Can Meditation Be Bad For You? With Clayton Micallef

Can meditation be bad? Are there adverse effects? Should we meditate if we have mental health problems? MBLC-approved Clayton shares insights.

It has been a theme of discussion in my various groups and sessions, about how meditation isn’t for everyone. And when I spoke to Clayton, we went into the deeper details of the question, can meditation be BAD for you?

Clayton is an MLBC approved meditation teacher and brings a lot of educated answers to our discussion. I wanted to create a blog post for you to read through, extracted from our interview-style discussion. If you’d instead prefer to learn through the audio version of our discussion, you can also listen to that over on Clayton’s blog.

V: Could you share from the perspective of a student of science, and as a masterful meditation teacher, what are some of the common myths about meditation? In other words, what should meditation NOT be used for?

C: That’s a good question. I sometimes hear questions like, can I use meditation to manifest money? Or I want to use meditation to manifest this person and that. That is not what meditation is meant for.

Let’s start by going into the pedagogy of meditation and look into the major contemplative traditions like Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.

When you drill down into the contemplative practices, the pedagogy is that “I know that the mind has the tendency to wander and engage with thinking. To be lost in attachment, to be plagued by craving, anger, anxiety and so on. To be lost in negative thinking.”

So, what meditation is for, is noticing the process of having thoughts, and that then when you have those thoughts, realizing you are getting stuck into thinking.

So, for example, “I have a thought of eating a chocolate.”

chocolate, strawberry, thinking about chocolate,

But that’s just a thought. Its just the nature of the mind to have thoughts. And even when you sit still for a while, you will notice thoughts arise. Actually in meditation, even the act of sitting and focusing on your breathe is a thought.

Let’s put it another way. The nature of the eyes, what is it? To see. The nature of ears is to hear. So lets say one day you wake up and open your eyes. You cannot see. You would be worried because your eyes aren’t working.

And for our minds, as soon as we stop producing thoughts, it would lead us to death.

Going back to the example of a chocolate. I get that thought, and suddenly, other thoughts start populating my mind. If I engage with the thought, I will start thinking.

“I wish the chocolate that I had yesterday, lasted. I don’t have the time to get another chocolate today. Oh, now I’m sad I don’t have time to get the chocolate.”

baking, chocolate, sad, thinking about eating

When we set aside time to do nothing but meditate, we notice this pattern of thoughts and thinking. And unbecomingly, you will always notice with these thoughts. And you get lose into thinking. But, you don’t need to judge or get frustrated about it.

You can think, “wonderful, I’m getting into thinking”. And then gently bring your mind back. Usually, we will use that as an anchor to bring us back to contemplation.

The most common anchor is focusing on the breath. But breath-meditation might not be suitable for everyone. So some people will chant on a phrase, called a mantra, or focus on their body. At times, people can use a religious image. So, there are a variety of ways to anchor yourself, to keep your attention stable.

That’s putting meditation very simply. Cutting through all the hype, through all the beautiful women sitting on a mat (no offense), men with their peaceful faces that think they will start levitating. It’s cutting through all the cliche.

Another thing. Meditation is NOT about having no thoughts, or about having an altered state of consciousness. All these fuzzy things are not what meditation is about. It’s about familiarizing ourselves with the processes of the mind.

At a pragmatic level, its about knowing how the mind works. Nothing more, nothing less.

Another myth busted from a neuroscience perspective, is that meditation will not make your brain larger!

V: Beautifully shared! Can you now speak about the idea that meditation is not for everybody? That meditation can be bad for you in certain circumstances.

C: Sure. When you go on social media, you hear things like,
“I am clinically depressed.” – Meditate.
“I have a problem at work.” – Meditate.
“I’m dying.” – Meditate.

“I am going to crash in a wall with a car.” – Meditate. No! Handle the steering wheel.

There’s that impression that meditation is good for everything. No, it is not.

If we go into the basic traditions, meditation was not for everyone. It wasn’t even for all the monks. It was only for a select few.
can meditation be bad for you, monks, buddhism, is meditation for everyone

And before you engaged in any practice, when you entered any monastery or Sangha, they wouldn’t tell you to suddenly start meditating. Sometimes, before you meditate, it would take you five or even ten years to prepare for contemplation.

