Living in Alignment with your Values

IMG_0243When you sense that you are living “off centre” there could be any number of reasons for feeling the way you do. In my experience a great place to start is to look at whether you are living in alignment with your authentic values. I’m not talking about the values that are forced on us all by society at large or even an education system that prioritises certain outcomes. I’m more concerned with the values that you hold dear that may have been buried by the expectations and beliefs of those around you.

I read this recently:
‘To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.'(Sorry I’m not sure who said this…must keep track of who is writing these amazing things!)

This is not to say you need to become blatantly oppositional, it just means to be true to yourself and not be swayed by dominant thinking within society, within your friendship circles but also within the education system if it does not align with the values you treasure. Once you are clear about what it is that you value you can stand strong in support of these.

One of the first steps in living a centred life is to identify your core values so that you can start living in reference to them. Some examples of mine are:
I value physical health and vitality; mental health; spiritual practices, learning, my family; my friends; eating healthy food; meaningful work; being in nature…. You could devise a list that rings true for you. In the busy-ness of our day we can be living very much on auto-pilot without ever stopping to ask ‘Is this how I want to be spending my time?’ ‘Does this feel aligned with what I value and what I want to be bringing to this world?’ When we pause to reflect we can move from ‘auto’ into ‘manual’ mode – much more in control and living intentionally. When we bring what we value into the light of awareness and consciously set about connecting with these in our daily life we can feel a sense of alignment return. If you are feeling stuck, restless, dictated to or feel a lack of control, this small practice might be just the thing to get you feeling more centred and ahold of the reins.

You might like to journal about what it is you truly value, reflect on how much time you are giving in your day / week to those things…..it will soon become clear as to whether or not you are spending your time on things that inspire you and create joy in your life and where you can make more time for these things! Through awareness we become clear with what is lifting us up or dragging us down. With clarity comes action and so too change.

This week: spend some time alone determining what you truly value so that you can begin to take small steps to centre your life around these. Once these become the focus for living they will inform your teaching – that world-changing work that takes up much of your day!

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Inspired Imperfect Action

The Centred Teacher

I was listening to a Yoga Summit the other night and a teacher on there (Laura Cornell) outlined 5 steps to “move in the direction of your desires” and one of these steps has stayed with me – a refrain that I have oft since repeated internally and even out loud in my team meeting this week.

The step was this:

‘Take inspired, imperfect action.’

Our team had decided that a norm for our meeting should be “make decisions efficiently” and I piped up and said “we can take inspired, imperfect action” – they loved it (so did I).

I have written about lifting the shield of perfectionism before as it is something I have struggled with on a massive scale for much of my life until the past couple of years – it is debilitating. And as I said to my year 4 student last year as she rubbed out her artwork for the 10th time “Perfection is the enemy of done” (I didn’t make that up, though I wish I had). We don’t try anything new, we don’t speak up, we hesitate in our decisions and we don’t back ourselves in case what we try, say and decide is not “perfect”. We feel too vulnerable. This step is profoundly applicable to teachers and their students in realising their desires / dreams / learning goals.

You won’t get closer to achieving anything unless you start.

You won’t find out the best pedagogy for your students unless you experiment.

You won’t know if your idea will work unless you test it out.

Give me imperfect action over inaction any day.

We just need to accept imperfection – one inspired action at a time!

Inspired action sounds lofty but as Wayne Dyer always said “in-spired”  means “in spirit” – to live in a way that sees us connected to that deep space where spirit resides. The place that has been obscured by years of stress or disenchantment or sadness or distractions. The place that we have lost touch with in the busy-ness of daily life. In my experience, to live from this place of spirit we must cultivate stillness….and that doesn’t have to be done perfectly either. Stop and do 1 minute of abdominal breathing as you wash up – you don’t need to buy the perfect meditation cushion, incense, crystals or download an app – these are all distractions. Just be silent and still with that monkey mind chattering in the background – no perfection required. So this month make a pact to release the ideal of perfect action or a perfect outcome and create stillness in your life on a daily basis to take inspired imperfect action to achieve what it is you desire in your classroom and in your life.

