Revisiting Compassionate Listening

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In the two years since I first published a post on compassionate listening, I’ve had many opportunities, both personally and professionally, to experience how very essential to our wellbeing and our relationships compassionate listening truly is.

Whether our listening involves another person face to face, on the phone, or via text or email, or just watching a speaker on TV, we can miss a lot if we aren’t giving what we hear (or consume electronically) our full attention. True wisdom mandates we really attend to the other person openly, empathically and with kindness.

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I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging that I experience in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the potentially sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communication to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do. While it can be amusing, as the photo below illustrates, usually communication failure due to hearing problems is far from funny. It’s embarrassing and frustrating and interferes with friendly interactions.

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The second impediment is the increasingly frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with greater frequency. Speakers may pause as they search for certain words or familiar phrases, creating gaps in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy.

Another variation on the word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. image The similarity may be sound (e.g. tractor for factor). It may be the way the word begins or ends (shrimp for sharp), or relate in some other way we cannot fathom as the speaker struggles to get a point across. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The annoyed or frustrated response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t?

Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they grow silent with overwhelm or discouragement, or say, “Forget it!” we might ask, “Want me to try to help you with what you’re trying to say?” If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we probably will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves if we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, in our meditation practice as well as our daily interactions, we will naturally feel more compassion as we listen.

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Namasté

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What is Psychotherapy?

 

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My Manhattan office

In New York City where I practiced for over twenty years, it seemed as if everyone knew what psychotherapy is, even if they hadn’t ever experienced it personally. Occasionally I’d meet with an older patient whose primary physician or psychiatrist had referred them to me for treatment, and they’d say something like, “I don’t know why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do.” A discussion would follow, and soon we’d be “doing psychotherapy” every week. But many elderly people are psychotherapy-savvy, a case in point being a ninety year old woman in New York who had undergone a lengthy psychoanalysis fifty years before she came to me to address a current issue.

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The techniques I have employed throughout my career, including the newer ones I’ve learned along the way, offer the individual an opportunity to explore experiences and articulate thoughts and emotions never before expressed or if so only incompletely. When someone opens up aloud, insights and meanings often become more clear. I also use the session time to offer information, often referred to as psychoeducation, about the science and processes at work with emotion, cognition, memory, identity, consciousness, and perception. Sometimes I explain the mechanism by way certain medications work to alleviate symptoms and why sometimes they cause other problems.

Not long ago, I closed my New York office, after several years of careful planning and preparation, and opened an office in the college town of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I’m fortunate to work with an excellent psychiatrist who sometime refers patients to me, and I find myself explaining again just what psychotherapy is. In the early days, I devote session time to asking questions about the individual’s history, family of origin, and what brings them in. The answer to the latter often is simply, “The doctor said I should see you, so I’m here.” When someone relates certain problems, I will administer a questionnaire to clarify symptoms and experiences.

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So these days, I’m explaining psychotherapy a little more often, and helping shed a light on experiences that have baffled, frightened, confounded or annoyed my patients. I’m describing how certain medications treat depression and why they aren’t good for people with the mood swings of bipolar disorder. I’m cataloging symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and helping patients gauge how much those symptoms interfere with functioning and their overall quality of life. Sometimes just asking a question about obsessions triggers access to a deeper emotional issue never before spoken to another. As I was psychodynamically trained, I enjoy helping a patient explore a dream for its value in clarifying issues, past and current. I take my role as therapist and guide along this most challenging journey very seriously.

As we prepared to move out of New York, I considered retiring. For about five minutes. I got a late start on my career as a psychologist so there’s a practical, financial incentive to continue, but there’s an even more important reason I am still actively working as a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy: I love the work. I enjoy meeting new people and sitting down with them to see what we can do together to alleviate their distress, resolve their conflicts, arrive at healthier alternatives to their problematic habits and behaviors, and find greater and deeper meaning in their lives, both in terms of the past, the present, and into the future.

