One of the nice things about meditation is that when we sit with these moments as they arise, we start to trust in them and in the dark grace.
After meditating with my first meditation teacher, Arvis, for some time, I decided to do a weeklong silent Zen meditation retreat. Arvis said, “I feel good about a teacher named Jakusho Kwong up at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. Maybe that would be a good place for you to go.” I was excited to experience an authentic retreat in a Zen Buddhist temple with all the accoutrements — the bells, the robes, the rituals, the whole thing.
I got there in the late afternoon, and the retreat was scheduled to start in the early evening. After we had dinner, we went into the Zendo for the first meditation session. It was a very formal place, and I had no idea what the etiquette was. There was minimal instruction, so I learned what I was supposed to be doing by watching other people, which heightened my awareness right away. I sat down on my cushion with all my gleeful anticipation about this experience as the temple bell was struck three times to begin the period of meditation.
As soon as that bell rang, adrenaline flooded my body. It was not fear, but my whole system went into fight-or-flight mode. All I could think was, How do I get out of here? Let me out of here! which is silly because five seconds earlier I was thrilled about being there.
Fortunately, a small, quiet voice inside me said, You have no idea how important this is. You must stay. So even though I had adrenaline rushes twenty-four hours a day for five days and nights in a row, I did not sleep throughout the entire retreat, and I contemplated leaving many times, I managed to hang in there — barely — and finish. Not an auspicious beginning for a future spiritual teacher, but that is what happened. I never knew exactly why I had that reaction, but I have a hunch. When you undertake a retreat like that, something deep within you knows, Oh, boy, the jig is up now. This is not make-believe. This is the real thing. Something in me knew that this was going to be a complete life reorientation. I did not realize this consciously, but unconsciously my ego reacted as if threatened: This is it. This guy is considering the nature of his own being as far as the egoic impulse running the rest of life.
In some ways, my first retreat was a disaster. The only thing that got me through was a mantra I came up with on the second day. Thousands of times over those five nights and days, I said to myself: I will never, ever, ever do this again. That was my big spiritual mantra!
One of the things that impressed me during that retreat was that Kwong — the roshi, or teacher — gave a talk each day, and that talk was my respite because I got to sit and listen and be entertained. It was a relief from the bone-jarring meditation, the never-ending silence, and the pain in my knees and back. Kwong had recently returned from a trip to India that had a huge impact on him. I could tell because as he was recounting stories about his trip, tears streamed down his cheeks and dripped off the bottom of his chin.
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One story especially touched me. Kwong was walking on a dirt road through an impoverished area. There were some kids playing a game with a ball and a stick out in the middle of the road. One kid stood apart from the group, as if ostracized. This boy was watching the kids play and had a sad look on his face. He had a cleft palate, so his upper lip was severely deformed. Kwong walked up to the boy, but they did not speak the same language, so he did not know what to say. There was a moment of indecision, and then Kwong took the boy’s hand in his and with his other hand reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. He pointed to a little shop that sold ice cream and gave the money to the boy. I thought it was a sweet way of giving a little comfort and acknowledging this poor kid’s existence, his loneliness.
As Kwong did this, he gestured to the group of children that seemed to have rejected the boy as if to say, “Go get them and buy them ice cream.” He had given the child enough money to buy treats for all the kids. The boy waved to them and pointed toward the ice cream shop, and all the children joined this one kid who had been lonely and sad. Suddenly he was the hero! He had money and was buying ice cream for everybody. The kids were laughing and talking with him. He was included in their group.
Kwong sat in full lotus position on his cushion in his beautiful brown teacher’s robes and told this story in a resonant, soft voice, deeply touched by the poverty that he saw and by the loneliness of that child. He never hid his tears, and he never seemed embarrassed by his emotion. Watching another man embody this juxtaposition of great strength and tenderness taught me more about true masculinity than anything else in my life. Hearing him speak with such fearlessness was extraordinary. For a young, aspiring Zen student, to have this be my first encounter with a Zen master was a tremendous stroke of good luck and grace, especially since during this whole retreat, except for the talks, I was hanging on by a thread. I continued to study with Kwong, did some retreats with him over the years, and appreciated his great wisdom, but I never again saw him in the state he was in on that first retreat. His openness and dignity were a powerful teaching — it was like being bathed in grace.
