Running Man

Four Thoughts that Helped Me Start a New, Healthy Habit

I have been running outside for the past couple of months — three to four miles, three to four days a week — on a trail that passes close to where I live. Although I have run at previous times in my life, including as a member of a cross-country team in high school, more than ten years have passed since I ran as much, and as consistently, as I have lately. Even the last time that I was running on a regular basis, I don’t think that I ever ran more than three miles at once, and I always did so inside, on a treadmill at the gym. For whatever reason, running outside has always been more of a challenge for me, at least since those days on the cross-country team — twenty-five years ago.

The other day, when I got home from my run, I kicked off my shoes at the door, and as one of them tumbled into a position with the sole facing up, I noticed that the deep grooves in the tread had caught and held pieces of gravel, bits of twigs, and even some dead, dry moss from all my runs in the recent weeks. I was struck by the visual interest that the red rubber nubs, the contrasting grey gravel, and the textural interplay between the two had for me in that moment, and — as I stared, and contemplated taking a picture of the bottom of my shoes, of all things — I got lost in my thoughts. I found myself thinking about what else I could say I had “picked up” in my experiences of developing this new habit of running. What had I learned about the thoughts, affirmations, that helped me in this process — to the point that I was now thinking about myself as someone who runs outside.

I can do it (even when I dont want to do it).

I cringed a little when I realized one of the first thoughts that had helped me; articulating it explicitly would likely spoil my future ability to use a whole genre of my favorite excuses without a second-thought, without knowing that I was lying to myself if I tried. The thought that had made such a difference in the past two months was this one: I can do what I want to do even when I don’t feel like doing it. There were plenty of days over the past two months, after all, when I would have preferred to have stayed in bed, and not gotten myself up, dressed, and out the door into an already hot and humid morning to exert myself in a way that felt so strenuous. I did not feel like running on those days, but I did. “Yay!” for me, and “Ugh!” How could I ever again use, “I don’t feel like it!” as a reason to claim I couldn’t do anything that I said I wanted (and really did want) to do?

I’m going to set myself up for success.

A second learning that I had picked up was the value of setting my intentions. I had set myself up for the success that I experienced. I realized that, where running was concerned, I had, in fact, developed these intentions into a plan. I had thought in terms of starting with running two miles at a stretch and working myself up to three miles and then to four, beginning with running two days a week and working my way up to three and then to four – all in a given amount of time. Now, I had a goal of running five miles four days a week by the end of October, at which point I thought that I would likely focus my efforts on increasing my pace (though I couldn’t help but notice that I ran a personal best today!). Being clear with myself about my intentions, developing a plan in which my goals were specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, had supported me in doing what I set out to do.

I will support myself in this process.

I was also aware that I had incorporated ways to take care of myself, help myself stay accountable to what I said I was going to do, and get emotional support as I began to develop what I wanted and intended to be a new, healthy, personally fulfilling, and sustained habit of running outside. First, I took time to stretch before each run, warm up, and do a cool down afterwards; in my cross-country days, twenty-five years ago, I remember being plagued by shin-splints – I wanted to do what I thought I might help me avoid that trouble now. Second, I downloaded a free app, MapMyRun, to help me track my workouts. Third, I had someone in my life who knew what I was doing, who supported me in doing it, and to whom I sent a quick text after almost every run; this person would reply with a text of “Congratulations!,” “Great job!,” or some other celebratory response that never failed to bring a smile to my face.

I choose to think about what Im doing in ways that fuel my motivation.

The fourth thought that had helped me over the past couple of months concerned the reasons that I was giving myself for running. Rather than thinking in the anxious terms of what I could say I was running from — “middle-age midsection spread,” for example — I made a conscious choice to concentrate on what I was running toward, and what I felt I got out of running outside. What I was after, and what I got, was a sense of being in better cardiovascular health; time in beautiful natural surroundings, under the trees and with views of the river on the trail that I use; my experience of running as a kind of “moving meditation” — feeling relaxed, centered, grounded, as a result; and — last, but not least — the great satisfaction that I was able to enjoy after running outside when I could say to myself, “I did it!” Thinking in these ways gave me a very different energy about running outside than I would have otherwise, since I wasn’t running out of fear, and helped support me in doing what I said I wanted to do, and enjoying it.

For me, all four of these thoughts, taken together, created a “thought tonic” – a mix of ideas that invigorated my thinking, influenced my emotional experience and my behavior accordingly, and – in this case — helped me to start a new, healthy habit that I’m relishing. What are some of the perspectives that fuel you with positive, anabolic energy, and support you in habits that you find helpful, and love having?

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” — Marcus Aurelius


Running ShoesAbout Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.

When he’s not running, Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog  via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Questions?  Contact Scott.


