bullyingThis week, I met Nataline Daycreator, a wonderful coach and author who works to help victims of spiritual abuse. She is herself a survivor of 14 years in an abusive Pentecostal community. She told me her story and the lessons we can draw from it.

Hi Nataline. First of all, how do we define spiritual abuse?

An organization called INAASA defines it as ‘a form of abuse that manifests when those in religious authority/leadership manipulate and use control tactics to undermine, disempower and subjugate those who look to them for guidance and advice in a religious capacity’. Most people who go into religious communities are trying to get close to God, not their leaders. Some leaders abuse their authority for power, money or sex.

What got you interested in this subject?

I experienced spiritual abuse for 14 years in a Pentecostal community in North London. I say community rather than church – a lot of places of worship may call themselves churches but often they’re not regulated by the Diocese of London or any ecclesiastical body. They use the term to validate themselves.

How did you become part of this community?

I grew up in Jamaica. Although I wasn’t brought up religious, growing up in such a beautiful place, I always had a sense there was some higher Being or orchestrator. My family moved to London, and I got pregnant when I was 18, and readily accepted the fact that I was a mother. I felt I needed support and God’s help. I thought if I got to know God He’d show me how to be the mother my child needed.

Nataline Daycreator

Nataline Daycreator

So I went on a quest to find God. I went to a shop near the Finsbury Park mosque, because I was interested in Islam, but the man in the shop was so rude and dismissive towards me that I walked straight out. Then I tried the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whenever someone invited me to a faith community, I went, but I always asked questions – who was the Holy Spirit, who was Jesus? I had heard these terms but had no understanding of their relevance to who God was.

Most people answered these questions like they were trying to sell me a car. But I met one man, he was quiet, dressed rather shabbily, he answered in very simple and plain language. He seemed very humble and unassuming – they’re the worst ones! That was the pastor of the Pentecostal community I ended up joining for 14 years. I met his wife who was also a minister as an Evangelist, and I met their children. Then I went to hear him preach and talk. Initially it was just 12 people or so. We met in a church in Haggerston East London, the services were held there on Sunday afternoons. They rented the space from Haggerston church to have its sunday meetings, shortly after I had joined we moved to Edmonton Methodist Church, where again we hired the church on Sundays. This is common practice for smaller communities.

What did you like initially about the community and the services?

Well, I didn’t like the fact that they were quite long – it was usually from 2 until 5 every Sunday. But I loved singing in services and later started the choir. Though I was very new at learning this religious life, I had a sense of connection to God. And a sense of peace, in the early days, and of community, belonging and security, because you felt you were under God’s protection, and ‘in the right lane’. In hindsight I wish I had realised that connection was free and could be experienced anywhere, without terms and conditions.

Then, in my second year in the community, people started telling me what my purpose was, what my personality would be. I was given all these responsibilities – I was choir director, Sunday School director, the pastor’s personal PA. I wasn’t given any training, or  support or financial budget – I believed this was a part of my service to God and I paid for this out of my own pocket, although I was really struggling as a lone parent. Unfortunately these is not uncommon in some small unregulated churches.

Spiritual-AbuseGradually, I lost my sense of identity, my self, my passions and desires, I became a mechanism for the community. It felt like a treadmill, where I was always trying to please the pastor and his wife, so that I would win one of their public displays of affection and approval. For example, if you brought a soul ( a person you had invited ) to church, that would win you some public approval in front of the church, and everyone in the congregation would want that approval too. I was never praised for who I was, only for what I did for the ministry.

So you met your husband in the community. Was it an arranged marriage?

Not arranged, but it was certainly officially approved. We had a genuine connection, we were into similar things, we were both quite entrepreneurial. I don’t think the pastor and his wife liked the fact that, after marriage, I was more loyal to my husband rather than the church. So the first week we came back from our honeymoon, they gave my husband the Brotherhood leadership role. He was never asked, he was told that’s what he would do and he did it, with this came many responsibilities that drew him away from our marriage and further into ministry roles. They got their claws into him. Sometimes, when he got angry and lost his temper, I heard him repeating things the pastor had said to him.

