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“Our way to practice is one step at a time, one breath at a time.” ~Shunryu Suzuki
Sitting meditation has always been challenging for me; practicing mindfulness, even harder.
As a self-confessed worrywart who has contended with constant ruminations, flashbacks, and nightmares for most of my life (more on this later), all prior attempts at being fully present and not thinking merely served as reminders of how little control I had over my mind. Then I took up hiking and stumbled upon a form of meditation that literally transformed my life.
Initially, just being out in nature on scenic trails cultivated calmness and cleared my head. Almost immediately, I realized that hiking provided a respite from intrusive thoughts that have plagued me since I was a tyke.
They include flashbacks of my mother’s numerous suicide attempts in our decrepit Chinatown apartment, my father’s drunken rages, and recurring images of shootings, savage beatings, and other gory crime scenes from my gangbanging days.
Ruminations include the sound of gunfire along with the replaying in my head of toxic utterances in Cantonese that translate to “Giving birth to you was my biggest mistake,” “I wish you were never born,” and my own father yelling “You bastard!”
Somehow, walking in nature enabled my mind to slow down and rest, which felt liberating.
Unfortunately, the novelty soon wore out. Merely walking and hiking wasn’t enough to prevent symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress from returning. I reverted to rehashing the past and worrying obsessively about the future.
However, I had gotten a taste of the benefits of mindfulness meditation and discovered that it can be practiced while engaging in an activity I enjoyed. These revelations motivated me to keep at it.
After reading what was available on walking meditation, which typically advise focusing on the flow of our “in” and “out” breaths, I developed my own techniques for practicing mindful walking and hiking.
My favorite is to look ahead and select a destination point or object and stay focused on it. It can be a shadow on the ground, boulder, bush, tree, manhole cover, light pole, store awning, mailbox, and so on. Once I reached it, I chose another landmark or object, usually a little further away.
Rough or uneven trails forced me to concentrate on each step for safety reasons. My brain automatically blocked out discursive thoughts; otherwise I could slip, trip, or fall. Other techniques I came up with include fully feeling the ground of each step, following the flight pattern of birds and insects, observing cloud patterns, and being conscious of sounds and scents—moment to moment.
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, often called “Thay,” which means “teacher” in Vietnamese, is revered throughout the world for his teachings and writings on mindfulness and peace.
He has brought the practice into institutions, including maximum-security prisons, helping inmates attain calmness and inner peace while being confined up to twenty-four hours daily. Many of them have professed that mindfulness meditation is the most difficult endeavor they have ever engaged in.
We live in a culture where many of us want quick results with as little effort as possible. This applies to how we approach our work, health, pastimes, social interactions, and problems. This mindset is the antithesis of mindfulness.
In my opinion, it is virtually impossible to tackle mindfulness meditation without patience and discipline. Fortunately, these attributes can be enhanced by engaging in the art itself.
When I started mindful walking and hiking, my ability to stay present was measured in feet and seconds.
As a highly competitive, emotionally undisciplined, and impatient person, I could have easily succumbed to my frustrations and given up. But the short periods of calmness and inner peace I attained—supplemented by my stubbornness—provided the necessary resolve for me to stick with the program.
As I continued my mindfulness “training,” catching my mind when it wandered occurred sooner, and the ability to refocus took less effort. Using kind, positive messages such as “rest” and “focus” was more effective than phrases such as “don’t wander” and “don’t think.”
Insight and mindfulness meditation are usually practiced separately. Personally, when I am procrastinating about something or seeking a solution to a problem, ideas and answers usually emerge effortlessly during or immediately following my walks and hikes.
These epiphanies and aha moments tend to be inspired by kindness and compassion, as opposed to ego.
I was severely beaten by a rival gang member as a teen. For over forty years, I suffered nightmares, flashbacks, and ruminations of the attack. Both conventional and unconventional modalities of therapy failed to provide much relief.
One morning, I was enjoying a relaxing hike when the familiar image of my attacker suddenly appeared. For the very first time, I remained calm and found myself viewing my lifelong enemy as a kindred spirit. I saw him as someone like me, most likely abused as a child, who desperately sought empowerment by joining gangs.
