Ego Adventures and Soul Ordeals
Accepting One Within the Other:
Learning to Live Into The Adventures That Life Offers, Accepting The Ordeals That Come With Them
An essay by Michael Mervosh
Ego Adventures and Soul Ordeals
Adventure – an unusual and exciting (typically felt as dangerous) experience or activity; a daring activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm.
Ordeal – a challenging or painful experience, especially a protracted one. Something that has come forth that was not expected, asked for or wanted.
Security is mostly a superstition.
It does not exist in nature,
Nor do the children of men
As a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer
In the long run
Than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure,
To keep our faces toward change and
Behave like free spirits
In the presence of fate
Is strength undefeatable.
– Helen Keller
It is important in this life to know that we can feel safe; we all need to feel secure enough and be protected enough, before wanting to risk and venture out into the world.
We all must learn to form meaningful attachments and experience enough solid ground in our lives in order to feel loved, accepted and adequately regarded and cared for.
We need this important foundation of security woven into the fabric of our being. This essential stability gives us the internal grounding and fortitude necessary to find out who we are, and to go as far out into the world as we wish, according to our capabilities.
Yet, even with that premise being established – security, as Helen Keller states, is mostly a superstition.
A habitual ‘over-emphasis’ on being safe and staying secure speaks to a young (and sometimes culturally reinforced) place within us that wishes for something to be, which cannot ever really be. Or can only partially or temporarily be. Or needed to be, back when we were young.
As children, we had to rely on the presence, care and support of others in order to feel secure. We depended on these external resources to help us feel stable and worthwhile enough on the inside. This essential stability allowed us to take meaningful risks and have life-giving explorations and adventures.
It seems that we are shaped by our cultural surroundings to value and seek security, sometimes above all else. Our educational and career endeavors are often focused primarily around gaining an opportunity for economic security. Getting married means “to have and to hold”, which contributes to the collective ideal of being provided for, of coming together to sustain and be sustained as a family throughout a lifetime.
Security is something we strive for, sometimes obtain, and often fail to retain.
In actuality, security is something that comes and goes from our lives. Life is to be lived on its own terms, and not ours. If this is true, then we must be sobered by what Helen Keller says. In this way of living life on life’s terms, avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
When we fail at our fundamental emotional and psychological developmental tasks of becoming attached and secure in childhood, we can become overly focused on securing external possessions as a substitute. Beyond adequate food, shelter and love, things like finances can become the primary means for obtaining our sense of security.
Money, of course, is that singular external resource necessary in almost all parts of the world for an exchange of basic goods, services and supplies for living. But it is not a valid substitute for internal resourcefulness, which is only obtained by cultivating by our capacity for self-activation, for venturing forth, and for being resilient in the face of failure – or in our mythic language – adventuring.
For the soul’s heroic journey of awakening, saying yes to the way of adventure means also saying yes to the challenges of the ordeal, and vice versa. We cannot have the one without the other. This becomes a fundamental truth once we cross the threshold from the familiar into the zone as-yet-unknown, as the journey now takes us. We all must go beyond the safe and familiar to enter the realm of mythic adventure, which is the essence of a hero’s journey.
Paradoxically, in the realm of myth, when we seek out a worthy adventure, safety becomes the final danger.
Many of us in the Western world live out our ordinary lives amongst the cultural procurements of a post-modern world – we have never been surrounded by more abundance. To verify this, just take a walk through a nearby supermarket. Supersized, indeed. How about a appliance and electronics store? Then there is Walmart, Cabalas, Costco, Sam’s Club – the list goes on.
Convenience and ease can be our primary aims to reinforce the perception of a successful and developed way of life. Precisely because of this cultural backdrop, security in the end becomes our final danger.
Being “overfed” by the things that substitute for an actual life we can call our own, we are no longer clear or lean enough to realize what it takes to bring forth our own vitality, meaning and purpose. The science fiction writer H.G. Wells spoke to this very thing about our technologically advanced ways of living quite poignantly and dramatically:
“But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbor’s eye, there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, we find ourselves by accident.
