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Such pursuit has long been an integral part of the religious life of humanity. Within established religion it has been explicitly expressed within monasticism, where rules governing the everyday life of monks and nuns provide a framework conducive to the cultivation of mystical states of consciousness.
Practices associated with mysticism include meditation and contemplative prayer. Mysticism can be distinguished from ordinary religious belief by its emphasis on the direct personal experience of unique states of consciousness, particularly those of a transcendentally blissful character.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Definition
- 3 Development
- 4 Western mysticism
- 5 Eastern mysticism
- 6 Contemporary popular understanding
- 7 Mystical experience
- 8 Scientific research of mysticism
- 9 Skepticism
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 Sources
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
According to Cobb, mysticism is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.
According to Belzen and Geels, mysticism is "a way of life and a 'direct consciousness of the presence of God' [or] 'the ground of being' or similar expressions".
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In the Hellenistic world, 'mystical' referred to "secret" religious rituals The use of the word lacked any direct references to the transcendental. A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion.
In early Christianity the term "mystikos" referred to three dimensions, which soon became intertwined, namely the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to "hidden" or allegorical interpretations of Scriptures. The liturgical dimension refers to the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist, the presence Christ at the Eucharist. The third dimension is the contemplative or experiential knowledge of God.
The link between mysticism and the vision of the Divine was introduced by the early Church Fathers, who used the term as an adjective, as in mystical theology and mystical contemplation.
This threefold meaning of "mystical" continued in the Middle Ages. Under the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite the mystical theology came to denote the investigation of the allegorical truth of the Bible. Pseudo-Dionysius' Apophatic theology, or "negative theology", exerted a great influence on medieval monastic religiosity, although it was mostly a male religiosity, since woman were not allowed to study. It was influenced by Neo-Platonism, and very influential in Eastern Orthodox Christian theology. In western Christianity it was a counter-current to the prevailing Cataphatic theology or "positive theology". It is best known nowadays in the western world from Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross.
Early modern meaning
Luther dismissed the allegorical interpretation of the bible, and condemned Mystical theology, which he saw as more Platonic than Christian. "The mystical", as the search for the hidden meaning of texts, became secularised, and also associated with literature, as opposed to science and prose.
Science was also distantiated form religion. By the middle of the 17th century, 'the mystical' is increasingly applied exclusively to the religious realm, separating religion and 'natural philosophy' as two distinct approaches to the discovery of the hidden meaning of God's universe. The traditional hagiographies and writings of the saints became designated as 'mystical', shifting from the virtues and miracles to extraordinary experiences and states of mind, thereby creating a newly coined "mystical tradition". A new understanding developed of the Divine as residing within human, a core essence beyond the varieties of religious expressions.
In the contemporary usage "mysticism" has become an umbrella term for all sorts of non-rational worldviews. William Harmless even states that mysticism has become "a catch-all for religious weirdness". A popular strand of thought sees a common "mystical experience" running through a wide diversity of religious traditions.
Within the academic study of religion the apparent "unambiguous commonality" has become "opaque and controversial". The term "mysticism" is being used in different ways in different traditions. Some call to attention the conflation of mysticism and linked terms, such as spirituality and esotericism, and point at the differences between various traditions.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were annual initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The High Middle Ages saw a flourishing of mystical practice and theorization corresponding to the flourishing of new monastic orders, with such figures as Guigo II, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, all coming from different orders, as well as the first real flowering of popular piety among the laypeople.
The Late Middle Ages saw the clash between the Dominican and Franciscan schools of thought, which was also a conflict between two different mystical theologies: on the one hand that of Dominic de Guzmán and on the other that of Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure, and Angela of Foligno. This period also saw such individuals as John of Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Genoa, the Devotio Moderna, and such books as the Theologia Germanica, The Cloud of Unknowing and The Imitation of Christ.
Moreover, there was the growth of groups of mystics centered around geographic regions: the Beguines, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch (among others); the Rhineland mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso; and the English mystics Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. The Spanish mystics included Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius Loyola.
