Zen Meditation: How to Meditate (15 min read)
By Ma Dingding
How to meditate?
How to do Zen meditation?
What is Zen meditation?
We will answer all those questions, but before we start, let’s ask the most fundamental question:
We meditate to discover a new state of awareness.
We meditate to enhance focus and build discipline.
We sit down to stop being in the craziness of modern life.
We practice Zen Meditation to attain a non-thinking mind.
We do not meditate to get a buzz nor to attain some kind of high state of joyfulness.
We sit for the sake of meditation.
We meditate to meditate.
In Zen “language” we often hear about zazen. Zazen is a Japanese word that means “sitting meditation.” You can meditate while walking, while cleaning… but our focus here is precisely on zazen, or sitting meditation.
Zazen has something special.
It is the right position to calm both the body and the mind.
The official purpose of meditation in Zen Buddhism is to attain satori, or Enlightenment.
Now, the definition of Enlightenment, and what it takes to reach Enlightenment, may differ depending on the school, temple and Zen Master.
This article’s purpose is not to debate about Enlightenment, we simply want to introduce you to Zen meditation, without any doctrinal fuss.
We want to introduce you to a practice.
So that you can also practice.
And not just read about it and talk about it.
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-Zen Stories and Stoic Insights
-Tools and Strategies
-Questions and Answers from MC
-Case studies: what would a Zen Stoic do?
-Relationships as a Stoic
-Productivity like a Zen Monk
-Reflections on Life
Without getting into a McMindfulness rhetoric here, we believe that there are a lot of benefits of Zen Meditation:
- Control of emotions
- Reduced negative thoughts
- Better relationships
- Reflections on Life, Death, the Universe, Interdependence…
If you want to start practicing meditation, you will have to figure out:
- Where to meditate
- When to meditate
- How long to meditate
And stick to a regular schedule to make it part of your routine.
We made a straightforward but long guide to meditation.
Feel free to email us if you have more precise questions.
We cover the following topics:
- Meditation Space
- Sitting Positions
- Full lotus
- Half lotus (aka the Burmese position)
- Sitting on knees (seiza in Japanese)
- Sitting on a chair
- Feeding the Monkey Mind
- Walking Meditation
- Going Back to Meditation After a Break
- Meditation Gadgets
- Meditation: Alone and Groups
Traditionally a meditation sitting starts with three chimes of the meditation bell and a bow, with both hand in a praying position in front of your chest, elbows high, towards the meditation cushion.
It ends with 1-3 chimes of the bell, slow movements from left-right in order to stretch the legs and then a bow towards the cushion.
What happens between the start and the end of each meditation session is more than just sitting. Here are a few details that are relevant to a great sitting session:
The place where you meditate is of upmost importance.
You basically need a special meditation space.
You should choose a relaxing, clean and quiet place in your home where you will meditate.
Why not find a meditation corner dedicated to sitting meditation and introspection?
There are two main Zen traditions: Soto and Rinzai.
In the Soto tradition, practitioners meditate facing a wall.
In the Rinzai tradition, practitioners meditate facing each other, this also may include meditating in front of a nice Zen garden.
You can choose any space you want, as long as there is nothing moving or visually stimulating in your field of vision. If you are the type of person that has a lot of problems focusing, it may be a wise idea to sit in from of a wall. If you prefer to sit facing a garden, a balcony, or any nice area in your home, that is also fine, just make sure that are no distractions.
Cleanliness is also very important, Zen Temples are extremely clean environments.
Even psychologically speaking, a clean space means a clean mind.
There are 4 positions for meditation:
Zen Monks and laypersons practicing meditation usually meditate on a round-shaped cushion that supports the buttocks, the thighs and the back, called zafu in Japanese, while the knees are laying on a bigger square-sized cushion lying on the floor, called a zabuton.
The style of sitting posture is up to you and the degree of flexibility of your legs. Important warming: be extremely careful not to over-twist your legs and damage your ligaments, cartilage and articulations. We recommend that you start with sitting on your knees or on a chair first, unless you know that you are very flexible and will not damage your knees.
The official sitting position is called “Lotus position” and is difficult to achieve for beginners as both legs are fully crossed and feet are put over each thighs. Some people choose the “half-lotus” to start as it is much easier to accomplish. Some people, especially in the West, where living on the tatami mats is not part of the culture, or simply have back or knee problems, choose to sit on their knees or on a chair to meditate.