This awakening, along with my spiritual practice, enabled me to cultivate compassion and forgiveness. The nightmares and flashes of the attack ceased at that point and have not returned.
Mindfulness can be practiced pretty much anywhere and at any time. I do it first thing in the morning when I wake up while still lying in bed, in the kitchen, in the shower, at my desk, and most recently while getting dental work done.
Whether I devote a few seconds by pausing and taking a deep belly breath—or hiking for several hours—benefits are reaped.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, practicing mindfulness has transformed my life. With a family history of mental illness and a violent upbringing, I have been diagnosed and treated for multiple mood disorders, including manic depression, post-traumatic stress, addiction, and rage.
My mindfulness practice has empowered me to rest and calm my mind, as well as intercept and suppress negative thoughts. It serves as a powerful coping mechanism for me.
For the majority of my life, I was at the mercy of gambling urges and other cravings. When I encounter them now, I pause, acknowledge what is happening, take a few deep breaths, focus on my surroundings, and allow the urges to pass.
Staying relaxed enables me to respond instead of react, which places me in a better position to reflect and gain insight into the underlying issues that triggered the desire to self-medicate.
My mood is much more stable and I have better control of my emotions. The benefits I received from mindful walking and hiking has inspired me to practice it throughout the day.
I used to loathe driving because of my road rage. I was terrified of myself, often wondering when I left the house if I would end up in jail or the morgue. My level of stress rose in proportion to the amount of traffic I encountered.
Practicing mindfulness meditation in the car keeps me mellow as well as alert. I have become a patient and compassionate driver, smiling at other motorists and limiting use of the horn for safety purposes. Another insight I gained is that my past aggressive behavior on and off the road attracted like-minded people.
The mental discipline I gained also enabled me to embrace Buddhism, which has interested, yet eluded me for many years. All of this empowers me to attain and maintain equanimity. Now, I can even sit and meditate for long periods without feeling restless or irritable.
So for those who find sitting meditation challenging, or for individuals seeking different ways to practice mindfulness, I recommend mindful walking and hiking.
Not only is it a fun way to quiet the mind while getting some exercise, but it can be life-changing—helping us let go of worries, stress, tension, and even the most painful memories from the past.
Hiking man image via Shutterstock
About Bill Lee
Bill Lee is a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in the Chinese underworld. He is the author of three memoirs. In his new book, Born-Again Buddhist: My Path to Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders, he describes in detail the positive impact that mindful walking and hiking has made in his life. Visit facebook.com/Bill.Lee.author.
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Just a quick heads up today.
There’s only 24 hours left until registration for The Stop Worrying Today Course closes.
Until 1.00 p.m EDT (that’s 18.00 GMT) on Monday the 29th of May you can still join it.
So if you are interested in that – and in getting the free bonus course on optimism worth $29 + the 6 extra bonuses – then now is the time to take action.
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“Tough times never last, but tough people do.” ~Robert H. Schuller
About two years ago, I was working in a professional career that I had been building for nearly twenty years.
I had been at my company for thirteen years, and had been generally commended and given positive reviews and regular bonuses and raises for most of that time.
I had just left a terrible and traumatic relationship, and due to two years of criticism, gaslighting, and conflict, was experiencing severe depression. I was on medication that made it hard for me to focus and which gave me anxiety attacks.
My manager let me know that I was on probation at work, something that had never happened to me in my entire career.
One of the few lights in my life was an arts community that I had been very active in for several years, and I had just applied for a volunteer position working for the overseeing organization, which meant a great deal to me.
Though every day seemed like an incredible struggle, I was trying to pull things back together, do better at work, get on different medication, and continue to heal from the trauma of the relationship. I felt down, but not out. I felt I was on the cusp of something.
It turns out I was right, but that the cusp wasn’t the something I thought it was.
I was informed I didn’t get the volunteer position. Gossip tells me part of that was due to me sharing on Facebook how I was feeling in my depression and recovery from trauma.
