Tag Archives: Meditation

2017: The Year of Discernment

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” 

Parker Palmer

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It is probably a good thing that we are extremely limited in seeing our future. We can make all sorts of plans and set ambitious goals, yet we have to constantly live with the reality that we never quite know where the path of life will take us.

I did not know that 2016 would be a year when my premonitions of ‘letting go’ would culminate in a thousand goodbyes. A relocation to the Sunshine Coast brought this home like Thor’s hammer. As my partner and I recalibrate and look ahead, while at the same time dealing with the heartache of saying goodbye, a friend helped me shape language and perspective around 2017. It is a year of discernment for us. This blog is written for people on a similar path.

Discernment is an ancient practice that finds it’s origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the belief that humans can seek divine guidance through the process of discernment. We see this practice through Sacred Text and in the ways of the early church fathers and mothers. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are an example of a discernment process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. For a historical overview on the ‘History of Spiritual Discernment’ please see Greg Caruso’s blog post.

Regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not, discernment is something we implement regularly in our lives. We may not always recognise this. Every day we have a multitude of voices and invitations pulling us in all directions. We have been shaped by these voices – for the good and the bad. Part of the process of discernment is taking time to silence our noisy world, take out our compass, and find out what direction we are going and whether we actually want to keep heading that way. This takes discipline and, as I am finding out, great courage. To sit with ourselves for an extended period of time and really delve into our past, present and future, can be a most terrifying and lonely experience. It can also be one of the most liberating and life-giving exercises we can do for ourselves.

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Our lives speak to us … and we can choose to pay attention. In a frantic world we take little time for discernment and we end up telling our life how it needs to be lived, instead of listening deeply. The result is that our lives are not integrated with who we really are. This is what happened to me in a staff leadership role I once held at a church – I simply adopted some of its dogmas and practices without question. My Jenga blocks started tumbling when I recognised that some of these ideas did not integrate with who I was and what I understood as the gospel of Christ. This discernment process took time and the subsequent actions required were painful – but I can truly say that I am so profoundly grateful for that journey. Reflecting on it gives me hope for 2017 as we again come to a place of stopping the noise and listening.

It is easy to seek guidance from everything and everyone except from within. We desperately look for life purpose or vocation as something that needs to be hunted, conquered and achieved, instead of recognising that it is a gift given, waiting to be discovered. Listening to that quiet voice within helps us understand who we are at our core. Discernment is a practice that helps us re-discover this quiet voice.

So, for my friends on a similar journey – take time to listen. There are some fantastic resources available on the art of discernment and listening. Invest time and value into this important process. There is a kingdom within you that has the ability to nourish, not just yourself, but many others. May you find that space.

“The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing his presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp them.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel

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The Broken Birch


“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” – Parker J. Palmer

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Spring has come to the world’s most liveable city. You would be forgiven for doubting this. As I write, Melbourne is in the throes of arctic-like weather conditions and it is pouring down gallons of water that are creating havoc across the State. But when you look outside, Mother Nature calms our fear and produces the evidence – Spring is here! My garden is thriving. Amongst the many plants bursting with new life is a tree that stands taller than all the others: a birch with a peculiar story.

When we moved into this house we had many generous people give us plants to help establish this ginormous garden. We also kept our eye on any nursery ‘specials’. We planted a small birch grove because a nursery was shutting down and they were selling birches as part of a ‘super’ special. They also gave us a birch for free. Someone had accidentally broken it whilst moving it to a new spot. It was a quarter of the size of its birch brothers and sisters and frankly, looked miserable.

In hindsight, birches were not the best choice for clay soil, but hindsight is not always helpful. Our birches struggled to establish. They needed extra tender loving care in those hot summer months. Except for the broken birch. We all expected it to die. It did the opposite. Defying birch-law, clay soil, brokenness and the misery of its tribe, it grew and flourished. Within three years it outgrew its birch siblings. Today, it is a magnificent tree that provides shelter to so many other plants. It is easy to forget that this was a broken birch once …

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You see, friend, in life you will face many circumstances and situations that will cut you off at the kneecaps: personal failure, the betrayal of friends, financial hardship, death of a loved one, illness, loneliness, changes – the list goes on. When you walk through these shadowed valleys it may feel like everyone else around you is standing tall, growing and flourishing. Everyone else, but you. You feel broken on the inside and no amount of positive thinking and meditation seems to cure that nagging pain within.

