Magic in The Lord of the Rings–Deus ex Machina Part II

In last week’s blog I wrote about how magic and the paranormal can sometimes become a cheat in modern fiction. This week, I want to focus on how Tolkien handled magic The Lord of the Rings.

I know he is not modern or specifically a YA author, but I like the way he handles magic. In his books, magic never saves the day in an unrealistic way. Magic never solves ALL of a characters’ problems. Magic and the supernatural can help and aid and guide, but it isn’t what ultimately defeats the main bad guy. Frodo or Aragorn don’t instantly develop magical powers right at the very moment they need it. Of course, magical things do happen to the characters, because they live in worlds in which magic is available.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is an ordinary hobbit without any magical abilities. There is magic in the story, though, in the form of Gandalf and the Elves. But Gandalf uses his magic sparingly and the Elves’ “magic” is not the same as what we believe magic to be.


On several occasions Gandalf uses his magic to help the Fellowship. He is the only being powerful enough to fight the Balrog, so he sacrifices himself to save them. He uses magic to rouse Theoden from his enchantment. When the men of Gondor must flee from the Orcs at Osgiliath and are then attacked by Ring Wraiths, it is Gandalf who rides to their rescue. He uses magic to repel the Nazgul.

However, Gandalf never completely saves the day with his magic. Gandalf only does enough to help the other inhabitants of Middle Earth fulfill their own destinies. He gives Aragorn guidance and advice, but does not fight his battles for him, nor does he give Aragorn any special abilities. Aragorn has to discover his power on his own, by taking the dangerous road and proving to all that he is the king returned. Aragorn has special powers—powers that we’d consider magical—but it takes him the length of the book to discover them. He has to PROVE himself as a man and as a king before he can tap into those powers.

The other source of magic for our Fellowship is the power of the Elves. However, the Elves, like Gandalf, remove themselves from the action. Their magic cannot destroy the Ring of Power, but can only guide the Fellowship and aid them on their journey. The Elves do not even consider themselves magical, and their brand of magic is not the fireworks and spells that we consider to be magic.

As Sam says to Frodo when they are in Lothlorien, “If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it…” Later, when the Fellowship takes it’s leave of Lothlorien, the Elves give them gifts, including cloaks,

“Are these magic cloaks?” asked Pippen, looking at them with wonder.
“I do not know what you mean by that,” answered the leader of the Elves. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land…leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make…”

That is the magic of the Elves. Love and beauty and a deep respect for the world.

Like Aragorn, Frodo is guided by Gandalf, but is also left to prove himself. Frodo is a hobbit and so has absolutely no magic in him. The only magic he possesses is the magic of a simple person who harbors a tremendous capacity for love and compassion. Sam, too. As we learn, though, this is some very powerful magic!

What defeats Sauron is not magic, but some of the highest qualities of humanity—humility, mercy, selflessness, loyalty, and friendship. Sauron cannot see the Ring coming his way to be destroyed, because he cannot understand that anyone could be in possession of the Ring and not use it. This blindness of Sauron’s allows Frodo and Sam to get the Ring to Mordor without detection.

Out of loyalty and friendship Aragorn puts himself at risk not once, but twice, to help Frodo and Sam travel without detection. Aragorn shows himself to Sauron in the Palantir so that Sauron will think he has the Ring. This takes the heat off Frodo and Sam. Aragorn does the same thing when he rides with the men of Gondor and Rohan to the very gates of Mordor (the gates of Hell, really) to bring Sauron’s attention to him rather than Frodo and Sam. Aragorn knows full well that this could be his death, but he does it because he knows that the fate of the world and his two hobbit friends are in jeopardy.

The final defeat of Sauron happens when the One Ring is thrown into the pit of Mount Doom, but this only happens because Frodo and Sam showed mercy on several occasions. Frodo and Sam both had opportunities to kill Gollum, but they didn’t, because Gollum was a source of pity for them. Frodo saw his own potential decay (from carrying the Ring) in the form of Gollum. He felt pity for him and refused to kill him. At the very end, as they climb up of Mt. Doom, Sam and Gollum face off. Instead of fighting, though, Gollum throws himself at Sam’s feet and pleads. Sam thinks of killing him (it would be easy at this point), but can not bring himself to do it,

“But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.”