Both feet are crossed and laying on the thigh of the opposite leg. Right leg is arranged first, then the left one is placed on top. This is the most “hardcore” position that only experienced people should do. “Lotus” is a reference to the lotus flower, that grows in mud, the lotus is the flower symbolizing Buddhism. After sitting, please bow the upper body in front of you in order to have the back of the buttock adjust itself on the cushion.
Half lotus (aka the Burmese position)
One foot is laying on the thigh of the opposite leg and one foot is laying on top of the opposite leg’s knee. Right foot is arranged first, on the left thigh, then the left foot is placed on right knee (not twisted up the right thigh as in the “full lotus” position.) After sitting, please bow the upper body in front of you in order to have the back of the buttock adjust itself on the cushion.
Sitting on knees (seiza)
Sitting on your knees with the round-shaped cushion between your legs, supporting the back and the buttock.
Sitting on a chair
Sitting on a chair with a cushion under the feet and/or the back, only if necessary.
We do not recommend meditating in bed, unless you are bedridden for medical reasons.
Same with the couch, where you relax and watch TV, and the dinning table, where you eat.
Meditation is not a form of torture, so if you feel pain, please stop immediately and replace sitting meditation by another form of meditation of your choice: walking meditation, cooking meditation, cleaning meditation…
When the meditation is over, never stand up and start walking. Move your buttock and upper body from right to left and left to right in order to stretch the legs. You can also add a few minutes of walking meditation before getting back to normal life.
This means that the fingertips and nails of the left hand are placed in the cusp of the right hand.
The right hand is laying on top of the inner thighs, right under the bellybutton.
Both thumbs are gently touching each other.
For Japanese, only the Buddha can meditate with the right hand on top of the left one.
So if you meditate in a Japanese Zen temple, you may be instructed to put the left hand on top of the right hand.
In other traditions, for example in China, Vietnam, Korea and Sri Lanka, the right hand lays on top of the left hand.
This is a small details and there is no correct way of doing it.
Simply follow the instructions of the teacher.
Of course, if you intend to stay at a temple, the teacher may request that you follow either way of placing your hands in order to respect the temple’s traditions.
The reason why we meditate in a sitting position is to have optimal blood circulation, concentration, focus and body-mind balance.
Meditation should bring us, naturally, into a state of non-thinking mind.
This makes the posture critical in order to have a fruitful practice.
The back should be straight, bending the back will lead to inefficient breathing and poor blood circulation.
The chin should be slightly in, not high as this will give you neck pain, not too inward as it may affect breathing.
You can roll the shoulders back to open up the chest and facilitate breathing.
The head should be aligned with the shoulders.
The overall posture should not be forced. You should be able to maintain the posture for at least 30 minutes if you were asked to.
Any laziness in holding the meditation posture, bent position or unbalanced position will create pain, a lack of blood circulation or breathing inefficiencies… and will affect your meditation in a negative way.
One of the most important elements of meditation is breathing.
Breathing controls the pace of the meditation.
Breathing brings you deeper within yourself.
Breathing helps reaching a non-thinking mind.
Breathing should always be done by using the muscles under the lungs.
And inspiration/expiration are always done via the nose.
Never breathe through the mouth, always and always through the nose.
As a beginner of Zen Meditation, you can start with this simple breathing technique that we call the “4-2-4-2 technique”:
- Breathe in by counting 4,3,2,1
- Hold 2,1
- Breathe out by counting 4,3,2,1
- Hold 2,1
As you progress further, you can count the number of breathing cycles:
- Breathing cycle 1
- Breathing cycle 2
- Breathing cycle 3
- And so on.
If you find your focus drifting away in your thoughts or in restlessness, check on your breathing. More often than not, you will find that your breathing is out of sync, too fast, too slow, irregular…
Get the reins back and control your breathe.
Reinforce your belly, make your center stronger!
Important warning: if you suffer for any medical condition such as asthma, hear or lung disease, or any other medical condition, please consult with a doctor to see if controlling your breathing cycle can be dangerous.
Eyes should never be closed, ever.
Eyes are half-closed.
Your eyes are is looking about 2-2 1/2ft (60-80cm) in front of you.