Your husband was abusive, but the domestic abuse was closely connected to spiritual abuse by the pastor?

Yes. My husband was verbally and psychologically abusive to me and physically abusive to our children. But it was backed up by spiritual abuse. He and the pastor would twist scripture – they’d take a small verse like ‘the wife must submit to the husband’ and would leave out the rest ‘and the husband must submit to the wife’. If my husband was abusive, I would call the pastor (we could never call the police, who we were told were ungodly, worldly and secular – the advice of the pastor must come first), and the pastor and his wife would come round and tell me not to make my husband angry. His behavior was totally undermined as abusive, I was made to feel responsible for him and they would pray over us accordingly. I was warned to never call the police.

criticize-voltaire-550x414I believed if I went against the pastor, I was going against God. There was a sense that our religious leaders were higher than the state – higher than the police, judges or doctors. After five years in the community, I wanted to leave. But I was terrified that if I left, I was leaving God and would be open to demonic attacks. The pastor and his wife insisted that I was not spiritual enough, and if I had any doubts, it was the Devil trying to lure me away, and I should fast and pray until the doubts left. We were on an endless treadmill to win God’s approval and it seemed it only came through the mouth of the Pastor or his wife.

They tried to exert huge control over their congregants – the mind control was very extreme. They’d even say the Lord had given them power to come into our houses in the spirit, meaning their spirits would leave their bodies and watch what were doing in the privacy of our homes. Its seems crazy talking out loud about it now. When I think back now, yes some of it was sheer craziness.  We also gave contributions  to a trust to buy a church building, and were given permission by London Underground to fundraise at their stations but in fact, the money from the trust went to buy a house in the pastor and his wife’s names. But if you questioned any of this, you were giving in to the Devil and seen to be moving away from God.

Towards the end of my time there, I realized I really did know myself, the real me and that gave me a core of strength. I knew I couldn’t just leave physically, not yet, but I could leave mentally. So at services, I’d look out of the window at the seagulls. Or at worship, I wouldn’t try and win their approval. I’d shut down so it was just between me and God. I prayed to God that the pastor’s wife wouldn’t lay hands on me during prayer, and she stopped. I detached myself from the church, mentally, and realized the real truth that I wasn’t in danger of the Devil. I was building the strength to say no more.

Then one year I went to a Hillsong conference in Australia, on my own. I needed to get away from it all and have the space to think clearly. This was an act of rebellion in itself, as our ministry had a conference at the same time. At the Hillsong conference, I met a policewoman, and we talked and opened up to each other. She told me ‘you’re going through domestic abuse and spiritual abuse’. She gave a name to what I had been experiencing through all these years. It was an incredible wake-up. When I went back, my husband became angry over something. This time I told him to leave, I rang the police, and my husband rang the pastor. He left before the police arrived, and went to live at the pastor’s house. I never went back to the community after that. My ex husband wasn’t perfect, but I believe he could have got better if he’d got therapy. Instead, he only turned to the community and sought their approval.

But they made it extremely difficult for me to leave. They would turn up at a new church I went to and demand that the church give me back. I had to take out an injunction against the pastor. But I got out. I jumped ship, I and my six children, and landed on safe ground. I found freedom and peace and a stronger connection to God. I also read the Bible afresh, and before where I just saw condemnation and shame, I saw love shining out. When I was leaving the community, I was terrified of displeasing God. But I thought, if He’s really the God of Love, He’ll know I’m trying to do right.

How common is spiritual abuse?

Watchman+Profile+buttonIt’s extremely common. It happens in Christian communities, in Muslim communities, in Buddhism, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses. I met someone from a safety agency, she said it affected perhaps one in four people in churches here in London. It’s very prevalent in African and Caribbean churches. In Nigeria, for example, Bishop Oyedepo, who runs a church with some 35,000 members, publicly slapped a girl in the face in the front of the congregation and called her a witch. In these countries, there are no women’s rights. And when these churches come to the UK, they often bring that culture with them.