Since then I have attended and led hundreds of retreats, but I still look back on that first one with Kwong as both the absolute worst and absolute best in my life. I did not know how powerfully it had affected me until months later. Staying with whatever arose for me despite being flooded with adrenaline, sitting with it in a raw way through all those hours of meditation instead of running away, was profound. When you are having that experience, when you are being pushed to your limit, you do not think of it as grace, but the real grace was that I was in that environment. I was in a place where I could not go anywhere, where I could not turn on the TV or listen to the radio or grab a book or enter a discussion. I had to face the entirety of my experience. Afterward, when I tried to describe the retreat to people, I would end up in tears — not tears of sadness or even of joy, but of depth. I had touched upon something that was so meaningful, vital, and important that it opened my heart.
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Meditation Helps You Feel Your Feelings
As we go through life, we eventually have enough experience to see that sometimes profound difficulty can also be profoundly heart opening. When you are in a tough position, when you are facing something hard, when you feel challenged, when you feel like you are at your edge, it is a gift to have the willingness to stop, to sit with those moments, and not to look for the quick, easy resolution for that feeling. It is a kind of grace to be able and willing to open yourself entirely to the experience of challenge, of difficulty, and of insecurity.
There is light grace, and there is dark grace. Light grace is when you have a revelation — when you have insights. Awakening is a light grace; it is like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. The heart opens, and old identities fall away. Then there is dark grace, like what I had on that retreat. I do not mean “dark” in the sense of sinister or evil, but “dark” in the sense of traveling through the darkness looking for light. You cannot see the way through whatever you are experiencing and whatever the challenge is. One of the most amazing things that daily meditation has taught me over many years is to have the wisdom and grace to quietly and silently be with whatever presents itself, whatever is there, without looking for a solution or an explanation.
To see yourself is the heart of what a spiritual discipline like meditation is all about. When people come on retreat with me, we meditate for five or six periods a day. The idea of meditation is not necessarily to get good at it — whatever your definition may be of being “good” at meditation — but the most important thing, the useful thing, the reason we are meditating is so that we encounter ourselves. If you are not using your meditation to hide from your experience or to transcend it or to concentrate your way out of it, if you are being quietly present, meditation forces honesty. It is an extraordinarily truthful way to experience yourself in that moment. This willingness to encounter yourself is vitally important. It is a key to spiritual life and to awakening: being present for whatever is. Sometimes “whatever is” is mundane; sometimes it is full of light, grace, and insight; and sometimes it begins as a dark grace, where we do not know where we are going or how to get through it, and then suddenly there is light.
One of the nice things about meditation is that when we sit with these moments as they arise, we start to trust in them and in the dark grace. We realize that it is in feeling lost that our true nature finds itself. In meditation we encounter ourselves, and it elicits a real honesty if we are ready for it. You can read about things forever, you can listen to talks forever, and you can assume that you understand or that you have got it, but if you can be with yourself in a quiet way without running away, that is the necessary honesty. When we can do nothing and be extraordinarily happy and at peace with that, we have found tranquility within ourselves.
Through experience, we find we can trust the moments when we do not know which way to go, when we feel like we will never have the answers. We know we can stop there and listen. This is the heart of meditation: it is the act of listening in a deep way. You could boil all of spirituality down to the art and practice of listening to nothing and trusting in the difficulty. That is what I learned on that first retreat. It taught me that a direct encounter with challenge is a doorway to accessing our depth, coming face-to-face with our most important thing, and being able to trust in the unfolding of our life.
As a teacher, one of the things I see is the failure of people to trust their lives — their problems and sometimes even their successes. It is a failure to trust that their life is its own teacher, that within the exact way their human life is expressing itself lies the highest wisdom, and that they can access it if they can sit still and listen. If they can sink into themselves, their own nobody-ness, and allow difficulty to strip them of their somebody-ness, then they can do away with the masks of their persona. Spiritually speaking, this is exactly what we want: to remove the masks. Sometimes we take them off willingly, sometimes they fall away, and sometimes they are torn off.