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Postscript: As I type this my 5 year old daughter is watching a fairy dvd where for 5 minutes they’ve sung a song about “Princess Perfect”….oh the irony. Gee, I wonder why we all feel we have to be perfect?!!!! Time to eject that dvd (or fake a black out)!!

Re-Defining Success in 2016

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It has often troubled me that student success in school is only ever tangibly measured via test scores and academic improvements – it’s the data that we celebrate (or lament!) often fairly exclusively at a state or national level (though at a school level this can vary). When studies are released that give us pedagogical strategies for greater student success I often wonder how the researchers have defined long term “success”. Academic improvement, university entrance rates, level of education and salary upon completion are widely accepted as measures of “success” but do they give the clearest picture?

My own definition of success in adulthood (after years of feeling I wasn’t successful enough) looks something like this:

  • being truly happy
  • looking after my body and the environment
  • having a peaceful mind
  • working in a field / job I am passionate about
  • being a supportive friend and family member
  • having a sense of hope, resilience and faith in the universe
  • being kind to others and an authentic person
  • valuing myself and being confident in my abilities
  • having vital energy and enthusiasm for life
  • speaking my truth without worrying what others think

(of course I vary in my achievement of these from week to week!).

I am finding that more and more kids are coming to us with low self-esteem, anxiety, concerns over making mistakes and scared to try new things. They don’t trust in themselves. My concern is that we validate them in terms of academic and sporting achievements – on what they do rather than for who and how they are in the world. So it’s time we celebrated more vocally, those successes that often get glossed over and never show up in the data: kids having the courage to speak at assembly for the first time, competing in an athletics carnival despite being a slow runner, a child turning their negative self-talk into positive affirmations, someone who no longer cries when their mum drops them off….

These are the successes that inspire me and I know they inspire you too.

You might like to ponder as we begin a new year, fresh with possibility:

What does success look like for you in your life as a whole? Are you achieving these criteria to a level you are content with? What does success look like / feel like for your students? What successes do you want to celebrate more visibly in 2016 and how could you do this?

The words of Wayne Dyer seem powerful here:

Monitor your inclinations to compare yourself to others or to stay within the “system”. A system is designed to get you to behave just like everyone else, as it contrives to make comparisons determine your success or happiness…

We work within a system but WE ARE the system and can determine how that system operates. I would love you to share yours and your students’ “successes” here (in the broadest sense of the term). Here’s to a “successful” 2016!

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PS: I have created a new site www.jalayoga.com.au as a platform for my new yoga venture (part of doing work I am passionate about!) you may like to check it out? You can sign up for monthly yoga newsletters that include tips on living a yogic lifestyle, as well as find out about upcoming workshops and retreats to keep you calm and centred.

 

A Personal Account of Recovery from Mental Health Struggles

mental healthWith last week being Mental Health Week and World Mental Health day celebrated last weekend it got me reflecting on my own struggles with mental health and wellness and more recently my own healing. By sharing our stories and struggles we acknowledge and connect to our common humanity and perhaps in my sharing, others will find the courage to admit it if they’re not coping.

I have grappled with my mental health since my teenage years. Around age 15 I began to put pressure on myself to achieve and once this began I never lived up to my own standards of perfection – ever. Nothing I did was good enough in my eyes, despite a multitude of evidence to the contrary. Negative self-talk and a highly sensitive nature (that I have only recently learned more about) kept me in cycles of depression and anxiety throughout my twenties.

From the first year of my teaching career I struggled to switch off. I cried most evenings in my first year out of university as I stayed up late preparing lessons only for them to be hijacked by a particular student with ADHD and ODD in a year group that had been separated their entire schooling due to behavioural issues only to be put back together for me – first year out. No one else wanted them. I lasted the year but headed to Nepal and India the year after. I’ve always come back to teaching in between travels because in my gut I know it matters to the world despite it being overwhelming for me for so many years.