I find it to be a great blessing helping people traverse very intense points on their path, such as dating, marriage or divorce; pregnancy, miscarriage, or birth; seeking, losing, improving or getting new jobs; illness, accident, treatment, death and grief, and as the late death and dying pioneer Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, acceptance. Acceptance of what has been and of what is, even when we wish it were different. Acceptance of what we’ve done and who we are, and acceptance of our ability to learn and grow and change despite the past, even though it can be extremely challenging and a lot of hard work.

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I alway end these posts with the Sanskrit word namasté, which basically means, “The goodness in me bows to the goodness in you.” And so it is.

Namasté,

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Many Changes, Most Good, Some Hard

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We are relocating, sort of. We are transitioning from Brooklyn, New York part time to northeastern Pennsylvania full time. To say this is a challenge, a monumental adjustment, would be an understatement. This moving is a huge challenge, even though the apartment has been sold furnished, as we strain every muscle, mental as well as physical. Living nearly 25 years in one small city apartment, it would seem a cinch for us to pack up our gear and go. Not so. Stuff hides behind every closet and cupboard door, cubbyhole and forgotten cache spot. We probably put this off too long, but ever since we went into contract we’ve boxed, stuffed, toted, schlepped, donated, discarded and given away a ton of stuff. Nearly all of it carried down three flights of stairs ourselves. Maybe our “never” was we thought we’d never move. Or we thought it would never be this hard, or we never considered the result of bringing new stuff home.

It is really freeing to get rid of excess belongings. The issue was having double of almost everything to make shuttling back and forth the 100 miles or so every week less daunting. So we’ve made at least one and often more trips to the Salvation Army with shoes, clothing, dishes and kitchenware, and other assorted stuff we don’t need. Then there is the quandry of whether or not to keep any winter things. We both elected to keep some winter boots and outerwear, just in case we get surprised by an early snowstorm before heading to our winter snowbird nest, or a late one after we return.

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Earlier this year–or was it late last year?–I ordered an assortment of heirloom seeds from the Grommet, produced by the Hudson Valley Seed Library, a small business devoted to preserving and proliferating the wonderful, flavorful heirloom plants as they were before hybridization and genetic modification “improved” them for us. They are awesome seeds, and I can’t wait to see what they yield for me, a gardener who has relied on garden store seedlings for years. I bought seeds for Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato, Swiss Chard, Italian Parsley, Basil and Scallions. I planted them last weekend in my 4′ x 8′ raised bed plot in our community garden. I also planted a couple of big tomato plants from the nursery near us to get a start on this process. There’s nothing tastier than homegrown tomatoes!

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Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

I am opening a new, spacious psychotherapy office next month in the college town of East Stroudsburg, with Pocono Psychiatric Associates. I plan to offer groups once I get settled. This is awesome and very exciting for me,  especially as one who has paid an arm and a leg and another arm for a very small, high-floor Manhattan office that could barely fit me, a client and one other person. The people there are wonderful and I welcome this new phase of my career. Challenges are terminating with clients I will sorely miss, getting my Medicare provider credentials set up for Pennsylvania, changing my address with a myriad of business and personal correspondence entities, and dealing with people who don’t handle change very well. Even if it is wonderful and exciting.Talking to myself here, too.

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On a brighter note, our local seasonal local ice cream stand has dairy-free vanilla soft-serve this year! How cool is that? I had my first dipped vanilla cone in over 5 years last weekend. I’ve been vegan at least that long, imperfect but sincere. And they offer some 24 different flavors that can be added to it. I can see have some tasty work ahead of me!

So out goes the old, mingled with the newer, in with the fresh, and learning new things every single day! Today it was figuring out how to send a fax from home, not an intuitive effort when the phone line is part of the cable package. It’s raining like cats and dogs, as per usual at this time of year. For the second year in a row, the opening events of the tennis season here have been postponed, leaving game-hungry tennis bums thoroughly bummed.

So just one more challenging change. Blue highlights!

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Namasté

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The Heart Sutra

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can invite the right spiritual energy into our lives and our being by beginning each day with reading the Heart Sutra (formally called The Perfect Wisdom of the Heart Sutra) or by chanting the brief mantra associated with it. This sutra reminds us that all aspects of life as we live it now as mortal beings are transitory. Form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are all emptiness. It means, as this Buddhist psychologist attempts to comprehend it, that we are free, if we are willing to exercise that freedom, to disregard and stop worrying about appearance, the ageing process, and death. Appearance will fade, ageing will occur, and death will come. To every living thing.

