Aspiritual Generation: Inner life in the 21st century

At a time when more and more Americans are choosing to refer to themselves as non-religious but spiritual, which only makes me wonder what being “spiritual” means to them and especially to the post-millennial “e-generation” or more recently the “selfie-(look at me) generation.”


Moving back to the Houston home that I grew up in to be the full-time caretaker of my father who has Alzheimer’s has been a challenge that I, like many other Americans, never expected, but it also has been a wonderful opportunity and it has been a tangible real life initiation that pales the many spiritual initiations that I have sought out or that have sought me out in my long interest and curiosity in spirituality, religious and mystical experience and especially its relation to creativity.  While I strive to help my father and myself, cope with his gradually increasing loss of memory and language abilities, I can’t help from noticing the similarities with mystical experience, where mystics of all religious traditions describe their peak and transforming experiences in terms of losing or of a loosening of the abilities and faculties of memory and of language that give way to an almost engulfing and palpably blissful, ecstatic experience that is immediate, full and enlightening and that cannot be described with the limitations of language or with the comparisons of memory.




As I strive to help my father to express his wishes about what he would like to do or see and try to engage his curiosity, it has become apparent that he is not particularly spiritually or religiously oriented.  While on one hand I have appreciated this since he was always tolerant and supportive of all my various spiritual explorations, it now becomes a concern for me for his overall well-being and for his engagement and for his end of life issues.  While I have success engaging him with history, with biographies of Thomas Edison whom he was named after, books about the famous early meteorologist in the Galveston, TX 1900 hurricane disaster and with information on the new LED street lights that Houston is installing, I have little success in engaging him with spiritual or religious subjects or with the wish to attend religious services of any kind.


I realize that spirituality cannot be enforced and also how it ironically dissolves and turns into its opposite when it is attempted, and also how it is impossible to argue for with people who have no interest in it or experience of it, but it raises questions in my mind about cultural and generational traits and characteristics that I have noticed since the turn of the millennium working with the public as a popular hair stylist and working with college students as a librarian.  I also see these characteristics in the yoga business in America which has exploded in popularity yet has also attenuated spiritually in my observation. I see these generational characteristics as intimately connected to the growth of the Internet and digital culture.


It is a sad irony that my father was once on the front cover of Life magazine with a story about IBM’s first major computer holding a wire that had greater width than his wrist and now he is cognitively unable to even check his e-mails. Yet it seems the only things that this generation seems to talk about or hold in a sense of hushed transcendent reverence are the Internet and the latest Apple product. It is a greater sad irony that while we are definitely living in a period of the greatest information revolution, much greater by comparison than the other great information revolution that likewise also threatened the hegemony of religious and political structures, the Print Revolution, we are also living in an age when information and text is the most accessible and fluid in human history, yet it seems that the interest and even curiosity in the past or the interest or ability to envision a better future or the interest or even the ability for close reading or critical thinking have seemed to have inversely declined at the same rate that the easier and faster access to “information” has increased.


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Moving back home has also forced me to confront my own life and priorities and to assess what experiences and interests were the most important and transforming for my future life and development.  In looking back, I will have to say that the totally unexpected but very powerful nascent manifestations of an authentic spiritual awakening and very strong and sometimes startling series of “religious” experiences along with developing an authentic approach and practice of creativity were the most important developments of my early adult life.


I had always been a voracious reader as a child and a regular patron of our local public library with a habit of pouring over our family’s own set of encyclopedias and had an unquenchable thirst for learning about foreign and ancient cultures and history.  I had also from an early age developed a taste for the macabre and the occult and had taught myself to read Tarot cards by the age of twelve.  My mother had even given me a book as a child that she and my father were given ironically at a church fundraiser that actually contained spells and recipes from notorious medieval grimoires and I remember scaring off a baby sitter by my intentions to carry them out.  Belief in magic comes naturally to children and perhaps that is why stories involving witches, wizards and magic are prevalent in children’s literature.  Yet the emotions and experiences that were associated with these occult subjects were fascination, fear, curiosity and the attraction of the forbidden, but I would not associate them with my experiences of spirituality or mysticism that were to come late in my adolescence.  Even though in the vast and complex phenomenon of tantric literature and practice, both Buddhist and Hindu, those two seemingly conflicting forces of the occult, the magical, the transgressive and the profoundly mystical achieve such a perfect and astonishing union.