What can be done about it?

The first thing is the government could introduce a national register of all places of worship. There’s a complete lack of accountability and regulation. Every Sunday, the most vulnerable people in London walk into places of worship – people with mental health issues, people who have been sectioned, alcoholics, people who are hurting immensely looking for some relief. And they’re placed in the hands of people who are not at all trained, qualified or accountable. The English judiciary also needs to be less deferential to ecclesiastical authorities in law cases – if someone has committed a crime, it shouldn’t matter if they call themselves a pastor. Finally, if people think they may be suffering from spiritual abuse, they can also contact me directly or organizations like the Family Survival Trust.

Did the experience put you off religion entirely?

I’ve redefined religion. It should have this meaning: something that brings well-being to the whole person. If it doesn’t do that, it shouldn’t be granted the status of religion. If it is intended to harm then it should classed and treated as an act against humanity. Personally, I have a very strong relationship with God, but I’m still wary of organized religion, and all these labels we put on people: Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Catholic or whatever. They just close people off from each other. That’s not who God is. Religion has taught me I that I carry that a sinful nature, while being in love with God has taught me that I carry the inherit blueprint of who He is. One of these beliefs sets me free, the other enslaves me. Religion led me to a life of beating up this self that God the artist carefully and mindfully crafted to be unique and diverse from my millions of kin, and yet still one with Him.

So you don’t miss the community of being in a church?

I have community that I fellowship with all over the world. Through Facebook, for example, I have developed a network of like-minded people, who have faith but are also free thinkers. It’s been very healing. I’ll still go to church too at times, when people invite me, and I enjoy it. I’m sure there are healthy churches, but I don’t seek it anymore, I am no longer led by fear.

Nataline is now writing a book about spiritual abuse, and can be contacted through her website.  She’s also on Twitter @daycreators

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence no newsletter last week. I feel like I am spinning plates at the moment. Luckily I’m off to Cornwall tomorrow to take it easy with some good friends. In the meantime, here are three insights I have taken from this weekend’s wild adventure.

Bo3qukaCIAAVK7wThe weekend started with a flight to Madrid, on Thursday evening, for an AECOP conference – AECOP is the Spanish association of business coaches. I have never met a business coach before, but a member of AECOP, Winni Schindler, reads this blog and was kind enough to invite me to give a key-note. On Friday morning, I gave a talk about how we can use ancient Greek philosophy in modern life, to a room full of 150 business coaches. An interpreter translated my talk as I went along, but I was a bit over-caffeinated up so the poor lady was exhausted by the end of the hour!

The coaches really liked the talk, I think. For the last question, a lady asked me ‘how can we learn about your approach, where do you do courses, and how much do they cost?’ I replied ‘well…you can just read the books of ancient philosophy, they’re all free and easy to read!’ Then I sat down at my table, and this Israeli business coach shook her head at me in wonder and said ‘you just missed a huge opportunity’. It turns out I should have had a Philosophy for Life training workshop ready to pitch to the room of business coaches, and lots of them would have signed up. I realized then: I need a business coach to tell me how to make money!

I honestly hadn’t imagined that coaches offer coaching to other coaches! I wasn’t even sure what coaches did – do they offer one-on-one coaching lessons or do big workshops or what? It turns out that business coaches do all these things. You can hire them one-on-one, or go to a workshop of say 10 to 100 people, or sign up for one of their online courses. All of which I can do, and I could actually get paid decent money for it.

This is a remarkable discovery. I’m so used to giving book talks for free, in the hope I’ll sell perhaps 20 copies of my book, and get 7% royalties for each copy (which means perhaps 50p a book). It’s quite a slog, as any writer will tell you.