The emphasis was always that the person must have a healthy mind first. And we must remember that these practices were all there to deconstruct our sense of self. TO actually achieve a state of “non-self”.

The non-self doesn’t mean you don’t exist, it means this self you are identified with is temporary. And that your permanence doesn’t depend on objects outside of you.

So the idea of the self is always changing and you cannot pin point it. Meditation was there to actually to “shake oneself”.

Now, let’s go into the contemporary context. So let’s say that you are a person that suffers from clinical anxiety. There is research that shows meditation can help with anxiety. Does it help with anxiety in everyone? No.

When you have anxiety, your mind is all over the place and you have panic attacks. And as you sit still, you get a panic attack. The moment you sit to meditate, your mind will fire anxious thoughts and you will engage with them. And it will just make it worse.

Also, now I’m going to share something controversial. There is research that shows people with bipolar disorder or that suffer from depersonalization disorders should NOT meditate. Meditation can be bad for them.
meditation can be bad for people with depersonalization disorders

In meditation, we culture the space between the thought and the observer. This is called a third-person perspective. This activates the same parts of the mind, as is activated when a person has a psychotic episode, or when they have derealization.

Also, there are people who want to meditate, but simply cannot. And that’s okay, because it’s not for everyone. Vasundhra shares other spiritual practices here that they can try instead.

V: That’s true, thanks for touching on that. There is an eastern philosophy that speaks about the four paths of enlightenment, of which meditation is only one sub-part of the four ways.

But let’s say someone is just getting started and would like to genuinely try to meditate. What advice would offer to them?

C: The best advice is to find a teacher. Now, any teacher? No.

Find someone that is informed about the practice. Someone that is either accredited to teach or that is actually practicing a contemplative practice, like priests, Buddhist monks. There are many universities that offer modalities like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, compassion-based living courses, mindfulness self-compassion, and so on.

educate yourself about the adverse effects of meditation, can meditation be bad for you

One thing is that yes, meditation has benefits, but sometimes it can also lead to harm. And that harm is due to ill-practices. Even in the example, where someone wants to become a marathon runner, if they just go train without proper support, you will injure yourself.

You need a teacher with experience AND the rationale between how to take things step by step, the effects on the mind and body.

So, for anyone that wants to teach meditation, you need to learn the pedagogy, and about how to teach meditation.

Right! For people out there who are beginning to teach meditation, myself included (laughs), it’s important to be informed of the impact. You can’t force meditation.

There are different ways to meditate, but you need to have that state of mind where you can observe thoughts and not identify with them.

So this isn’t to discourage people to not teach meditation, but to encourage them to be more educated.

C: Yes! Be informed. If you really want to teach a practice, you go and learn. The first thing you have to do is step on the teacher training pathway. Learn the benefits and consequences.

Because let’s say when you are teaching someone, they get panic-induced anxiety. How are you going to deal with it, if you don’t know this can happen? There are examples of involuntary body movements during meditation. How are you going to explain dissolution of the body, to someone who experiences this?

Most importantly, meditation can be a trigger for a trauma.

Maybe a participant that comes to you was beaten in their life. And every time they were going to get beaten, they were told to close their eyes. If you tell them to close their eyes, they might relapse into the trauma from their past.

can meditation be scary

I have rejected participants in the past because they might first need to get their anxiety under control before they sit down and contemplate. Vasundhra also talks about other reasons why meditation can be frightening for some people.

V: I would definitely like to speak more to the trauma-bit. It’s important to know about our “window of tolerance” to be trauma-informed.

We should gauge how much stress we can take on. Beyond the window of tolerance, we could get overwhelmed or underwhelmed and experience more harm than benefit.

Whether you understand your mind through meditation or any other spiritual practice, knowing your endurance window is crucial. I will be speaking more to that in the upcoming time.

C: That’s definitely very important! In meditation, there is a practice of “being with”, like being with an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes, I will tell people to drop the practice because it is not the right time for them to be with a certain feeling.

Don’t continue sitting on the cushion. You may need to work with your traumas first in such cases. Here, meditation can definitely be bad for you.

Sometimes, in meditation practice, we might touch the edge of our window of tolerance. If we don’t regulate it, the participant might move up and down the window. As a meditation teacher, we need to help them be continuous in their practice, not waiver so much.