Unmasking is the spiritual path. It is not about creating new masks — not even spiritual masks. It is not about going from being a worldly person to a spiritual person or trading a spiritual ego for a materialistic ego. It is a matter of authenticity and of the capacity to trust life, even if life has been tremendously tough. It is stopping right where you are and entering profound listening, availability, and openness. If you feel wonderful, you feel wonderful; if you feel lost, you feel lost, but you can trust in being lost. You can do this without talking to yourself about it and without creating a story around it. We must find that capacity to trust ourselves and to trust our life — all of it, whatever it is — because that is what allows the light to shine and revelation to arise.
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We see it when we stop and listen, not with our ears and not with our mind, but with our heart, with a tender and intimate quality of awareness that opens us beyond our conditioned ways of experiencing any moment. My first retreat, as difficult as it was, taught me that the most amazing things can come out of the most difficult experiences if we dedicate ourselves to showing up for the situation. That is the heart of meditation and the heart of what it takes to discover who and what we are as we turn away from external things and toward the source of love, the source of wisdom, the source of freedom and happiness within. That is where you will find your most important thing.
Excerpted from The Most Important Thing: Discovering Truth at the Heart of Life by Adyashanti. Copyright ©2018 by Adyashanti. Published by Sounds True in January 2019.
6 Breath Practices for a Stressful Day at Work
Try these pranayama techniques at your desk to feel centered and calm when your job gets hectic.
Work is often a huge source of stress in our lives. Whether you’re trying to meet unrealistic deadlines, manage a high workload, or handle a conflict with a boss or co-worker, it can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.
When things start to feel out of control at work, one of the simplest things you can do to calm your nervous system and improve your state of mind is to take a few moments to shift your focus to your breath. Better yet, take five for pranayama, or breathwork, right at your desk. Pranayama, which means controlling your breath and its energies, can be a powerful reset for your body and mind.
See also 30 Yoga Sequences to Reduce Stress
Research suggests that a regular pranayama practice can improve brain health and attention, which means you’ll be better able to tackle the tasks and challenges ahead.
Typically, your breath will become more shallow and rapid when you’re feeling stressed. So, it’s best to use the pranayama techniques that slow down your breath in order to quiet your mind, improve concentration, and ease anxiety, stress, or agitation.
See also Yoga for Stress and Burnout
To help you manage the daily grind, here are six breathing practices to try at the office when you’re having a rough day.
These pranayama exercises are not just limited to work-related stress, but also are applicable to other areas where stress might come up in your life. So, practice as little or as often as you like. The time you take to focus on your breath also gives you the space to gain clarity and return to a more neutral state of well-being.
Here’s What Happened When I Tried Mantra Meditation During The Hardest Month of My Life
Hint: It helped. A lot.
If someone would’ve told me back in December that the first month of 2019 would be the hardest of my life, I probably would’ve thought twice before signing up for Yoga Journal’s 30-day meditation challenge. Because let’s be honest: Meditation is the exact opposite of running away from your problems. Instead, it inspires you to sit your butt down right in the middle of those problems and face your resulting emotions head on.
In January, all I wanted to do was run away from my ongoing relationship problems, self smack-talk, and most significantly, the immense sadness from the death of my beloved aunt.
See also YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
Yet even though there were many days that stared at my cushion with pure, unadulterated resentment, or put off my practice until the end of the day, I can honestly say that the practice completely transformed how I handled some of the most challenging times I’ve ever faced. It not only gave me the space to confront my feelings, but it also helped me learn how to take care of myself along the way.
Introducing Myself to Mantra Meditation
I’ve been consistently meditating for a little over a year now, practicing everything from guided 10-minute meditations on the Calm app to classes at MNDFL meditation studio in New York City. However, I would say my relationship with meditation didn’t become a real commitment until I got a meditation cushion for my apartment about five months ago. It’s dramatically changed my practice, which used to happen in my bed. (You can imagine how that went on the days I was tired.)