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Nevertheless, the experiences in my life that I would call spiritual were equally as beautiful as they were disorienting and slightly terrifying that involved an engulfing and unifying and strong palpable wave of bliss and a sense of dissolution of the narrow sense of self and all of the familiar markers of identity.  William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, along with a host of other early 20th century scholars of the psychology of mysticism, have described these experiences as equally fascinating and profoundly terrifying for the individual who encounters them.  Hinduism and the Tantric tradition both describe the experience of the indwelling nature of the Divine in terms of Sat-Cid-Ananda or the boundless or timeless state of being-consciousness-bliss.


Also there is Gopi Krishna’s influential book on his own personal experience of the beautiful ecstatic and both terrifying experience of kundalini expansion which outlines the transforming benefits and the possible dangers that these types of experiences can have on an individual’s development which echoes James’ earlier work on how these depth experiences can shape an individual’s psyche to a greater sense of wholeness or purpose or also how they can also potentially psychically maim an individual who is unprepared to deal with them. I feel that these peak or “depth” experiences may be much more common than not, and that they happen to a wider range of individuals than those who identify themselves as writers or creative figures such as Alan Ginsberg who wrote of his own experience of a transforming mystical vision, those who have no cultural or ideological context for these experiences to be able to form a recognition of them. And without recognition their positive transforming potential is missed and they wither on the vine without tending or nourishing, or they can even be repressed and create a scenario for a deeply unbalanced psyche. Also these naturally occurring mystical experiences can easily be manipulated by the “bait and switch” con-game tactics of various religious and cultic ideologies that use them to bind their unwary potential victims because they have not developed their own independent sense of spiritual literacy and who can easily be persuaded into believing that they must follow that unique exclusivist ideology and practice.  I mention these aspects in response to the rather facile overuse of the term “spiritual” or “spirituality” especially as an alternative to being religious that has no depth or challenge or transformational aspect to it.


As yoga has become a multi-billion dollar industry and has become reinvented in the US as primarily “modern postural yoga” without the original mystical nature of the term meaning to “yoke” or join oneself to the Divine, and also without the other equally important branches of yoga aside from hatha, meditation has increasingly become attenuated or even erased from the curricula of most modern yoga classes or programs and other yoga instructors have also remarked to me about the increasing discomfort of their students in postures where they feel they are not “doing” anything such as the corpse pose.  As yoga has become a popular means of stress reduction and physical fitness it has also become stripped of its spiritual associations and context; it also seems that the definition of spirituality in popular parlance has become reduced to a rather shallow and saccharine conglomerate of popular psychology, truisms and altruism as evidenced by the many spiritually themed listservs and websites on the Internet. Incidentally, I find it appropriate to reflect on these issues during the Catholic period of Lent and I find it a convenient excuse to reflect and reassess my own spiritual growth and path outside of a particular religious context.  I believe that such a creative syncretism is the future of developing an authentic spirituality that also does not exclude experiences of depth and transformation.


As an academic librarian who has been an active advocate for information literacy instruction in departmental policy and practice, I can’t help but see parallels in effects that the digital revolution has had on eroding the traditional scholastic and bibliographic skill sets that are expected in academia and of the proliferation of a shallow consumerist vision of spirituality as well as ironically contributing to the spread of radical fundamentalist terrorist groups such as ISIS.  Arguably while the Internet has revolutionized our access to information and text that were unthought-of of in an exclusively print world, it has also eroded much critical editorial practices and it has also changed our collective reading practices that have become more impatient, more technically mediated, more attenuated, distracted and overall less critical.