The Perfect Wisdom of the Heart Sutra*

When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita,
he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty,
and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.

Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness;
emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.
So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.

Shariputra, all Dharmas are empty of characteristics.
They are not produced, not destroyed, not defiled, not pure;
and they neither increase nor diminish.
Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness;
no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind;
no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or Dharmas;
no field of the eyes up to and including no field of mind consciousness;
and no ignorance or ending of ignorance,
up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death.
There is no suffering, no accumulating, no extinction, and no Way,
and no understanding and no attaining.

Because nothing is attained,
the Bodhisattva through reliance on Prajna Paramita is unimpeded in his mind.
Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid,
and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind.
Ultimately Nirvana!
All Buddhas of the three periods of time attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi
through reliance on Prajna Paramita.
Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is a Great Spiritual Mantra,
a Great Bright Mantra, a Supreme Mantra, an Unequalled Mantra.
It can remove all suffering; it is genuine and not false.
That is why the Mantra of Prajna Paramita was spoken. Recite it like this:

Gaté Gaté Paragaté Parasamgaté

Bodhi Svaha!

End of The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra

* translation attributed to the Buddhist Text Society, and available online here: http://www.dharmabliss.org/audio/heartsutra-engtext.htm

 

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If you would like to hear this sutra recited as it is done in some Buddhist sanghas, intoned rhythmically, the video below will provide it.  It is also helpful if you wish to know how to pronounce the mantra. As the esteemed Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has said, one translation of the mantra is,

Om

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond

Gone Completely Beyond

Awake, So Be It!

 

Reading or reciting the Heart Sutra daily can do wonders for our perspective on our lives. We can use it during our meditation or at any other time when we can take a moment to read or recite it. I put it into my iPhone as a PDF and read it from iBooks while riding the subway each morning, a wonderful way to jump-start a busy workday.  The Heart Sutra reminds us how fleeting are our characteristics of form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, and this practice redirects our attention to more salient matters.

Namaste

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Overcoming Obstacles to Meditation

Image courtesy of Kelledia's Garden

Image courtesy of Kelledia’s Garden

Meditation is so important to me. I often share my commitment to meditation with friends, family and sometimes psychotherapy patients and guidance clients. It is my hope to spark sufficient interest in the practice that others might try meditation for themselves and find the many blessings from the practice that I have received. Some tell me they already have a practice, and this nourishes my happiness. Others express a willingness to meditate and I suggest how they can begin. Others still give me reasons why meditation is no good for them, tell me how they tried and they could not do it, or give a critical take on the practice from afar. I decided to address these obstacles to embracing the practice of meditation. Perhaps you have heard these reasons from others or said them yourself. Let’s see what we can do with them here.

FAQs

Meditation is too passive for me. I’m a action person. Why should I  sit there doing nothing?

Meditation actually is very active. We sit and in doing so we engage various muscles throughout the body to help ourselves remain upright. Some of us even find that our bodies sway as we sit deep in our practice. There are many postures adopted by people who meditate: Lotus position, Half-Lotus position, Burmese posture, sitting or kneeling with a seiza (meditation bench), sitting on a zabuton (meditation mat) with or without a zafu (round cushion), chair sitting, and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Chrysanthemum Pose (any position that is comfortable for you). I urge anyone who is curious about these poses and the words that describe them to research them. Images and descriptions abound online.

We sit and we breathe in and out, perhaps with a mantra, and let our thoughts drift. Our goal is to notice our thoughts but not engage them. Naturally we find ourselves distracted by our thoughts and engaging them without realizing we are doing so. When we become aware we are doing this, we return to our breath or our mantra. When we manage to begin to sit for 15 or 20 minutes, and especially if we sit longer, when we get back to our feet our muscles will tell us that we have been engaged in an activity.