Yes, but…would it be selling out to offer philosophy life-coaching or business-coaching? Wouldn’t this be like Michael Sandel, who charges $30,000 to do talks about his book, What Money Can’t Buy? Perhaps one should offer this stuff for no money, simply in the service of humanity (while living in a cardboard box under the Hammersmith Flyover). I think it depends how you do it. Many is the philosopher who teaches life-wisdom but has absolutely no idea about how to make ends meet. It’s important to me that I can make a living, otherwise I end up asking for handouts from relatives or needing to churn out books every year. So I have no problem with making money for what I do.

Ryan Holiday, Stoic business guru

Ryan Holiday, Stoic author

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ancient philosophies were not simply about ‘getting ahead’. They were counter-cultural spiritual philosophies.  An entrepreneur called Ryan Holiday has just brought out a ‘Stoicism for Entrepreneurs’ book called The Obstacle is the Way . He comes from PR – his last book was a Machiavellian guide to PR called Trust Me I’m Lying – and his latest book has been well-promoted and is selling great. Ryan’s success shows both the opportunity and the risk of taking Stoicism into business coaching -  Stoicism is not really about being successful in a conventional sense, it’s about being a good person. All of us doing ‘Stoicism for modern life’ need to be clear that the ancients didn’t think of this philosophy as a formula for conventional success.

So, here is the first of this weekend’s three insights:

I could do philosophy life-coaching for organisations and individuals, as long as I used the profits to subsidize work with less rich and more disadvantaged groups.

I think it’s OK to offer workshops on wisdom and philosophy within organizations – in fact, there’s a noble tradition of adult education within companies, like my ancestors the Rowntrees used to do. But philosophers have a moral obligation not just to cater to the affluent or the elite. And we need to be clear about the end or goal of the education. We should never teach wisdom with the end of ‘getting rich’ or ‘being a success’ – that would be misusing the ancients’ advice. We should only use it with the end they had in mind, of helping people build good characters. Even at Saracens rugby club, even the week before a big final, we still focused not on ‘winning at all costs’, but on building good characters. Which brings me to my next insight.

rugby_2927613bAfter the conference in Madrid, I went to the Premiership final at Twickenham, where the Northampton Saints were playing Saracens. I’ve been running a philosophy club at Saracens this month, which the Saracens coaches were kind enough to big up in a piece in the Telegraph last week. Alas, the team lost the final in the last second of extra time, having put their bodies through a brutal ordeal for 80 minutes. And this was just a week after they lost a similarly brutal European cup final. So having led the Premiership league for the entire season, and won the most points, they came away with nothing for the second consecutive season.

The players coped with the defeat with great integrity, applauding the fans and shaking the hands of the opposition. They didn’t even complain to the referee, although he awarded the match-winning try despite not being able to see if the ball had touched the ground. That’s admirable – to show character in the face of galling defeat. They had done everything right, all season, and they still lost. This gave me my second insight of the weekend:

Sport is cruel.

Unlike pretty much every other profession, there is a tiny margin between victory and euphoria, and defeat and heartbreak. All season, we have been practicing philosophy and the idea that it’s not just about externals, it’s about integrity, values and character. Which it is. But in sport, it’s also, inevitably, about externals – the external of winning or losing. This makes me glad I’m not a professional sportsperson – though I hugely admire these people who can take such a physical and emotional battering, and get up and do it again a few days later.

BpDBCXMIMAI6YS6-1OK, final insight. On Sunday I did a talk at Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, on ancient philosophy and how wisdom can help us transform our emotions and improve our lives. It went well – in general I think humanism can be a bit shiny happy optimistic, and philosophies like Stoicism offer it something a bit grittier, which is all to the good. I wanted to offer a similar talk in the church I sometimes go to in Kings Cross, but the vicar basically stymied the idea. I’m not sure if he (a) doesn’t trust me (sensible fellow) or (b) doesn’t trust Greek philosophy because he sees it as a rival to Christ and St Paul. What a pity if Christianity has become so existentially threatened, like modern Islam, that it sees every other philosophy as a threat, even one that did so much to influence Christian culture. If that’s the case, it’s destined to become a cultural ghetto, and to disappear entirely.