Even though I had heard positive things about mantra meditation—a practice where you silently repeat a mantra, which you either choose for yourself or is given to you during an initiation—I was pretty intimidated by it. However, when I spoke with Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace, he told me that mantra, just like asana or pranayama, is simply a tool used to alter the consciousness. “When practicing with a mantra, it’s important to say the mantra aloud first, so that you can feel the sound vibrations in the body,” he told me.
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As a somewhat experienced meditator, mantra meditation was still very new to me. I didn’t really have a plan to choose a mantra, but after practicing alongside Hilary Jackendoff in a guided meditation video, she helped me discover “So Hum,” which means “I am that.” Finger mentioned that different mantras can be used for different feelings, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and more, but this mantra felt pretty versatile, so I stuck with it.
Jackendoff taught us to meditate with the mantra, using the breath. On every inhalation, I would silently say the word “So.” On every exhalation, I would silently say the word “Hum.” I’m used to meditating with my breath, so this seemed doable.
Week 1: When Sh!t Hits the Fan, It’s Time to Sit
Disclaimer: I didn’t meditate at all the first two days of January. I also didn’t work out or eat healthy (some of the habits I stick with regularly). I was feeling really down on myself, because January is supposed to be a time to start new habits, eat clean, and get fit—and I felt like I blew it already. It sounds ridiculous, but that is my thought process sometimes. When my good habits don’t happen, I tend to beat myself up.
Then, as I was working at my laptop on the third day of January, I had a thought and told myself: You can sit here, work, and feel miserable—or you can take a 20-minute break, step away from your laptop, and meditate.
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It took everything in me to walk upstairs and grab my cushion, but I was desperate to feel better, so that’s exactly what I did.
Week 2: When “I am that” becomes “I am love”
After my first week of mantra meditation, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Suddenly, my goals for the new year weren’t tied to perfecting myself through diet and exercise, but instead, doing something every day that made me feel loved—and meditation became that thing. I switched my mantra. Instead of silently repeating So Hum, I started repeating “I am” on every inhalation and “love” on every exhalation. I found myself looking forward to making a cup of tea, plopping down on my cushion, and sitting for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Having a week of solid practice under my belt really helped me for what was to come. Because my theme for 2019 is self-love, I became hyper aware of my relationships—with myself and with others. My boyfriend and I got into an argument in the beginning of the month and I wasn’t able to let it go. Every time we tried to talk about it, we couldn’t come to a fair conclusion.
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During the second week of my meditation, the lingering argument kept coming up in my meditation. I would sit on the cushion, silently repeat my mantra, and cry. How could I practice “I am love” if I didn’t feel loved? How could I love him if I kept beating myself up?
So, what did I do? I continued to sit, to cry, and to come back to my breath. Giving myself that space during meditation allowed me to tap into what I was really feeling. It also gave me the space to go to my boyfriend later that week with a calm heart. Instead of arguing, we were able to have a productive conversation. I truly believe that if I didn’t give myself that space, we would still be arguing today about the same thing.
Weeks 3 and 4: Sitting with Sadness
For the past eight months, my beloved aunt had been living with metastatic breast cancer—the terminal kind. On January 21, she passed away.
A few days before her death, I my mom called me to let me know it was time to come home. I took a bus from New York City to Maryland on the morning of January 21 and repeated my mantra for about 25 minutes. An hour into my journey, my brother texted me to tell me that my aunt had passed away.
See also Spiritual Leader Ram Dass on Zen and the Art of Dying
In the days following my aunt’s death, I felt so much hurt I didn’t even realize was possible. Every time I came to my meditation cushion, I would cry, breathe, and simply sit in a feeling of numbness. The cushion gave me space—to feel sad, to mourn, to feel angry, and sometimes, to do nothing. Every time I came back to my mantra—“I am love”—I remembered that my aunt wouldn’t want me to live in grief and sadness. It was inevitable to feel these emotions, sure. But I realized the only way these feelings would pass is if I really felt them.
The difference I noticed thanks to my new mantra meditation practice happened when I wasn’t on my cushion. Every single day after my aunt passed, I would ask myself how I could bring a little more love into my day. Some days that meant resting and watching movies with my mom. Other days that meant working out, going for a long walk, or spending time with friends.
