Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2017 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this recent Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland.  These offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2017. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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Just love

This is going to be short and sweet, hopefully like Christmas.

lucy-dogThis morning I had a simple, heart-warming experience. Visiting my brother’s family, I was walking their dog, my namesake L, aged 7 months. She had spent the last hour tugging at the leash to meet everyone she could in the streets of St. Albans, jumping up on them with muddy paws if they so much as looked at her. She loves everyone. Not everyone was loving her back.

Until we got to Verulam House, Nursing and Residential Home. My sister-in-law and I dropped in to see her mother, Christine, where we found her in a big circle of old folks under the care of James, a youngish man who clearly takes a genuine interest in each one of them and was getting them all to chat.

And L jumped straight onto the lap of an unsuspecting old man, who almost spilled his sippy cup of lukewarm coffee. Luckily, he beamed. Other wavery voices then called out, “Let her come here!” So I took her around to each person in the room, and she lit them up. We had a party! So simple — just love — yet so effective. Everyone was in a good mood. It cost nothing.

James was very pleased to see everyone enjoying themselves, and I was thinking how much he deserves to be, as does every other under-paid, over-worked Bodhisattva care worker looking after the old, the lonely, the sick, and the homeless this Christmas and every other day of the year. And these unsung heroes and heroines will get what they deserve as a result of their kindness. They’ll get happiness.HTTYL-bookcovers.png

Get rid of self-cherishing, and everything works. Don’t get rid of it and nothing works. Self-grasping and self-cherishing are believing in and cherishing a real and important self that does not exist, as explained here, so they are doomed to fail every time.

Last week, Venerable Geshe Kelsang gave everyone a free book, called How to Transform Your Life, spreading warmth and light across the globe. Much of this book shows how self-cherishing has never worked, for what do we have to show for it? Just problems and grumpiness every single day, and ending up no closer to that lasting freedom and joy we all long for. But cherishing others always solves our problems and leads to all our temporary and ultimate happiness. When we finally figure this out, and then actually bother to remember it, we will be inspired to get rid of our self cherishing — all of it — and cherish others instead. Every day will then be a party.

happy-holidays
Contemplate these “four immeasurables” and a happy festive season is pretty much guaranteed.

And if, maybe, we think, “Hey, self-cherishing is not that bad! Look at my lovely life! I do have something to show for my selfishness!!” we can dig deeper to see that none of the good things in our life has come from self-cherishing. More despite our self-cherishing. We experience good friendships, loyalty, things going our way, happiness, resources, etc, because of our cherishing others now and in the past, not because of our self-cherishing.

And that’s it for today, folks! Wishing you and your loved ones and their loved ones and their loved ones and so on ad infinitum a very happy holiday.

Living fearlessly

You know the thing I like most about Buddha Tara? That she is fearless. That she never gives up. That she never backs down. That she will never give up on anyone until the very last living being is rescued from the prison of samsara.

Someone wrote this earlier today on Facebook, and I reckon some of you can relate to it:toddler-in-aleppo

I’m mourning for the people of Aleppo, as well as ALL victims of war and genocide. I feel paralyzed, unable to help. Even in the midst of financial uncertainty, my life is so very comfortable and blessed in comparison with theirs, and I wish I could give them some of my good circumstances. I’d happily do with less to allow them to have safety and shelter and food. But I don’t know how to help when I have no financial resources to share.

Yes, I offer prayers and dedications, and I try to spread awareness; but I want to be able to do something more concrete and immediate. I do use their suffering as a motivation to become enlightened in order to save them and all other living beings from suffering, but some days that seems like such a distant and ethereal goal.

I want to be able to swoop in like a superhero right now and save the people from their hell on earth, but I cannot. It breaks my heart.

Fearlessness

Buddha Tara is a superhero.tara

She does not get discouraged or overwhelmed. And this is a quality we need if we are to be able to grow our compassion until it reaches all living beings. Because there are a lot of people experiencing a lot of suffering, and this can be terrifying and hard to cope with when we open our eyes to look at it. Without fearlessness, we will shut our eyes again; I think this is only a matter of time.

