3,000 years old. The practice of using plastic jugs to carry water instead of heavy, leaky pottery took many years to implement.

The separation of teff from the stock

Plowing the fields

They are also very proud people and I would never call them “poor.” They have food, shelter, and an incredible sense of family and community. The Ethiopian “Coffee Ceremony” has several uses, one being the blessing of an event. In the rural areas, it is also used by women to come together to do hand labor. The women discuss village issues, personal issues and to my listening, keep the fabric of the village intact. They fund their community micro banks and lend money to each other when needed.

Our guide told us when he was a young boy, his mother or aunt would send him out to announce to the village women that a coffee ceremony was beginning and in whose home it was being held. He also said that many men historically didn’t like the women coming together and didn’t like the decisions that they made as a collective. But, there was nothing they could do about it.

There are many, many challenges in Ethiopia. My purpose in this post is to give a flavor of a country looking to move forward, but remains mired in old traditions, lifestyles and ineffective government. I can only hope that the children I saw tending animals, really were attending school for half a day and working at their family/community farms the other half.

I saw an eight-year-old girl tending animals with her younger sister on her back. In my heart, I knew she might no longer be attending school because she was needed at home to help her mother with the incredible load necessary for women to keep their families and homes functioning.

Young girl tending to her community’s flock

young boys 9-13 who proudly told us they have been excused from school so they can support their families

With this dynamic, we can see why youth unemployment is an issue and opportunities limited. I am continuing to support the efforts of the young Aikido students and those who teach them. The tribal elders in attendance now endorse Aikido in their regions.

The shaping and cultivating of a deep sense of inner strength, determination and care…that is worth fighting for. The young people I met, by their account, are not entitled and are not victims. They are young people who are also a part of the modern world. They have found a way to embody a future that many in the west have given up on. They reshaped and inspired me! A little shift can go a long way.

Watch this beautiful video of Aikido Ethiopia 2017 East Africa Seminar.

The aftermath of the Sonoma County wildfires…a personal story

By Merle McKinley | Nov 15, 2017 |

I do not know why I awoke at 2:30 am, but I did. Was it the smell of smoke, needing to pee, hearing the phone ring, or an angel watching over me? It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I did wake up.

My neighbor had called me and even banged on my front door, concluding I was gone for the night. He and another neighbor were evacuating together, as she could not get her car out of the garage.

I did hear the phone this time and decided it was the electric company calling to tell me the power was out, which I already knew. I went back to bed and then a little voice said… maybe you should listen to your message. It was then I saw the text alerts and the missed calls and heard the voicemail saying, “Evacuate immediately.”

I threw on some dirty clothes, ran to my garage to get my cat carrier and saw my neighbors preparing to pull out of the driveway. They stopped, and helped me get my cat and my neighbor’s cat into my car. I grabbed my phone, iPad and charger and off we went – making our way down the hill at 2:45 am, where it looked like rush-hour traffic.

Everyone on the roads were cool. Cars took turns at the intersections, proceeding very orderly. Four of my neighbors took refuge at a local Denny’s about 10 miles away. It was 3 am when we sat down with others who had also run out of their homes with little to their names.

We watched as the fire grew brighter and closer, and we all agreed – we have lost our homes. I began to feel the shock setting in – cold, clammy skin and disbelief. We drank coffee, ate pancakes and hash browns, all compliments of Denny’s.

Three hours later, Denny’s was evacuated and we all headed in different directions. I had made contact with my traveling neighbors, and their son-in-law would meet me 20 miles away to collect their cat. It took me one hour to go 20 miles. Again, people were cool, pulling over for ambulances that were relocating the seriously ill from the two evacuated hospitals.

I headed for friends, where I knew I would be welcomed and safe. The smoke was so thick that a shelter-in-place order was issued. But no one had to tell us not to go outside. Two days later I moved to another friend’s home. He was out of town and appreciated someone being there to keep an eye on his place.

The winds were unpredictable, and for five days all I wanted to know was, where was the fire and which way was the wind blowing. We had heard our homes were still standing, but that was no guarantee about the next day.