Remember that while meditating eyes should never be closed.
There should not be any visual distractions in front of you, so sitting in front of a window, a TV, a hallway, a mobile phone and a computer is not recommended.
Anything moving or blinking may excite your nervous system and create distractions… that trigger thoughts and steal your attention from your meditation.
The point of meditation is not to stop or control the thoughts, but rather to achieve a state where breathing, body and mind reach a state of natural balance.
Without getting too technical with the brainwave theories of higher consciousness, let’s keep in mind that meditation is a channel, that everybody can use, to access a higher state of awareness.
The brain, in a sense an organ like any other, is the command center of the body.
The body is influenced by different internal and external elements like genetic background, personality, education, hormones, chemicals, sleep and food. This is especially true for the brain.
The brain can then be the trigger of good or bad emotions, so it has a huge power over us, probably more than what we think it does, or more than we would like to believe.
Due to our human nature, stopping the thoughts is almost impossible.
The brain has a “Play” button… but no “Stop” and “Pause” buttons.
The proof, the brain even generates images, thoughts and emotions while we sleep.
“Do not think about a pink elephant wearing a hat” automatically triggers the image of an elephant wearing a hat.
Stopping thoughts is a form of thought.
Trying to control thoughts is also a form of thought.
Trying not to think is thinking.
Thoughts will flow in and out. That’s perfectly normal.
The thinking mind will bring you pretty much anywhere it wants to: your grocery list, some “offensive” comment someone posted on social media, some irrelevant random news you saw earlier, where you want to go on vacation to in 6 months’ time, etc.
Some days, your meditation will be good, some days, it will be soso. Usually when your meditation is not really good, it is due to an over-active mind. Restlessness deeply affects the quality of meditation.
We all have an internal Monkey inside our heads, sometimes referred to as the “Monkey Mind.”
For some people, the Monkey Mind is a source of unhappiness, their Monkey Mind is negative, hyperactive, unfocused… the Monkey Mind will always be there, chatting or mumbling in the background, and you cannot really choke it out.
The main aim of meditation is to attain a non-Thinking Mind.
We can guide the thoughts and give them limits where they can go and where they cannot go.
You can give peanuts to the Monkey Mind to keep it busy with something light.
Feeding the Monkey Mind
The Monkey Mind is that little annoying voice inside our head, that little voice that brings us everywhere except where we want to be: in the now, in a state of non-thinking mind.
We cannot stop the Monkey Mind, but we can feed it.
Here are a few techniques to focus the mind:
- Count: you can count the breath cycles when you breath in and out (e.g. 4,3,2,1 in; 4,3,2,1 hold, 4,3,2,1 out, 4,3,2,1 out), you can also count the number of breaths if you are more advanced (e.g. breath cycle 1, breath cycle 2, breath cycle 3…) Do not cling to the numbers, the point is not to count up to 237… just get back to 0 when you reach 10. Remember, we aim to get into a non-thinking state.
- Mantra: a mantra is a one-syllable word that you repeat, one good example of a mantra is “om.” You can also repeat a specific word (e.g. deep, focus, happiness, now) Or sentence (e.g. Who am I?.) Transcendental Meditation (TM) is famous for its use of Indian mantras.
- Kōans: kōans are “Zen riddles” that can only be answered with a non-thinking mind. kōans are used in the Rinzai school of Zen (the other school is called Soto, which focuses on sitting meditation, not on an intellectual way to approach Zen.) Sometimes a Zen Master would give a “Zen riddle” to the practitioners so that they can intellectually ruminate on them while meditating, cooking, cleaning… “What sound does one hand clapping make” is a famous kōan. We talk about kōans in other articles on the website.
- Sounds: if absolutely necessary, you can use meditation sounds like a river flowing, rain, a fireplace… or temple bells, “om” videos that you can find on Youtube. As long as the sounds do not have music nor any lyrics, you can make use of them if it helps you focus. We have a list of resources at the bottom of this article.
- If your Monkey Mind is very negative, imagine that everything it says sounds like “The Chipmunk” and that there is a a knob that gives you the power to control the volume of what it says. When you twist it right or left, it is louder or quieter.
- You could also imagine a real monkey sitting next to a gigantic pile of peanuts, being overwhelmed by the amount of peanuts, but still digging to eat them, slowly, one by one. Whatever works for you, feel free to explore.