Always before these times the bulk of the people did not overeat themselves because they couldn’t, whether they wanted to or not, and all but a very few were kept “fit” by unavoidable exercise and personal danger. Now if only one pitch his or her standard low enough and keep free from pride, almost anyone can achieve a sort of excess.
You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred, your highest moment a mere sentimental orgasm, and your first real contact with primary and elemental necessities the sweat of your death bed.”
Many people working in the field of hospice care have learned a deep wisdom teaching from listening to those who time on earth is about to end. They often report that when a dying person looks back over the span of their life, their deepest regret will most often be for the venture that failed to be undertaken, and not for the failed undertaking of a venture.
Those who cannot and do not say ‘yes’ to the adventure of living may manage to avoid certain ordeals, but they also create other self-inflicted ordeals through their endangering tendencies of avoiding. When we live in this manner, we become left to live out our lives in small ways, and we become fated to a persistent “sameness”.
By playing it too safe, we are cast in roles created only for the management of the mundane. We tend to the necessity of daily chores, attend to the dreary tasks of life that maintain and preserve a narrow, flattened existence, and then pretend about many other things.
This is why we need to able to understand the danger of playing it too safe. By allowing our lives to be lived as a meaningful but uncertain journey, we create the potentiality for a vibrant life. We risk being enlivened by a spontaneity, surprise and wonder that can only be opened to and joined in with, and not controlled.
The Adventure Brings Forth the Ordeal
So this is the deal – we have say ‘yes’ to it all. The essential intermingling of an adventure with an ordeal is the very thing that can bring forth the conditions by which we discover the deepest unrealized potential in ourselves.
It is also what creates a sense of largeness in life.
Excitement is what comes alive and can be born from our most primal fears, so fear is what we must inevitably face in the unfolding of our deepest excitement and enthusiasm for living.
If we don’t see ourselves as an actual player in the mythological field of opportunity, we will be left to instead project our vitality onto a perceived superhero; someone to be both admired and envied. We will tend to perceive that they can do what we can’t and what we don’t want to do.
This is how we project our own inner hero potential onto those larger-than-life figures outside of us. Of course, this is important for children to be able to do. They must be able to wish, dream and imagine, because they are too young to be able to go out and actually do what they dream.
But when we continue stay arrested in these childhood fantasies as adults, we don’t ever have to do the hard work of realizing what we have been born for. We will fail to do the necessary striving towards, developing and contributing to the world; we will give up on bringing forth these essential (and unknown) inner capacities to the needs of the world around us.
The Ordeal Brings Forth the Sense of Adventure
Subsequently, once we move past our initial emotional reactions to life circumstances and personal interactions that engage the ego’s ordeals, we can begin to search for and locate our deeper and more authentic ‘hero response’ to the challenge that has been placed before us.
We awaken to the realization that the exact conditions needed to elicit our true potential from within us have now transpired, in ways that we may not yet be able to accept, appreciate or understand. We have to say yes to the ordeal, and learn to go with it.
When we can do this, the sense of adventure returns to us, and can enliven us. When we withstand the necessary ordeals of living, we can become motivated and inspired to follow the awakening life force energy emerging from within us. This begins to gradually open us to the possibility of the profound ‘discovery of the boon’ within the hero self, brought forth from the realm of adventure found in the ordeals of daily life.
Joseph Campbell said that when we say yes to it all, there is a deep, sub-conscious recognition and acceptance that there is something worthy about having a proper ordeal, especially when taken up within the spirit of adventure. Campbell says this “drives the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those human fantasies that tend to tie it back”.
This is in essence an embodiment of the Buddhist sutra of one’s capacity for “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”. The ego dies a little death, again and again; then the eternal shines through from within the trying circumstance of life’s vicissitudes.
Sometimes, only through the ordeal are we able to be born anew, which in turn gives new life to those around us, who can then also partake of life in this way.
From the Ideal to the Real
We tend to cling to what psychotherapists would call our “infantile fantasy wishes’.
These primal constructs of our own making are full of idealized values, beliefs, and images about ourselves and others. We tend use them, as Campbell says above, as something to tie us back to what is old and familiar. They become used as defensive maneuvers that move us away from the mess of really working something through as part of a new experience that is still raw and unrefined; something that needs our ongoing attention, our back and forth-ness, and a trial and error approach.