Another phenomenon that I have noticed in the generation of the post- millennium is a conspicuous lack of interest in history and for that matter an almost discontinuous and myopic frame of reference in subject with a general limit of only around five years in the past at most.  This ahistorical stance may also have a certain amount of naturalness as each succeeding generation seeks to define itself apart from the past, but there is a sense of ultimacy with this generation who almost seem to see themselves as inordinately superior to the past because they have ipads or iphones.  Such an historical exceptionalist attitude creates a need in my estimation for spiritual literacy.  While genuine spirituality may be an anomaly in any age possibly for the same reason that Gertrude Stein wrote that masterpieces were, since everything in cultural life is oriented around identity whereas deep spiritual and creative experience are not.  Yet while yoga and even meditation are popular today, they are primarily viewed as physical means to health and stress reduction and there are no indications that a real interest in spirituality is in any way characteristic of the post-millennial generation as it was of other generations such as the 1960’s & 70’s or even of the subculture of the 1950’s with Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation.


Kerouac’s works are permeated with a deep spiritual hunger and mystical vision and Alan Ginsberg wrote of his own transforming spiritual experience that shaped the course of this own creative and personal life as a creative search for a further embodiment of that vision.  I was lucky enough to take a workshop with him in Boulder, Colorado at what is now the Naropa Institute, America’s first accredited Buddhist College, named after the world’s first university, Naropa, one of India’s several large monastic centers of scholasticism and learning.  Ginsberg was there with the poet Anne Waldman who both originally founded the center’s creative writing program and both were utterly devoid of any trace of pretention or sense of fame and yet who effortlessly exuded their own sense of being deep and authentic poets and of being significant spiritual figures in their own light.  The poet and Zen Buddhist monk as well as lumberjack scholar and polymath, Gary Synder, was also there and gave a moving yet almost transparently humble speech that nevertheless revealed the authentic significance of his person and work.


Mentally recollecting, it was probably reading Kerouac’s On The Road that gave me my first introduction to Zen and like the Beat’s, I was attracted by their paradoxical and deeply unconventional iconoclastic teaching methods that were also deeply rooted in regular deep mediation and personal realization experience even over all the trappings of religion that even led one early founding Chinese Zen master to tell his student who was so eager to learn the true teachings of Buddhism, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”  While Zen is fiercely committed to a non-dualistic approach to the spiritual quest, it is also firmly grounded in reality, in the commonplace, the ordinary of daily life, which it views as indistinguishable from and which it even seems to prefer to the flights of spiritual fancy and mystic speculation. Kerouac’s works embody the Beat’s love of frenetic energy and spontaneity of Be Bop jazz, and long road trips on a whim across interstate highways, but also of a genuine love of the common man, the poor and the downtrodden, those ignored by the stultifying conformism of post-WWII America and its burgeoning materialism, who are almost bathed in a deeply personal idiosyncratic sense of spiritual significance in Kerouac’s spontaneous and frenetic prose.  And while the word “Zen” today and especially for this generation has devolved into a facile and empty adjective indicating a minimalistic style of consumer product that is also relaxing, devoid of significance, of any trace of its deep, radical and challenging philosophy of life and spirituality, the deep distaste of the Beat generation for America’s materialism is also conspicuously missing from this generation.


Another spiritual inspiration for Kerouac were the mystical writings of saints of the Catholic Church from his French Canadian upbringing, and with whom he shared an almost inspired naïve all-embracing vision of the spiritual significance of the ordinary world.  He especially admired and mentioned the works of St. Therese of Lisieux or the “Little Flower of Jesus” whose autobiographical writings in her own brief young life glorified in a very “Zen-like” way the significance of the small the unassuming, the forgotten and overlooked and of simplicity and her own vision of the “little way” to spirituality.  While my own interest in the writings of Catholic saints came from my interest in the writings of Gertrude Stein, who reinterpreted her own non-religious significance of saints in her own theories on creativity and identity, I recall it was one of my deepest spiritual experiences to read the works of St. Teresa of Avila which are considered classics of Spanish literature and which abound in startling imagery and an almost post modern lack of linear continuity yet with spontaneous bursts of non-sentimental yet profoundly moving passages that alternate between a very frank, grounded, and no-nonsense view of spiritual practice (she was known very “Zen-like” to have told one of her nuns who preferred to stay in prayer rather than tend to her chores that “God is among the pots and pans”) and with inspired flights of the sublime.


