Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hocus Focus

Barbara: So in a “perfect storm” of social messages lately, I’ve been bombarded with lessons about focus. Our lack thereof. And the possible life-changing advantages of learning how to get it back. First, there have been several messages about learning how to meditate. Whether it’s from beautiful blogger, Lori, or from our own sweet Shalaka. Then it was a newspaper article last week about Michael Phelps’ very particular training style. And then it was an informal conversation with my Quantum Physics teacher on our drive home last night.

Okay, okay, I get the message!!

Here’s the nutshell. Meditation is said to be good, right? I mean, we’ve all read/heard it a million times. And if you’re anything like me, you might be all, “Yeah, oh, I wish I could do it, but well, I have all these other things to do!” or, “I’ve tried it a couple of times, and well, I, you know, SUCK at keeping my mind quiet and focused!” I don’t need to go into further detail on the meditation thing, right? We’re same-paging it, I’m sure.

Which brings me to the Michael Phelps article (click on the link to read the article). Turns out that—aside from the genetically perfect swimmer’s DNA from which he’s made—he has a dedicated training program that focuses on, well, focus! He meditates on his swims, going over them in minute detail in his head, rehearsing them from the moment he arrives at the aquatic centre to what he’ll be listening to on his ipod to how he’ll hit the water to how his strokes will feel to the final reaching touch of the wall, over and over, until he can literally do them with his eyes shut (turns out he needed that skill—his goggles were leaking during one of his races: he closed his eyes, he swam like he’d rehearsed it, he won—not only the gold medal, but a World Record!) What really intrigued me about this article was the idea that in each of these thousands of imagined races, he, of course, won every one. So his days were filled with what they call “small wins”. These small wins have all the same positive effects on his psyche that come with an actual gold medal win, and these effects in turn feed his ability. It’s small-win/big-win—and it’s all thanks to uninterrupted focus.

And then last night, there was my drive-home convo with the teacher. Focus came up once again! I don’t remember how we actually got into it, but let’s assume we were trying to address my vague grasp on the stuff he’s teaching. Anyway, he pointed out that our minds want to take us in a million different directions ALL THE TIME and that this is not only exhausting but counter-productive. And that this mind-habit of ours is so engrained and “normal” that we don’t even realize we do it. He brought up an athletic comparison, as well. In his case it was the golfer: what’s the difference between an Average Joe golfer and a powerhouse star? Well, the powerhouse doesn’t let his mind waver for even a millisecond from the moment he raises his club through to contact with the ball through to the after-swing. The rest of us? Waver waver waver. Our brains divert for tiny little fractions of a second, not once but many times—and so we lose our focus and the shot is compromised.

And what’s more? All this mind-wandering, all this lack of focus, is exhausting!!!

We become depleted and drained by the meaningless world travels of our mind. (One other real-life reminder of this for me: my inability to write last week, remember?) Okay, in all of our defenses, of course not every mind-ramble is “meaningless”, many will lead to interesting thoughts or ideas, but it’s amazing how often they are counter-productive.

And maybe if we train ourselves to focus, a little bit at a time, we might be able to tap into that extraordinary energy we otherwise dissipate as we contemplate the mundane, the same-old, the inner-critic, the internal-bosses-of-us.

How? Well, back to square one on the meditation thing. Meditation has got to be a training ground for focus, right? But how about practicing focus when you’re doing something as simple as (to my teacher’s example) washing the dishes. Try applying all your focus to the task. Don’t let your mind wander. Or when you’re driving the car. Just look at everything you see and focus completely on that. Or when you’re getting ready for your day in the morning. Don’t think about the day ahead, just on how it feels (and looks) to lather that soap and comb that hair and brush those teeth.

If we can put ourselves in a “state of focus” for even just small snippets of time, maybe, just maybe, we will build up our focus muscles. And maybe, just maybe, our daily lives will be filled with much-deserved and darling “small wins” about which we can feel really truly pumped and which can take us to a whole other athletic level!

Deb: (trying hard not to blognap) I love this topic. It’s like you were a fly on the wall in a family discussion we had last night about focus and its many natural enemies. I adore the ideas you put forth here, Barb. And I am going to start simple. Brush the teeth, focus on the teeth, etc etc.

I have been a meditator since I was in my early twenties. T.M. to be exact. Shalaka and I actually had an online discussion about it. I loved meditation and, although I know this is an overused phrase, it saved my life. It turned things around for me at a tough and challenging time. The best part is, it was gift of love from my cousin Scott, the cousin I mentioned in an earlier post who helped out my Mom and Dad through this last period of time.