Yet it is this mindful attention to the messes of life that creates new re-organization of our thinking, and inspires the courage to try new behaviors that can forge new life. This is what it takes to move us forward through “the necessary rites and passages of meaningful adult living.”
As uncomfortable and unmanageable as ordeals can be, they also offer us a chance to feel a kind of “realness” within ourselves. Ordeals can give us a sense that “this is it, this is my life, and it is happening right now”. It shifts us from a sense of our lives being lived according to the constructs of the map, and we now feel thrown into the actual territory. Below is a bold passage from an eastern mystic from the 15th century named Kabir. He speaks with passionate eloquence about this shift from measured conceptual thinking to the potency of lived experience:
“There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming there.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The sacred books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers sideways one day.
What Kabir speaks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something,
It is not true.
From the Map To the Territory
Kabir encourages us to shift our devotion from the ‘childhood wishing’ of being rescued by heavenly forces from the trials of life on earth, to one of being strengthened by the adult ‘living through’ of life’s earthly experiences.
We can also cling to mental concepts in the very same way we cling to our deepest childhood fantasies; we can get caught up in a fascination with abstract and theoretical positions. This prevents us from entering the necessary uncertainty and complexity of a genuine adventure, where we are harried as well as carried by the twists and turns of fate and destiny, as they play themselves out in our actual lives.
Kabir is also saying that we learn best only when we enter the territory of real life, experiencing things as they are. We are subjected to our own unique happenings and perspectives, however troubling and limiting they might be. Ultimately, we learn to own our experiences, make our own choices, and take responsibility for them, living as only we can. These choices, for better and for worse, shape our fate and bring forth our destiny.
We gain the most from life when we are nourished and satisfied by learning from own lived experience, not from being pre-occupied by the thinking going on in our heads.
It is important not to confuse the menu with the meal.
The Adventure & Ordeal of the Ascent:
Cultivating the Masculine Principle Within
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
If You Want Majesty and Heights, You Must
Say ‘Yes’ to the Effort of the Ascent
If we have a desire to open, to thrust ourselves towards our own largeness and towards the vast and ascendant possibility of a living bliss within us, then this will require significant energy, effort and work. It confronts the infantile fantasy that many of us cling to that there can be significant reward without any effort.
It is a child’s wish that new life can come forth without having to contribute towards its happening. There is no such thing. This is perhaps more than a bit disappointing to awaken to, but accepting this reality grounds us into the do-ability of the task at hand.
There is an old saying, “children wish, adults do”. Only as young children do we have the right to be given to without having to respond back in return. It is natural for children to have the wish to be given to, especially when they don’t have the capacities to provide what is needed for them selves.
But eventually, we all have to grow up. As we mature, we grow into a desire to give of ourselves, and to give from our own sense of fullness. Healthy adults actively seek to contribute to making life happen. As we do this, we are filled from within by the satisfaction of our own efforts. Children benefit as a result of an activated, grown-up life happening around them.
Life exchanges with life; there must always be a giving back and going forth in life, for life to continue it’s moving forward. Avoiding the exchange of effort, while trying to receive the outcome or reward that comes from (someone else’s) effort, conjures an unreality. It also fosters a sense of entitlement and with it, unconscious demands on others. When this happens, caregivers eventually lose their desire to give, as then can only do so primarily out of obligation.
To experience a sense of life’s adventure, we must be able to bear the effort it takes to grow upward and to go outward, to thrust ourselves into life. The motivation to make this effort must ultimately be cultivated and ignited from within us. We need the necessary courage, nerve and sustained focus to do so. We must be self-activating beings. As we adventure forth, we will face both our limits and our potential within this tangible world of space and time.
How To Climb a Mountain
Make no mistake. This will be an exercise in staying vertical.
Yes, there will be a view, later, a wide swath of open sky,
but in the meantime: tree and stone. If you’re lucky, a hawk will
coast overhead, scanning the forest floor. If you’re lucky,
a set of wildflowers will keep you cheerful. Mostly, though,
a steady sweat, your heart fluttering indelicately, a solid ache
perforating your calves. This is called work, what you will come to know,
eventually and simply, as movement, as all the evidence you need to make
your way. Forget where you were. That story is no longer true.