After the birth of my baby I expected to finally feel some peace and revel in the joy of maternity leave with my beautiful girl but unaddressed issues resurface – particularly in the face of sleep deprivation. In yoga we call these reoccurring issues “samskaras”, ruts in the road that we fall into time and time again – until we burn through them with consistent yoga practice. I found myself floored – in the deepest “rut in the road” of my life – by horrific post-natal depression and anxiety for which I desperately sought out medication. I had always eschewed drugs in any form despite being prescribed anti-depressants in the past but I knew that I needed them this time as my thought patterns became increasingly disturbing to me and I struggled to get out of bed each day. I remember saying to my mum “I feel like I don’t exist”. I’m not entirely sure what I meant but I was not living in the world that mentally healthy people inhabit. Every daily action was a chore, I wasn’t eating or sleeping and I experienced muscle twitching in my arms and legs when I did lie down in bed.

When I went back to work after 8 months maternity leave it felt good to get my brain moving in a different way again but looking back I was exhausted and depleted on a very deep level. It took 4 years of being back at work, perfectionism reigning supreme, rest-deprived, pushing through the tiredness and stress-addiction before something had to give. And it did. It took another teacher asking me how I was and then probing further for the truth, for me to admit I was not okay. I will be forever grateful to that colleague for his care and intuition that things were not right.

It has been over a year since that unravelling and it has been a daily practice and taken much effort to stay healthy but it has been worth it. I know I will never fall back into those ruts in the road – ever.

These are my top Positive Mental Health practices:

  • Be Honest with yourself: don’t just soldier on. Panic attacks, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, lethargy, nausea or feeling “low” for an extended period are all signs that you are not 100%. Honesty can be difficult but can only lead to positive outcomes.
  • Seek Professional Help: your work place will provide you with access to free counselling sessions or you can see your GP for a referral to a psychologist for 10 sessions a year that you can claim on Medicare (in Australia).
  • Schedule rest periods: don’t “rest when you’re done” because you are never done. If you are feeling particularly depleted take some long service leave or a mental health day and DO NOTHING.
  • Have time to yourself: to do what makes you feel alive, at least a few times a week.
  • Exercise every day: this doesn’t have to be strenuous and in fact if your nervous system is overloaded too much movement will have a negative impact.
  • Cultivate Stillness and Silence: meditation is optimal but can be torture for a frazzled nervous system. Practicing yoga prepares your body for meditation. It took me 12 years of practice to finally find stillness (I had a lot of samskaras to burn off!) See my post on calming your nervous system here.
  • Alleviate the internal (and external) pressure daily: the pressure to do more, be more, accumulate more. Repeat to yourself “I am enough” and “I have enough”.
  • Connect to your breath throughout the day: it’s a good measure of your internal state and anchors you to the present moment. Aim for some long, slow, deep, abdominal breathing each day –you can do this in bed!

Not only do the children in our classes need and deserve the happiest, healthiest teachers for their own wellbeing but you deserve the happiest and healthiest life. Only you can create that.

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Cleanliness as a Spiritual Practice

cleanlinessI’ve been toying with the yogic concept of Sauca (sow-cha) or cleanliness / purity for a long time. But this week, as the state of my desk and the students’ desks got to the point of “possible breeding ground”, it came to a head. I’ve always used the excuse that I am a messy person (and way too busy to be neat) and tried to accept that it is just how I am, that my brain doesn’t work that way. But I know that our brain is elastic and can be changed with practice and patience so my excuse is in no way legit. I also truly believe that our external environment is a reflection of our internal state and this week the piles of paper were impacting my calm and feeling of being in control. This week also saw me lose my house keys and have to climb into our very high and very tiny bathroom window. If it wasn’t for my wonderful hamstrings and strong upper body I would have been locked outside with a “starving” 5 year old until after midnight. I also had another teacher come into the staffroom one day and say “Did you leave your coffee on the roof of your car out there?” Me? No….of course not. So it was a combination of events this week that made me stop ignoring my ingrained habit of disturbing disarray and commit to a more orderly and mindfully organised work (and kitchen) environment.

As I deepen my yoga practice and develop more control of mental activity I am increasingly becoming more able to identify (and begin to break) unconscious habits. But I have been putting this one off for a long time.This topic brings up shame for me as I associate mess with laziness or incompetence but I know that this is just my inner talk – I am far from lazy and highly competent. I’m just messy. I have begun to take note of where I put things when I arrive home or during lessons and it is a constant source of wonder (and alarm) to actually notice these actions that were once unconscious.