Image credit: fleyeing / 123RF Stock Photo

Angels with One Wing

I have recently become involved in a meditation group on Google+, Wildmind, in which members are currently making their way through a book of mindfulness practices, How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness, by Jan Chozen Bays.  A few weeks ago, our exercise was to use our non-dominant hand for some of the ordinary tasks that we do each day.

One evening, as I was eating dinner – spaghetti – with my non-dominant hand, I found myself using my dominant hand to push the short strands of pasta that would not twirl in the tines of my fork onto my fork.  There are a number of ways that I could have thought about this observation, and what I said to myself was, “You know, I do this the other way round as well!”  I took the experience as a reminder, then, that whether we are trying something new or doing something that we have done a thousand times before, the support of a helping hand can make a welcome difference in the experience for us.

Who, in your life, provides you with support as you challenge yourself to think in new ways, to experiment with “thought tonic” — perspectives that fuel you with positive, anabolic energy, and so ease your anxious thinking, boost your confidence?  Certain kinds of relationships and conversations make a difference!  If you would like more support, whom might you ask — a friend, family member, romantic partner, spiritual mentor, counselor, coach, or some combination?  Who are people to whom you might offer a helping hand?

“We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.” – Luciano de Crescenzo


Scott Burns KahlerFor more reflections on anxious thinking, and ways in which we can respond for a greater sense of calm and confidence, see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP; you can follow this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/inti/3128443786/

Show that Gremlin Some Sun!

Mr. Wing’s grandson: Look Mister, there are some rules that you’ve got to follow.

Rand Peltzer: Yeah, what kind of rules?

Mr. Wing’s grandson: First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight. (Gremlins, 1984)

Today, I offer the fifth and final post in a series that I began back in January, with Through a Glass Darkly. Throughout this series, I have been playing with the idea that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I have suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others, in that they restrict — rather than expand — our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these restrictive thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which weighs or even breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which animates us and builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us from reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” simply being another way to reference what many of us call our inner critic). In previous blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations; today, we explore the last of the four “energy blocks” — gremlins.

Schneider defines a gremlin as that part of us that fears in some way (or many!) that we’re just “not good enough to cut it” (141); we may worry, for instance, that we’re not smart enough, attractive enough, and/or experienced enough — the list can go on and on, as most of us know. “Your gremlin,” Schneider writes, “tells you not to try, never to take a risk, always to take the safe road, and to compromise your life by playing small” (140); left unchecked, your gremlin can begin to convince you that you are small. As examples of gremlin activity, he points to thoughts that he has heard Richard, his fictional client in Energy Leadership, express during their conversations together. Richard, the owner of a small business that has fallen on hard times, has told Schneider that he feels like a failure, and that he has let his employees down, because his company is currently struggling (141). Schneider asserts that Richard is giving voice to his inner critic in thinking, feeling, and speaking of himself in this way, as “not good enough” (i.e., a “failure”). This kind of negative self-talk resonates with catabolic, rather than anabolic, energy; Richard feels beaten down, hopeless, and could tend to shrink from opportunities for improving the situation — after all, what’s the use?

As another example, on a personal level, I’ll confess that I wrestled with my own gremlin when I was thinking about leaving my salaried job as a therapist to go into private practice as a therapist and coach. While I believed that I was good at what I did, part of me wondered if I should take the risk, if it wasn’t better for me to remain where I was (with the steady paycheck!), rather than to follow my dream of having my own business (setting my own schedule; seeing clients that I wanted to see and who wanted to see me, specifically; etc.). As someone who identifies as an introvert, and also struggles with a sense of social anxiety, I worried that I wasn’t “good enough” socially to network successfully, or to communicate effectively to potential clients the benefits that they could experience through our work together. I fretted that if I couldn’t network or communicate in the ways that I imagined necessary to cultivate a thriving private practice (anyone also hear a limiting belief in this idea?), I wouldn’t be able to “cut it” on my own. I’m so happy now that I didn’t let my gremlin hold me back!

There are ways for us to challenge our gremlins, of course, which will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns of thought we can call negative core beliefs. The first step, in my own view — as with any of Schneider’s “energy blocks” — is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think, even about ourselves, as “true.” We don’t have to believe everything we think! When we are able to hear the pronouncements of our inner critic as beliefs about ourselves that we have developed over time, based on what we have been seeing through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear — rather than as “facts” — we create new possibilities in thought, feeling, and behavior for ourselves. When we catch our gremlin telling us that we’re “not good enough” in some way, and experience even the vaguest sense of dissonance reminding us that another part of us — our “inner genius” (142), Schneider says — knows better, we can begin to hear the voice of our inner critic more objectively, then, as saying less about us, and more about a habit that we have and can change of seeing ourselves in an unhelpful way. Some people find that naming their gremlin and describing it in physical terms helps them objectify it — separate from it, get some distance from it — more effectively. I once attended a training in which, as participants, we had the assignment of drawing, sculpting, or creating in some other fashion a physical representation of our gremlin. This was not long after I had undergone surgery for a salivary stone, an experience that I had decided to refer to as “having some of my fear removed” (at the time, I was working through those apprehensions I mentioned about leaving my job to start a private practice!). I used white Play-Doh to give my gremlin the shape that I imagined a large salivary stone to have, and put it in an empty medication bottle. I still keep this physical representation of my gremlin around to help remind me that my gremlin is only a part of me, not all of me, and not even the strongest or most influential part of me — not any longer.