Sam pardons Gollum. Sam shows mercy and this final act of mercy destroys the Ring, because Frodo, faced with the act of destroying the Ring, can’t do it. He’s succumbed to it’s evil power. Gollum plays his final part. He attacks Frodo, steals the Ring, and then falls into the pit of Mount Doom, destroying himself and the Ring.

There is magic in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf and the Elves are very powerful beings. Aragorn has supernatural abilities to fight and heal. But none of this magic is a way out for our characters. They all have to fight (even Gandalf!) and learn and grow. Magic helps them, aids them, guides them. It is not a cheat.

The “magic” of The Lord of the Rings are the simple, and most noble, qualities of what it means to be human.

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The Supernatural–A Modern Deus Ex Machina

*I’m on vacation and reblogging this from a few years ago!* 

Deus ex Machina—this phrase means “god from the machine” and was originally a stage device used by the ancient Greeks in which a god would be lowered to the stage using a crane. So, the god would literally come from a machine. He would also be placed right in the middle of the action and give advice or solve a problem.

Dionysos Theatre in Athens

Dionysos Theatre in Athens

In modern literature a deus ex machina is when something unexpected happens that provides a contrived or artificial solution to a problem. Typically this problem is unsolvable. I can can forgive the ancient Greeks for their simple and obvious solutions to problems, after all, they didn’t have the sophisticated special effects we do now.

I consider it a cheat in modern stories.

Today the deus ex machina is magic and things supernatural. Your protagonist in a bind and you can’t figure out a way to save him? Give him or his companions some supernatural powers! Have a character who needs to die, because that’s the only logical conclusion for your storyline, but you don’t really want her dead? Easy. Have someone magical come in and heal her, or better yet, turn her into a supernatural being! For the big bang, bring her back to life.

This happens a lot in middle grade and YA literature, movies, and TV shows, because the current fashion dictates constant action and conflict. Of course, action, conflict, and tension are what make a story worth reading, but when they are taken to the ultimate extreme, we end up with stories in which impossible solutions are given for impossible problems. The deus ex machina. Perhaps this is why so many stories now involve supernatural beings (witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves, etc.), because they can rise above all the normal constraints of a story.

This fashion for constant action and conflict makes it so that modern stories jump right into the conflict and never let up throughout the entire book. What happens is that when the conflict starts at a fairly high pitch in the first few pages of the book, and it has to keep going, then the consequences get more and more severe. The conflict gets ramped up so high that the characters get put into impossible situations they can’t escape without some kind of supernatural contrivance.

Or things get to the point where the author has to kill someone. I’ve seen this happen countless times…killing someone important becomes the only option left. Unfortunately, in YA literature, authors don’t want their characters to die (or their publishers don’t), and so something supernatural has to happen to bring them back.

How many characters in YA literature get turned into vampires or turn their friends into vampires after a death? How many YA kids find out they have supernatural powers at exactly the moment when they are in dire peril? How many characters (not just in YA) are rescued by a supernatural being at exactly the right moment?

Of course, in literature you have to have these moments when the protagonist is in peril and has to come up with a solution. The problem comes when circumstances are so grim that what the protagonist suffers is unfixable or when the solution is completely contrived and over-the-top.

I just want to add that I typically love YA literature, with magic and without, and read a lot of it!


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GRW-Gradual Release of Worry

160x308xmother-and-child-running.png.pagespeed.ic.4qiy5DNWZWIn my work as a reading tutor, I learned a strategy called GRR or Gradual Release of Responsibility. Basically, with GRR the tutor or teacher gradually releases the responsibility of the student’s learning from teacher-led to student-led. In my job as a reading tutor, I might begin helping an emergent or struggling reader by reading aloud to her. Then, we might ‘echo’ read, which is me reading and the child reading along immediately after me. It would progress from there with the student slowly taking on more responsibility for the reading until she is reading on her own. First it might be one sentence, then one page, then an entire chapter. There are, of course, many permutations to this, as many ways of doing it as their are teachers and learners!