There are many times in life that we are that broken birch. It’s no use trying to tell ourselves some pseudo-narrative to dull the pain. There is no way ‘around’ these valleys. We have to learn to walk through them. Religion that calls you to growth without suffering, without pain, without heartache and without experiencing brokenness is no true religion, but simply a decorated band-aid for grievous wounds. In life you will experience brokenness.

Just like my birch, you may also find yourself planted in places that are less than ideal. Environments that should hamper your growth and well being. But my broken birch tree didn’t seem to take that much notice of that. It grew anyway. The environment was not its defining moment or its core identity. The reflection I take away is that sometimes we simply have to ignore the masses and the circumstances, put our head down and grow anyway. The opinions and ignorance of others does not define you.

In the end, dear friend, only you can live the life given you. And you have been assigned to live it amidst all the ups and downs and ‘accidents’ that come your way. Only you hold the integrity of your narrative. Only you can tell your story. No one else. People may try. They may refer to you as that ‘broken birch’. Don’t argue with them. Smile and wave and get on with your life. And when your inner core and strength overshadows their fear and judgement, show them much kindness …

“The Wound is the Place where the Light enters You” – Rumi

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Changes, Changes, Changes!

To every thing there is a season … Ecclesiastes 3
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Changes, changes, changes … many years ago a sage whispered those words in my ears. Life is all about changes. My life has been witness to so many changes. There are times I wish it wasn’t so. Sure, change can be exciting and full of adventure but change can also be traumatic. Change can be so very painful.

I am packing up house again. When we bought this block of land nearly nine years ago, I wanted this to be the last move. I have moved over thirty-five times in my life. I wanted this home to be the place where I turn 90, sit in my rocker, watch the sunset, smoke a pipe and demand more wine! It was not to be. Changes, changes, changes.

There are so many changes that we face in our lives: a new relationship, or the end of one; a new job, or an employment termination; the arrival of a new family member, or the loss of a loved one that leaves us gutted and empty for years; a new home, or, like me, packing up the boxes to leave; a new tribe, or saying goodbye to a group that you poured so many years of identity and belonging into. All change requires us to adjust. All change causes stress, one way or the other.

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Not all change is easily defined into the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ box. Our personal make-up, and how we perceive change, has a lot to do with how change will ultimately affect us. In some way, just like our canine companions, we are creatures of habit. We like things to stay the same. But Life refuses to pamper that notion. So is there something we can do to create greater change agility?

Perhaps the most important thing is to recognise that certitude is not really part of life’s dance. We prefer a slow and predictable waltz, yet life often demands we commit to a daring tango that will require all our focus and energy. Maybe that is why we are so drawn to absolutes, comfort and security? Deep inside we know that change is as sure as the rhythmns of the seasons, but we have become infatuated with the idea of an everlasting summer … and is that any wonder when so many modern mantras and cliches feed our false paradigms of safety and certainty.

As a person of faith, I find hope in the thought that Divine Providence holds our fragile world. Like a skilled weaver, the Author of Time is creating a magnificent, colourful tapestry that holds the tears and joy, as well as the shadow and light of history. Considering this, is it any wonder that change has been woven into the fabric of our existence? We all play a part in a compelling narrative that propels us out of comfort zones and makes us confront our embedded resistance to change.

So, dear friend, if you, like me, are facing seasons of change, I truly empathise. Each person’s story is different and there are really no trite answers to anyone’s situation. I simply believe we arrive at some intersections in our lives that often only present themselves once in a lifetime – and when they do, it is time to be brave. To be brave does not mean the absence of fear. Rather, that we refuse to allow fear to dominate that moment. So here is to you, here is to us. Let’s be brave together.

Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes. – Hugh Prather

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Welcome to the Dark Side: Understanding Your Shadow

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“There is no other way. To be known is to be pursued, examined, and shaken. To be known is to be loved and to have hopes and even demands placed on you. It is to risk, not only the furniture in your home being re-arranged, but your floor plans being re-written, your walls being demolished and re-constructed. To be known means that you allow your shame and guilt to be exposed – in order for them to be healed.” Curt Tompson

Those who have an understanding of the Enneagram, would know how much the Ones (Moi!) need to have their shit together. As a result, like most people, I find it difficult to face my dark side. However, let me
assure you, suffering and failure tends to make you far more open to face your own Darth Vader. Learning to welcome your own dark side can be most confronting.

It was Carl Jung who first used the idea of our shadow or dark side in a psychological context. He used the idea of a shadow to describe the part of ourselves that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. As a result, our shadow is what we try to keep hidden from others. We are ashamed of our dark side. Unfortunately, what we hide or repress always ends up controlling us.