I cannot begin to describe the devastation in my neighborhood. Within a 5-mile radius, I believe 75% of the homes are gone. My favorite cleaner’s, along with the entire neighborhood shopping center, burned out. It looks like a bomb went off. The fire was so hot (2000 degrees we have been told), that almost everything is melted. A Caltrans employee friend told me they registered flames that were 50 feet high, moving 200 yards per second in the canyons. I never thought I would be in the center of a national disaster, especially one so fierce and deadly.

Everyone knows someone who lost a home. My neighbor’s daughter was killed by the fire, as she is disabled and could not escape the flames. We are so deeply saddened by the destruction and loss. There is a collective sadness that is felt by all. Yet, we are bonded; a stranger hugged me today when I asked about his home.

Now the shock is beginning to fade. I have had moments of staring at a store clerk and saying to myself, I know he is asking me card or cash, but I don’t know the answer. And I can’t even say that! I have days of sadness and I am angry at times. I try to remember to have compassion when someone does something I think is stupid or disrespectful. Maybe they too are angry.

In moments of great stress or tragedy, I contract and focus only on what needs to be done next. It is my coping skill and works well. My focus found an opening – a policeman who was driving people to their home for 30 minutes to see their damage or get pets or other personal items. I was able to get my computer. A few days later I was able to get the remediation people in for an estimate long before the area was opened to residents only. My place was cleaned as soon as we were allowed back into the area.

I am lucky, I have my home, I am back in, and the insurance made it very easy for me. But that story does not address the “trauma” held in my body – the contraction, disassociation, hypervigilance, and fear.

If you work with me, you know I say that the emotion you feel in your body is just energy that needs to move. Or if you have tightness, breathe into it and soften it with your breath so it too can begin to move. Our bodies are designed to take care of our safety, belonging, connection, and dignity. We shape in response to all of life. Trauma, though, shapes us in unique ways. Those long-held shapes produce stories that we begin to believe are true forever and ever.

I have learned these past weeks that all releasing comes in its own good time. While I have wanted to be complete with feeling the sadness and anger, the sadness and anger too has its path.

I am much better; I feel my energy collected, and I am more in my body. I am calmer and have a stronger sense of ground. I can focus again. And while I want to be, I do not consider myself “done.” As with all of us, the feelings, emotions and sensations continue to come, informing us that we are, in fact, alive. To the degree that we can allow ourselves to deeply feel and move our energies and sensations through and onward, is the degree to which we meet and begin to know ourselves.

To my clients who work openly and courageously with the sensations they fear, let us keep working toward the freedom you crave. We shall travel this path together.

My condo community


Area devastation

A friend’s home

What the bleep was that!?

By Merle McKinley | Sep 11, 2017 |

“I was walking along, minding my own business, when out of the blue…”

Ever utter those words or thoughts to yourself? Sometimes it can be as jarring as, “What the hell was that!”

For me, it wasn’t a wonderful surprise or unexpected event, but I suddenly realized that the world I was constructing for others, what I thought they were thinking or wanting, was way off. So far off, in fact, that a few people were not pleased with me.

There is no question my intentions were good. Having been in the helping profession for most of my career, this comes naturally to me. For a number of years, I was a high-level executive assistant where anticipating, planning and execution on behalf of my boss was required. Over the years I received encouragement and “a praise and a raise” for this ability to seamlessly and gracefully address and take care of the concerns of others. I carried this virtue forward and wore it with pride.

But that was then and this is now. What I began to notice, after life gave me this firm, yet not so subtle nudge, was how my thoughts and good intentions were just that — MY thoughts and MY good intentions, not those of the other. I would act upon the reality I had invented for the other person and then be surprised when the other wasn’t pleased with my efforts.

Expectations work the same way. I expect my friends to act or respond in a certain manner. I expect my team to carry out their responsibilities to my standards. Most of the time my friends, team and I are in good harmony, living and working well together. When that harmony is broken, when they do not do as I “expect,” which is bound to happen, my upset or disappointment appears instantly. It is only after a sharp response or blaming them that I realize I feel threatened and must protect myself.

When I look carefully and reflect, I can begin to observe the many expectations I have that, first of all, need to be clarified with myself. Is there something I want to be right about that I need to protect and maintain? Would a simple request to someone to stop encouraging me to eat more easily take care of the situation?

As you know, we are all so busy. Who has time for reflection and examination? Who has time to lay out expectations and come to agreement with others on standards and ways of working and being together? And yet, who has time to spend hours distracted, resentful or angry, leaving broken or upset relationships in their wake.