The goal is to allow the reader to learn and adapt slowly with steps along the way. Once she is ready, then she can go off on her own.

As a parent, I’ve learned that there is another Gradual Release–of Worry. The little steps of freedom and independence that your child takes as she is released into the adult world causes worry to most parents. As the child learns and grows and accomplishes tasks without harm, the parent can release some of the worry. Like learners, kids and parents do this at their own pace.

When my son was a little boy he played with a girl who lived down the street. At first, they were too young to walk to each other’s houses on their own. They had to cross one street that, while not major, was busy enough to need adult supervision. As they grew older we’d walk them to one side of the busy street and then watch while they crossed and continued on. Then we’d watch as they’d walk the entire way to the other’s house. Eventually, we released them to travel back and forth without supervision at all. It was a “bye mom!” and off he’d go.

At first, I’d worry when he left the house, when I couldn’t see whether he made it safely or not, but eventually, I stopped worrying. I had ‘released’ the worry.

The same happened the first time he went somewhere with a friend who drove. I waited nervously until he came home. Soon that became common and I stopped worrying. Then came the Driver’s License. Every time he left the house to drive somewhere I worried until I heard him pull up, safe and sound, in the car. After a while, the worry moved to only when he was out driving at night and you can bet I stayed up until he walked in the door. Now…I go to sleep and don’t even hear him come home. Another layer of worry released.

Each step my child has taken on the road to independence, responsibility, and adulthood has had a corresponding step for me to worry and then to release that worry. You’d think that with each step that ended successfully that I’d not worry when the next step came along. Unfortunately, it did not work that way. Each step got progressively more dangerous! Walking down the sidewalk on our relatively quiet street turned into driving late at night. The consequences were more severe and so the worry returned each time.

I’m coming to the end of the worry. I’ve released a lot of it…gradually. But it will always still be there. He is, after all, my child.


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Mommy Radar

images (8)I’m fast asleep when all of a sudden, BAM!, I wake up. I do the normal check: Noise? Bad dream? Do I have to go to the bathroom? Am I hot? Cold? No. No. No. No. No. I turn and see the light from the living room shining through the space under my bedroom door. My son is not home yet. Within moments I hear the sound of his key opening the front door. I hear his footsteps cross the living room and then the light clicks off. I woke up in that instant right before he got home.

Mommy Radar. It still works.

When my son was a baby, I’d often wake abruptly in the night for no reason. And then, moments later, my baby would cry. Or cough.

When my son was a little boy, I’d do the same thing. Wake suddenly as if I’d heard something. Lie still for a few moments listening, waiting, and then…Bingo. He’d cry or call out in his sleep or pad into my room to get me. I find it interesting that this instinct can still pop up, even though my baby is now a grown young man.

It’s a beautiful adaptation, this Mommy Radar, this ability to be so in tune with your child that you know deep down in your subconscious that something is not right…even in your sleep. Even before you hear the sound of distress.

My son was not in distress that night (that I know of), but the connection still held true. My intuition caught his presence before he even crossed the threshold.

Do you have a Mommy Radar? What other instinctual connections do you have with your children that remain even after they are no longer babies?


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Afraid of the Robots

downloadArtificial Intelligence scares me. Terrifies me. In my own human, intelligent, rational brain I know that AI means different things and has many different levels. I know, for example, that my internet search engine is a form of artificial intelligence. It thinks, in a way, and can predict what I want when I type in a couple of words. Our smart phones can tell us where to go for lunch based on our preferences. We have robots that can play chess, play video games, and do basic human calculations and functions. This doesn’t scare me…much. But this is only the beginning and in my paranoid human brain, I can only think of scenarios where this all goes terribly wrong.

I read an article not long ago about a robot that some AI engineers had created. It was a fairly human looking robot; it could walk on two feet. The article mentioned how the engineers would push the robot over and knock it around, like bullies picking on a weaker kid. They were testing it, like any good engineer would test a product, and it made perfect sense that they would do this. I couldn’t watch it! All I could think of was that the robot was not some dumb machine, but a thinking, feeling creature. It would hurt! Even worse, it would get mad! When we created robot brothers for it, they would exact vengeance on us!