Catholic mysticism continued into the modern period with such figures as Padre Pio and Thomas Merton. The philokalia, an ancient method of Eastern Orthodox mysticism, was promoted by the twentieth century Traditionalist School. The inspired or "channeled" work A Course in Miracles represents a blending of non-denominational Christian and New Age ideas.
Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (no end) and the mortal and finite universe (his creation). Inside Judaism, it forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation.
Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought. Kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional Rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.
Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th- to 13th-century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. It was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century onwards. 20th-century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation.
[A] science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.
A practitioner of this tradition is nowadays known as a ṣūfī (صُوفِيّ), or, in earlier usage, a dervish. The origin of the word "Sufi" is ambiguous. One understanding is that Sufi means wool-wearer- wool wearers during early Islam were pious ascetics who withdrew from urban life. Another explanation of the word "Sufi" is that it means 'purity'.
Sufis generally belong to a Khalqa, a circle or group, led by a Sheikh or Murshid. Sufi circles usually belong to a Tariqa, literally a path, a kind of lineage, which traces its succession back to notable sufis of the past, and often ultimately to the prophet Muhammed or one of his close associates. The turuq (plural of tariqa) are not enclosed like Christian monastic orders; rather the members retain an outside life.
Sufi practice includes
- Dhikr, or remembrance (of God), which often takes the form of rhythmic chanting and breathing exercises.
- Sema, which takes the form of music and dance — the whirling dance of the Mevlevi dervishes is a form well known in the West.
- Muraqaba or meditation.
- Visiting holy places, particularly the tombs of sufi saints, in order to absorb barakah, or spiritual energy.
The aims of sufism include: the experience of ecstatic states (hal), purification of the heart (qalb), overcoming the lower self (nafs), the development of extrasensory and healing powers, extinction of the individual personality (fana), communion with God (haqiqa), and higher knowledge (marifat). Some sufic beliefs and practices have been found unorthodox by other muslims; for instance Mansur al-Hallaj was put to death for blasphemy after uttering the phrase Ana'l Haqq, "I am the Truth" (ie God) in a trance.
Mysticism in the Sikh dharm began with its founder, Guru Nanak, who as a child had profound mystical experiences. Guru Nanak stressed that God must be seen with 'the inward eye', or the 'heart', of a human being. Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, added religious mystics belonging to other religions into the holy scriptures that would eventually become the Guru Granth Sahib.
In Sikhi there is no dogma but only the search for truth. Sikhs meditate as a means to progress towards enlightenment; it is devoted meditation simran that enables a sort of communication between the Infinite and finite human consciousness.
The goal of Sikhi is to be one with God. For the Sikhs there is no concentration on the breath but chiefly the remembrance of God through the recitation of the name of God. Sikhs are instructed to recite the name of God (Waheguru) 24 hours a day and surrender themselves to Gods presence often metaphorized as surrendering themselves to the Lord's feet.
There are no priests, monastics or yogis in the Sikh dharm and these mystic practices are not limited to an elite few who remove themselves from the world. Rather, Sikhs do not renounce the world and the participation in ordinary life is considered spiritually essential to the Sikh.
Hinduism has a number of interlinked schools and traditions of mysticism. The upanishads are a collection of ancient hymns, which are regarded as expounding a philosophy of union with the Divine in devotional form. The vedantas are philosophical commentaries on the upanishads.
It was explained in the last lecture that the sages of the Upanishads believed in a supra-conscious experience of pure self-illumination as the ultimate principle, superior to and higher than any of our mental states of cognition, willing, or feeling. The nature of this principle is itself extremely mystical; many persons, no doubt, are unable to grasp its character.