Who has the time…

But we must take, not make, the time. We must be able to listen to ourselves, discover and self-correct into self-generating. We must stop, see the person in front of us and listen with fresh “ears.” And let’s admit it, there are many, many people who cannot and will not be able to do this. Fear dominates them and the notion of relaxing into something different is just not possible for them at this time. (The good news, history has shown that great warriors can become great advocates for peace.)

Let us help each other along by being able, with as little judgment as possible, truly see each other, witness and be curious. Who are they? We all want to be seen and witnessed at a deep core level. When this happens, a bit more of our soma can relax, which in turn relaxes our minds and emotions. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, which sets up right/wrong, yes/no, agree/disagree. All we have to do is take a deep breath, relax and witness.

It is incumbent upon those of us who can be self-reflective, who can observe and feel when there is misalignment, to bring our years of practice to this moment. Our friends, families and communities need the merit of our practice and our wisdom born of deep reflections and difficult self-realizations.

The time is now to fully inhabit our bodies and use them as instruments of peace, not anger and hate.

What do you think?

Is Fight or Flight the Only Way to Resolve Conflict?

By Merle McKinley | Jul 25, 2017 |

In my previous blog post – Zebras Aren’t the Only Ones Who Don’t Get Ulcers – Robert Sapolsky suggests that one difference between us human animals and other animals is we do not resolve conflict in the same manner. Animals basically fight or flee. We humans do have a fight or flight reaction.

And we humans have something unique. We have language: thoughts, moods and emotions to contend with. In conflict, we are challenged to see past the symphony of body sensations, emotions and thoughts. We have recollections of the past and projections into future.  We have emotions of anger, resentment or sadness and the constriction in our body that these emotions produce.

As the baby zebra flees from a cheetah, the herd kicks and scatters. The black stripes create a fast-moving optical illusion, and the cheetah has extreme difficulty focusing in on the baby zebra.* If the cheetah could catch the baby zebra, it would. Cheetah are solidary hunters and quickly assess if the energy required will result in a kill. If not, they immediately stop and the prey goes free. If it were just this easy for us human animals.

Yet we do create our human illusions. We pretend, when strong negative emotions appear, that everything is fine. Yet inside, we are seething. We may have learned to use sadness or hurt to get attention or make the other “feel badly” for hurting our feelings. We might tell ourselves everything is or will be fine and then it happens again…those darn pesky feelings and emotions that seem to keep reappearing. Over time, headaches, neck pain, lower back pain appear as those emotions are stored away in our body.

We are currently a nation and a world with deep feelings on many topics being addressed by the current Administration. As a nation, we find ourselves strongly divided on many topics. The Women’s March earlier this year was remarkably peaceful. This seems to be the exception. Strong and righteous polarization of opinions, views and interpretations of events seem destructive and frightening.

Is there a way forward when strong negative judgments and emotions rule us? What other options are available to us human animals that zebra and other animals do not have? How, other than fight or flight (pretend or ignore), can we resolve conflict?

The Sensei (teacher) where I train Aikido often has said violence happens because people do not know how to resolve conflict. In my work, I resolve conflict.

Much of the time, the primary source of conflict begins with ourselves. As a somatic coach, I ask questions – what happens automatically when you are confronted with a situation that is “uncomfortable”? How does uncomfortable feel? Where do you feel those uncomfortable sensations in your body? Is there a story connected with those sensations? Are there additional negative emotions – sadness, fear, anger – that want to come to the surface and you are running from them or pretending not to feel?

Our ability to feel our body’s sensations is a big step forward in resolving conflict. Most of us are unaware or not well schooled in feeling and naming our bodily sensations such as tingling, warm, tight, cold or pulsing. We may feel tightness in our chest, and quickly an emotion called “fear” appears. No one wants to feel “fear,”’ so we quickly clamp down our jaw or tighten other muscles to stop the sensation. All that is left then is the story of being “afraid” when feeling a certain set of sensations.

The great news is that we can learn to feel and experience those sensations as energy and be present to and with them. This is where learning to be uncomfortable comes in. At first, it is uncomfortable. Memories, fear…all those pesky emotions are there to be greeted, not run from. As we breathe into them, we learn to return to our center, our home, where we know we are safe and greeted by our resilience.