Earthlings

Human suffering is bad enough. But I have now watched Earthlings, having put it off for a long time, which shows the monstrous (I don’t have the words) suffering inflicted by humans — us — on millions and millions of bewildered fellow beings every single day. Within a few miles of where you are sitting — wherever that is — no doubt there are animals who, although they want to be loved just as much as our dog or cat, or at least left alone, are being stabbed and tortured and murdered instead.

Earthlings was almost impossible to watch; I knew it would be. But it also got a lot of things into perspective and brought out a compassionate, if somewhat desperate, wish to do whatever I could to bring an end to the suffering. However, I need a powerful ally. There is no way I can do this on my own, of course; I don’t even know where to begin, hence the desperation. So I was thinking a lot about Guru Tara — how she would never flinch in going to the aid of all the animals and human beings involved. And how I want and need that kind of ally and that kind of courage. Or I am never going to follow through, I am just going to switch channels.

earthlingsReader discretion is advised

I don’t know if you ever intend to watch Earthlings, but I hope you don’t mind if I mention here some of the reactions I had to it. As the movie says at the outset, “viewer discretion is advised.” Which, before the first harrowing images even appeared, made me realize the privilege, the luxury, of being a mere spectator, able to turn off this unpleasantness whenever I felt like it – unlike those who were actually experiencing it.

I think we need context for watching something like Earthlings or it will just make us angry and depressed, or cause us to stick our head even further into the sand. Same with Aleppo. Same with all the intense tragedies and catastrophes all around the world all the time.

Might doesn’t mean right

The film makers are making the case for us not harming animals with our own actions directly or indirectly – in all five categories where animals are misused, namely (unwanted) pets, food, clothes, entertainment, experimentation.

Just because our species happens to be more powerful is no excuse for exploiting people in other species. Any mark of humanity is surely that the powerful are supposed to look after the vulnerable, not take advantage of them. We kind of get that for human beings, but not for some sad reason for animals. And this despite the overwhelming and increasing evidence that animals and fish are just as feeling of suffering as we are, they have nervous systems, pain receptors, and so on.stop-it-thats-horrible

I think it is not correct to turn the other way when animals are suffering within our own realm, within our own neighborhoods, hidden within plain sight. As Edmund Burke was quoted in the movie:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Very few people visit slaughterhouses. Many people hope and assume that the meat they eat has come from humanely killed animals. Generally, this is a pipe dream. We need to know what and who we are eating or wearing. Ignorance is not bliss, especially not for the animals. As it says in the movie:

They all die from pain.

What will be enough?

Not misusing others for our own purposes, as the film makers want viewers to conclude, is a very good start – probably an essential one if we are to claim any conscience at all — but it is not ever going to be enough. It is not ever going to be nearly enough.

This movie shows pretty conclusively in my opinion that, despite its occasional pleasant moments, samsara is not a pleasure garden and we are idiotic to be skipping around fecklessly as if it is, as if it cannot suddenly twist into something very very nasty.Geshe-la turtle.jpg

And it shows too that nothing less than waking these living beings up forever from the nightmarish hallucinations of the sleep of ignorance will ever be enough.

Snapshots of hell

An “earthling” is someone who inhabits the Earth – any sentient being sharing our planet.

Some searing moments among too many: a stray dog was thrown into the back of a garbage truck, and he stared out at the humans incomprehendingly before he was crushed along with all the other “trash”. Each week thousands of unwanted dogs and cats, just as lovable as yours or mine, are tossed into gas chambers like useless sacks, their bodies later pulled out and piled up, because the shelters cannot afford the cost of putting them down humanely with an injection.

Have you ever communed with a cow in a field? They are so curious, they’ll always come gather around you if you sit there long enough. I have sat meditating with cows in the English Lake District on more than one occasion, and I remember a particularly friendly cow once licked me all the way up the front of my dress. And these are the same kind of gentle big-brown-eyed beings with long eyelashes who are are branded on their faces and have their horns ripped out without anaesthetic; all this long before they get to the killing cows-on-hillroom. Where they can have their throats slit while still conscious because the steel bolt into the brain has been administered so carelessly, and where they can still be thrashing around on the assembly line. So much blood. It’s like watching a horror movie, only these are not special effects.