I kept it up for years, loving it and then ... it slipped away. It made a guest appearance during menopause and saved me again. I am getting the messages loud and clear that I need to resume. I keep using excuses like, “I don’t have two 20-minute periods a day to meditate.” Wrong. I do. I must find the time.

And in a funny turnabout, there are days I could not get through if it were not for split-focus, you know what I mean? Sometimes my brain has to serve many many masters. But of late it serves many masters all the time. I am inspired. Thanks, Barbara. 

38 comments:

  1. Barb, that was a great post. I have trouble with meditation too, but focusing on whatever you are doing really brings you in to the "now" which we never seem to really appreciate as much as when it is a memory. I will remember this lesson and focus.....thanks.

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    1. I so needed this reminder myself, Mary-Jo. And it works! I went to the gym yesterday after writing this and just focused on my rowing -- I thought time would slooooow down and I'd be bored. The exact opposite happened: I was energized and the elapsing time felt smooth and lovely, organic.

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    2. I will try it in everything I do today Barb....just focusing on a walk in this nice sun right now..;:)

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    3. It's literally like "baby steps" to mediation, right???

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    4. Just came in from my walk....baby steps is right. My mind wandered, that's what it does on walks and I work things out. Better try focusing on something else. LOL

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    5. Mary Jo--just a suggestion, but how about doing "walking meditation" where you slow waaaaaay down and notice your surroundings? really really notice them. practice focusing on what's right in front of you--there are so many sites about walking meditation for details if you're interested. Thich Nhat Hahn has one of my favorites.....http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books2/Thich_Nhat_Hanh_A_Guide_to_Walking_Meditation.htm good luck! Lori

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    6. Thank you so much Lori, I will try that...

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  2. Here is some irony for you. As I was finishing reading your blog (which is very interesting and thought provoking), I thought of something important I needed to look up on the Internet. I switched over to the search engine page and in that second it took for the computer to go from your page to the next, I completely forgot what it was I was going to look up. I sat there, hands on the keyboard in a total and complete brain freeze. I think I need to practice what you have talked about here today and work on my focus.

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    1. I laughed out loud when I read this!!! Oh my god, do I relate. This happens more times than I can remember (pun intended). Which is why I need to work on my focus)

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  3. AWWWWWWWWWWW................ARENT YOU THE SWEETEST ????

    This is sucha big topic I could write a BOOK !!!! Love our conversations...and yeah I did ask Deb what kinda meditation she did....Man...Deb you are AWESOME!...Meditation is really helpful...and the Michael Phelps thing is amazing, Visualization at ITS BEST!!! Honestly I cant meditate either.....thoughts are running around in my head like crazy !! But Ive come to understand that focusing is not that difficult....we think it is but....its really easy.....really !!
    And....you are gonna like this...you know when you become aware of what you are thinking...your thoughts start to dissipate ? try it sit back and try to become aware of what you were thinking, really aware....look at them like you are watching a movie...after a few seconds all of the thoughts will go away.... C'mon I think we give ourselves less credit....you definitely focus a lot in a lotta things it just doesnt SEEM like that....because we are used to it...!! You cook right? that needs a LOTTA focus....I suck at cooking !!! well I dont...but I despise it...But I love painting....and I get so focused sometimes its like I am in it!
    now I think it needs FOCUS to cook...and its difficult...but you wont think its a big deal...as YOU ARE USED TO IT..!! If I look at meditation as painting...it will become easy for me to focus too..!
    But most most MOST important thing.....When you are doing something you LOVE...you ARE MEDITATING ! consciously....but it is as powerful as meditation...
    So just relax you'll get it....its easy...!!! try this...when you are laying in bed at night...and this is really good for people who suffer from insomnia...(Hey Deb!)......try to hear some sound and focus upon it....like rustling leaves....and even if you manage to focus upon it for as little as 30seconds...it reduces stress levels WAY DOWN !
    So....relax its all good and getting better.....Meditation sure makes it better now......especially when its a problem meditation makes it easier to deal with......and if you dont meditate...you'll find a way..."your desire to live wont let you drown ;)"...you know what I mean !!!
    Love ya.....and thanks so much for mentioning me *BIGHUG* xoxo

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    1. As always, you make me smile big and feel great!! As hard as it's been for me to dedicate myself to the "pure" idea of meditation, to your point, consciously focusing on certain tasks brings me right to the "zone". It feels totally good and true. And the other point you make, which is sooo true, is there are times when I am automatically in that space of meditation: writing!! (and yes, cooking too) xoxo

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  4. OK, let's be blunt. Let's call it what it is. I mindfuck things to death.