From our center, the home of our resilience, we can listen to the other, see their perspective without giving up ours. We are dignified in ourselves and dignify the other by not having to defend our position or attack theirs. From our center home, we can be curious about the other and open to seeing the world from their perspective. Seeing someone’s perspective is not the same as agreeing to it.

It is an act of respect and inclusiveness that two different perspectives can coexist in the same space. When compassion and curiosity appear in at least one of the partners, a unique space of possibility opens. It takes only one to shift the dynamic. Learn to be the change you want…you can do it.

*Note: The relationship between zebra and cheetah is symbiotic. Cheetah’s favorite food, according to a Tanzanian bush guide, is baby zebra. Cheetah are solitary, and when the mother has cubs, she must hunt daily to keep herself in the required state of nutrition to feed her cubs. She leaves her cubs unattended while she hunts. While away, her cubs can become prey to lions, zebra and other predators. Adult zebra will kill baby cheetahs in hopes of eliminating a major predator of their young. Sometimes the cheetah, having to travel great distances to find food, will lose track of her cubs.

There are small numbers of cheetah left in the wild. This is not due to poaching but to their solitary life style. For the female, finding a mate then raising cubs alone are difficult and strong contributing factors to the diminishing number of cheetah left in the wild. They are amazingly strong, beautiful and graceful creatures.

In January 2016, I had the good fortune to visit Tanzania. I was forever altered being in the wide-open spaces where plants and animals co-existed in a unique balance. If there were native tribes, their gratefulness for the animals they killed only for food and clothing, was beautiful. I saw harmony and mutual respect among those who share the land in a very enlightening manner. I look to bring that ease and grace into my coaching.

From One Heart to Another

By Merle McKinley | Jun 16, 2017 |

This morning I had my monthly coffee with my friend George, who is 81 years old. He is alive, vibrant and curious. I treasure our time together. It is always rich, and I leave thinking new thoughts. Today I left with the idea for this post and a new sense of grace.

He took his pulse after sitting down, saying he was monitoring his COPD. “It occurred to me that my pulse is a direct consequence of my beating heart. One thing many of us on earth share is a beating heart. And when it stops, we stop.” Fair enough, I thought. Then he took it one step further.

“I am practicing greeting and connecting with everyone I meet from my beating heart. At my age, who knows how long mine will keep beating. I’m telling you, Merle, it has been amazing,” he said with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of a child.

We both practice Aikido. One of the principles of Aikido is connection. For many, Aikido is a place to practice principles such as connection, relaxation, presence, and awareness. These principles are practiced within a martial discipline. As our partner enters with an “attack,” my job is to receive the energy and person in a relaxed and present manner, blending with them to produce a peaceful, non-injurious result. My partner will take a roll, which completes the technique.

We are grateful for our training partners, as they give us the opportunity to practice something other than our initial impulse — fight or flight. These are hardwired responses we all have when we sense strong emotions such as anger. Depending on one’s history, sometimes even kindness can produce negative automatic responses. We are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

To explore this, we did a typical opening Aikido move. I grabbed his wrist. We both took in a breath, exhaled and relaxed — he into the sensation of being grabbed and relaxing into my hand. I imagined feeling through my palm his tissues, bones and beating heart.

We stayed like this for several long moments — attempting to feel each other’s beating heart through the connection of our hands and wrists. Another big exhale, each imagining we could feel into each other’s hearts. I noticed that I became present to my own body’s sensations. The surrounding noise of the coffee shop receded.

I felt a deep joy in the pleasure of greeting him with my heart. Gentle, precious, tender, for I was extending to touch another’s heart with mine. That very organ that gives us life and we hope with all we have, gives and receives love.

For me, this is connection — the baring of myself to be touched by another. For it is in the opening to receive that I find myself giving. I feel a sense of uncertainty. Will I receive back pain and disappointment?

When we have a strong sense of our self and our commitment to be and act in the world as we would like to be, we can weather the occasional disappointments. For the reward is greater peace and acknowledgement of what we all want deep inside — to love and be loved.


Imagine your heart inside your chest, the size of a fist, beating faithfully. Appreciate its fragility as well as its strength.