Some questions to ponder if you think you may have a “Sauca” issue (I know I’m not the only messy teacher who secretly envies the ridiculously neat ones but I’m certain extreme neatness has its own back story anyway):

* Do you feel overwhelmed or anxious about the state of your desk / classroom or work and living environment?

* Do you put things away randomly or misplace items regularly?

* Is there a sense of spaciousness in your classroom / home or is it cluttered with items that don’t seem to have a place? This spaciousness (or lack thereof) correlates with our internal world.

* Does your own messiness frustrate you and leave you feeling depleted?

It may be time to tackle it – one pile at a time.

I am convinced that clarity in our external environment creates clarity of mind and spirit. This is going to be a killer of a habit for me to break but I know I can’t remain in denial any longer.

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Taking off the Shield of Perfectionism

perfectionismDr Brené Brown (a research professor at the University of Houston who studies shame, vulnerability and fear) speaks of the shields that we wear each day, armour that we put on to protect ourselves from shame, blame, judgement and criticism but which ultimately block us from living wholehearted, authentic lives. One of the shields that she speaks of, that I have grappled with personally and see others in our profession struggle with, is perfectionism.

Brené recognises that we all lie somewhere on the perfectionism continuum but for some it can be compulsive, chronic and debilitating – a far cry from healthy striving. We see it in our students who won’t even have a go for fear that it won’t be good enough – the epitome of the adage “perfect is the enemy of done”.

In our profession we need to get things done quickly as we have so much to do. So for those of us who need everything to be perfect to feel like we are doing a good job it can be excruciating to accept that our work is “good enough”. On the whole it is not our leaders calling for perfection, it’s the critical voice within.

So how do we let go of this shield in order to truly show up for our lives? Brené says we must make the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough” if we want to be free. We do have a choice about how we operate but like any behaviour we want to change it’s first a matter of awareness.

Some tips from a recovering perfectionist (who is practicing the art of “good enough” in this here blog):

* Notice your reaction when you make a mistake. What is your self-talk like? How do you treat yourself? Practise treating yourself as you would another teacher in the same situation – we generally speak more kindly to others than we do to ourselves.

* Do you worry what other people will think of you? The classic example of this kind of worry for me is at the start of the year when I think ‘Will they compare me to last year’s teacher? They’re really good at…’ When I have these thoughts I remind myself of my own gifts. Repeat the mantra “I am enough” whenever you feel this kind of worry creeping in.

* Start to be honest with others that you trust when you don’t know something, when you are struggling and when you need help – us perfectionists like to go it alone but we miss out on the support of our team and the feeling of being in this together.

* Practise daily self-compassion – in your thoughts, words and actions.

* Give yourself permission to do things that are good enough. If you wait for perfection you’ll never get it done.

* Totally own your strengths as a teacher, be that curriculum knowledge, personal characteristics or the rapport you have with your students. Be proud of these and conversely accept the areas of your professional life where you have a few cracks (one of mine being desk tidiness – but I take great comfort in the memory of a sign on my Year 4 teacher ‘s desk reading: a clean desk is a sign of a sick mind….).

The weight of this armour is crippling…start to take it off, one layer at a time so that you can walk freely again and appreciate and embrace your perfectly imperfect self.

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Living Each Step as a Prayer

each step a prayer

As you walk upon the sacred Earth treat each step as a prayer.