Level your gaze to the trail you’re on, and even the dark won’t stop you.
In this poem, Maya Stein speaks of what it takes to climb towards a particular height, a metaphor for maturing, for ‘growing up’. This self-activating yang principle, in the form of outward effort, must be made and cannot be short-changed. Any short cuts here only lengthen the distance towards the boon of self-revelation.
Their will be a view, she says. You will be rewarded. But not immediately – later. There is little immediate gratification to be found on a soul’s journey. In fact, this journey of awakening will take up one’s lifetime. She is pointing us to the task at hand. Tree and stone – groundedness. Facing what is right in front of you.
Occasionally, we are rewarded with surprise and wonder – the appearance of a hawk flying overhead. We can’t feel entitled to this viewing. We are graced with it. It comes when it comes, and when it does, hopefully we are not too self-involved and we can have enough attentiveness to see it, and have it enliven our inner experience.
Stein teaches us that our own efforts create movement in life. Conscious effort is what will move our lives forward. Yet we are not doing this all by ourselves, and life doesn’t happen solely by our own efforts. The universe participates as well. But a certain ongoing effort needed to dissolve what has grown old, and what now holds us back.
These next lines are potent: Forget where you were. That story is no longer true.
I can remember the first time I rock climbed on the Via Ferrata course used as part of our Hero’s Journey ® Wilderness Intensives. Led by our guide to some dramatic pitches, we were able to climb without all the technical skill and gear required of typical mountain climbing. We were granted access to vistas usually only experienced by seasoned climbers, while being challenged to take steps upward and outward that at times were quite daunting.
I remember the first time I turned my gaze away from the rock that was right in front of my face, and instead turned to look towards the vista that was being offered as a result of our initial ascent. It was dizzying. And it was wondrous. I was amazed to suddenly be gazing out upon a vast, wide-open view before me and below me.
This perspective was far different from the one I had while on the ground. There was somehow a new story, along with this new perspective, unfolding from within me in the here and now of the climb.
It took a few years to integrate this realization. I had to understand that this is what it takes to shape a new vision and destiny for one’s self. I had to stay grounded within myself while approaching and achieving new heights. I could consider new possibilities for my own life in the same way that I could take in this new and wondrous vista of green tree mountains and clear, blue sky.
Level your gaze to the trail you’re on, and even the dark won’t stop you. To manage the dizziness, I turned back towards the effort at hand – to the climbing, one metal ladder rung drilled into the rock, one hand-hold, one footstep at a time. And a new trail inside me being made by my own footsteps. It is profoundly liberating to feel the darkness of an immobilizing fear no longer holding me back.
The felt sense that I can move upward and forward, while paradoxically being rooted deep in my body, awake and alive deep inside my heart, stays with me to this very day, re-awakened as I write this.
The Adventure & Ordeal of the Descent:
Cultivating the Feminine Principle Within
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
If You Want Depth and Beauty,
You Must Say ‘Yes’ to the Descent
Opening to the pull of inwardness and downwardness, to the life-giving descendent principle of soul within us – this is what gives birth to one’s unique and individuated path. The pathway to the bliss that can only be ours requires yielding, softening and surrendering.
We must be able to tolerate letting go into (and joining with) the sense of what is eternal and everlasting. We yield, we let go into a surrendering of control, and only then can we go beyond what we already know, or beyond any knowing – or even knowing how. We let go of our limits and binds, our old stories. We yield over and over into the peace to be found within the dark “no-thing-yet-ness”, which is beyond all human understanding.
Paradoxically, only out of this depth of spaciousness and dark unknowing can we eventually come to know our own unique sense of purpose and meaning. It seems that something always becomes born anew out of the void of the unknown.
We all seem to understand that we need to grow up, even if we don’t really want to. We come to accept and comprehend that there is something to be obtained from this developmental process, if we can endure the letting go of our child-like ways. Knowing that we need to grow up is one thing. Understanding that we also need to grow down is another.