It can help you to pause focus from the internal world, to move outwards and focus on something outside. Like the room or something outside their thoughts.

So as you can see, its not that straight forward. Even in the “healthy population”, there can be adverse effects, which are a part of the path!

For example, your thoughts might pass so fast that you might feel unsettled and lose your sense of self. Buddhism talks about this quite clearly in their teachings. An Christianity calls it the dark night of the soul.

meditation can be bad, adverse effects of meditation like losing sense of self
There are situations when people have experienced the extreme. They went to a meditation retreat and felt so unsettled afterwards that they commit suicide!

So, I’m not in any way vilifying the benefits of the practice. But it is NOT an all-in-one solution. But as is with medicine, we need to know what works and what the side-effects, the same is for meditation. So we need to study the “boundary conditions” of meditation.

We don’t want to cause harm by omitting or neglecting something in the pursuit of meditation. We would be complacent then. Even if one person experiences an adverse effect, we cannot neglect that.

Concluding Thoughts

This was deeply rewarding, to have this conversation with Clayton! I’ve gathered a LOT of great wisdom myself, through this. I hope you enjoyed it as well. Remember that you can listen to our discussion here.

And, Clayton offers a beautiful library of meditation resources here, which you can also explore.

If you’d like to try out a guided walking meditation, you can also explore this free resource that I recently shared.

Thank you for reading! Drop a comment in the section below to let us know how this served you (or even otherwise). 🙂

Clayton Micallef
Clayton Micallef

Clayton MBLC approved meditation teacher with a Postgraduate Diploma Studies in Mindfulness. Currently, he is following a PhD to research mindfulness and meditation. He is also teaching mindfulness and meditation at the University of Malta Health and Wellness.  He was introduced to meditation and the practices of mindfulness, compassion and insight at a very young age and has been a long time practitioner. Clayton comments that meditation has been one of the practices that was the cause of profound, insightful experiences in his life.

Shinrin Yoku: Forest Bathing Explained By Katriina Kilpi

Katriina and I crossed paths through my blog, and she quietly stayed in the corner of my Facebook chat, until one day, fate led us to talking. I found out that Katriina is a Forest Bathing Guide. Sounds fancy? I know! Now, I’m going to dive straight into our conversation and let you learn from the source.

Note that this discussion is the outcome of an hour-long Zoom call with Katriina, so I’m putting together her resources in a series of posts. And all the images used in this article are contributed by Katriina herself, from her wondrous musings in the the beautiful forests of Finland.

So Katriina, what is forest bathing, how do you see it?

Forest Bathing is a concept that originated in Japan, and was called Shinrin Yoku.

The Japanese saw people getting really stressed and they knew intuitively that being in nature is really good for you. They love going out into nature, and even their religion, shinto, has animistic qualities.

Forest bathing could be likened to sunbathing  – everyone has their own preferences and ways of doing it but the idea and goal is the same. The practice came into culmination in the 80’s. Someone picked it up in the west about five years ago, and it became really popular. Nature became very “trendy”.

forest bathing, nature, forest therapy, self care,
And what I think is pretty interesting is that elsewhere as well, people started creating similar approaches, combining nature and mindfulness.

A case in point, my friends Ian Bayard from the UK with Natural Mindfulness, Sirpa Arvonen from Finland with Forest Mind and Nitin Das with Healing Forest from India. And of course, Amos Clifford from The USA with Forest Therapy.

I’m not sure what channels all these people were listening to but around 2014 things started popping up. And I too was getting laid off in 2015 and felt like I finally needed to get started with my passion.

The time had come for me to get back to nature. I just didn’t yet know how exactly I was going to get started. So I did a bit of everything: Forest Mind, Skogsmulle, nature guide certifications. And then some.

The conversations that I’ve had with the Japanese people (commoners and researchers) leads me to the conclusion that it all comes down to using your senses to experience the forest.

In the last 3 years many books have been written. As one of the great resources to educate yourselves on the subject, you can also explore Dr Qing Lee’s work, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health & Happiness.

So, as a beginning point, understand that it’s done for the goal of relaxation, and in the west its become more pronounced about nature connection as it has got mixed with ecotherapy.  