There’s nowhere in my place where I can have peace and quiet. I can hear the TV and people talking, and I find myself listening to the words and not meditating. How do I meditate with noise around me?

It is a myth that in order to meditate we need complete silence. If we are distractible, and many of us are, we can mask the distracting sounds with white noise or other sounds that can enhance meditation. I often use music such as Zen flute songs, chanting, New Age sounds, and Tibetan singing bowls from an iTunes meditation playlist I’ve developed over time. I also use nature sounds such as surf, waterfall, wind chimes, or crackling fire as white noise, or a combination of two of these. I recommend the Tune In Radio and Calm Radio apps for this purpose, although some selections involve intermittent interruptions inviting paid subscriptions, which can be worth it if it helps you. I find these work well to create an island of serene sound in which to meditate.

My thoughts race and next thing I know I’m all worried about something, no matter how hard I try to focus on my breathing or mantra. I’m no good at meditation. I just can’t do it. Why should I try again?

You are meditating even when you become distracted. Meditation is not about reaching a state of mindless bliss where nothing happens in your head. Meditation is about being mindful of your thoughts and staying above the fray where you don’t engage them. However, since we all do it in meditation, the key is not to react with shame or a sense of hopelessness, but to respond with awareness of having strayed from the focal point of breath or mantra and return to it. We will do this many times in our meditation sessions. The key is to come back to the process of meditating. Just keep doing it and know you are doing it.

You don’t understand. I sit down, set the intention to meditate for 5 minutes, maybe even set a timer. Next thing I know I’m in the kitchen making a cup of tea. If I hear the bell of the timer, I am clueless. I have totally forgotten I was trying to meditate. I feel that I’m a failure at meditation. What’s wrong with me?

When this happens, you may be dissociating. It’s possible that sitting in this way triggers a sense of vulnerability and then anxiety, and for some people that’s all it takes to switch their attention from the “meditation channel” to something else. If that happens to you, I suggest putting a Post-It note somewhere you’re sure to notice it near where you intend to sit to meditate. On the note you can write something like, “At 2:10 p.m. I am sitting to meditate for 10 minutes.” When you “come to” with no clue, this can reorient you back into the intention. You can re-enter your meditation if you wish, or you can leave it for a later time. People with chronic dissociative symptoms often have difficulty with meditation until they reach some consensus within that this activity is both safe and desirable. Many people who suffer from extreme dissociation find that addressing this in therapy is helpful. Until you feel more at ease meditating, I consider every attempt, however brief and after however long a hiatus, to be a goal reached successfully. Celebrate it!

Meditation isn’t for me. It’s for monks and New-Agey, hippie, punk people, not for me. I don’t care about enlightenment. I just want to reduce my stress. The trouble is, I don’t want to take drugs to do that. I wish there were something natural I could do to reduce my stress. What can I do?

Good news! While some meditation is overtly spiritual in nature and many enjoy it as such, there is a secular form of meditation that can be very effective in reducing disturbing feelings such as stress and certain health issues related to stress. In fact, this technique is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Watch the video and see what you think:

Want to know more? Check out this MBSR Workbook. Or search online for more information. A friend began meditating after learning MBSR at a clinic where she was being treated for health issues  exacerbated by stress. She found MBSR very helpful. She has since begun Buddhist meditation, saying she felt she needed a more spiritual form of meditation.

How can I motivate myself to meditate? I want to make meditation a regular part of my life, but I get so discouraged when days go by and I am either too busy, too lazy or too unwilling to take the time to sit and do it.

 Graphic by DannaRay on Etsy


Graphic by Danna Ray on Etsy

Most of us need some encouragement to start a habit. By the way, it only takes from 14 to 21 days of doing something for consecutive days to establish a habit. Why not try to establish the habit of meditating? Then you will be more inclined to make the effort. But about getting motivated,  here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Ask a friend who meditates to encourage you, and then perhaps arrange to call, text or email him or her that you are going to sit, and then call or send another message after you’ve done it. Some call this “book-ending” and it can really help us do things we seem to have an aversion to doing, even when we have a desire to do it.
  2. Start a journal, on paper, on your computer or mobile device, or online. I have used the Insight Timer app with its great journal function for years. It’s a wonderful tool and at the end of every session you complete using its timer, it offers you the option of writing in its journal, which remains private on your device. There is also a robust online community on the app with many fellow meditators around the world joining you when you sit. Periodically you will receive notifications that you’ve meditated for so many days, weeks, months or years, and get colored stars. That can be a great motivator for some people.
  3. Read a good book about meditation. I recommend Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, by Thich Nhat Hanh. There are concise, simple directions on how to start meditating. Depending on your goals, there are a number of ways suggested in the book, and any of them can help you get going.
Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