Black Elk

This quote came to me in a bar of organic raw chocolate – an Easter present from one of my students (they know me so well!). The quote is on my prayer table at home so it’s been a few months that I have been contemplating what this could actually mean for my life. It’s a massive undertaking – to make each…step…a….prayer! It caused me to consider what this could look like and I came up with the following (it’s always a work in progress of course):

  • Practise Gratitude: either as you wake or before you go to sleep stop and thank the universe for all that it provides – the warmth of your bed, healthy food each day, clean water. We have so much more than we care to stop and realise. I have found that practising gratitude makes me feel I have everything I need. In a culture of scarcity gratitude makes us realise that we have enough…that we are enough.
  • Live with presence in every moment: being truly present and aware in the ordinary moments of each day (in every step) rather than waiting for that extraordinary “someday” when everything will be perfect.
  • Tune into your breath: there is a sacredness to our breathing that cannot be overlooked. It’s the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die. It brings prana (life force / energy) into our body that energises us for our daily tasks. Connecting with it throughout the day feels like a prayer to me.
  • Recognise the sacred every day: We are so busy with the daily grind that we forget to notice the small moments throughout the day that are truly sacred. Donna Farhi says:

       Moments of lucidity…connection…[and beauty!] have always been there they are simply awaiting our arrival.

The prayer here would actually be arriving – smack bang into our life as it is.

       Some of the most sacred of moments for me are those in nature – surfing with dolphins, watching the sunrise and sunset and hearing the warble of magpies. I imagine Black Elk (the author of this quote) lived in harmony with the rhythms of the natural environment. Read my post on connecting with nature here:

https://centredteacher.com/2015/04/17/soul-medicine-connecting-with-nature/

  • Create a sense of balance: if we are off centre / out of balance then there is no chance that we will even get close to treating each step as a prayer. Modern lifestyles are what we call “rajasic” in yoga / ayurveda – filled with over-activity! If you feel off centre start to note the qualities of your mind / body / lifestyle and cultivate the opposite to balance out e.g. create time for rest and relaxation, reduce or eliminate stimulants, try massage with sesame oil to ground you or yin yoga (a nurturing practice where poses are held for a long time) – the perfect antidote to constant movement.

I suppose the greatest prayer of all is to live with love and compassion towards everyone and everything on the Earth. These practices might get us a little closer to this beautiful thought – that our life could be lived as a prayer.

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Sustainability (for the soul)

reapYour practice and effort determine your reward – you totally reap what you sow!

I have sustainability on my mind at the moment having received a grant for $1000 to bring my vegie garden / sustainability project dreams out of my head and into reality. Having never grown a vegetable in my life (surely eating loads of them counts?!) I am truly spending this year stepping out of my comfort zone. So it got me thinking about that word….SUSTAINABLE…and what practices might be high on the list for ensuring teachers have longevity (and joy) in their careers, rather than just applied as an environmental buzz word.

Here are my current personal sustainability practices:

  • Rest when tired – I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it, don’t push through. I need constant reminders of this but it is so important and always works.
  • Work on something that lights a fire in your belly (like a pot belly stove sustaining you through a chilly winter) – no more “grinding” through tasks. In Nischala Joy Devi’s translation of the Yoga Sutras she interprets Patanjali in Sutra I.39 as saying:

“Dedicate yourself to anything that elevates and embraces your heart”.

It can be hard to find time in our profession to dedicate to projects we are passionate about (whether for school or personally) but anything that elevates your heart will lift your energy too, supporting you on a daily basis.

  • Food that sustains – when I think of sustenance food immediately comes to mind. Eat well. You know how. Just pick a meal or snack to focus on making really healthy for a week or two before moving onto another. Natural = life giving.
  • Let something go – we cannot get everything done that we would like to. Let’s just accept it. Pick something that you feel is not at the top of the “must do” list and accept that it won’t happen (and that’s fine).
  • Prioritise tasks on a weekly (or daily) basis – that way you won’t get side-tracked by every little thing that pops up. You don’t have to reply to every email immediately.
  • Accept the present moment – where you are, where your kids are and where your colleagues are. We are all on our own learning journey. Decide what you have the ability to change and get to it (let the rest fly). Remember making a change takes more energy than continuing on as you have been but it will be worth it.
  • Get Strong – muscles sustain you. Strong body = strong mind. Exercise needs to be prioritised (especially in winter to combat lethargy).

I hope you will consider adopting your own sustainability practices to carry you on the journey and ensure your career is maintainable in the long run.

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Noticing Beauty Every Day

beautyPart of living a contented (and centred) life and being satisfied with the present moment is taking time to notice the beauty that is around us every day of our lives that we more often than not take for granted and which is free to enjoy.