Due to “performance issues” stemming from my severe depression and anxiety as well as institutional problems not of my making, and despite the fact that I told my manager that I was in treatment for depression, I was fired from my job (ironically, this company was a psychology-focused media company, run by a psychologist) and walked out of the office by co-workers with boxes of my stuff.
I wasn’t even allowed to gather information for the professional contacts I had made and nurtured. Meanwhile, I was still experiencing PTSD symptoms from the abuse in my relationship. And then, a relationship I had entered into a year after the breakup, which in retrospect was not a good decision for me at the time, ended. Though we’re still friends, the breakup was very hard for me, especially on top of everything else.
I felt I had just been forced to set up housekeeping in Rejection City; like everything I had been working for had crashed and burned, all at the same time. My feelings of self-worth and competence took a major dive. My identity as a successful, professional woman was crushed.
As a result of losing my job, I lost my health insurance, including mental health care, and had to stop taking my medication. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the house I had bought when I was making decent money. I fought for a year to get back on my feet, got on Medi-cal, the state-sponsored insurance, and worked with my mortgage company through incredible frustration and red-tape.
I was determined that I was not going to collapse into a pile of sorrow, though that’s what I desperately wanted to do on most days.
I walked away from the arts community, which I realized wasn’t supportive of me or my efforts, and walked away from most people except the ones in my life who I knew to be steadfast in their support and care. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone except the few people who had always been there for me. I spent most of my days alone, worrying and fretting, and numbing myself when I could.
That was about fifteen months ago.
I’m now still in my home, working part-time, studying, networking, working with a career coach, and am on the edge of starting my own marketing business in a new industry, while also taking on freelance clients. This is the cusp life was preparing me for, way back then, though I didn’t know it.
How do we get back on our feet and forge a new, even better path when life kicks us off the one we were on? Here are some tips:
1. Allow time to grieve.
This is really important. I had to take the time to sit with what had happened, to cry and get angry and talk to my close friends about my feelings, and to work through the sense of betrayal in many ways. I couldn’t afford therapy, so I just talked to myself when I was alone, which was a lot of the time. After about nine months, I finally reached a point where I made a conscious choice to move on from swimming in sadness and resentment.
Rumination is normal in this kind of situation, though eventually, you’ll need to stop. But at first, sit with all those awful feelings and be your own best friend. Acknowledge them, know they’re normal, and be there for yourself in this difficult transition. If you journal: journal. If you create: create. If you walk: walk. Do what works for you to get centered again.
2. Remember that things won’t always be this way.
When I thought I was going to lose everything I had tried to build, I panicked. I felt like I was sinking, and had nothing to grab on to. It was really scary, and I had more than one panic attack in the middle of the night. But as I kept working for what I wanted, things calmed down and I could see that, though the waves were choppy, I wasn’t going to sink.
The ship will right itself, once it’s time. Think of it like a painful breakup. You (hopefully) know that you’ll get over the sadness and all the other hard feelings. Practice mindfulness of your thoughts, and compassionately bring yourself back to the present when you start to feel that despair that your life has been destroyed. What has been destroyed is an old way of being; the intense feelings mean you are still very much alive.
3. Know that things won’t go back to “the way they were,” and this is okay.
One thing I knew instinctively right away is that I didn’t want to do the same thing I’d been doing for nearly twenty years, and I certainly didn’t want anyone ever again to have the hold over me that my old company, my ex, or the arts community had.
I spent (am still) spending a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do next and how I can hold power over my experiences in my own hands without giving that power away to anyone else.
Explore your own interests: what really lights you up? Now is the chance to do that thing! Try not to get derailed by “what ifs” or worries that your dreams aren’t realistic. There are ways to do what you want to do. Brainstorm, talk to compassionate people who know you well, ask yourself questions, observe what you enjoy doing or who you want to be around and ask yourself: Can I do this more?
4. Use language carefully.
When all this happened, somehow I knew that I didn’t want to introduce myself—or to think of myself—as someone who had just lost everything. I would tell people who asked me what I did for a living that I ran a freelance business, even before this was true, and often consoled myself with the fact that I was strong enough to walk away from a bad relationship.