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I would later get to visit the town of her birth with its rocky terrain and surviving medieval wall and visit the church where she died where a priest in my class actually persuaded the presiding priest to open the vault and reveal the glass monstrance that contained her still preserved heart that still bears the pierce marks from her ecstatic vision of being pierced through the heart with a flaming arrow.  While still in college, I had a friend who became a nun and left but who had actually arranged a meeting with me with the Mother Superior of a Discalced Carmelite monastery only about an hour away from Houston.  This was the rather severe order that St. Teresa founded that was to be geared towards the practice of mental prayer and an almost exclusively interiorized spirituality stripped bare of showy ritual and imagery. My friend said that she contacted the monastery and said that she had visited as a member of a Catholic Youth organization to which the Mother Superior did not seem interested, but when she said that she had a friend who was a Zen Buddhist who had read most of the works of St. Teresa she seemed very interested to meet with me.  This was a rather intense experience for a twenty year old and I will still never forget it.


Their order is strictly closed off to the outside world and the nuns are not allowed to leave their enclosure only under rare circumstances.  We were led into a small almost empty waiting room with palpable silence and yet the moment my friend said she was thirsty a hidden turnstile in the wall opened with a tray with a pitcher and a glass of water opened up.  We were told to go down the hall from their chapel which was divided by a large grille that separated the nun’s area by the sounds of a nun approaching in full dark brown habit with thin sandals and the sound of a large rosary clanking.  We entered a room that was divided from floor to ceiling with another grille that looked like the bars of a prison and sat in chairs facing the bars.


When the door opened a woman in full habit literally breezed through and greeted us from the other side of the bars.  It was immediately apparent that this woman was a spiritual force with years of deep contemplative practice, yet what I was most astonished by was her unexpected air and manner of freedom and ease as well as her enthusiasm and intensity.  I realized that I was thoroughly unprepared to speak effectively, organize my deepest thoughts concerning the works of St. Teresa that had inspired me the most and of the similarities between her spiritual practice and that of Zen. I also realized that it was one of those conversations where time disappeared in part because of her powerful presence and her disarming manner and that it would remain indelible in my memory.  While her animated conversation ranged from a variety of topics from her encouraging me to keep reading St. Teresa’s works, talking about her famous metaphor of the mystic path of mental prayer as a chess game with the Divine that draws down and “checks” the Divine with humility and love, to her non-judgmental wondering why a local motorcycle gang chooses their chapel to respectfully pray.  Looking back on that conversation, I would have liked to ask her if she and her sisters still practiced recogimiento, St. Teresa’s method of contemplative “mental” prayer.  She ended our conversation by advocating for the practice of “inner healing” prayer as a necessary precursor to begin the practice of contemplative prayer.


“Inner healing” is a relatively recent charismatic practice that while I recognize its emotional healing potential, I feel that it is not particularly consistent with Teresa of Avila’s meditative path of recogimiento, especially because of her emphasis on detachment,  which was primarily orientated to prepare the practitioner to gather all their faculties to a wordless devotional focusing within without fear for an authentic and personal encounter with the Divine rather than staying trapped in focusing on emotional wounds or wrongs done to oneself in the past.  A more disturbing aspect of “inner healing” is its fearful and somewhat paranoid focus on healing from past imagined contact with “evil forces” and the demonic that only reminds me of the psychologically fraudulent practice of “satanic ritual abuse counseling” of the 1980’s that was used actually implant scenarios of paranoid contact with the “satanic” in the subconscious minds of its victims.  The new Pope Francis, for all of the high hopes of his becoming the new P.R. man representing an amiable and humble new face of the Catholic Church especially after its disastrous series of uncovered sex abuse cases of children that still continues to linger in the public’s mind, has spoken and preached more about the dangers of Satan and has supported the Vatican’s elite cadre of exorcists more than any other recent contemporary Pope possibly since the controversial Vatican II.  This to me seems to be a relapse into an essentially medieval fear-based dualistic and superstitious scenario that is more reminiscent of the Inquisition and that is essentially aspiritual.


St. Teresa of Avila believed that the “path of fear” and that the “path of love” were antithetical to one another and that true spiritual progress could not come from taking “the path of fear”.  As a woman of 16th century Spain who dared to attempt to reform a religious order and to publicly publish her own spiritual autobiography, she found herself hounded by the Spanish Inquisition for a good part of her mature years and suffered censorship and was placed under house arrest in one of her convents for awhile.  It was not without good reason that she made her infamous remark that, “I am more afraid of the people who are afraid of the Devil, than I am of the Devil himself”.  Yet St. Teresa’s many classic works on the contemplative spiritual path did not happen in a literary vacuum.