In responding to your own gremlin over the next couple of weeks, should you choose to do so (the key to your cage is in your own hand!), I invite you to think about the three rules that Mr. Wing’s grandson passes along to Rand Peltzer in the movie, Gremlins (1984), when he sells Rand the creature that we later come to know as Gizmo: “First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight.” Like the creatures in this movie, our own gremlins multiply, wreak havoc, take over our lives, and even get vicious towards us when we “give them water” with unquestioned acceptance and “feed them after midnight” with unchallenged influence over what we think, feel, and do. When we expose them to the light of day, on the other hand — that is, become aware of them, identify them as negative core beliefs to which we don’t have to (and won’t!) ascribe any longer, and challenge them with alternative, more helpful ways of seeing ourselves — they begin to lose their power.

Go on … show that gremlin some sun!

Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GremlinStripeByInti.jpg

My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight

My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. Thank you for reading!

Taste the Rainbow

Challenging Interpretations? Think the Rainbow!

In a previous blog post, Through a Glass Darkly (2013), I proposed that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others — they restrict, rather than expand, our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these particular thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In past blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs and assumptions; today, we explore interpretations.

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.Diana Wynne Jones

Schneider defines an interpretation as an opinion that we create to explain an experience that we have had (137). For an example, he refers back to the scenario that he used to illustrate assumptions, in which he has asked a woman on a date, and she has declined: he interprets her “no” as meaning that he does not dress well enough (138). Cue Sharp Dressed Man from ZZ Top’s 1983 album, Eliminator! If he decides to act on his interpretation, Schneider may spend money on a new wardrobe, which — if his own idea about why the woman has declined a date with him does not reflect the reasons that she herself might cite — could constitute “‘marching off in the wrong direction’” (138), and even set himself up for frustration when she still says “no” as he stands before her in a new (and expensive!) Armani suit. When we allow ourselves to believe that our interpretation is the only possible explanation for what we have experienced, we close ourselves off from other options that may be very helpful for us to consider. Personally, I think of every experience in our lives as generating the “enormous rainbow” of possible interpretations that the late British children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, associated with myth and folklore. I view interpretations as stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense out of our experiences and the world around us; others may sometimes agree that these stories are “true,” but even this social construction of a certain “validity” does not make interpretations facts.

There are no facts, only interpretations.Friedrich Nietzsche

There are ways for us to challenge interpretive “energy blocks,” of course, and the approaches will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns that are often referred to as mind reading and personalization. The first step, I contend, is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think as “true,” that our ideas about what we experience are not facts (whatever those are), but beliefs based on what we see through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear. When we catch ourselves making an interpretation, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, as Schneider suggests, “‘What’s another way to look at that?’” (140). Just posing this question to ourselves can defuse the power of our own particular perspective, and diminish what — borrowing from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie — we can call “the danger of a single story”; we acknowledge that other (and potentially more helpful!) meanings are possible. We may even decide to go a step further, and ask another person, whether or not that person is involved, about his or her interpretation of an experience. Or, we can play around with challenging ourselves to argue what we would identify as the exact opposite of our first interpretation. There is a rainbow of possibilities!

I have proposed in previous posts, and will do so again in this one, that we actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, with greater balance (which helps foster calm and confidence!), when we challenge our often all-too-automatic anxious thinking. If, after exploring other possible meanings of an experience, we decide that we want to stick with our original interpretation, we can do so, and then shift into conscious consideration of how we want to respond. In the process of responding consciously to any interpretation we have, I suggest that we remember how long we have been looking through the particular set of lenses that supports this interpretation; initially, we may find ourselves still tending to perceive (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. In my own experience, interpretations can be at least as emotionally charged as the assumptions that we explored in the last post, and so also difficult for us to let go. Just imagine a history for Schneider, in his dating scenario, in which he grew up poor and was teased as a child for not having the popular clothes that so many of his peers were wearing! To help us loosen our grip on a “stubborn” interpretation, I suggest echoing the approach that Schneider recommends for responding to assumptions — validating our perspective as absolutely “normal” given what we have experienced previously, and how we have learned to think about those experiences (136). How else could we think — until we challenge ourselves to think differently?