Think of empowering ways to describe your new reality, and use them, even when you think thoughts to yourself. Feeling sad, worried, angry, stressed, and regretful is normal. But you need to create a link between yourself and your new future. Using the language of growth and new opportunities will help you when it’s time to start taking steps to move forward.
5. Network and connect.
I needed to work to pay my bills, and wasn’t getting any of the professional-level jobs I was applying for, so after many months of 4am wakings worrying about money, I posted to Facebook about what I had to offer in terms of skills, and a friend offered me a job. I’m very grateful, and, though it’s not what I had been doing, I can use the skills I have, can learn new things, and it has given me some breathing room to set myself up in life again.
Even if you don’t need a new job as I did, you may still need a new community or new friends. The important thing is to figure out what happened that wasn’t working, and to pursue new paths, not to just do the same things you were doing before.
There are so many opportunities to meet new people online and through community organizations. Identify the people you need in your life to help you get back on your feet, and go to them. And don’t forget to keep connecting with people in your life who are encouraging, welcoming, and compassionate.
6. Make your main priority taking care of you.
To the extent you can, make sure you’re taking good care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Move your body. Allow time to rest and relax and enjoy the things you love. Take naps. Spend time with people who uplift you, not ones who tear you down.
One thing I finally allowed myself to realize is that I was incredibly burned out and stressed at my old job, which likely contributed to the depression. Now I understand that, as I move forward, I am not interested in a new life where stress accompanies me every day, and a job where the goalposts are constantly being moved. This was an important realization as I explore ways to make a living.
What does your experience teach you about what’s important to your well-being, and how can you create a new life where well-being is a priority?
7. Ask for help.
I am very lucky to have family and friends close by who were and are able to be there for me in many important ways, including financially. I was able to get back on a medication that worked by going to a family friend who is a doctor, and who agreed to see me at no cost. This was vital to my turnaround. If it weren’t for my support network, I’d still be depressed and would probably have lost my home.
Hopefully, you have people in your life who are supportive and kind, and you also have other resources, whether it’s an alumni group of your college, a local job resource center, a library, or friends who are connected to different networks that might be able to help.
Think about what you need in order to get to where you want to go, and ask for help from those around you who can help. It’s not embarrassing to need help from others. A drowning person doesn’t reject a flotation device that a rescuer throws into the water!
8. Learn from the experience.
Though I had been through a lot of painful situations in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a year as awful as that year. Part of my recovery was to sift through everything that happened and figure out what went wrong, including my own contribution to the situations. When we make meaning out of our experiences, we recovery more quickly. When we feel we have no control over a situation, we tend to feel depressed and hopeless.
Whether you journal, talk to a therapist, talk to supportive friends, or just think, be brave enough to look at the situation and understand how, going forward, you can prevent a similar thing from happening again.
Do you need to choose your friends or relationships more carefully? Do you need to avoid certain employment situations? Do you need to change some of your own habits? Once you’ve understood what happened, you’ll have the tools to create a new kind of life for yourself.
About Ostra Kilgetty
Ostra is a blogger and adventurer who keeps learning about what it takes to thrive in the world, even when she’d rather be gardening, reading, and playing on the interwebs.
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Could you go through a whole day without saying or feeling something negative about yourself? Could you love yourself like the Universe loves you? Could you let go of all the preconceived notions of what is normal or right and just know within that you are ‘just right’ as you are in all you do? […]
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“Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.” ~Eckhart Tolle
“Surrender” in current colloquial language equals failure. According to the Oxford Dictionary, without an object, surrender means to “stop resisting to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” With an object, it gets even worse: “Give up or hand over (a person, right, or possession), typically on compulsion or demand.”
How then can surrender be the key to joy? How can it be winning?
At age thirty, I was defeated by life. Down for the count. But, I did not get back up on my feet until I surrendered.
I had led a charmed life until then. I got into every college to which I applied and went to my top choice. I graduated summa cum laude and got into a similarly impressive grad school, where I also graduated at the top of my class.
After a White House internship, I landed a job at a top investment bank and had moved to an equally prestigious consulting firm. I had lived in and traveled to dozens of countries. I was a winner.