After the Sunday Assembly, I went to a Christian service at a church in West London. The sermon was by a visiting New York pastor called Pete Scazzero, about how he had set up a church in Queens, only to suffer a breakdown. He’d decided that he was utterly emotionally illiterate, and it was holding back his church. So he read widely, from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen (two psychologically-literate Christian writers), and studied contemplation techniques from Christian monasticism. And he eventually wrote a book, Emotionally Intelligent Spirituality, summing up some of his ideas. It is ancient wisdom served up for evangelicals – and is precisely what born-again Christianity needs.

the-emotionally-healthy-churchIt seems to me that evangelical / charismatic Christianity does some things well. It does worship and music well – although its music tends to be really upbeat, unlike the Psalms, which are two-thirds lament. It does community well, although its communities tend to be full of people saying ‘amazing!’ and ‘awesome!’ and ‘Jesus!’ rather than honestly talking about their difficulties. It does evangelism and mission well, although it focuses intently on the ‘moment I came to Christ and everything got better’ rather than talking honestly about the continued difficulties of the spiritual life after finding Christ. And it does passion / ecstasy / encounters with the Holy Spirit well, but unfortunately ends up over-relying on such full-on encounters, and desperately imploring the Holy Spirit to do more, more, more.

Well, we have our reason as well, don’t we? That’s a gift too! And we have the centuries of tradition of Christian prayer and contemplation. That’s a gift too. So why not use them, instead of relying totally on outpourings of the Holy Spirit to do all your healing needs.

So this is my third insight of the weekend:

The extravert thrills and spills of charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced by a revival of the interior stillness and silence of contemplative Christianity.

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Jane Davis says that literature saved her life. She grew up in a broken home, with a single mum who died of alcoholism. She left home and lived in squats, with a husband who also eventually died of substance abuse. She was helped by a Women’s Liberation group and then went to study English Literature at Liverpool University. But she was turned off by the entitled middle-class students around her, and the pervading miasma of critical theory.

That’s when she had her epiphany. She told Ashoka magazine:

At the end of my first year, I read Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. Literally overnight, it changed my whole world-view. It’s a brilliant sci-fi novel, and it made me realise there is a religious or spiritual dimension to life and I needed to understand what it was. It brought on something like a nervous breakdown. I was very scared, because I realised I would have to totally change my life. I didn’t know how to behave in this new universe where everything matters. The book made me see that you have a life for a purpose and you’ve got to find out what that purpose is and then you’ve got to do it.

Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life

Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life

She graduated with a first, and started to teach in a continuing education college. She got to pick what she taught and she used the course to teach herself about great literature – she did a 20-week course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, another 20-week course on Piers Ploughman. She also did a PhD, but she knew that, deep down, she wanted to help get non-readers into reading, to show them that literature can save and transform lives, and that it belongs to all of us.

In 1997 she started the Reader Magazine, and in 2002 she launched the Reader Organization, which runs ‘shared reading’ groups. The group – anything between 2 and 12 people – read a poem or novel out-loud, and then discuss it in detail, bringing in their own experience and stories when they want to. The discussion is guided by a facilitator trained by the Reader Organization.

There are now almost 100 people working full-time for the Reader, which is an extraordinary achievement. Davis is not just a lady with a mission, she is apparently a brilliant people-manager. There are now over 300 shared reading groups around the country, including over 100 around Merseyside (also the home of Philosophy in Pubs, by the by – clearly something in the water up there). There are shared reading groups in many prisons. The Reader has also teamed up with NHS health and well-being boards to help people recovering from mental illness. And it’s working in care homes to run reading groups for the elderly and for those with dementia.