Moving Forward with Mantra
Now that it’s February, I still hold my mantra in my heart. I still ask myself every day, “How can you bring more love into your day?” or “What will make you feel more loved?” I think I will continue to keep my mantra in my practice until something else seems like a better fit. Just as Finger told me, there’s a mantra for everything—and I look forward to discovering more mantras as my life’s journey, and all its ups and downs, unfolds.
See also Why Does Meditation Make You Feel So Rested?
How a Daily Chakra Meditation Unlocked More Time and Space in My Life
One yogi never had enough hours in the day to tend to it all, much less herself. Here’s how this regular Tantric practice inspired a change.
As a yogi, I’ve grasped the concept of abundance—intellectually. But as someone easily whacked out of balance by overbearing personalities or overwhelming workloads, I’ve never been entirely convinced that the universe could accommodate both my needs and virtually anything else at hand. Things get crowded quickly. My chest tightens and hip flexors grip; I ditch plans to practice yoga, stop making nourishing meals, and skip dates to connect with dear friends—or, most importantly, myself.
It may all go back to growing up in a Greek household, which involved what I’ll generously call a spirited communication style. Somehow, stillness and peace were elusive in a two-story home with big bedrooms and a finished basement. And this perceived lack of space spilled into an underlying, unchecked zero-sum mentality that has shaped my perspective ever since.
In early college, roommates and I lamented the supposed dearth of eligible partners in the dating scene. When peers sustained relationships, I’d shake my head and say, “they’re stealing from the sex pot,” as though, like a soup special on a cold day, our campus could just run out of love.
Last year, a yoga teacher and I showed up for a filming project and both felt under the weather. By mid-afternoon, I’d recovered; “I used up all the good vibes when you needed it most!” I joked. She (kindly) reminded me that there is an infinite source of healing for all.
This isn’t exactly what I thought I’d confront as I embarked on YJ’s month-long challenge to practice a chakra meditation every day. Finding calm? Sure. Less stress? Looked forward to that. Spiritual ecstasy? If I’m lucky, great—but not a must. Instead, it was time to take a look at my internal space-time continuum.
See also YJ’s March Meditation Challenge Will Help You Stick to a Steady Practice
Balancing the Chakras
The 31-day challenge began without ceremony on New Year’s Day in Brussels, where my partner and I were visiting family. I sat in the unmade guest bed, welcomed a purring Chartreux voluntarily curled up in my lap, and fired up a 20-minute guided chakra meditation from legendary Tantra teacher Sally Kempton.
New to chakras? Here’s a quick primer: Chakras are whirling forces of subtle energy associated with different aspects of the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. There are 7 (of many more) chakras primarily taught in yoga, and this is what they stand for:
- Muladhara (Root): Earth, security, home, finances
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water, creativity, sexuality
- Manipura (Solar Plexus): Fire, sense of self
- Anahata (Heart): Air, love
- Visuddha (Throat): Space, communication from the heart’s truth
- Ajna (Third Eye): Light, intuition
- Sahasrara (Crown): Bliss, divine connection
(You can get sucked into learning more about the chakras here.)
They are strung along the sushumna nadi, a central channel of life force that runs from the base of the spine through the crown of the head. The idea is that balancing the chakras—by focusing breath, mantras (sounds), yantras (shapes), imagery, and colors in their respective locations along this totem—allows you to access this sacred streak of energy.
When I asked Sally about what happens when (and if) you open the central channel, she dangled a taste of nonduality. In Tantra, reality is a universe in which everyone is one with the divine. “You can become aware that your body is a formless, vast undulating center full of light and bliss,” she said. “It’s a fairly dramatic experience.”
It all sounds esoteric, so I wouldn’t expect everyone to embrace it. But I’d microdosed on chakra practices for over 15 years, so I was ready to dive in. When I was 20, I found a random chakra book in my East Village sublet and journaled a root chakra affirmation that resonated: “I am safe, I trust in the natural flow of life, I take my natural place in the world content in the knowledge that all I need will come to me in the right time and place.” Years later, within the context of a vigorous flow, Seane Corn presented the chakras as a psychological roadmap for growth.