    Focus can be my worst enemy because I'm really crappy at taking control of what my mind focusses on. My brain'll get a bone in its teeth and not let it go. I beg for distraction. I crave distraction. I set out to belly flop into a glorious swimming pool full of distractions.

    For example, I'm here reading your blog in an effort to break my train of thought from obsessing over the fact that my state income tax refund didn't post to my bank account today (money I had been counting on). I know that, logically, I should believe that it'll show up on Friday or next Wednesday (although, I really, really, really could've used it today and was sorta counting on it today *sigh*). But, that's not how my brain works. My brain always feeds the beast of worst case scenarios. If I don't frantically acquire distraction for the next hour or so, I'm going to go down a nasty rabbit hole of wondering what went wrong, am I gonna be auditted, where's the money, did I put the wrong direct deposit info or something, etc.

    See, just typing that paragraph got the stomach acid to churning.

    I'm also trying not to let my mind become consumed by focussing on the fact that my son is in the midst of his end of grading term exams. If I don't find some distraction, the cars of that train of thought are gonna end up with me in tears over worrying about his short term memory issues and all the catastrophic problems this could cause him as an adult. My brain can go from him having English and math exams his week to him not being able to keep a wife or job as an adult frighteningly quickly. (Trust me, it's not hard to connect the cars in that train of thought when you have an autistic kid whose short term memory problems have been causing a lot of trouble lately.)

    I get what you are saying about focus, Barbara. I really do. But, I have a bad habit of being hyperfocussed to the point of being consumed by anxiety. This is gonna sound crazy, but the healthiest thing I've been trying to teach myself lately is how NOT to focus. Stand at the sink and focus on the sensations of washing the dishes? Not gonna work. Brainless tasks just free my brain up to chew on its bone of the moment. I've got to be streaming a show in the background or having talk radio on to listen to or give myself some silly mental task to do (e.g. memorize 15 more elements on the periodic table) to keep my mind busy while doing a mindless task or I'll end up being lost to the mindfucking.

    Sorry.

    The closest thing I know to meditation is the rhythm of crochet. *shrugs*

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    1. I don't think "focusing" on problems is what we're talking about here, Rigel!! No, no, it's all about training your brain to NOT think about that stuff when you're doing something. But, like any muscle, it requires practice and building muscle. Try it for a few seconds at a time: ie, for 3 seconds, I will only focus on washing this dish. Tomorrow it'll be 4 seconds, and on and on. That insane burble that we all cave into is what your brain needs a break from. You need to wrestle your mind into obedience (or gently guide it, pick your analogy). It's hard, but I'm gonna double-dare you: 3 seconds of blank mind space today :) xoxo

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    2. Rigel, sometimes the best means of meditation is to give your hands something to do, and as I call it, "shut the brain off".

      For me, the closest thing to meditation I do on a regular basis is work. Note-taking, by its very nature, requires me to focus on what is being said by the instructor and the class, and getting down the information (if not what is being said). And, there are times when I find myself struggling to process that information to get it down. But, I notice if I shut my brain off, and just let the information flow from my ears to my fingers banging on the keyboard, I do much better - especially if I'm working by myself.

      Admittedly, doing that for 8 hours is exhausting in its own right. But, it doesn't help the anxiety - which is completely different.

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    3. sometimes it helps to have a focal point for focusing. maybe it would be easier for Rigel to focus--literally--on a visual (like a candle flame) or on a mantra (breathing in, I know I'm breathing in, breathing out, I know I'm breathing out) or even visualizing the word "Peace" over & over for a few minutes. Set a timer so you don't constantly think about the time....you'll NEVER eradicate thoughts, or be able to "shut off" your brain, but you will be able to develop the ability to put more space between the thoughts......

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    4. Right on Lori....Amazing....That really works Rigel....visualize a word that resonates the most within you....!!! PEACE is the best one !!!
      you will feel a little mind chatter at first but then it will all get PEACEFUL !