The testimonies from these groups are amazing. And the Reader has worked with The Centre for Research into Reading at Liverpool (run by Josie Billington and Jane’s husband Phillip Davis) to research if shared reading is good for us – a 2011 study found significant benefits for people recovering from depression. This helped to inspire the NHS’  ‘books for health’ programme – although Jane points out there are big differences. The NHS’ programme only ‘prescribes’ narrow CBT books, which people read on their own. There is not the beauty of great literature, nor the community of a reading group.

So why is reading fiction or poetry good for us? Reading in general gives us cognitive benefits, according to a new study by Alice Sullivan – it improves our vocabulary and even our maths ability. Another study last year found reading novels increases our empathic ability to take others’ perspective. It is also very heartening, if one is going through an intense experience or emotion, to find that someone else has gone through something similar and put it into words ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed’.

I love what Holden Caulfield’s teacher says to him in Catcher in the Rye:

You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

I would say it’s wisdom. Poetry and fiction is an accumulation of wisdom about consciousness and experience. And so much of the challenge of our culture, today, involves remembering the wisdom of the past and communicating it. The Reader Organization does that – it tends the flame, it passes it on.

Also, the communal aspect of the shared reading group is part of its magic. The art work is a stimulus to discussion, to sharing about your lives. You listen, and you feel heard. I think that’s a lot what people get from the philosophy groups I run – in some ways, me talking about the philosophy at the beginning is just an excuse to get people together to talk to each other about what really matters to them (this is part of the appeal of the Alpha Course too).

The Saracens philosophy group this week

The Saracens philosophy group this week

This week, for example, the philosophy club at Saracens prepared for their Premiership semi-final by reading and discussing Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior. It was surreal, but also brilliant. And it got the players talking to each other about what really matters – it was beautiful to hear them talk about playing for the camaraderie and joy of it (and they won, by the way).

What I think poetry and literature particularly do is reach a part of the psyche that rational philosophy doesn’t necessarily reach. The symbols, the rhythm, the metaphors and paradoxes, these go deep into the soul, beyond the pre-frontal cortex. Jane Davis says that a good sign of poetry is it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Emily Dickinson said ‘if I feel physically that the top of my head has come off, that’s poetry’. It’s a sort of liturgy or spell – and sharing that reverie or even ecstatic state together is very good for us, I believe. It opens a window to the spiritual, and stops us getting too claustrophobic in the narrow cell of our selves.

Poetry can give us epiphanies – a sudden insight into our lives and the human condition – a seeing from another angle, from above, from within, a revealing of the beauty and pathos not just of our lives but of life. Jane Davis’ favourite writer is the novelist Marilynne Robinson, and she has a special genius for capturing these epiphanies  – it might be seeing a couple walking down the street hand-in-hand, and the poignancy and eternity of that moment takes your breath away.

Lectio Divina - the art of spiritual reading

Lectio Divina – the art of spiritual reading

It is a spiritual thing. For centuries, Christian monks and lay-people practiced something called lectio divina, or spiritual reading, where you read, considered and digested a passage of scripture, savouring in a deep and physical way the explicit and implicit meanings, the symbols, the parallels with other texts, and the resonance with your own life and where you are now. Spiritual reading helped to grow your inner world, as St Augustine put it – to expand your soul into a many-roomed mansion. Around the 16th and 17th century, that practice passed into the world of poetry, through writers like George Herbert and John Donne, who used many of the spiritual practices of contemplative Christianity in their poetry. Today, poets and writers may not be orthodox Christians, but many of them still keep those contemplative practices alive in the belief that art is good for our souls.

TE Hulme once said that Romantic poetry is ‘spilt religion’. A more positive way to put it is that the Reader Organization offers a form of spirituality for an undogmatic and multicultural age. It uses the language of religion – epiphanies, mission, revelations, converts, testimonies – and some of the practices of religion – shared reading, spiritual reading, liturgy – and offers them to people who might not be sure what they believe, but who instinctively seek for that spiritual dimension to life.