“Experience the Rainbow!” — Skittles

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to notice when you are making interpretations, creating opinions to explain your experiences (I think of human beings as meaning-making creatures — we engage in this activity all the time!). Your boss may come into work and head straight to her office without saying “Good morning!” to you, shutting the door hard behind her. You think that she must be angry with you, though you don’t know why she would be; you steer clear of her for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out what you did to upset her, instead of talking to her about the assignment she gave you, and which you have finished — early! You may be feeling nervous about how a classmate is looking at you as you give a presentation, wondering what he is criticizing about you, or about what you’re doing, as he watches. Consider whether or not such interpretations of your experiences are helpful to you, whether they resonate with catabolic energy, that distracts and drains you, or anabolic energy, that supports you in moving in the direction that you want to go. What are other ways of looking at these experiences? Perhaps your boss has had a tough morning with a sick child, or is grouchy about spilling coffee on herself in the Starbucks drive-through (her mood may have nothing to do with you!). Maybe that classmate is thinking how nervous he is, imagining that you might be feeling similarly, and admiring how you are forging right along in your presentation. The key, I think, to challenging interpretations, is in a variation on the Skittles candy ad campaign — “Experience the Rainbow! Taste the Rainbow!” Your interpretation is only one possible color of meaning for the experience that you have had. Think the Rainbow!

Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skittles-Candies-Pile.jpg

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. Thank you for reading!

Challenge Assumptions

Assumptions: A Phantom Menace

“You assume too much.” – Nute to Amidala, and Padme to Qui-Gon, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In a previous blog post, Through a Glass Darkly (2013), I proposed the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are made up of the thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of the thoughts and beliefs, I submitted, are helpful to us — they have an anabolic or positive influence on our mood, energy, and actions, and so expand what is possible for us. Others can limit our view, and so our experiences of life — these thoughts and beliefs resonate with catabolic or negative energy that can have distracting, draining, and even destructive effects on our sense of ourselves; our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; our work lives; and our relationships. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” that prevent us from making conscious choices in our lives and reaching our potential; he calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic) (129). In my last blog post, I explored limiting beliefs; today, I’m turning our attention to the next menace in the list — assumptions.

Schneider defines an assumption very specifically as “a belief that, because something [has] happened in the past, it’s going to happen again” (134). To provide an example, Schneider references a scenario in which he has asked someone on a date, and that person has declined; he believes (assumes) that because this one person has said “no” that anyone else he may ask will also turn down his invitation. As a result, he may either decide not to try again (since he already “knows” what will happen), or to allow his expectations of “rejection” to affect the energy with which he asks the next person, potentially setting himself up, then, for the very experience that he fears — a kind of self-sabotage. When we permit our assumptions to determine what we decide to do in our lives, we let a past experience control what is possible for us in our present and future. With this idea in mind, I have come to think of an assumption as a ghost or phantom of a past “negative” experience that we allow to haunt us, to intimidate us out of taking positive action in our lives.

There are several ways for us to challenge any assumption that we make. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation. The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do not have to believe everything that we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how it is!”). When catching ourselves in the midst of making an assumption, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, “‘Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?’” (136). In posing this question, we open space for ourselves to examine the evidence for the assumption that we have made, and to find evidence that contradicts it, that reminds us that other outcomes are possible. We actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, I contend, in being less unconsciously dominated by our anxious thinking (see also Thanks, Not Angst, 2012). If, after we have examined the evidence, we decide that our assumption still has merit, we can then shift into strategies of response that echo those that are useful for countering catastrophic thinking. We can ask ourselves, “So what if that happens?” and “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?” In the process of responding consciously to an assumption, whatever tactic we take, we may want to keep in mind that we have been seeing through the particular set of lenses that supports this assumption for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Schneider notes that because assumptions are based primarily on personal experiences, they are “internalized” and more “emotional” than limiting beliefs; as a result, they can be difficult for us to release (136). He suggests that validating our own perspective as absolutely “normal,” given what we have experienced and how we have learned to think about what we have experienced so far in our lives, can help us loosen our grip on the belief that is holding us back (136).

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for the “phantom menace” of assumptions. Look for thoughts and beliefs related to what has happened in the past that you expect to happen again, that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible for you and in your life as a result. These thoughts and beliefs will be ones that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic or negative energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic or positive energy, which builds you up. Once you notice an assumption, question it, ask yourself what thoughts and beliefs would be more helpful to you, and decide how you want to “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather than against you. These glasses can support you in taking positive action with a sense of calm and confidence — in whatever direction you want to go.

Bon Voyage!

“The Force will be with you, always.” — Obi-Wan to Luke, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Featured image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. So many possibilities! Thank you for reading.

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