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  5. I'm a wanderer of thought and mind, I multi-task my way through the day but there are certainly times when the need to focus is vital. I find if I become frustrated with a task or situation finding focus often removes the stress from the equation and allows me to do whatever it is I've set out to do. Not always but often enough.

    That said I do take time out of most of my days to do yoga which for me is the most focused and meditative period in my day. It wasn't always so when I started to do yoga it was simply to have a change of pace in my regular excersise routine, I didn't consider the mental aspect at all. Now I do yoga because of the mental aspect of it, the focus.

    I'd been doing yoga off and on for awhile when I become frustrated with learning a new pose. I knew I had the physical strength and balance for this pose yet I could not get it. Until I decided I was going to focus fully on it and lo and behold I got up into position. I fell rather quickly my focus slipped at having done it but the next day it was a little better and the next and the next. Eventually I found I focused throughout my whole routine and it changed what yoga was to me. I can honestly say that when I do yoga now I am thinking of nothing but exactly what I am doing. I stopped finishing my routine with skipping the savasana pose where you lie flat on the mat and simply be. It has become I suppose what yoga is meant to be an inward focus and period of meditation. Now I can close my eyes in a moment of frustration and I automatically slip into the breathing pattern of my yoga routine and I find such peace in that focus of breathe in breathe out.

    Sheesh I sound like a new-age hippie.

    I think this was a really great post for me to read today. I've been letting my focus at other times of the day slip a little too much in the past few months and letting my stress get a little out of control. This was a really great reminder of what focus can do. Thanks for that Barb I needed it.

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    1. A beautiful addition to the conversation too, Erin. I love yoga and really am getting closer and closer to this ability to focus entirely (but not completely yet). Since our worries can't be wrestled into submission, it's nice that our need to worry can be yoga-ed there!

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  6. I, too, wander a lot. I have tried meditation on several occasions and I found myself falling asleep which is not the intended purpose:) The class teacher was not thrilled by this and I kept doing it. I quit the class and have now just tried focusing on the task at hand but I still tend to become distracted to other things and like Rigel I tend to hyperfocus or dwell on things that are truly out of my control. I was taught to literally picture a broom and sweep those thoughts out. it works when I can remember to think of the broom.:)

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    1. Okay, talk about stream of consciousness - I saw "Broom", and I thought of curling, and Russ Howard (a famous Canadian Curler) turning purple on the ice, screaming, "Hurry! Hurry Hard!!"

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    2. Madge, If you are falling asleep during your mediation I would suggest that this is exactly what your body needs...did you feel better after?..so many people have a sleep debt that they owe there bodies...I have been meditating on and off for almost 40 years and sometimes I nod off and sometimes I get bursts of energy amd sometimes I feel complete peace....if you ever try meditating again.... I have been taught not to judge how I feel during the mediation but how I feel after....accept where ever your thoughts...your focus...your mantra.... take you...when you realize that you are no longer meditating...slowly...effortlessly...start the thought process again

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    3. Is this MY Scott? If it is, Madge the boy knows of what he speaks. He was the gifter of my meditation course and it's true. they say it is natural to feel tired or to have thoughts come into your mind. And you should not push them away, but rather, let your mantra ease it's way back and the random thoughts will disappear. And over time we build and build on this until you achieve a whole session with no other thoughts. This is what we aspire to. Damn I have to get back to this!!!!

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    4. Me too!! (or rather have to get INTO it) I know I started the riff, but you are all soooo inspiring.

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  7. the most important yoga sutra (words/lessons of the Buddha) states the following: Yoga citta vritti narodha." Translated: Yoga is the control (nirodhah, regulation, channeling, mastery, integration,
    coordination, stilling, quieting, setting aside) of the modifications (gross and subtle
    thought patterns) of the mind field. In other words, the only way to control the unceasing fluctuations of the mind, one must apply concentration on a single-focus." this is a beautiful piece, Barb & will no doubt speak to EVERYONE, because we all get entangled in our monkey mind, and we all have the ability to develop inner peace and skillful approaches to overthinking. I'm thrilled you wrote this, and grateful for the mention!!!!

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    1. "monkey mind". Truer words? Sometimes silly shenanigans, sometimes beastly, always climbing, crawling, investigating. Thanks, Lori, you are my meditation guru! xo

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    2. You are your own guru Barbara.... full of the wisdom to hear your own inner teachings. The trick is to PRACTICE getting quiet enough to hear them.

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    3. (I'm always here for you)

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  8. At first I thought: Meditation? Naaah, boring!