The last great information revolution of the previous millennium, the printing press, produced an explosion of popular devotional literature in the late 15th and early 16th century Spain that included Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet that were addressed to a lay audience that gave instructions and encouraged the laity to practice complex meditative and contemplative techniques in their daily lives.  Many of these works along with Osuna’s promised their practitioners that these methods were “shortcuts” to spiritual perfection and much of these works were initially endorsed by the Cardinal Cisneros and published by the university press at Alcala.  These works became immensely popular and while they were encouraged initially by the Church as part of a national religious movement to reform the Church and its institutions from within, they led to often unexpected results of whole villages withdrawing from attending religious services in preference to engaging in their own contemplative practices.  While such phenomenon led to a major reversal of Church policy that resulted in a campaign of fierce censorship and book burnings that included many of the popular devotional works it had initially endorsed, the printing press also led to fuel greater religious and political movements such as the Protestant Reformation and even the French and American revolutions.


Nevertheless I feel that a lack of curiosity and interest in history also reflects a greater lack of interest in life and especially in its subtler and deeper experiences such as the spiritual and the mystical.  The other aspect is the common truism from George Santayana’s misquote of Edmund Burke’s original statement in the 18th century that: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”.  Such a warning is an important aspect of what I call “spiritual literacy”.  By having a curiosity for world and cultural history it is easy to see the connections between popular manifestations of spiritual and religious movements and periods of cultural and creative flowering.  But the other aspect that is quickly apparent is that while the esoteric aspect of mystical and spiritual experience may be grounded within the exoteric aspect of religious traditional teaching and belief, it never maintains a secure or safe relationship.  Indeed it is easy to see spirituality as a real threat to any organized religion and even to political structures for many reasons,  the foremost is the very transgressive aspect of ordinary people, or non-state sponsored religious specialists, having direct religious experiences that are unmediated by priestly castes.


The late Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “The aesthetics of Silence in the book Styles of Radical Will, “every era has to reinvent the project of ‘spirituality’ for itself”.  I still feel that that “project” for this generation has essentially failed and has focused more on the medium of technology as a form of soteriology rather than the essentially human inner technology of spirituality.


As Hollywood continues to spawn overworked and unoriginal technologically enhanced CGI eschatologically themed dystopic drivel with thread-bare and hackneyed and uninspiring views of the future, they seem to embody the theme of the aspiritual generation.  Another characteristic is embodied in US television’s proliferation of programs on the paranormal.  While paranormal phenomenon can be life changing and while spiritual and mystical experience can itself be considered paranormal, the obsession with trying to establish proof of its existence is essentially antithetical to any spiritual inspiration and rarely does that ever intersect with the mystical.


While William James’ book remains a classic description of the various types of religious and spiritual experiences that may be more common than are generally reported, it describes how these experiences can offer a new and empowering sense of purpose, courage and deeper sense of meaning in the lives of the people who have them. Nowhere does it imply that these experiences are the result of sentimentality or the mere adoption or consumption of a new “spiritual” style or approach.  Nor is there any evidence that authentic spiritual expression is the result of adopting orthodox systems of belief and observation and in fact these orthodoxies tend to insulate their followers from any possibilities of authentic personal experience and to place exclusive focus on the mediating role of their sanctioned leaders and institutions.  On the other hand the individuals who seek to make their own transforming spiritual experiences the primary focus or “job” in their lives, the people that have been variously termed as “saints” or mystics are themselves notorious for refusing to passively assent to the status quo and to bravely proclaim the validity of their own visionary experience.


I think one of the last things that the world needs now is the spread of spiritually contractive orthodox ideologies. I wish to encourage people to do their own thinking for themselves and not allow others, institutions or ideologies to do their thinking for them,  that people have the courage to take the best from their respective traditions and to leave the rest,  that they strive to break free of the self or externally imposed prisons that bind them, that they not allow themselves to be lulled to sleep by technology or consumerism and that Humanity have the courage to be heretics in the service of mankind or the planet as in the words of the notorious actress and unabashed hedonist, Tallulah Bankhead, “If I have read my history aright, it is the heretics, the nonconformists, the iconoclasts who have enriched our lives, added both to our knowledge, our progress and our happiness”.  I think what the world needs now is more spiritually expansive heresies.