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It is foolish to dismiss our shadow as an evil entity, existing apart from our personhood. When we ignore our own darkness, or repress it, we build a bogus identity or ‘false self’, as Thomas Merton suggested. This denied shadow self can often present itself as virtuous and righteous, whilst its underlying motivations are fear, control or manipulation. It is important to remember that the shadow self is not of itself evil; it just
allows us to do evil without calling it evil. It is this sort of hypocrisy that caused Jesus to get really upset.

If we are serious about growth in our lives, we need to be serious about ‘shadow boxing’ or facing our shadow. Sadly, this is something that
religion, which tends to focus on being an exemplary model of virtue,  is not very good at. When our belonging is based on believing ‘right’ and keeping up appearances, vulnerability and authenticity, two elements crucial for growth, are sacrificed on the altar of ego and denial.

So how do we recognise our shadow? By asking ourselves what causes us to overreact? There’s a clue in that. Most of us have never been taught, either in our homes, education, or our religion, to recognise our shadows, and, therefore, we tend to respond in irrational over-reaction when we catch glimpses of it – often reflected in others! Richard Rohr says this, “Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has been exposed. Watch for any over-reaction or denials. When you notice them, notice also that the cock has crowed (Mark 14:72)!” We often try to deflect from our own shadow by pointing to the apparent deficiency in another person and in this way we can avoid confronting our own evil or hateful behaviour. History bears
witness to this: Nazism, the Spanish Inquisition, violence agains women, Colonialism, Apartheid and some of the religious hatred levelled at LGBTI people.

Jesus had an antidote. He suggested concentrating on the plank hanging out of our own eye before trying to pick the speck out of our neighbour’s eye (Matthew 7:5). This is an insight that would have most mystics smiling, realising that the process of confronting your own darkness or removing the plank from your own eye really is a lifetime work. It takes a long time before we stop all the excuses, denials, and self-justifying story lines and face the fact: I know Darth Vader – he lives within me 🙂

So when you are ready to meet Darth Vader, here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t kid yourself. Shadow work is humiliating. Personally, for me, it meant learning to face the motives behind my often high ideals and the resentment that brews when these are not reached. Yet, it is the only way forward for enlightenment and growth. Carl Jung said, “Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.
  • Begin to notice and be mindful of your patterns and reactions. What is the narrative you use to justify these? Confronting ourselves is … well, very confronting! To the pointed question, “What is wrong with this world?”, Chesterton replied, “I am!” 
  • Learn to welcome and embrace our shadow in times of prayer. Rohr calls this mirroring: “What’s happening in prayer is that you’re presenting yourself for the ultimate gaze, the ultimate mirroring, the gaze of God. It is also important to have the sort of community around you that allows for vulnerability, openness, and authenticity. Sadly, this is rarely found in modern religion where the emphasis and affirmation is awarded for right behaviour and belief, according to each faith tradition’s interpretation of their sacred text.
  • Remember, your shadow is not evil in itself, it simply is the repressed and hidden part of you. It is the part of you that you are denying or neglecting and therefore often appears in your dreams (but that is a whole different post). The more you face your false, idealised self, accepting the fact that the ludicrous, perfect self-image is not a reality (and extremely stressful to manage), the more you will experience a great sense of freedom. The necessity to judge yourself and all those around you begins to slowly drift away. Jesus said he came to light up our darkness and to give us life. May you live it to the full!
“God comes to us disguised as our lives.” Paula D’Arcy
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Lent: A Summons to Live Anew

Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now. Lent is a summons to live anew. – Sister Joan Chittister

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This Wednesday, 10th February 2016, is Ash Wednesday and the
beginning of Lent. Lent is a season on the liturgical calendar which is
observed by many Christian faith tradition. It ends on Easter Sunday. Lent commemorates the beginning of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, while Easter Sunday remembers his
resurrection. For many Christians it is a season of preparation for Easter. It is a time of fasting, repentance, and moderation; giving time to reflect on the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus.

Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Irenaus of Lyons (c. 130 – c.200) wrote of such a season, although back then it lasted only several days, not forty. However, it’s purpose has always
remained the same: a season of self-examination, penitence, and
self-denial. It was the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD, that discussed a forty day period of fasting.