    But after I read your post, it struck me that I might do some meditation now and then.

    Washing the dishes, cleaning, ironing clothes, working in the garden...I don't think of anything else, only of completing the task. It can be very relaxing, and makes boring things interesting.

    I also slip in that kind of trance, when I write (I sometimes listen to some music, and I can't even remember, which songs were played, because it didn't matter anymore), when I do sports, and when I sew.

    So maybe I'm not that bad at meditation. ;)

    P.S. The Michael Phelps technique sounds awesome....I did some swimming competitions myself, when I was a kid, but I never thought that it's like a recurring process...I just focused on swimming fast. *lol*

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    1. I totally think these are your own meditation techniques -- and there's no harm in being aware of that and ensuring you don't lose the gift. (and I know, it really is so much more than "swimming fast", isn't it?)

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  9. I've been "talked through" the steps of relaxation techniques, a sort of meditation, and a lot of it focuses on not judging what comes in and leaves your mind. Notice it, yes, it exists, but if you can't get back to the "meditation moment," that's okay, too. Don't give up. And breathe.

    I don't find it particularly helpful, but the phrase "don't judge the thought/intrusion" turned out to be the most helpful. It's something we've been doing all our lives: we judge. So if you can't stop judging the thoughts, at least at first, remember, it takes practice to break a habit.

    I've learned a couple of techniques that bring focus back to someplace useful quickly. Some are instantly do-able, others need to be done at home. (Well, they probably do. However, if exhibitionism is your thing, go right ahead and jump in a fountain.)

    The instant technique is to basically take inventory of everything you see around you. Chair, table, hair, brown, microwave, traffic, blue car, red light, air conditioner, pack of gum. Whatever you see in the immediate area. It brings my mind into sharp focus instantly, and stops my mind from going wherever it wanted to, whatever distraction. I use it to stop panic attacks, a calming technique, but it gets the same results. It brings me back into the NOW.

    I think I read this in someone's post up there ^^^ but can't find it. It's called "mindfullness." You focus on each of your other 4 senses: hearing, touch smell, taste. (I don't include sight here because, in my world, that's what the "taking inventory" technique is doing.

    My most helpful example is taking a shower. (This is where that "jump in the fountain" thing comes in.) Stand under the water. Feel the tub/bathmat beneath your feet. Feel the water running down your body. Where does it flow? Down your back, your arms, legs... What do you smell? What does your soap/shampoo/shower gel smell like? If it's, say, a vanilla scent, can you "taste it? (Ex: if you smell cookies baking, your mouth waters... same idea). If sight works for you, see goosebumps, or the steam rising in the shower.

    This is all part of what's called DBT skills. You can google sites that offer all sorts of ideas. These are what work for me. Thank god, because my mind wanders so much so frequently, I keep wondering what the appeal is. All I can do is hope it sends me a postcard from wherever it went. It's probably having a better time than I am at the moment.

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    1. Oh, I know, Dawn. It's almost like wakeful dreaming when you think of it, one adventure of the mid begets another and another and so on and so on -- and virtually none of them are useful! And then you have all this baggage and you're all sweaty and tired, argh. I notice that this seeing technique you describe sounds like what I've begun to do more and more lately. You are so right -- it works gangbusters! Even if it's just a few seconds, it makes a big difference for me.

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    2. I was picturing one of those video games at the arcade where you have to drive the "car." All these cars are whizzing by. They have no real meaning, but damn, they do distract you from what you're trying to accomplish.
      Any few seconds of BRAKES!! can only help.

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  10. Wow I've always wondered if meditation would be useful but didn't know anything about it or where to start. I'm going to today, though, thanks to your baby-steps explanation!

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    1. Yay! Let us know how it goes, Aimee.

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  11. I haven't read all the comments (because I am too distracted) but I know I lack focus these days and SN has made it way worse -- not just me horsing around there, but, as an artist, all the places I feel like I have to "hit" to stay and be relevant.

    I think that's why I love (hate) hot yoga: it's so hard and exhausting, I can't do anything but focus on that one thing.

    Also, I forgot the point of this comment.

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    1. This is why we love you, Gae!! And, yeah, SN is indeed a kind of love/hate joy/responsibility, isn't it? Yoga, good. Hot yoga, really? And ... what were you saying?

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  12. Have a great women's dax, Ladies! We don't need to celebrate - we know we're awesome. :D

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    1. Day... Sorry can't type on my iPod

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