A multitude of feelings can come up while meditating: restlessness, boredom, enjoyment, happiness… any negative thoughts of despair and hopelessness and depression should be cause for concern and necessitate evaluation by a health professional.
The feelings may evolve, even during one single 30 minute sitting: you may feel restless at the beginning of the sitting, then bored and finally happy.
We want to achieve a non-thinking mind, but it is hard to guide feelings.
The first step to handle feelings is to recognize them and voicing them “I feel ______”
The second step is to fully embrace the feeling.
The third step is to recognize that feelings are temporary.
If you are the rational type, you can tell yourself that “feelings are just chemical reactions.”
If you are more a more emotional person, best strategy is to embrace those emotions.
Meditation is not a technique to achieve some kind of super-human superpower.
Quite the contrary, meditation is to accept our human nature and go deep within our Self.
On your journey you will find both positive and negative emotions, that’s part of the game.
If you start having funny visual hallucinations and unusual sensations while meditating, change the area of focus so that your eyes refocus. Make sure that you do not have any pain due to strained neck or compressed nerves along the back and the neck, which are sometimes the cause of unusual sensations. Feeling that you are dropping from a building is a good indicator of such a neck problem.
When David Lynch described his first experience of Transcendental Meditation, he compared it to being in an elevator and the rope being cut. He probably did not have any neck issue, but keep in mind that when you start meditating, you may experience weird sensations. Zen Meditation is not about extreme sensations, quite the opposite. It is very down to Earth.
Some people do have peculiar experiences while meditating, if this happens to you, you should embrace it as part of the experience, but you should not research it.
The best time to meditate is the morning right before breakfast, exactly like the Zen Monks do.
You wake up, you have a glass of water, and then meditate.
Morning meditations have a lot of advantages, especially in terms of the ability to reach high level of awareness, as well as a limited amount of distractions in the environment. It is also a great way to start your day and face the challenges on our way.
You can also meditate in the evenings, not before bed as you may fall asleep, but let’s say right before dinner. If that is not possible, then after dinner.
We recommend that you meditate at the same time every day.
A meditation routine is the best way to ensure discipline and full focus.
You can use a timer when meditating.
In Zen temples meditation sessions start with the sound of a bell, 3 times. The meditation session ends with 1-3 chimes of the bell. The sound of the bell is very relaxing.
It is also a trigger to tell your mind: now I am meditating, relaxing, going deep inside myself, I live now.
Always use the same timer. Changing may affect the connection your brain makes with different sounds and influence the meditation quality.
We recommend using a meditation bell timer that you can find online on Youtube or as a music file, but you should leave the computer out of your vision field (as well as switch off all notifications.)
You can also use a timer on your phone, but the timer should not cause stress when beeping. The phone should be away from your visual field, both vibration and sound notifications off.
Of course, if you meditate for a whole day, you may want to control the length of each meditation session by having your watch within your secondary visual field, not directly right in your face.
We do not recommend to use a watch or any type of time display, otherwise you may end up constantly looking at it when your mind starts feeling restless or bored.
In temples, depending on the school, meditation duration, meditation sessions are between 25-40 minutes.
For beginners, we recommend to start with 10 minutes sessions and they build up with increments of 5 minutes.
Increments should be added every 2-3 weeks, this is especially true for the beginners.
Do not overdo it!
If you feel like meditating more, just add another session later in the day.
If you are already a bit familiar with meditation, add a second session right after the first.
But remember, overdoing it will have opposite results.
Meditation is tough at the beginning. It is perfectly normal.
But when you start doing 20-25 minutes of meditation, you will think that it is short!
Meditation is like going to the gym, if you go too intense at the beginning, your body will ache due to the meditation posture and your Monkey Mind will be so restless that you will dread meditation as the Monkey will take control over your thoughts.
Frequency is the key to build a routine and make it a habit.
We strongly recommend that you meditate on a daily basis.
How many times should I meditate you ask?
Meditating one time the morning, and one time in the evening is preferable.
If you have to choose between a morning and an evening meditation, go for morning.
It is easier to build a routine by meditating the morning.
The evenings are usually disturbed by family members, friends, neighbors, traffic, activities, work, and a full stomach.
While meditating the body requires support for the knees and the back.