I have made it a daily practice to notice and soak up beauty – letting it sink in to the deep layers of my body and heart so that it fills me up with nourishing goodness.

Different people find different things beautiful – the beauty I see is often out in nature or in other people’s actions but it can also be in objects. Some beauty I have noticed lately is:

  • My daughter’s face covered in blueberry squishes and the smell of her hair
  • The aroma of wood smoke in the morning (now that the weather has gotten colder)
  • The warming spices in my morning cup of chai
  • Frothy milk ($3 well spent at IKEA – I can’t get enough of this froth!)
  • The sun shining through the back of a wave at sunrise
  • The golden moon appearing from behind clouds in the early evening after parent teacher interviews (a total gift after a long day)
  • The sound of rain on leaves in my garden

These are things that I notice and express gratitude for every day. By aligning with beauty (and the source that created it) our sense of it only expands – as they say “Where attention goes energy flows”. It’s time to start paying attention.

Rick Hanson says:

‘The experience of beauty relieves stress, nourishes hope and reminds us that there’s much more to life than grinding through tasks’.

So much of a teacher’s day can be spent “grinding through tasks” but we do have a choice of whether we intersperse this “grind” with servings of beauty. Some examples for your students might be: a guided meditation; sitting under trees just listening while feeling the breeze on their skin; sharing a poem, a song or a beautiful flower…

It is alarming to think that our schools and therefore the lives of our children and teachers are becoming a grindstone – the purpose of which is to wear things down. I’d rather cultivate the opposite.

I know you can spare a few moments each day to open to beauty. You do have this choice but you have to make that choice. Really look at the things around you – especially the ordinary things we take for granted. Use all your senses to experience beauty in the environment and in other people. You could keep a beauty journal or take a photo when beauty strikes, or simply breathe it in. Deep.

How much beauty are you currently taking note of day to day and moment to moment?

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Tips for Surviving Report Writing

cupIt’s that time of year again – thought it might be good to re-post this one! Here are some things you might like to try as you write your reports this term so that you do not need the first week of holidays to recover:

1) Create (and stick to) a simple timetable for completion so that the workload is spread out over a few weeks and you are not leaving them ALL until the last minute and have to pull an all-nighter (not mentioning any names here but you know who you are). I write mine down to the wire in terms of when they are due but I never pull all-nighters – I’d never recover. I spread them out.

2) Try to work in 50 minute blocks of time with a 10 minute break in between each block where you leave the computer, rather than working for hours at a time. The break will refresh your brain and you will return clearer and re-energised and will actually achieve more in your time frame.

3) Fuel your brain with protein, good fats and loads of veggies. If you normally have a bowl of lollies and chocolates on hand to “fuel” you, try nuts, water or a healthy smoothie to keep the fire burning longer. Sugar will keep you in a cycle of extreme highs and lows – we want stability and balance at this stressful time.

3) Get 8 hours sleep EVERY night (I am writing in capitals to myself here!)

4) Try and move your body every day, even when you are tired (especially when you are tired). It will relieve your tiredness and clear your head. Just aim for 15 minutes which is just over 1% of your day – totally doable. Yoga is great for bringing you back into your body after the mental activity required to write reports.

5) Keep your water intake up – this is my Achilles heel and people who know me are often surprised to learn I don’t drink enough water. But I know when I’m feeling foggy it’s because I’m dehydrated. My goal is 1.5 litres a day and herbal teas are great for upping the beneficial liquid (avoid juices and soft drinks – sugar laden!)

6) Maybe you could try writing your reports in a location you have never written in before e.g. at a cafe; down at the beach; in a park by the river – just tote your laptop. Sunlight causes the brain to produce endorphins which will lift your mood. Of course this may be a ridiculous notion if you are someone who needs paperwork or samples close by to refer to as you write but it’s just a thought – I know I could write my report comments in such a setting.

7) To bring your inner wisdom and true presence to the fore as you write, try a little meditation before each report writing session. This is as simple as 5 minutes of breath awareness with your hands on your heart and diaphragm.

Happy writing!

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