Or was I? Life had thrown me a string of curveballs: health problems, friend problems, romantic problems, professional problems. While, to an outsider, I might have appeared to be “living the dream,” the “dream” entailed eighty-plus hour workweeks and constant travel. After a few years of this, my life had totally unraveled, and after knowing nothing but success, I encountered nothing but failure.
The stress and over-work likely contributed to a string of illnesses, hospitalizations, and surgeries.
I was exhausted after more than ten years of sleeping on average less than five hours a night, and my weight had yo-yoed drastically.
My partner of three years had left me, telling me, to boot, that it was essentially never “a real thing” to begin with anyway. A second equally intense relationship ended in a similar way.
All of this happened when I was living as far away from my hometown as you can get on the globe, and after being so busy for so long, I had almost no one to turn to where I was living. I was completely untethered.
I just wanted it all to end, to make the pain go away. One day, I literally found myself on the floor with a bottle of pills in my hand, contemplating suicide. I almost followed through, but something happened, or actually, a lot of somethings did.
One of the very first somethings that happened was that I became aware of the self-talk in my head and was able to disassociate from it, listening to it as a separate entity.
Perhaps its most recurring commentary was some version of “this isn’t how it was supposed to happen.” I had achieved so much so early in life and worked so hard. I should have been rich. Happy. Successful. Instead, I was a mess.
It was all these “shoulds” that almost killed me because they left me stuck in a mental construct of my own making, set up in opposition to what was actually happening.
At the beginning of a long recovery process, perhaps the key moment came when I was able, however briefly at first, to occupy a reality without these shoulds and instead face whatever was at that particular moment.
It was only later that I was able to grasp the significance of that first moment of surrender. Surrender is not giving up on life but giving up fighting with life. And, when you’re not fighting with it, you’re working with life.
At first, our moral sense is offended by this. In a totally just world, there are a lot of things that should be. People should be nice to each other. Good things should happen to good people. But, if we take this to its logical conclusion, we’re all born innocent, so shouldn’t everyone just get what he or she wants? Shouldn’t only good things happen to everyone?
Beyond the facts that what is “good” is often in the eye of the beholder, and the “goodness” of what appears to be a “bad” or painful or unfair event is often not revealed until later, all of these good things that should happen are far beyond our control.
However, there are a lot of shoulds we can control. We can control our own actions and reactions (while of course allowing ourselves to err). We can act in this world how we should according to our own convictions.
This is how surrendering, far from waving the white flag, becomes the ultimate tool for empowerment and positive action.
When I was able to stop wallowing in the unfairness of what life dealt me and all of the shoulds that never came to be, my mind was free from the rumination and recrimination that led me into that deep state of depression.
When I stopped fighting with my situation, my scope and options for positive action became clear, and at that point I was in full control of the little space in life that I actually could control—me.
I stopped questioning the situation in which I found myself. Some of it was unfair, the result of what I took to be other peoples’ unjust actions, but at the same time, a lot of it was the result of my own actions, as well as pure chance. While I learned some lessons looking backward, the key to my recovery was accepting where I was and look forward to how to get myself out of it.
My immediate action was to seek help, first from friends and then from a therapist, something I would have previously stigmatized as self-indulgent. Overcoming the shame of that opened the floodgates of what was possible for me, and everything was up for grabs.
Within six months of that, I changed so many of the things that were not working for me—my job, my location and my relationships. I crafted a life that worked for me rather than fighting the one that wasn’t.
By dropping the shoulds, I am now able, in my clear-thinking moments, to act without opposition from life and more quickly move to consider my course of action.
Not only has this been emotionally liberating, but I know I have made countless better decisions as a result. Each day there are a thousand little victories, all thanks to surrender.
The logic neat and simple, but the practice is difficult. I get confused and caught up and stuck, but the state of surrender is progressively becoming more and more of my natural default. Some of the lessons and tips I’ve learned to get to this place that I would recommend:
1. Allow yourself to vent—up to a point.
As imperfect beings, total, ongoing and permanent surrender is unrealistic. We will feel negative emotions about experiences not meeting our expectations, and we need to allow ourselves to feel those feelings. It often helps to express them to a sympathetic ear. To a point.