Intelligent sows are confined their entire lives in cages barely bigger than themselves – imagine someone chucking your dog in a closet filled with excrement and not letting her out her whole life. Piglets meanwhile squeal with agony as their baby ears are clipped, tails docked, teeth cut, and genitals removed. Ruptured flesh and abscesses make the rest of their lives wretched, not helped by being stomped on and yelled at, in insult upon injury, “Go you mother fucker, go, go!!! Come on, you bitch!” I had just been thinking, “Why don’t any of these workers ever want to try and let the pigs escape?”, when I saw a worker filmed laughing as he clubbed a pig to death.

I wonder how any human being can work at a slaughterhouse without becoming at least partly a hell being. The karma is hideous. The desensitization too common but necessary to do the job. The additional cruelty and harshness legion. There are hundreds of thousands of poor human beings being paid to maim and kill. Yeah, you can say it is a job like any other, you have to put food on the table, but still …. And reports like this one do show that even in this life it impairs people greatly …. Hard to watch this and deny the existence of hell realms, including the karmic experiences similar to the cause.

I don’t think you can stay hating the protagonists if you know Dharma; compassion for them is almost greater. For they are part of that same hell, and you know full well that if they remain oblivious of the reality they are creating for themselves, and don’t purify their harmful actions, it will soon be their turn on the killing room floor.cow-in-factory-farm

Earthlings is scary. Yet Earthlings shows just snapshots of the lower realms in terms of the amount of sentient beings in agony and the length of time they must suffer. Buddha taught that there are countless world systems in samsara, and countless living beings in pain. He also taught that we living beings have been suffering in samsara since beginningless time due to our delusions and bad karma.

I kept wishing for the animals I was watching to be able to die as quickly as possible and for the humans to stop, please stop, just clock off and go home – but the fact is that death may close that particular chapter, but the endless tale of suffering will continue in the next. This book of samsara is millions and millions of chapters long. Longer.

The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra says:

The flesh and bones of all the bodies I have previously taken if gathered together would be equal to Mount Meru,
And if the blood and bodily fluids were gathered they would be equal to the deepest ocean.
Although I have taken countless bodies as Brahma, Indra, chakravatin kings, gods and ordinary humans,
There has been no meaning from any of these, for still I continue to suffer.

If having been born in the hells drinking molten copper, as insects whose bodies turned into mud,
And as dogs, pigs and so forth who ate enough filth to cover the whole earth,
And if, as it is said, the tears I have shed from all this suffering are vaster than an ocean,
I still do not feel any sorrow or fear, do I have a mind made of iron?

Hang on Buddha, we may be thinking, it can’t be that bad. Watching Earthlings, it is not hard to see that it can. The whole of samsara is rotten to the core.

Time to wake upsuperheroes

Hence the need for Buddha Tara and her countless emanations, including us. “Buddha” means Awakened One. We can become an Awakened One ourselves. This need not be a “distant and ethereal goal”, not now when we have access to the wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of reality and the Awakened Ones’ help.

Once we have woken up from the sleep of samsara, and are abiding in the reality of bliss and emptiness — universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — we will be a position to wake everyone else up. What’s the alternative? What lies in store for us if we do not wake up?

I wanted to tell Tara’s story to show what I mean about her fearlessness and cheer you up a bit, but we are out of space. Coming up soon — here in fact! Meanwhile, comments as always are welcome.

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Body image: a Buddhist perspective

Apparently, “body image” is how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror or when we picture ourselves in our mind. And how we think others see us. That sounds about right, as does flowersthe common notion that body image is related to self-esteem at all ages.

No surprises, really, considering we impute or label our sense of self on our body an absurd amount given that we have minds as well – thinking “I am ugly”, “Cor, I’m gorgeous”, “What must they think of my jowls?” And we limit others by identifying them with their bodies too, as explained here, even though all of us are infinitely more deep and interesting than a meaty pile of gristle and sloshing liquids could ever be.

If we are identifying our body as the cornerstone of who we are, basing our worth and value on our physical appearance, we are highly susceptible to insecurity, depression, emotional pain, and lack of self-confidence. And, at whatever age, this in turn interferes with our ability to live a happy, healthy, and productive life.