It also keeps alive a tradition of adult education that has almost disappeared. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, faith groups, socialist groups and universities all worked to spread education, to teach people how to read and discuss ideas and art. In the second half of the 20th century, however, many universities closed their extension courses, further education colleges became focused on teaching ‘skills’, and the left-wing intelligentsia lost interest in adult education and fell in love with obscure continental theorists. Thank God, then, that people like Jane are keeping the flame burning.

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In other news:

The Huffington Post is turning into a hot-bed for Stoic philosophy, thanks to its managing editor, Jimmy Soni, who is a Stoic, and its CEO Arianna Huffington, who is also a big fan of it. Two pieces on Stoicism from the site – one’s an interview with a Stoic former Green Beret. And the other is a general piece on why we need more Stoic philosophy in our lives. Maybe this new wave of Stoic enthusiasm will help my book sell more copies in the US! Lots of nice reviews for it on Amazon at least.

Here’s a great programme on helping Muslim populations in the UK with mental health issues – including finding an indigenous way to talk about things like depression. Great idea – and a great way to fight extremist Islam, which feeds off despair and alienation.

And here’s a good article on why social activists can avoid ‘burnout’ through contemplative practice.

Tanya Luhrmann, a great anthropologist, writes for the NYT on dreaming in different cultures.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci gave a talk this week on Scientism. Here are the slides.

Prince is touring the UK! Here’s a brilliant vid of a James Brown gig in the 80s, where Brown invites Michael Jackson on stage to dance, and then Jacko invites Prince on stage from the audience too. Prince is wasted and gets his bodyguard to carry him to the stage! Hence the Kanye West line ‘ride around on my bodyguard’s back like Prince in the club’. Hooray for Prince.

Finally, might as well end with a poem. Being in a religious community is hard. Being in any community is hard. It confines your freedom and that chafes. But maybe we discover a greater freedom in service. George Herbert, vicar and poet, thought about this a lot in the 17th century. His poem ‘The Collar’ is a great exploration of this experience. Have a read.

See you next week,

Jules

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57024_480x360Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s best-known psychologists, famous for developing the concept of ‘flow’. Inspired by the creative process of artists and musicians, Csikszentmihalyi spent decades researching the ‘flow’ states of consciousness that people can achieve when they’re totally absorbed in doing what they’re best at. They lose self-consciousness and a sense of time, and ‘zone in’ to their activity, sometimes achieving things that are ‘almost impossible’. I interviewed Csikszentmihalyi over the phone about his latest essay, ‘The Politics of Consciousness’, published in a new collection of essays called Well-Being and Beyond.

JE: You say in your essay that psychology does not yet have an adequate idea of consciousness. What do you mean?

MC: The theory that most psychologists would ascribe to does not take account of the autonomy of consciousness and people’s ability to come up with plans, purpose and motivation that are not inherent. The usual definition of consciousness is that it’s awareness of what is already in the mind. Consciousness is simply a repository or collection of impulses and stimuli that have been experienced by the person. I think the question of what consciousness actually does as an agent, as a director or controller of the mind – that hasn’t been well formulated.

JE: You talk about the politics of consciousness – the social, economic and cultural conditions that allow consciousness to flourish, and you name three essential conditions for that flourishing – freedom, hope and flow.

MC: Yes. For example, if the freedom of consciousness is restricted by political dictatorship or lack of opportunity, then consciousness is itself restricted and has no opportunities to go beyond the direction in which external forces push it.

The collapse of the Soviet Union as a revolution in consciousness

The collapse of the Soviet Union as a revolution in consciousness

That’s why I was saying that the Soviet system corrupts, because eventually people can’t suffer any more the fact they weren’t free to use their energy in ways that are more truth-orientated than people allow them to be. Behavioural psychologists might have predicted that the Soviet system would have successfully re-programmed people into subservient robots. That’s because psychologists were not able to come to terms with the existence of consciousness, which allows people to imagine and choose alternatives to existing reality.