The world Lent implies ‘forty’: quaresima. In English, it also has another derivation. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon (early English) world
meaning ‘to lengthen’. In the Northern Hemisphere, it occurs at a time when hours and days are lengthening as Spring approaches and
Christians have applied this to an understanding of ‘lengthening’ or growing spiritually. It is also a time to remember that, despite the many divisions, Christians are more united than divided. Lent is very
ecumenical, reminding the observer that it was a united Church at the council of Nicae to which it traces some of its formal origin. Lent provides Christians an opportunity to celebrate the Eastern roots of their faith.

Lent is both a season of joy and of preparation. It follows the rhythm of life in so many ways, from suffering to silence to triumph. The colour purple is prevalent in Lent, signifying penance and hope. Red is
symbolic of the sacrifice of Good Friday, whilst white celebrates Christ’s triumph. A point of difference between the Eastern and Western observances is that while in the West the chanting of Alleluia ceases during Lent, in the East it is increased. The Eastern churches focus on the hope of God’s forgiveness.

So how about you in this season of Lent? Perhaps you are not a person who holds to any particular faith, but the idea of Lent intrigues you. There is a growing number of non-religious people using the Lent season to focus on growth and kick some bad habits. Some are drawn to the spiritual practice of doubt. There are numerous articles on this topic and a whole course by Peter Rollins.

For those who share a Christian faith, you may wish to follow a Lenten Devotional. Prayer is a central focus during this time. Self-denial and acts of service remind those who hold to Lent that ‘the other’ is deeply loved by God and that the self-centred focus of modern culture makes for shallow living. What will you give up to remind yourself of this? How will you serve, especially those on the margins of society?

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Lent is not another task for us to do or a box for us to tick. It is something we can partake of and celebrate. We can also ignore it altogether. Whatever you decide, may these next forty days be filled with unexpected surprises. May you find moments of great joy. May your soul be ‘lengthened’ and your heart full. May you heed the summons to live anew.
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Let’s Talk about Anxiety

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Anxiety disorders are one of the most common class of mental disorders, affecting a large percentage of the general population. There are six main types of the disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder,
phobias and panic disorder, and they tend to be more prevalent in women than men. Anxiety disorders affect 9.7% or 1.3 million adult
Australians
, from all walks of life. The causes of the disorder are likely to be complex. However, assistance and recovery is possible with
specialised treatment, education and support.

It is most unfortunate that even in this day and age, people with mental illness remain stigmatised around the globe. This stigmatisation can
result in sufferers not seeking the professional help that is available
because of the fear of rejection. It can also result in misdiagnosis and mismanagement: Misdiagnosis in not taking the symptoms seriously, which in turn results in mismanagement, as there is a reluctance to
investigate the symptoms fully.

Religious ideologies have played a major role in shaping the values and morals of many societies, including perceptions about mental illness. It is sad that patients who come from religious backgrounds are often the ones who fail to receive proper medical care. Although modern
Christianity has taken some steps forward in recognising and addressing mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, there is still a long way to go in recognition and education, as well as in discarding the
tendency to blame the victim.

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My experience with anxiety and anxiety disorders has been fairly minor and I operated out of sheer ignorance for many years. However, a few years ago my daughter developed an eating disorder, something which goes hand in hand with anxiety (an interview with her will be the focus of the next blog post). Suddenly, our family was confronted with the
relentless torment faced by so many people suffering from anxiety.

In retrospect, I would also say that my mother, who passed away suddenly in 2007, suffered from undiagnosed anxiety disorder all her life. As a young child she vividly recalled the horrors of World War II –
running to the bomb shelters, the sounds of Gestapo boots, and her
balcony being blown off by a bomb. Unfortunately, the hyper-vigilance that was part of her everyday life and pointed to post traumatic stress,
remained untreated. Anxiety disorders only began to be recognised in 1980.

Last year, I had to face  anxiety in my own life, which was a result of
bullying. Anxiety is difficult to describe. Everyone experiences it
differently. For me it felt little like being hopelessly tossed around by a giant wave, unable to gain footing or control, feeling like I will never come up for air. I recalled the naive ideas I held over the years and the imbecilic comments I had made – they came back to haunt me!

In this blog post, I simply wanted to present a short introduction to a
disorder that affects so many people. I want to make it very clear that I am not a therapist and I am only blogging my own observations and
experiences. The advice I would give to anyone suffering from anxiety is to seek professional help. You would think nothing about taking yourself to the hospital to have a broken arm tended to. Please do not allow
perceived or self-stigma
from seeking treatment and a better quality of life.