Usually I laugh about the fear, but I wonder about it as well. Is it based on some real, instinctual fear? Is it the normal human fear of The Other? Part of my fear is based on the unlooked for consequences. We don’t know what will happen and that is always scary.

The Terminator robot

The Terminator robot

On the other hand, it could simply mean that I’ve watched too many movies and read too many books about futuristic dystopias where the robots and smart machines take over the world. In my mind the future of AI is always a Terminator, Blade Runner, or 2001: A Space Odyssey scenario. Create a supercomputer? It goes all HAL 9000 and kills everyone. Google creates a car that drives on it’s own? It will develop a mind of its own and the human riding the car will be at its mercy. Create a humanoid robot? It will take over the world, go to war with us, and we humans will regret the day we thought AI was a good idea.

What do you think about Artificial Intelligence? 


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Off the Wall

Our little flash mob

Our little flash mob

If you ever have the chance to be in a flash mob…do it.

I’ve been participating in a dance workshop that will end in a performance, but along the way our teacher decided it would be fun for us to do a flash mob. Of course it would be fun! I’d been in one years before and remembered it with fondness.

We decided we’d dance on the corner of two streets in downtown Tucson during Second Saturday Night, which is a big event the second Saturday of each month where groups and musicians and artists perform on the streets for free. Tons of people turn out for Second Saturdays and the streets of downtown are hopping like a scene out of American Graffiti. Cars line the main road, bumper to bumper, windows down, music pumping, while pedestrians line the streets, congregating wherever an artist has set up to perform. An excellent set-up for a flash mob.

It turned out perfectly. More perfect than we could have possibly imagined. At first, we thought it might never have come to pass. We got to our corner to find it was taken by the local R & B Oldies station. But, instead of moving our flash mob to another corner, we thought…let’s just ask the DJ to play our song. He agreed! He already had a bit of an audience and a super loud sound system. What better way to play our song than that!

A good flash mob takes people by surprise. We were supposed to linger around the corner, not engaging with each other, but the DJ was playing such great music that a bunch of us started to dance on the corner. Still, no one knew we were all a part of the flash mob.

At 7:15, the DJ played our song, Earth, Wind and Fire’s Let’s Groove. Dancing to that song was a tribute to Maurice White, the founder and singer of EWF who had recently died.

Our teacher started the choreography (that we had practiced earlier), and then, one-by-one we all filled in behind her and danced. The DJ had a mic and acted surprised and kept up a funny running commentary which made it all the more enjoyable. A few people who were not a part of the flash mob, jumped in and did it with us!

At one point, about half-way through I looked out at all the people standing around watching us. They had that look on their faces that you always see with flash mobs. That recognition: “This is a flash mob! I’m a part of it!” It’s like they’ve won something. Phones were lifted up to record the phenomenon, no doubt to confirm to their friends or family that they really did see a flash mob.

The thing I like best about a flash mob…it’s like a spark of humanity. We are all going through our daily lives, often without much variety or spontaneity. Work, family, school…maybe go out to dinner or a movie or a sporting event on our days off. Nothing that out of the ordinary.

A flash mob is a bright light, something completely different and unexpected. If you catch one, you’ve caught something special and elusive. Even if you are not in it, you are participating just by being there, by watching. A flash mob connects us to each other in a fun and safe way. Whether it’s the cast of The Lion King singing on the New York City subway or a small group of local women in a dance class, a flash mob is a truly human experience. We are all together, having fun, laughing, dancing, singing, and it’s a good thing. Too often we see mobs of people as scary things, as rioters and looters. A flash mob is healthy–people coming together, if for a brief moment, for fun and to live in the moment.   

The day after the flash mob, Michael Jackson’s song, Off the Wall came up on my MP3 player as I listened to it on random shuffle. The lyrics spoke to me that day. It made me think of the flash mob.