Nondualism or Advaita is a prominent school of vedantic philosophy, as expounded by Adi Shankara. The mystic's goal is seen as mukti, or liberation from endless cycles of reincarnation. Vedantic philosophy tends to view the Hindu pantheon as aspects or symbols of a single transcendent reality, Brahman (which is often identified with Atman, the Self). Four scriptural passages, the Mahavakyas, :or "great sayings" are given special significance:
- prajñānam brahma - "Prajñānam (consciousness) is Brahman (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3 of the Rig Veda)
- ayam ātmā brahma - "I am Brahman", or "This Self (Atman) is Brahman" (Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 of the Atharva Veda)
- tat tvam asi - "Thou art That" or "Thou arrt Brahman"(Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda)
- aham brahmāsmi - "I am Brahman", or "I am Divine" (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda)
Yoga is the collective term for various techniques for whose aims include the attainment of mystical insight and supernormal powers, (although these are not generally emphasised in hatha yoga, the postural exercises which are the best know form of yoga in the West). Yoga is often interpreted as "spiritual union" or "union with the Divine". Patanjali was the foremost classical writer on the yogas, which were introduced to the West be Swami Vivekananda in the early 20th century.
Forms of yoga, in addition to Hatha yoga, include:-
- karma yoga, based on ethical action.
- bhakti yoga emphasising devotion to deities.
- jnana yoga, the "path of knowledge"
- raja yoga, based on meditation.
In the vedantic and yogic paths, the shishya or aspirant is usually advised to find a guru, or teacher, who may prescribe spiritual exercises (siddhis) or be credited with the ability to transmit shakti, divine energy.
Contemporary popular understanding
The Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis),[note 1] also referred to as "perennialism", is a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.
The term philosophia perennis was first used by Agostino Steuco (1497–1548), drawing on an already existing philosophical tradition, the most direct predecessors of which were Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94).
A major proponent in the 20th century was Aldous Huxley, who "was heavily influenced in his description by Vivekananda's neo-Vedanta and the idiosyncratic version of Zen exported to the west by D.T. Suzuki. Both of these thinkers expounded their versions of the perennialist thesis", which they originally received from western thinkers and theologians.
According to the Perennial Philosophy the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same. It supposes that many, if not all of the world's great religions, have arisen around the teachings of mystics, including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna. It also sees most religious traditions describing fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically.
[P]eople can differentiate experience from interpretation, such that different interpretations may be applied to otherwise identical experiences".
The "common-core thesis" is criticised by "diversity theorists" such as S.T Katz and W. Proudfoot. They argue that
[N]o unmediated experience is possible, and that in the extreme, language is not simply used to interpret experience but in fact constitutes experience.
According to Steindl-Rast, this common core of mystical experience may be repressed by institutional religion. Conventional religions, by definition, have strong institutional structures, including formal hierarchies and mandated sacred texts and/or creeds. Personal experience may be a threat to these structures.[web 1]
Orientalism and Eastern religiosity
"Eastern mysticism" or "Eastern spirituality" is a broad and largely Western concept summarizing and sometimes amalgamating "mystic" traditions of the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East, a separate realm from Western mysticism. It includes mystic elements in:
- Buddhism (including Zen)
- Hinduism (including Yoga, Vedanta and Tantra)
- Other Eastern religions
Transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a pioneer of the idea of spirituality as a distinct field. He was one of the major figures in Transcendentalism, an early 19th-century liberal Protestant movement, which was rooted in English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume.[web 2] The Transcendentalists emphasised an intuitive, experiential approach of religion.[web 3] Following Schleiermacher, an individual's intuition of truth was taken as the criterium for truth.[web 3] In the late 18th and early 19th century, the first translations of Hindu texts appeared, which were also read by the Transcendentalists, and influenced their thinking.[web 3] They also endorsed universalist and Unitarianist ideas, leading to Unitarian Universalism, the idea that there must be truth in other religions as well, since a loving God would redeem all living beings, not just Christians.[web 3][web 4]
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
- To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
The Theosophical Society has been highly influential in promoting interest, both in west and east, in a great variety of religious teachings:
"No single organization or movement has contributed so many components to the New Age Movement as the Theosophical Society [...] It has been the major force in the dissemination of occult literature in the West in the twentieth century.
The Theosophical Society searched for 'secret teachings' in Asian religions. It has been influential on modernist streams in several Asian religions, notably Hindu reform movements, the revival of Theravada Buddhism, and D.T. Suzuki, who popularized the idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality.[web 5][web 6] Another example can be seen in Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to a western audience.