Greet your loved ones with this heart. Give yourself a moment or two to pause, imagining yourself connecting to their precious heart. Feel your feet on the ground. Take a deep breath. Then feel what is transpiring between the two of you.

From this place, have the conversation you were thinking to have or the one they wanted to have with you. Or have a different conversation, acknowledging the love and what two human beings can create from this space.

Zebras Aren’t the Only Ones Who Don’t Get Ulcers

By Merle McKinley | Jun 13, 2017 |

In his acclaimed and successful book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky claims that when we worry or experience stress, our bodies turn on the same physiological response that animals do. What’s different between us human animals and other animals is we do not resolve conflict in the same way animals do — fighting or fleeing. Instead, we brew and stew, replaying in our minds conversations or events we were dissatisfied with. Why this outcome and not that outcome, who is to blame…and on and on it goes.

It can take a long time to “let it go,” and these events often become additional fuel for our resentment and anger. Over time, those emotions have plenty of negative effects on ourselves and our relationships. Wild animals don’t die of stress-related illness. We humans, though, can certainly get very sick from stress.

Up close and personal

At midnight in January 2016 at the Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, I introduced myself to three strangers and two tour guides. One guide was local, the other the tour organizer from Wisconsin.

I was so removed from California. Oh, they had parking lots, Toyotas and people dressed in Western clothing. Our local tour guide even had on a 49ers t-shirt, though he had no idea who they were. Yet, here I was in Africa! AFRICA! I had traveled halfway around the world. I wondered what I would encounter, what would I see, and how would I get along with these strangers with whom I would spend 18 hours a day for three weeks.

Getting here had been a journey in and of itself. I had seen the notice about in an animal communication newsletter. “Small, intimate trips with an experienced tour organizer.” I was not thinking of taking a trip and I certainly was not thinking of East Africa, let alone Tanzania. I had to look it up on the map to see where it was located.

Something kept me moving forward — communicating with the tour organizer, booking tickets, getting the visa and beginning to have email contact with my fellow travelers. It was as if my rational mind let this curiosity and desire for a deep, life-changing experience lead it. I could not explain it, but I could feel that I needed something to shake me out of my current perspective on life. I was along for this ride, somewhat in wonder of what I was doing. It was as if I could not stop moving toward some type of spiritual awakening that I suspected awaited me.

At the end of the first week, we moved into a conservation park that included lots of zebras. As I watched them, I saw their herd behavior. They were close enough that I wanted to reach out and pet them. I watched how they moved together as a group, depending on each other for safety and protection. Their basic protection from prey is their stripes. When being chased, they move and dart together in a manner that makes it almost impossible for a lion to focus on one individual animal. They rest on each other, keeping an eye out in opposite directions.

Further on, we found zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and gazelle all “living” together. I learned that they do not compete for food. Instead, they offer each other unique ways of protection. When coming upon a river, the zebra will let the wildebeest drink or enter the water first. If they are not eaten by crocodile, the zebra will enter the water. If the zebra sees the giraffe run, they will begin to run, “trusting” the giraffe sees something of danger. Lions are the main land predator, and this community has developed a relational way that uses the strengths of each other while also taking care of their own survival.

As I watched this and other blends and serendipitous relations among the animals, I began to think about us humans and was reminded of the book by Robert Sapolsky. Seeing these animals living peacefully, only acting when they became prey, seemed like a rather ingenious way to live. What if I could be relaxed and not fretting about the past or the future?

I had grown up with a predominate mood of resentment. It was like a low-grade fever. I would find myself feeling betrayed, done wrong to or disappointed. I thought this was how life was. It colored my life and I was oblivious to it. I have made great progress with this “low grade fever.”

I thought about these animals and what might it be like to be relaxed with the present moments and events. If I am driving, that must be what I am to be doing now. If I have a difficult conversation ahead, that is what life is bringing me now, so I might as well engage and not run away. Like a zebra, if she is eating grass, she eats grass and doesn’t act until prey comes along.

I am not saying don’t plan or don’t make agreements with others. We need to do that too; it is an integral part of daily living. What I am asking is, what if we all enjoyed what we are doing moment to moment and stopped being OVERLY concerned about the past or the future?

What if we were more like the zebra — zebra-ing along, enjoying life until that moment when a different action was required?

I welcome your thoughts and perspectives.

Photos by Merle McKinley