To the family members and friends of people suffering from anxiety
disorders, and anyone in a position of influence (social, religious, etc.), please do not shoot from the hip in ignorance. Educate yourself about
issues surrounding mental health and anxiety disorders. Keep updated and informed. Consider the words that come out of your mouth and be especially careful about silly, religious cliches, that are often simply
recycled, ignorant ideas from someone’s book who holds no qualifications. Instead, read some of the excellent and researched resources available and become proactive in establishing a safe and informed support system.

I finish with the words of blogger Heather Rayne:
 
Living with anxiety and/or depression can feel like constantly
trying to climb out of a deep, muddy hole with an armful of sandbags. Everything seems so much more difficult – even getting out of bed in the morning can be a monumental feat. The simplest tasks can be a dreaded challenge. Nobody
 wants to feel this way. And they are not doing this TO anyone. It is happening TO them and sadly, others are caught in the crossfire. But eventually the bullets will stop flying, the smoke will clear and blissful, fulfilling lives and relationships could appear just beyond the horizon. Together, it can be reached.”

Next Post: Tash’s Story – Recovering from Anxiety and Eating Disorders.
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Leaving 2015 behind …

Industries-in-2015-landing-page-imageIt is hard to believe that another year has come and gone. Maybe it’s because I am getting older, but it certainly feels like time is not just flying under the normal law of aerodynamics, but at the speed of light. I look at my children – wasn’t it just yesterday that they were running amok in toddlerhood bliss? Now they are all adults, ready for their own batch of freshly-baked toddlers (no, this is not a hint – just in case one of them is reading this blog!)

The end of a year on our Gregorian Calendar is celebrated with gusto in many nations. Fireworks mark the end of a year and ushers in the new. New Year Resolutions are as old as Babylon. They are most often discarded with the same haste that they have been made. New habits look fantastic on the 31st December and frightening on the 1st January, when the alarm goes off to remind you of your new jogging routine.

No matter how you view the end of a year, or whether you celebrate or not, it is a great time to do some deep inner work and shadow boxing. I know it is a luxury for many, but if you can find some time to reflect on the year that is gone, it will certainly be helpful on your future decision-making and the things that you say ‘yes’ to. So as you survey 2015, here are some starter questions:

1. What brought you joy?
2. What brought you pain?
3. How have you contributed to both?
4. Is there a pattern that you see between the two?
5. What do you regret and why?
6. How would you do things differently?

It is also helpful to explore the inner core – your values, your belief system, and how your actions and behaviour compare to who you really are. Our fast-paced social construct rarely allows time for these sort of uncomfortable, deeper musings. In a hurry-sick world, blame is the easy way out. Yet growth and change happens when we own who we are: Our thoughts, our behaviour and the decisions we make. The world owes us absolutely nothing – the sooner we can get rid of blame and a false sense of entitlement, the better!

We become conflicted when our inner values are violated. For example, we may say we value people, but if our role at work causes us to treat people as commodities, then we are continually violating what we claim to value. This causes inner conflict and stress. The end of a year provides a good time as any to press the ‘pause’ button and reflect on whether, for a myriad of reasons, we are violating our true self by not adhering to our value system.

At a recent retreat I took time to journal some thoughts on the year gone by. I reflected on what I value above other things and how I want to spend this second-half of life leaning more into this space. Here is a tiny snippet of my journal – I am sharing it to provide some ideas as you take time to reflect:

“In the future I will face many decisions. I want to make these decisions in line with my values, not just what seems good or beneficial on a surface level. I want to lean into my inner values:

– Quiet above Noise
– Kindness above Pragmatism
– Gentleness above Control
– Questions above Answers
– Wonder above Absolutes
– People above Ideals
– Honour above Shame
– Vulnerability above Ego
– Simplicity above Complexity ….”

The list goes on. I then used this list to evaluate some of the goals I hope to accomplish in 2016. No, not a 10 meter list of long-term, short-term goals – just a handful of goals. I want to learn from my values and from my history – from the year that was 2015. As I leave it behind, I want to look to the future remembering these lessons and reflections.
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What about you? As you leave 2015 behind, what do you want to take with you? What do you want to change? How do you want to change? And what will it take for you to become more aligned to your true self and the values that motivate you? Take the time to consider. Take the time to remember. Write them down and make them clear.

I know it is customary to wish people a Happy New Year and I do wish that for you. However, what is happiness? Is it found in more stuff? Promotions that require longer working hours? An ever increasing mortgage? I don’t think so. I think ‘happiness’ is found when we live authentically, with kindness and generosity towards others, when we do our part in making this world just a little bit better. It is that sort of ‘happiness’ that I wish for you, my friend.

Shalom.

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