Support for the knees is provided by a square-shaped cushion called zabuton in Japanese.
Support for the back is provided by a thick round-shaped cushion (sometimes rectangular-shaped) called zafu in Japanese.
The zafu lays on top of the zabuton, leaving space for the knees in front of the zafu.
Meditation cushions are essential.
Buckwheat hulls are a good filling for the cushions: it is not too soft, not too hard, it can be shaped in a comfortable manner and it does not crush under the weight of the body.
Both cushion should be relatively hard, but not too hard.
We do not recommend a zafu filled with cotton as it is too soft and will compress itself.
The knees should be supported by the zabuton and the buttock should be elevated, sitting on the zafu.
This position where the buttock is elevated is perfect to have the appropriate posture.
We do not recommend sitting directly on the floor. The buttock should always be elevated.
Keeping in mind that you need support for both the knees and the back, you may find alternatives to the cushions we mentioned above, by using a folded cover, a pillow… or anything that you deem provides you with enough support.
We suggest that you wear something light, that makes you feel great physically and spiritually.
Avoid meditating in tight clothes that may block blood circulation and it is advisable to avoid clothing like pajamas, underwear, etc.
Some people meditate in a 2-piece garment called a samue in Japanese. It is a type of clothes used to do manual work. It consists of trousers and a top part that is foldable, similarly to what people who do Japanese martial arts like karate and judo wear. The standard color is dark blue, but the color may differ on the Zen temple. The samue is a good garment as it is not tight, it is actually quite baggy, and let’s air circulate and is comfortable to wear.
Zen Monks wear Buddhist robes while meditating and a kesa, a wide and long rectangular piece of clothing similar to what the Buddha wore.
Of course, unless you are an ordained monk, you do not need to wear Buddhist robes…
You sometimes see laypersons and monks wear an apron-looking garment called a rakusu around their neck. The rakusu is reserved for laypeople and monks who have taken a series of precepts. The rakusu is a smaller version of the kesa which is believed to have originated when monks had to do manual labor.
A stomach that is full necessitates a lot of energy and blood flow, two essential elements that are then taken away from the brain.
We all have experienced a slight sleepiness after eating lunch for example.
The best time to meditate is probably right after waking up and drinking a glass of water, but before eating breakfast, similarly to the Zen Monks in temples.
The quality of what you consume is important, you should avoid high sugary and heavy foods as well as caffeine which can make you restless.
The quantity is also important, in modern times we have a tendency to overeat. In Japanese there is a saying: 80 for the stomach, 20 to keep the doctor away. Meaning, eat until you are 80% full.
It is true that digestion is a function that requires a lot of energy from the body, which is why we recommend to meditate on an empty stomach. By doing so, you keep the blood flow evenly in the body and can focus on your meditation.
Of course, if you are the type of person who needs food to function, please eat. Same if you suffer from diabetes.
It is better to meditate in a slightly dry and cool environment.
Humid environments in summer make you sweat and in winter the humidity penetrates the bones and may hurt sensitive people. This is why we suggest a slightly dry environment.
Cool environments are better as heat may make you sleepy and add a burden to your sitting.
Cool temperature also promotes a good blood flow and enhance concentration and focus when we compare it to cold and hot temperature.
Of course, you should avoid cold environments as the body may enter a fight or flight mode that is harmful to the system.
The room you meditate in should be quiet and silent.
Silence and meditation go hand in hand.
In temples sittings start with three rings of a bell and end with 1-3 rings depending on the temple.
Avoid environments where you can hear sounds such as phone notifications, phone vibrating, traffic, neighbors talking, the TV, the washing machine, etc.
While meditating, if you do come across sounds that you cannot control, for example a neighbor mowing his lawn, accept it and make the sound as part of your experience.
Leverage the sound to help you focus, like this sound becomes your personal assistant sent to help you concentration.
After all, we control what we can control, and what we cannot control, we accept it and embrace it.
Sounds from nature are fine, for example birds chirping, bugs like cicadas making their mating call, a river flowing… steady sounds like a fan are also fine.
As long as the sound is steady, it should not interfere with what we are trying to achieve: a non-thinking mind.
If you are the type of person whose Monkey Mind is hyperactive, you can explore listening to bell sounds and even a chant like “om” while meditating. This is not the traditional way to meditate, but if it helps you, why not! We will leave links to the resources below.