The New Thought movement is a spiritually focused or philosophical interpretation of New Thought beliefs. New Thought promotes the ideas that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and "right thinking" has a healing effect.[web 7][web 8]
New Thought was propelled along by a number of spiritual thinkers and philosophers and emerged through a variety of religious denominations and churches, particularly the Unity Church, Religious Science, and Church of Divine Science. The Home of Truth, which belongs to the New Thought movement has, from its inception as the Pacific Coast Metaphysical Bureau in the 1880s, disseminated the teachings of the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda.[web 9]
According to Ernest Holmes, who belongs to the New Thought movement,
A mystic is not a mysterious person; but is one who has a deep, inner sense of Life and Unity with the Whole; mysticism and mystery are entirely different things; one is real while the other may, or may not, be an illusion. There is nothing mysterious in the Truth, so far as It is understood; but all things, of course, are mysteries until we understand them.
According to Evelyn Underhill, illumination is a generic English term for the phenomenon of mysticism. The term illumination is derived from the Latin illuminatio, applied to Christian prayer in the 15th century. Translated as enlightenment it is adopted in English translations of Buddhist texts, but used loosely to describe the state of mystical attainment regardless of faith.
According to Wright, the use of the western word enlightenment is based on the supposed resemblance of bodhi with Aufklärung, the independent use of reason to gain insight into the true nature of our world. As a matter of fact there are more resemblances with Romanticism than with the Enlightenment: the emphasis on feeling, on intuitive insight, on a true essence beyond the world of appearances.
Freud and the Oceanic feeling
By religious feeling, what I mean—altogether independently of any dogma, any Credo, any organization of the Church, any Holy Scripture, any hope for personal salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of 'the eternal' (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and as if oceanic). This feeling is in truth subjective in nature. It is a contact.[web 10]
Rolland derived the notion of an "oceanic feeling" from various sources. He was influenced by the writings of Baruch Spinoza, who criticized religion but retained "the intellectual love of God". Rolland was also influenced by Indian mysticism, on which he wrote The Life of Ramakrishna (1929/1931) and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (1930/1947).[web 10]
In the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents (1929/1930) Freud describes this notion, and then remarks that he doesn't know this feeling himself. He then goes on to locate this feeling within primary narcissism and the ego ideal. This feeling is later reduced to a "shrunken residue" under the influence of reality.[web 10]
Ken Wilber argues that Freud had erred, by confusing pre-ego states with trans-ego states.
The following table briefly summarizes the major forms of mysticism within world religions and their basic concepts, as recognized by a Perennial perspective.
|Host religion||Form of mysticism||Basic concept||Sources of information|
|Buddhism||Shingon, Vajrayana, Zen||Attainment of Nirvana, Satori, Bodhi, union with Mahamudra or Dzogchen|||
|Christianity||Catholic spirituality, Quaker tradition, Christian mysticism, Gnosticism||Spiritual enlightenment, Spiritual vision, the Love of God, union with God (Theosis)|||
|Hinduism||Vedanta, Yoga, Bhakti, Kashmir Shaivism||Liberation from cycles of Karma (moksha), self-realization (atma-jnana), non-identification (Kaivalya), experience of ultimate reality (Samadhi), Innate Knowledge (Sahaja and Svabhava)|||
|Islam||Sunni, Shia, Sufism||Innate belief in God (Fitra); Fana (Sufism); Baqaa.|||
|Jainism||Moksha||Liberation from cycles of Karma|||
|Judaism||Kabbalah, Hasidism||Abnegation of the ego, Ein Sof|||
|Sikhism||-||Merging with God, liberation from cycles of Reincarnation|||
|Taoism||-||Te: connection to ultimate reality|||
Presence versus experience
McGinn argues that "presence" is more accurate than "union", since not all mystics spoke of union with God, and since many visions and miracles were not necessarily related to union. He also argues that we should speak of "consciousness" of God's presence, rather than of "experience", since mystical activity is not simply about the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly about
...new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.
William James popularized the use of the term "religious experience" in his The Varieties of Religious Experience. It has also influenced the understanding of mysticism as a distinctive experience which supplies knowledge.
Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" further back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular citique. It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.
Related to this idea of "presence" instead of "experience" is McGin's emphasis on the transformation that occurs through mystical activity:
This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic's part and—especially—on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.
Other critics point out that the stress on "experience" is accompanied with favoring the atomic individual, instead of the shared life on the community. It also fails to distinguish between episodic experience, and mysticism as a process, that is embedded in a total religious matrix of liturgy, scripture, worship, virtues, theology, rituals and practices.
Richard King also points to disjunction between "mystical experience" and social justice:
The privatisation of mysticism - that is, the increasing tendency to locate the mystical in the psychological realm of personal experiences - serves to exclude it from political issues as social justice. Mysticism thus becomes seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity, which, rather than seeking to transform the world, serve to accommodate the individual to the status quo through the alleviation of anxiety and stress.
Induction of mystical experiences
Various religious texts prescribe meditative practices in order to achieve the state of consciousness which is typical of religious experience. Texts of Yoga and Tantra mention specific physical, nutritive, ethical, and meditative methods in order to achieve specific kinds of experiences. The traditions of Mantra Marga (literally, "the way of formulae") in particular stress the importance of saying, either aloud or to oneself internally, particular Mantras (phrases to be repeated) given by their teacher. Combined with this is the set of practices related to Yantras (symbols to be meditated on). Various other ways not specific of any religion include:
- Praying 
- Music 
- Dance, such as:
- Yoga, consisting of postures (Asanas), controlled breathing (Pranayama), and other practices.
- Extreme pain, such as:
- Profound sexual activity,
- Use of Entheogens, such as:
- Psychological or neurophysiological anomalies, such as:
- Near-death experience
Scientific research of mysticism
Essentialist and contextualist approaches
The essentialist model argues that mystical experience is independent of the sociocultural, historical and religious context in which it occurs, and regards all mystical experience in its essence to be the same.
The contextualist model states that mystical experiences are shaped by the concepts "which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience". What is being experienced is being determined by the expectations and the conceptual background of the mystic.
Natural and religious mysticism
R. C. Zaehner has identified two distinctively different mystical experiences, namely natural and religious mystical experiences, as described in his book Mysticism Sacred and Profane. Natural mystical experiences are, for example, experiences of the 'deeper self' or experiences of oneness with nature. Zaehner argues that the experiences typical of 'natural mysticism' are quite different from the experiences typical of religious mysticism.
Zaehner is directly opposing the views Aldous Huxley. Natural mystical experiences are in Zaehner's view of less value because they do not lead as directly to the virtues of charity and compassion. Zaehner is generally critical of what he sees as narcissistic tendencies in nature mysticism.
In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of what is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.
Meditator: It suddenly seemed as if I was surrounded by an immensely powerful Presence. I felt that a Truth had been "revealed" to me that was far more important than anything else, and for which I needed no further evidence. But when later I tried to describe this to my friends, I found that I had nothing to say except how wonderful that experience was.
This peculiar type of mental state is sometimes called a "Mystical Experience" or "Rapture," "Ecstasy," or "Bliss." Some who undergo it call it "wonderful," but a better word might be "wonderless," because I suspect that such a state of mind may result from turning so many Critics off that one cannot find any flaws in it.
What might that "powerful Presence" represent? It is sometimes seen as a deity, but I suspect that it is likely to be a version of some early Imprimer that for years has been hiding inside your mind. In any case, such experiences can be dangerous—for some victims find them so compelling that they devote the rest of their lives to trying to get themselves back to that state again.
Minsky's idea of 'some early Imprimer hiding in the mind' was an echo of Freud's belief that mystical experience was essentially infantile and regressive, i.e., a memory of 'Oneness' with the mother.
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- Merton, Thomas, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition, 3. Kalamazoo, 2008.
- Nelstrop, Louise, Kevin Magill and Bradley B. Onishi, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches. Aldershot, 2009.
- Otto, Rudolf (author); Bracy, Bertha L. (translator) & Payne, Richenda C. 1932, 1960. Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism. New York, N. Y., USA: The Macmillan Company
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