Forest bathing allows you to see the miraculous beauty in the small. It’s another mechanism of forest bathing where it works like mini-meditation. You’re being very mindful when you pause everything and try what a leaf feels like, or the tree bark.

forest therapy, forest healing, nature, katriina kilpi, finland forests

The Japanese concept is quite broad, which really speaks to me. My intuition says that when you try to limit it and say it has to be done in a certain way, you lose authenticity and intuition. You lose something that comes from the heart of the people.

Some people bring their druidry into forest bathing. Some incorporate flower essence in their work. And some use this work as relational ecotherapy, for healing. The core remains in connecting with the forest.

You’re lucky to experience forests in such an organic way! Many of us are surrounded by a concrete jungle. Then how can we “work with the small” when living in a crowded metropolis?

There’s something there, there’s something in it, which is why small pockets are planted. They know it works, they just don’t realize why.

I once gave a lecture to a landscaping firm based in New York City, they wanted to bring forest bathing to small spaces. It’s about facilitating the opportunity to immerse yourself in the forest atmosphere.

To create the feeling you are in it, experiencing it with all your senses. You need to be able to interact with your surroundings. There are even virtual applications that attempt to do the same, and these can be used in hospitals and in other institutionalized settings. 

In these “made up” forest bathing spaces, you will do well if you manage to attract life there through the use of flowering plants.  The variation of structures, heights of plants, and colours will stimulate you and you might want to look closer.

forest therapy, forest bathing,
Something you can smell, something you can see, something you can touch, something you can interact. Probably biodiversity is one of the secret ingredients. There is indication that people prefer biodiverse surroundings for restoration.

Belgium talks about food forests, it helps you stimulate taste buds to experience nature through shrubs, berries, apple-picking and so on.

I would LOVE to be a part of a food forest trail! But it makes me wonder, are there any ethics for forest bathing? We don’t really want to leave an imprint, do we.

Yes, think from a person’s point of view, and the forest’s point of view.

If you go with a group, they are typically group events, you have to draw the line, how many people can go because you leave a trace.

You should be able to sit alone and get off the ‘track’. You’re in the vicinity of a guide but you should have an alone experience. But as you do that, you leave a trace, so you want to be mindful. 

And think of the seasons. In spring, a lot of species are nesting, so some sections should be avoided, keep it quiet.

I always tell this to people, don’t take anything that’s growing. Treat yourself as a visitor. Even if you see a lose item, like a pine cone or a stone hat you would like to take along, ask yourself if you really need to take it with you.

It is part of the lifecycle of the forest and the forest has its use for it. Of course, a souvenir now and then that helps you to remember the experience you had, is perfectly okay. This is something Vasundhra uses for Art Therapy too.

That makes sense. And is forest bathing for everyone? Are there groups that are not benefitted?

Mindfulness may not be a good fit for everyone. Here’s a conversation that Vasundhra and Clayton did on the subject, of what that means.

Or if you’re guiding groups who might not be that used to the forest, I might ease them into it.  Whenever you are dealing with groups with special needs, you should be mindful about your own skills as a guide.

Although you can never fully prepare for everything, the guide needs to take their responsibility and know what kind of groups they are able to guide.  Being trauma-informed would be an asset.

When we go in nature, what is made loose in us is surprising. Natural environment is always a powerful partner. Due to my limited skills, I focus on health promotion and relaxation, but you want to gauge how deep you want to take the group.
shrubs, bushes, food forest, forest baths

For people that have trauma connected specifically to the forest, you have to be the most mindful. But they’re probably not the first ones to sign up.

And in your advertisement, you should be clear on what you’re doing, what to expect, etc, and that YOU ARE NOT a therapist (unless you actually are a licensed therapist). 

Especially during this pandemic, mental health problems are skyrocketing so you need to be prepared for more anxiety and related challenges. Though forest bathing has been shown to alleviate mental health problems, as a guide, it’s important to communicate clearly  that this is not a therapy session, unless you have the clinical background for that.

Thank you, that’s an informative way to approach any healing modality, really. My next question is, can you do this without a guide?

Yes! You can’t do it wrong. I like to say, if there’s a place you’re familiar with, that’s the best place to go. For self care, you should go to a forest or natural place you’re comfortable in. There’s no surprises there and that automatically drops off the nervous element so that you’re able to just be there with the pure experience.