Any sounds that may trigger thoughts, stimulate the Monkey Mind or disturb your concentration should be avoided.
A big advantage of meditating the morning is that sounds are more “controllable” in the morning than the evening, where sounds of traffic, people, family and neighbors are louder.
We recommend that you leave your phone in a separate room or far from you.
Lighting is important as our state of wakefulness, our circadian rhythm, is directly linked to the amount of light that enters our eyes.
For this reason, we recommend that you choose a well-lighted room. Beaming neons is not a good idea, but if you have to choose between a bit over-lighted and a bit under-lighter, I would opt for the over-lighted option.
The rationale behind this is related to the fact that we meditate with our eyes half-open, and not closed. Meditating in a dark room would make you sleepy and make the whole experience dull.
So avoid dark rooms as you may ended bringing your brain into a sleeping mode.
In the old times incense sticks of specific lengths where used to calculate the amount of time as a replacement to clocks, which were inexistent at the time or too expensive to be affordable.
Even nowadays some temples burn incense during meditation.
Burning incense can improve your meditation session by giving it a little twist and making the sitting session more agreeable.
Meditation incense can be beneficial to the experience.
Another option would be to use flowers and enjoy their fragrance while sitting.
If you do wish to burn incense, make sure that the room is well ventilated and that your incense is of high quality and uses natural products, rather than a cheap incense filled with chemicals stuck on a wood stick.
If you visit Kyoto you can buy amazing incense in craftsmen shops.
Each meditation session should be followed by a short walking session.
You should never spend hours in the same position.
In Zen Temples, in-between each meditation session, monks practice walking meditation where they walk very slowly, feet almost not leaving the ground, for about 5-10 minutes. Feet are slowly put in front of one another, barely leaving the ground, while the monks walk in circles before going back to the meditation cushion.
This is called kinhin.
The reason for walking is simple: it is to allow the blood to circulate in the body and stretch the articulations.
If you are very experienced in meditation and you want to meditate for a few hours, we strongly recommend that you do walking meditation between each sittings.
Long meditation sessions, like sitting for prolonged periods of time, are not only harmful to the body, but long meditation sessions can even be lethal in some cases due to blood clot formation.
Going Back to Meditation After a Break
Meditation is like going to the gym, if you stop for a while, when you go back to it, you should start with shorter meditation sessions and work your way up with increments.
Meditation is both a physical and a mental activity, the body may ache if you opt for a long meditation session after a break, and the Monkey Mind may become restless due to the lack of training.
Some people use apps to calculate the amount of meditation they have done, generate stats… and feel “hip” about their meditation, like they will get some kind of invisible medal at the end.
We do not suggest using “meditation gadgets,” they represent a form of attachment and egocentric endeavor.
If you find apps that help you gain some insights about Zen and meditation, feel free to use them.
Meditation: Alone and Groups
Zen Buddhism is a tradition that is transmitted from teacher, a Zen Master, to student.
No matter how much research you do, without meeting a teacher face-to-face, either as part of a group or in personal interview (called dokusan in Japanese,) your knowledge of Zen Buddhism will be limited to your experience and your research.
Of course, you can practice alone.
Zen is a great way to discover oneself.
But if you want to push your practice, you may consider visiting a Zen Center where there is an actual established practice.
This will be easier to do in the West as most temples in Asia are not open to laypersons.
In Asia you can visit temples, but cannot really practice there, unless you have some good connections or stay at a temple ran specifically for foreigners.
Zen in the West is growing in popularity.
A lot of temples in both the Soto and the Rinzai traditions are open to the public in the West.
Actually, most are completely open.
Some offer daily practice, some offer weekly events, some also offer intense periods of sitting (called sesshin) ranging from 1-3 days, for the beginners, up to 90 days, for the advanced practitioners.
Some remote centers even offer accommodation, vegetarian meals and longer stays.
It is also quite common for monks from other temples, or centers, to visit other cities and countries to give dharma talks (talks about Zen and Buddhism.) Some talks are even given in the local language and translated into English by someone who is bilingual.
If you have comments or questions about this introduction, feel free to reach out to us.
Be Stoic. Be Zen. My friend.
5 Ways to Boost FOCUS + PRODUCTIVITY like a ZEN MONK
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