“So tonight gotta leave that nine to five upon the shelf
And just enjoy yourself…

Life ain’t so bad at all
If you live it off the wall
Life ain’t so bad at all (live life off the wall)
Live your life off the wall (live it off the wall)”

For that brief moment of a flash mob, we are living Off the Wall. Off the wall of our normal, everyday lives. Off the wall and away from our worries. Not just the flash mobbers, but everyone watching too. It’s called a ‘flash’ mob after all. A shining brief moment when we can experience life Off the Wall. And life ain’t so bad at all.

Have you ever been in or seen a live flash mob? How did it make you feel?

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The Fourth Way

Morihiro Saito Shihan blending

Morihiro Saito Shihan blending

Fight, Flight, or Freeze. The three ways humans deal with an attack or an extremely stressful situation.

Aikido training offers a fourth way–Blend. Absorb an attacker’s energy. Redirect it. Change the nature of the conflict.

The way to do this is to maintain your own posture, your own strength, your own space. Relax. Not in a loosey-goosey kind of relaxation where your muscles are useless, but rather an engaged ready-for-anything relaxation. When an attack comes, accept it and change it from conflict to something more harmonious.

In the past year, I’ve heard this from several Aikido teachers. What we are doing in our Aikido training is to teach our bodies to override the animal instincts of fight, flight, or freeze and move instead to the more discerning part of our brain. The part that can offer another solution to conflict.

This is so hard to do! When an attack comes in, even if it’s in the safe place of the dojo, with partners I know and trust, the animal reaction kicks in. When a big guy twice my size comes barreling in at me with a heavy wooden sword aimed at my head, or even just to grab my arm, my first reaction is to back away. My body screams: Flight! If he latches on, then I want to Fight. It takes a lot of work to switch gears, to concentrate on my own form and to realize that if I maintain my own ‘space’ then I can work with the attack and not fight against it.



When this works, when the discerning part of the brain kicks in and performs Aiki, or ‘joining together’, it is a nice feeling for everyone. Those of us in the dojo know it works when we get up from the mat with smiles on our faces.

It’s nice to know there is another choice. Fight, Flight, Freeze. BLEND.

What is your natural instinct? Do you fight, flee or freeze, or do you have another way?


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Comfort Shows

Comfort foods. We all have them. For me, it’s mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and chicken noodle soup.

images (2)I think we have comfort TV shows too, those shows that we like to go back and watch even though we’ve seen them dozens of times. Maybe it’s an old sitcom that when we look at it rationally and as mature adults, we think, ‘that’s so cheesy!’ while at the same time settling in to watch it…again.

For me, the ultimate comfort show is The Brady Bunch. Just hearing the music that’s in the background every time we see the exterior of the Brady house has a soporific effect on me. It’s like all the worries and responsibilities of being an adult fall away and I’m a little kid again watching reruns of The Brady Bunch while my older brothers and sister are at school.

I have certain episodes of The Brady Bunch practically memorized. My favorite is “Our Son, The Man,” the one where a 14-year-old Greg is a high school freshman and decides that he’s a Man. He is pompous to his siblings, calls his parents Carol and Mike, and wants his own room. He gets the room and it is…Groovy. As is Greg. He gets a whole new look!

Groovy Greg

Groovy Greg

But it’s not just The Brady Bunch. I was a kid in the 70’s, so if I come across an episode of Happy Days, One Day at a Time, MASH, Mork and Mindy, WKRP in Cincinnati, or even the ridiculous Three’s Company, I’ll pause and watch a bit if only to feel like a kid again. Some are so bad, like Gilligan’s Island and Three’s Company that I can only linger for a few minutes before my rational brain kicks in and I think, ‘this is so bad, I can’t believe I’m watching it.’ I flip the channel. Others, though, like WKRP or MASH still hold up (at least some episodes) and I’ll dig in for the entire 23 minutes.

It doesn’t get much funnier than the WKRP episode where they dropped turkeys from a helicopter as a Thanksgiving promotional stunt. I’ll never forget Mr. Carlson saying, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” 

Whether it’s for an entire episode or only a few minutes, it’s worth it. It feels like one of those summer days as a kid, with no school, when all I had to do was play.