Accepting that we need to be taken down and taken in, in order to give birth to new life, is a different kind of challenge. To transform our being, we must learn how to go inside, to go into the darkness of unknowing, and stay there until we can gradually recognize, value and find meaning within the spaciousness of an authentic inner life.
During our Hero’s Journey ® Wilderness Intensives, we use both the metaphor and the lived experience of the underground cave to embrace this deeply feminine principle. If you have never been under the earth in any natural and sustained way, the shift from one reality to another is immediate, stark, mysterious and potent.
Going down and under the earth, you at once leave the world of light and color, where everything is in fluctuation and has contrast. As you go down, transitioning from light to darkness, the sensate shift is immediate. The year-round temperature is in the mid-50 degrees Farenheit, and it is always damp under the ground. Color takes on shades of grey. The only sounds to be heard, if there are any sounds at all, are the hollow echoes from dripping or trickling water.
Mostly, what one encounters in a natural, underground cave – when not moving about and navigating with a flashlight – is a disorienting and liberating darkness. This is accompanied by a pervasive coolness, spaciousness and silence. One feels enveloped by a hollow, captivating sense of timelessness. It can be sublime to experience the environment all around you in such a stark and unavoidable way. When underground, one is thrust inward.
The experience of emptiness and darkness vacillates between tomblike and womblike. It takes a little while to acclimate not only to the conditions of the cave, but also to the conditions of paying attention to the immediacy of one’s interior in such a direct and undistracted way.
You can easily feel swallowed by the emptiness and darkness, even haunted by it, especially if you are by yourself. It feels a lot like swimming out into the depths of the ocean for the first time. Yet you can also feel enchanted by such an encounter as well, even enthralled by an ever-present sense of mystery and vastness, an experience which is deeply internal in a way that feels both very impersonal and very intimate at the same time.
What we have to practice, from the perspective of the soul’s journey, is adapting to the experience of stillness as we descend inward, kind of like letting go as you fall. This is opposed to the sense of movement when you are rising upward, such as when encountered upon a climb. T.S. Eliot understood the value and purpose of darkness, and the soul’s need to descend into the womb-like abyss of the dark void which gives birth to all new life. But first, we need to work through the tomb-like nature of this element, which detaches us from the world of light.
I said to my soul be still
And let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
Wait without hope,
For hope would be hope
For the wrong thing.
Wait without love,
For love would be love
for the wrong thing.
There is yet faith,
But the faith and the love and the hope
Are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought,
For you are not ready for thought.
And so the darkness shall become the light
And the stillness, the dancing.
– T.S. Eliot
Here we make a transition from any defensive form of movement and activity which takes us away from going and growing down. The heroic act of awakening requires us to develop our capacity to yield into silence and stillness, in order to join with something larger and deeper than the ego self.
This kind of surrender is very different from (and often confused with) submission. It is a deep giving over not only to something larger than one’s self, but ultimately to something larger within one’s self.
This kind of surrender is like the giving over of a water drop to the larger pool. As the water drop enters the pool, it joins with the pool and appears to have disappeared from existence, at least from a tangible, material perspective.
However, from the mystical point of view, the water drop is now identified with the pool. The water drop is now the pool. Rumi says that not only is the water drop now within the ocean, but the entire ocean can be found within the water drop as well.
I remember how deeply altered my state of awareness becomes when I am inside a cave. I used to visit the unexplored parts of a public cave as an adolescent, and returned there repeatedly in my college years. I was fascinated by what happened when I was outside the boundaries of the natural light of day, and could be swallowed by the dark, like Jonah into the belly of the whale.
Crawling, being on all fours, using arms and legs to traverse – this alters something in our brain chemistry, activating the reptilian brain from which we have evolved.
After being active in this four-legged way, I would rest in the stillness of the dark.
Being silent and still, I would begin to dissolve like a water drop entering a vast dark pool. No thoughts would come – none at all. Only my senses were active. Sight, smell, taste, touch and sound engaged in the midst and mystery of a dark and silent void. Eternity was right there, alive and outside of time, in a mind-expanding kind of ‘no-thing’ way.