One of my favorite heretics is Mathew Fox who was defrocked by Cardinal Ratzinger ironically for his study of German mystics, who was to become the mysteriously disappearing Pope Benedict XVI.  I had the good fortune to be asked to do part of the choreography for a local appearance of one of Matthew Fox’s Cosmic Spiritual Rave masses in Houston which I will never forget and he was travelling around the country promoting “raves” as the perfect venue for spiritual experience and reinterpreting the Catholic mass in terms of a cosmic manifestation of his pathways for creation spirituality.  He is in his seventies now and has been accepted into the Episcopal Church as a minister and he is still raising hell.  He recently drafted his own 95 thesis like Martin Luther for Christianity in the 21st century, which I think could be applied to all religions, and he posted them on the Vatican’s gate.  Some of his theses deserve be quoted in full: #3 “God the Punitive Father is not a God worth honoring but a false god and an idol that serves empire-builders. The notion of a punitive, all-male God, is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead who is as much female and motherly as it is masculine and fatherly”, #7 “Everyone is born a mystic and a lover who experiences the unity of things and all are called to keep this mystic or lover of life alive” and #11 “Religion is not necessary but spirituality is”.


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Another one of my favorite heretics is the Persian Turkish Sufi, Rumi, whose tomb and surviving dervish educational center and museum I had the privilege of visiting in Konya. I feel that more than ever we need his breadth of spiritual vision, of the transgressive aspects of love and excess that ironically can lead to a more immediate and real encounter with the spiritual and the Divine than strict adherence to religious law could ever. When Nevit Ergin wanted to translate the entire Divan of Rumi into modern English the Turkish government was anxious to support, but when he attempted to translate literally a number of verses that spoke openly of homoeroticism, of praise of open intoxication and of literal heretical implications of the need of dissolving the subtle ego enforcing and spiritually contracting aspects of prescribed religious practice and national and religious identity, that one could attain heartfelt contact with the Divine, they withdrew support and his volume, The Forbidden Rumi was born.  Also I cannot leave out Ramakrishna, whose life altering yet unifying visions of the heart of all religions in the unfolding ecstatic nature of the Shakti.


While we now live in a world where the knowledge of and abilities to learn and engage in ever increasing highly technical skill sets are now important to be able to function and to succeed in society, I wonder if this has eclipsed our interest in or our abilities to learn the “inner technologies” of spirituality.  Meditation cannot be performed by an “app” and yet I know of at least one that is in existence. These learned “inner technologies” of spirituality are also key aspects of the arts of the essential humanities, the skills that are unique to humans and that also make us more deeply human.  They can also be deeply healing as they can facilitate and also help us deal with the experiences of encounter with the deeper encompassing self, experienced within and without, as these inner experiences end up by transforming our perceptions of ourselves and the outside world.


I am reminded of a client at the turn of the millennium, who was confident that the Internet was going to “unleash a virtual new Renaissance of learning for his children”.  Now that we have the perspective nearly of an entire generation after those naïve early days of cyber-optimism, I do not see that that has really happened as it actually did with the print revolution.  Certainly it has made learning more convenient and computer applications has definitely facilitated learning languages, but instead of unleashing a new renaissance, we see the proliferation of disturbing trends that seen to imply the proliferation of an uncritical herd mentality such as cyber-bullying and the equally disturbing phenomena of adults refusing to vaccinate their children because they would rather believe a few questionable videos on Youtube rather than the many authoritative clinical studies.


I wonder about the future of the spirituality of the inner life in the 21st century and of the future of “spirituality” in our current world. While authentic and deep spirituality may not be necessary per se for a happy and productive life and in some ways it can even make it more difficult, it certainly offers the opportunity for developing a deeper perspective and a greater sense of meaning and wholeness that is not possible in following the traditional “scripts” prescribed for a happy and healthy life or by following a consumerist path.



© Paul Smith, 2015

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