Then I met Tantra and Kriya masters Alan and Sarah Finger, who truly brought the chakras to light and offered concrete techniques to harmonize them. They also answered a good question: How do you actually locate a chakra? For me, bija (seed) mantras were the entry point; if I focused enough, repeating the staccato sounds (such as lam for the root chakra) help me trace a pulse in a specific location (pelvic floor).
Even so, beaming awareness and imagery to ambiguous areas in my body required concentration and good faith. As a result, the neurotic part of my brain didn’t focus on the usual storylines: deadlines, challenges, or omg how much time is left in this meditation?! I was lulled by the mantras’ vibrations, and all the visualizations inspired my imagination—a boon for anyone who spends too much time in Type-A territory.
There was a misstep when I first imagined elements—earth, water, fire, space, light, bliss—associated with each chakra. Before Brussels, I’d traveled to Rome, so my mind conjured scenes from the Colosseum: snarled roots in its underbelly; water rising in the amphitheater… I quickly decided not to instill scenes from such an infamous space.
Instead I coaxed meaningful imagery: Strong roots holding up the mermaid-like mahogany trees I’d seen on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula; emerald lakes tucked into rarely trekked valleys of the Sierra Nevada that I’d swam in; the pulse of my apartment stove’s burner enacting a flame in my belly; a tiny flame on a stick of palo santo in my heart center. A Magritte sky in my throat, leading to a golden hour light spilling in from my third eye and crown.
Watch also: What, Exactly, Are the Chakras? Alan Finger Explains
How the Chakras Created Space in My Body, Mind… and Life
Right away things shifted. I was still on holiday when my coworkers began trickling back into the office. Although I still checked my email—it may take a year of meditation to bust that habit—I didn’t feel my heart pound as they came in. I felt freedom as I visited museums, enjoyed the art nouveau architecture, and connected with family.
Instead of seeking the usual alone time when I returned to New York, I invited good friends over for dinner and king cake. Once I resumed the grind, that vacation halo lasted longer than usual. Each meditation felt like it was literally emptying me of clutter and fog, leaving me with clarity.
The real test came later in the month, when my schedule packed up. I prepared for an upcoming filming in another state. I assisted a week-long yoga training that lasted from early morning until evening, and then came home to complete the day’s work. Oh, and a friend from California came to stay with me.
Even for someone who doesn’t easily get overwhelmed, a lot was going on. And it would have been my default to shut out my friend, worry my way through the training, or just operate from the adrenaline.
There’s a pop culture adage that we all have the same amount of time in a day as Beyoncé. Maybe her secret is chakra meditations, because as I found space in my practice, my life opened up. I didn’t have to turn anything down, yet I didn’t feel resentful saying yes. All that inward focus cultivated a strong sense of embodiment. I could be present without losing my wits (or myself) in the process.
When the subway literally broke one morning before training, I didn’t agonize that I’d be late. I calmly walked 20 minutes to the nearest bus route, emailed my teacher, and meditated. (I showed up on time anyway.)
See also This is the Reason I Take the Subway 45 Minutes Uptown to Work Out – Even Though There’s a Gym On My Block
During the training, I knocked over a tripod and it came crashing down during a calming restorative practice. I froze with horror; attempting to melt into my mat was futile. Shit happens, and I was grateful for a makeshift chakra meditation in that moment to move past embarrassment.
I felt peace in this chaotic schedule and could summon an abundance of presence, making deep connections with students at the training, laughing with my good friend at midnight, being kinder to my partner, and, most importantly, tending to myself.
It may sound odd that I “allowed” myself these basic needs and simple pleasures, but it’s true: In the past, the weight of a to-do list or a lot of social obligations meant I didn’t have room for myself. I may not have experienced the splendor of the infinite universe (yet!), but this meditation expanded time and space so I could register the divine moments every day.
I started my days with a cup of coffee on the sofa and read instead of clacking away at emails. I prepared an egg and avocado breakfast. I stole moments to enjoy the way the low winter sun lit the pastel buildings in Soho.
See also This is Your Brain on Meditation
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