When you’re there, you can go through the all the senses and interact with the forest through your eyes, ears, smell and so on. Concentrate on each sense for as long as you feel called to, and see what comes up for you.

People might have one strong dominating sense. For me its my sense of smell, and that leads me in forest walks. Of course all senses work in unison, but some people might be more lead by one sense than others.

Also, some days when I feel like I need to ground myself, I tend to want to touch things a lot. Or go lie down on the ground. So it depends on your mood and state as well from day to day. You might discover where you get most memories and reactions in the forest. 

You can even try forest bathing in your backyard or in a park.

Katriina shares tons of educated insights in her book, which you can learn immensely from and use for your own forest bathing experience.

Curious to try out Forest Bathing for yourself? Here’s a beautiful example.

Katriina put together this video just for us! You can see her passion through and through her sharings on this blog and the video. Do drop her a comment in the section below and give her some love 🙂

To be continued….

Like I said, this conversation is extracted from an hour-long discussion on forest bathing. So it seemed like a good idea to create a series of articles, touching on different aspects of forest bathing.

I am leaving you with these resources for now, but just know that in the upcoming discussion, we’re taking things even deeper! She’ll be unpacking questions like getting lost on a forest walk, learning about forest therapy, rekindling the lost art of Japan, her forest bathing story, and much more. Stay tuned 🙂

to be continued sigange

Katriina Kilpi
Katriina Kilpi

Katriina is a Forest Bathing Guide, originally from Finland living in Belgium, who is deeply passionate about nature connection. She continues to inspire countless individuals through all her environmental-related projects, keeps looking for ways for the world to get back to Mother Nature.

Archetypes: What They Are & 5 Ways to Heal Your Archetypal Patterns

What are archetypes and how can you use them to become more self-aware in your spiritual journey? Here are 5 powerful reading resources!

The term archetypes was first introduced to me by the amazing spiritual teacher, Caroline Myss.

Archetypes are simply a framework or categorization created around our different behaviours and personality types, to help us understand our nature. And as an effect, make more conscious choices about how we want to be, going forward.

We have archetypes in everything. Whether it is the zodiac signs which are determined by birth date, time and location, or the gender we associate ourselves to as we mature, an archetypal structuring helps everyone to logically understand why they are the way they are, and know how to do differently.

For instance, you may generally consider a Taurus to be bullish at lock their horns in an argument. This however, may not be true for all Taurus-born people.

So the limitation of archetypes is that they are not absolutely, always true across the board. This is because we are all a unique mix of different behaviours and patterns which interweave with each other. But we can use this very limitation to our benefit.

Those tendencies which we relate to the most from an archetypal categorization can help us see where we need to expand our nature, and move out of the conformity of this personality type.

So as an example, if one of the drawbacks of being “feminine” in nature is to let life happen, it may serve us to develop our masculine energy to step into a more active role in our own lives.

Studying these patterns and behaviours for a while, we begin to see ourselves fitting into almost all categories. Then, we get a sense that we are more integrated and wholesome in our being, and its easier to believe in the infinitude of our existence. 🙂

This is actually the end goal – to not be limited to one or two patterns, but to be able to ascend and evolve into a full range of existence.

It can be really interesting to study about archetypes, to know yourself in deeper ways. I’ve been gradually making my way through different programs and ideologies, and have experienced tremendous healing and AHA moments, simply by studying archetypal frameworks.

The biggest benefit I’ve found is that I am able to bring awareness to the unconscious patterns, and so many times, I catch myself halfway in the act. This allows me to slowly but surely move into better patterns that I would like to associate myself with.

There are of course many great studies and resources out there, but today, I would like to introduce you to my top 5 favourite archetype studies.

5 Different Archetypes that Will Help You Become More Self Aware

#1 – Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss

Starting off with the very first book I read, called Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss.

She beautifully describes our soul contracts and was monumental in setting my foundation on the topic. Caroline then dedicates several sections of the book to learning more about your archetypal patterns in context to your soul contracts.

She starts by introducing us to the primary four archetypes that she considers are always at work in our life, namely:

  • Child
  • Victim
  • Prostitute
  • Saboteur

These sound extremely strange at first, but she explains them in a brief but convincing way in this entry-level article.