Enveloped by the cave, I recall how I would begin having vivid memories of early childhood life. Feelings of grief and awe would spontaneously surface. I would feel on the edge of my seat, wondering what would well up next into awareness from the dark well of my unconscious. At times, a sense of the deep, dark, eternal would become almost unbearable. Yet I couldn’t actually know or say what was more unbearable – if it was the rapture of such mystery, or the fear of such a void.
Years later, while sitting alone in a dark cave, I remember the first time I understood the last lines of Eliot’s poem. And so the darkness shall become the light. And the stillness, the dancing. I remember putting my hands directly in front of my face, feeling exquisitely the feeling of motion through my limbs while rooted on a sitting pad. Then I realized that I was also seeing as well as feeling my hands, in complete and total darkness!
They were darker in appearance than was the total darkness of empty space. It seemed that physical matter, having more density, was darker than the empty space. I couldn’t believe my eyes, or comprehend that I was seeing. I moved my arms around, seeing them move, at the same time I could feel them move. It was strange and exhilarating to experience.
I gradually realized I could begin sensing open space in the cave, as opposed to the solidness of the ceiling, walls and floor. I was not as blind in the dark as I thought. A new sensing awareness was taking place. To this day, I marvel at this awareness of light and movement taking place in the darkness and silence of underground cave spaces.
What I have come to appreciate far more than the literal experience of seeing in total darkness is its metaphorical significance. As I continue to practice letting go into the unknown void of unconscious internal space, I am endlessly surprised by my recollections of dream states, spontaneous insights or memories of significance. I have grown ever-increasingly fascinated by the mysterious power of mythic imagining, and how it is born anew, again and again, out of the darkness and silence of the void.
Eternity – All We Need is Here and Now
Ultimately, when we embrace the soul’s adventure and the ego’s ordeal as being one and the same, we enter the state of being present in the Now point. The eternal world is born anew in each moment that consciousness can be fully present and engaged.
By accepting the knowledge that the universe has the potential to re-create itself in any given moment or conscious encounter, we are given more motivation and incentive to stay present to the here and now, and bear witness to its unfolding. Gradually, we come to see for ourselves that all we need can be found again and again in the here and now – and in fact, it will be found in no other place.
The striking recognition that our own capacity for being aware actually shapes the unfolding of reality around us is indeed a profound awakening. It is the beginning of awakening to true ‘hero’ potency and potentiality – to the realization that the ocean of Divinity is indeed active and present within the little water drop of humanity that I embody.
Wendell Berry, the clear-eyed, plain-speaking Kentucky tobacco farmer, thinker, essayist and poet, conveys this recognition. As always, he gives us the experience of nature as a simple and deep reflecting mirror into our truest self:
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye, clear.
What we need is here.
When we awaken to the realization that we don’t need the world to change, but in fact can ever change within ourselves, we have entered the heroic realm of today’s soul adventurer. What we need is already within us, waiting to be birthed from us. The universe itself, Campbell said, is conspiring towards this very aim. It needs and wants more soul to come forth on this planet, as it wants to know itself, here and now, where the gladness of eternity can meet the needs of the world.
This is the evolutionary call to adventure that we must come to understand, learn to appreciate, and become actively engaged with.
So once again, the adventure is in the ordeal and the ordeal in is the adventure.
That’s the deal.
There is eternity to be discovered within us, while we are here and living into our particular incarnation on this earth. What we need to undertake is the journey that is now waiting for us, the journey of awakening to the hero potential that will take us to eternity within, so we can bring it alive on the earth. Let’s not wait for the end of our lives to do this, and have regrets on our deathbeds.
What we need is here, now, in this world. Let’s keep awakening to this profound and humbling reality.
– Michael Mervosh
Paradoxically, as we enter the realm of myth – and when seeking out a worthy adventure – the over-emphasis on safety becomes the final danger.
Michael Mervosh is a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist, practicing in Pittsburgh, PA, and teaching and consulting globally for the past 31 years. In addition to private practice, Michael is the founder and executive director of Hero’s Journey Foundation, and co-founder and teacher of PsychoEnergetics.
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