Venting of negative emotions is useful insofar as it allows us to liberate ourselves of them. However, prolonged or frequent venting can also lend momentum to these feelings. It can actually serve to build up opposition to life by hardening feelings of injury and strengthening those shoulds.
So, pay attention to your venting. Is it releasing the negative energy around opposition to life, or is it adding to that energy? If you’re the one listening to the venting, ask yourself the same question of the person doing it. If the venting is adding to the negative energy of the situation, consider trying to divert that energy toward something positive and creative.
2. Remind yourself that surrender is not giving up.
At the beginning of this blog post I deliberately focused on the commonly used definition and connotations of surrender because of the strong biases language can impart on our subconscious thought.
Prior to my own awakening, my brief forays into new age thinking and the new consciousness had always ended up with me dismissing it all as a bunch of hokey-ness that turned people into vegetables. If they were always just so accepting of what happened, how could they ever actually accomplish anything difficult or messy or complex?
I still sometimes revert back to this thinking, but then I recall: surrender is not giving up on life but on fighting with life. Indeed, not surrendering to reality—questioning the fairness, goodness, or logic of the present moment—is crippling. You’re saying “no” to reality: “No, but that’s not fair! It’s not right!” Okay maybe that’s true, but where can you go from there?
Surrender is saying “yes.” “Yes, I accept that this is a terrible situation, and the way I can make it better is…” This is how surrender becomes the key to taking positive action and frees us from so many of the negative emotions that we strengthen by opposing reality. We don’t say that what’s happening is okay, but we accept that it’s happening and move onto what we can do about it.
3. Be the happy warrior.
It’s something of an oxymoron, but the “happy warrior” tends to be more effective vs. the angry warrior, or, what we see more commonly, the person plodding along with grim determination. In fact, the war imagery probably misses the mark altogether, but we all can relate to the happy warrior type, so let’s stick with it.
When we haven’t surrendered to reality and are still fighting it, negative emotions are inevitable, and we are, by definition, engaging in a futile endeavor. In this case, we become the angry warrior or the grimly determined one. That was me for so many years—I hunkered down, determined to endure all of life’s slings and arrows, all the while missing the joy of the journey.
Maya Angelou once said, “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” If you’re still complaining or not accepting the reality, how can you change that reality? You’re probably still stuck in the complaining phase.
That aura of negativity or hopelessness that comes with a failure to surrender is, to be blunt, a real turn off for most people. If you want to be the change you want to see in this world and inspire others to a cause, the angry warrior type is probably not going to work.
This is vitally important in these times of so much social strife, and as fundamental questions of what kind of society we want to be arise every day. Eckhart Tolle has addressed this very point when talking about “angry peace activists” and agents of change.
Think about some of the most socially impactful figures in the last 100 years—Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa—these are happy warriors.
Their optimism was infectious in winning people to the cause, and this optimism stemmed from accepting reality as it was and moving on immediately to the “how do we change this?” phase. They began by surrendering.
Remember the Buddha. While sitting beneath the tree of knowledge, he was able to turn all of Mara’s arrows into flowers and remain in a state of equanimity. In a sense, you too can do that by not turning the obstacles that life puts in your way into personal affronts against you.
When you accept what life gives you—when you surrender—you avoid creating all of the negativity that rejection entails. You do not disrupt your own peace. From that place of peace, you can affect change.
In my journey, I eventually wasn’t able to continue fighting life, brought down into depression by the impact of all of those arrows. Nowadays, I can’t say that I immediately accept all that comes my way, but my willingness to surrender to life, if not turning the arrows into flowers, certainly makes the journey more joyful.
And, when you have joy, you are more likely to achieve the end you seek, or better yet, find peace in the journey regardless of the destination.
It all starts with surrender.
About Joshua Kauffman
Joshua Kauffman is a recovering over-achiever and workaholic. Leaving behind a high-powered life in business, he has become a world traveler, aspiring coach and entrepreneur of pretty things. Amateur author of a recent memoir Footprints Through The Desert, he is trying to find ways to share his awakening experience, particularly to those lost in the rat race like he was.
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