Do you have a comfort show?

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The Saddest Story

puffPuff the Magic Dragon is the saddest story I have ever heard. Sadder than Shakespeare, sadder than a Greek tragedy. It’s the story of growing up and losing the magic in life. What could be sadder than that?

A song by the folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary, Puff the Magic Dragon is about a little boy named Jackie Paper who has an imaginary friend, a dragon named Puff. Jackie and Puff get up to all sorts of fun, but, then one day Jackie grows up and stops playing with Puff. And Puff? Well, without his boy, he…disappears.

“One gray night it happened,
Jackie Paper came no more
and Puff that mighty dragon
He ceased his fearless roar.
His head was bent in sorrow,
green scales fell like rain.
Puff no longer went to play,
along the cherry lane.
Without his lifelong friend,
Puff could not be brave.
So Puff that mighty dragon,
Sadly slipped into his cave.”


Whenever I hear, or even think about, Puff ceasing his fearless roar because Jackie doesn’t believe in him anymore, it breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes. Every time! I can read Romeo and Juliet without a tinge of sadness, and I can read the saddest literary fiction with a dry eye, but Puff? It pulls at my heartstrings like nothing else.

It reminds me of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. If I read a strip where Calvin walked away from Hobbes and the stuffed tiger could no longer come to life and play with Calvin, I’d be devastated. Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where Hobbes does not come to life.

I’m also thankful that I never had to see Christopher Robin grow up and stop believing in Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. I don’t think I could handle that! As far as I’m concerned, Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and all the others are still living happily (or grumpily, for Eeyore) in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Illustration by E.H. Shepard. (1924)

Illustration by E.H. Shepard. (1924)

It’s the idea that we lose our belief in magic when we grow up that makes me sad. I want there to be magic and make-believe in the world, even as an adult. Maybe that’s why I regularly reread Winnie-the-Pooh, Calvin and Hobbes, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. In those worlds magic still lives and when I’m visiting everyone is alive and well and doing fun things. And that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

What about you? What is the saddest story to you? Do you have a world where you hope the magic is never broken?


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Energetic Batteries

The_ForceAikido is energy training. The name itself speaks of this energy; the ‘ki’ in aiKIdo means energy or life force. Put together, the word Ai-ki-do means ‘the way of joining energy’ or ‘the way of harmony.’ I recently spent a weekend at a seminar with Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan, a 7th degree black belt, who teaches ‘internal power’ movements. Ikeda Shihan can do all of the physical Aikido techniques, throws, and joint locks that we all see in demonstrations, but he often teaches about internal power, the stuff you don’t see. The entire weekend was spent working with this internal energy, practicing moving our partners using only small shifts in our bodies and the intention of our minds.

After eight hours of intense internal energy aikido practice over the weekend, I thought I’d be exhausted on Monday. The opposite happened. I felt great. I went about my regular daily schedule with vigor. That evening I taught the kids Aikido class and had infinite amounts of patience! I attended my regular adult aikido class and felt more grounded and centered than I have felt in a long, long time.

If that wasn’t enough, I went to a dance class with West African drummers and the class was high energy and I couldn’t stop moving. I danced the choreography and even when it wasn’t my turn, I danced off to the side and in the back. I had so much energy, it felt like it was exploding out of me. I could have danced all night.

That got me thinking…did I accumulate energy over the weekend during my aikido training? Was I then using that energy to fuel myself during dance class?

Am I a battery?

If so, did I tap into some external energy, like The Force? 

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

It felt to me as if I’d been plugged in, charged up, and then I’d used that harnessed energy the next day. Unfortunately, like a battery, I ran out of juice. The next time I went to an aikido class and we played around with the ‘internal energy’ that we’d learned over the weekend, I had nothing left. I was empty, running only on fumes. My battery had been depleted and I needed to recharge.

I think about all of the energy out in the world, in the universe. Infinite amounts of energy. I’d like to plug my battery into that energy and charge up! 

Have you ever experienced this? Do you do an energy practice like Tai Chi or Qui Gong, or do you do body work? If so, do you feel like you plug in to energy from the universe?  


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