Selfie faces

I learned a new expression this weekend in Los Angeles – when someone took a photo of a beautiful young woman and me, she yanked the phone right out of his hands and said, “Hey, let me see that, you can’t post it, I need to make it Facebook-ready.” And she wasn’t talking about me, even though I needed a lot more photoshopping than she did. Obsession with the perfect body image has apparently reached epidemic proportions – girls everywhere are doing that duck face and fishy gape thing with their mouths and then photoshopping the image to lose ten pounds before they can possibly release it to their friends, even though their friends see them all the time and presumably aren’t fooled for a second.

Rigpa in Griffith Park.JPG

It’s not just my teenage nieces (who are already perfectly gorgeous without all that make-up if you ask me) – some studies say up to 91% of women are dissatisfied with how they look. (So, well done if you are in the remaining 9%, you’re doing something right 😄 ) Apparently it may be just as many men too, but they don’t want to talk about it – though I have spotted at least a few glancing covertly at themselves in shop windows and sucking in their stomachs. Not that they’ll probably ever do much about that extra weight around the midriff other than feel disappointed, any more than most of the 91% of women. But at least it looks like we are all feeling silently self-disgusted together 😉

Disclaimer aka embarassing story: I’m not even overweight, technically, but I recently found myself drinking only Nutribullet smoothies for several days in an attempt to dislodge some pounds so I could once again zip up the ex-jeans of an impossibly skinny friend, and just generally be more lean and mean. With the result that (1) I was ravenous and light-headed, (2) my smoothies were nowhere near as delicious, let alone filling, as they looked on the box (my carrot juice — how hard is carrot juice?! — was the consistency of cardboard and had to go straight down the sink), and (3) worst of all I found myself unusually preoccupied with the scales. Then one day last week I decided: “To heck with this! What a horrible waste of my energy. I’m just going to eat healthy (hey, lucky I’ve got a Nutribullet!), think about others instead, and let the rest take care of itself.” And then I thought, “I’m going to write an article about this body image thing.”

leonard-cohen-1
RIP Leonard Cohen

Interesting, isn’t it, that we (me) spend almost no time worrying about anyone else’s food intake or weight?! That when someone else (other than my dad) puts on fifteen pounds it’s like, “Meh, you can lose that if you want, no big deal, I can’t even tell”, whereas when we put on five pounds it’s like a freaking catastrophe. The hours thinking about our own physical flaws can add up fast, but we are rarely so concerned about others’. No wonder Geshe Kelsang says that our body is one of the biggest objects of our self-cherishing. This is even when it is healthy, let alone when it is sick or ageing or dying.

So-called “distorted” or “negative body image” is a distorted perception of our shape, leading us to feeling self-conscious or awkward in our own body, and to a greater likelihood of depression, low self-esteem, and an unhealthy relationship with food.

(Sometimes this becomes extreme, as in the case of body dysmorphia and anorexia, in which case professional support is advisable until it is back to manageable levels. Just in case you are listening: You need your body to be healthy to help yourself and others, you are by no means alone in the struggle to get better, you are completely wonderful and wanted and needed, so please, please ask for help.)leonard cohen 2.jpg

In general, with meditation we can learn to dissolve negative thoughts and feelings away, and power up the mind with positive, affirming, and accepting ideas of who we are instead. We can understand that a person’s physical appearance says zero about their real worth, and that the beauty and kindness of the mind is so much more important and fulfilling. This’ll help us feel comfortable and confident in our own body, and not to lose all those fruitless hours to worrying uncontrollably about food or weight or how others are judging us. It’ll also save a ton of time spent on photoshopping, looking in the mirror, and over-the-top diets.

But sometimes we need to loosen our grip on our body first, undermine the bad habit we have of identifying with it so persistently. So, since an exaggerated preoccupation with our body is part of our ignorance that can and does cause a lot of us a lot of problems, it is really helpful to use the meditation on the true nature — the emptiness — of the body to get rid of it. I’d like to look at that in the next couple of articles.

Meantime, comments welcome! What helpful thoughts do you use if you notice you are spending too much time worrying about how you look? If you have never been bothered about it, what is your secret?!

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