These four archetypes of survival collectively represent how we show up in life and the major challenges we pursue. Then, she dives much deeper into the other patterns of our psyche and how learning about them can help you heal your relationships at a spiritual level.

Her book is extremely in-depth and sheds such powerful light on our patterns and unconscious conditioning. I think this makes a brilliant starting point for anyone that likes to explore their behaviour and tendencies with the blend of spirituality and psychology.

#2 – The Classic Jungian Archetypes

Carl Jung pioneered in the study of psychology and one of his groundbreaking contributions to society was the framework of these archetypes. His belief was that our minds aren’t just a clean slate which gets filled at birth, but that we inherit a lot of ancestral conditioning, which also influence our psyche.

psychology, carl jung, archetypes, mindset, behaviour, patterns

He explains the four primary archetypes as:

  • persona,
  • shadow,
  • anima/animus,
  • and the self.

For those that are interested in learning from the lens of psychology, the Jungian archetypes are explained with a lot of simplicity in this article. At some point, I might expand deeper on his study as well, so stay tuned. 🙂

#3 – The Nine Enneagram Archetypes

You might have heard of the nine personalities of the enneagram, and in passing taken some free quizzes online as well. But in my honest opinion, the enneagram can only be properly understood if you take the comprehensive RHETI test. Most free quizzes have not been accurate for me or any of my clients.

And after taking the test, use your results to study your personality type using the book The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

This is a dense book, and an even more dense subject, which talks about the core wounds and core strengths of each personality type. So, no shortcuts. But this will be such a refreshing and rewarding framework for you! Especially if you’re inclined more towards healing your shadow self.

#4 – Your Life Purpose Archetypes by Sahara Rose

Another important question I’m often asked is about the purpose of our life here, on Earth. I always recommend that people try out my Purpose Matrix Tool. And then, I typically try to educate them about the way the Universe guides us into our Higher Calling.

But if there’s another resource that I consider deeply insightful in this regard, it’s Sahara Rose’s new book, called Discover Your Dharma.

She simplifies the knowledge of Ayurveda and Vedanta to describe nine different ways to share your gifts here on Earth. There’s a lot of great information on the three doshas (body types) and what role they play in our purpose here.

I genuinely enjoyed the quizzes and revelations that she shares. So much so that I had my husband do them with me! They also help you understand what professions might drain you versus fueling your inner fire.

Her book was a huge affirmation for me as well, as I step deeper into the role of coaching people for their spiritual journey.

#5 – The Human Design Archetypes

This was my most recent of introductions. I learned about my human design from a dear friend, April, who beautifully taught me about my tendencies as a “projector”. This was the one of five different types of human design.

The human design is also based on our birth chart, and introduces us to some interesting archetypal patterns. These include insights such as –

  • what energy type we are (projector, generator, manifestor, reflector, manifesting generator),
  • how we can be in most flow with our energy type and maximize our potential,
  • what chakras or energy centres are more open to outside influence,
  • whether we’re structured or creative in different settings, and so on.
April shared that the Human Design is different from other archetypal structures in that our type does not change over time. We simply become more optimized in our energy type.
human design chart, projector example, bodygraph, human design archetype
Example of a Human Design Chart

This all starts by generating a Human Design Chart, called a BodyGraph. You can either decrypt the results on your own, or learn more about through a specialist in the field. Having worked with April personally for my own learning, I would recommend her work as a good option!

Concluding Thoughts

It’s important to not typecast anyone into an archetype, knowing that we’re not limited to its description. But instead to use these categorizations for our evolution. This study should free us from our limitations, and not give us the permission to continue being certain ways.

So for instance, don’t justify someone’s behaviour because they are “a Capricorn sign”, or they are “a martyr” archetype. Instead, help yourself and others around become aware of these tendencies. And learn the different ways you can step into healthier patterns.

I hope this resource gives you a vast variety of frameworks to take your journey deeper. Start with the one that sounds most interesting. And then sit down and really take your time with learning the strengths and weaknesses of each personality type.

I’d also love to know in the comments below, if you’ve read any of these resources. What benefits have you personally experienced from studying archetypal patterns? 🙂

Ready to take your healing deeper? Let’s talk about it! You’re welcome to setup a complimentary 30-minutes call using this form, and learn how you can set your spiritual plans into action. See you soon!

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