However you begin to meditate, I hope you will try it for yourself. I have found great peace of mind every day from my personal practice. I hope you will too. Just face those obstacles head-on and have a seat!

Namaste

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Celebrating the Metta Sutta

Metta Sutta

The Metta Sutta is dharma from The Buddha to guide those of us who follow his teachings in the manner in which we ought to manage our attitudes, our intentions and our actions in all areas of life. This translation is the “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8) translated from the Pali by The Amavarati Sangha.  Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html

We can begin by reading the Metta Sutta often. We can post a copy of it on the wall of our home or office where we can see and be reminded of its powerful sentiments throughout the day. I created the poster of the Karaniya Metta Sutta you see above using one of my own photographs for this very purpose in my life. When we sit to meditate, we can read the text and reflect on the words as we focus on our breathing, and we can aspire to the sentiments for ourselves, our loved ones, those with whom we have or have had conflict, and lastly for all beings everywhere, in every status of existence. Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala) explains this in detail and offers exercises with which to begin to implement the Metta Sutta. I highly recommend the book to anyone wishing to bring loving kindness into fruition more fully in his or her life.

We can realize profound psychological benefits from practicing Metta, or Loving Kindness, meditation.

  • We begin to have loving thoughts towards ourselves. This is huge and very healing for any of us who suffers low self-esteem, shame, guilt or insecurity. This is not a negative selfishness but an empowering, enlightened self-interest. It is not possible to revile the self and exalt others with heartfelt sincerity. We must allow ourselves to receive self-love, self-acceptance, hopefulness for and on behalf of ourselves, and to desire to experience joy and happiness, even as we experience the inevitable suffering life brings. Only then are we capable of feeling love, acceptance, hopefulness, and wishes for joy and happiness on behalf of any other being.
  • We expand on the love we already perceive for our family and other loved ones. This allows us to focus mindfully on them while wishing goodness for them, just as we wish it for ourselves. This aspect of Metta can soothe the conflict that arises in even the most loving relationships when we feel misunderstood, taken for granted, abused or exploited. Sometimes the other person needs our loving kindness more than our scolding or our rebuke, even when we feel the least like providing that loving kindness.
  • We wish for goodness for even those with whom we’ve experienced great conflict, felt anger, carried resentment, or harbored negative emotions, intentions, judgments or sentiments. When we do this, we are freeing ourselves from the toxic poisons those negative thoughts and feelings imbue in us, toxic poisons that can be addictive in their own right. When we begin to wish positive aspirations for those enemy persons, we are freeing ourselves from optional suffering, right then. Recently I practiced Metta on behalf of a public figure for whom I had felt anger due to the appearance of corruption and abuse of power. When I did this, I felt a sense of relief.
  • We wish for freedom from suffering for all beings, and that includes non-human animals as well as those persons living and not-yet-living, as the Metta Sutta says. We wish for goodness for people we know and those we will never meet, and this positive energy is very powerful.

I recommend savoring the Great Bell Chant that features Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh chanting and speaking a message of Metta. This video is beautiful and can bring peace to anyone who allows the sound to envelope his or her being, if even for a few minutes.

Loving kindness practice is a process. We allow ourselves to begin it, with no particular expectation, no mandate to get there by a certain date or time, but to simply begin, if and when we wish to begin it. And until we do, many practitioners of Metta around the world are wishing it for us, as they do for all other beings

I suggest you try Metta meditation for yourself. Please comment on this post to let us know what happens for you. Or feel free to contact me via either of my websites listed on the About page.

Namaste

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