JE: In terms of hope – I suppose for centuries the basis of people’s hope was hope in the afterlife, while for the last 200 years it’s been more hope in humanist progress. Do you think we’re becoming less hopeful about the future because of economic stagnation and the looming prospect of dramatic climate change?

MC: That’s certainly a danger, that as progress falters, that will undermine hope not just for progress but for life itself. I think that is a real problem, and that’s why I hope psychology could begin to help to find reasons for existence and for going on with life that are more reliable than progress.

JE: And your third essential constituent for flourishing consciousness is flow. You say in your essay that if we don’t have outlets for flow, people will look for excitement through things like violence and military adventurism. You mention the Hitler Youth as an example of this. Do you think something similar is happening in Middle Eastern countries, where there’s high youth unemployment and alienation, and the boredom leads to a sort of ‘heroic Jihadism’?

Young British muslims on a Jihadi boys tour in Syria

Young British muslims on a Jihadi boys tour in Syria

MC: Yes definitely. Look also at Africa, which has by now several hundreds of thousands of teenage boys who are given weapons by diamond smugglers and so forth, and for them it’s a great adventure. They remember how in the village they were frightened by attacks from neighbouring gangs, but give them a machine gun and they feel in control and able to ‘live large’, so to speak. That is a danger even under the surface of the supposedly more developed countries. For young men especially, a certain amount of purposeful effort is needed – something that they can work on and try to improve at. At the moment, all the focus is on academic performance in high school, and if you’re not successful in that one domain of cognitive skill, there’s so little to do. That’s why young people become easily seduced into drugs and violence.

JE: In your TED talk, 10 years ago, on flow, you made a link between flow and altered states of consciousness like ecstasy. You quoted a leading American composer, who said that sometimes he finds himself ‘in an ecstatic state where almost you feel like you don’t exist…I have nothing to do with what’s happening. I just sit there and watch in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.’ I’m researching ecstatic experiences at the moment. Could you talk about about how ecstasy relates to your concept of flow?

MC: When I started studying these altered states in artists and musicians and so forth, the literature on ecstasy was one that resonated very much with what I was learning. But flow is kind of a toned-down ecstasy, something that does have some of the characteristics of ecstasy – feeling that you’re losing yourself in something larger, the sense of time disappears – but flow happens in conditions that are usually rather mundane. Of course they happen also in arts or sports or extreme physical situations, but they can happen washing the dishes or reading a good book or having a conversation. It’s a kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.

What are the similarities and differences between flow and ecstasy?

What are the similarities and differences between flow and ecstasy?

But the problem with ecstasy is that you can’t programme it, you have to be lucky to be a situation where all conditions are so distinctly awesome that you feel ecstasy. Or you can learn to achieve it through very long periods of training like in Hindu mystical practices. Or you can get a similar sensation by taking drugs, but the thing with the chemical path to ecstasy is that you haven’t done it yourself – it’s an external manipulation of your nervous system. And that doesn’t leave much residue in your consciousness. You don’t feel that you have achieved it, as you do when you get it through yogic techniques or true flow. If you achieve the ecstatic experience through meditation, you feel ‘I can do it’ – you are actively connected to a larger experience.

JE: An interesting difference between the traditional idea of ecstasy and your notion of flow is that, in ecstasy, there’s the idea that your consciousness goes outside of its ordinary parameters, but also that something else comes in – a god, genius, daemon or spirit. This is what Plato called enthusiasm, which means ‘having a god within’. Likewise, in creative inspiration, there’s the idea that some creativity is inspired – it’s a opening up to something, and a spirit going in or communicating through you. Many artists or poets or musicians feel like they are channelling something beyond them. But in flow, the autonomy of the self remains inviolate, self-contained, separate. So it’s a disenchanted definition of ecstasy, in which you never really go beyond the self.

MC: Well, all psychologists can report is what we learn from human behaviour or statements from people who we talk to. There may be all kind of miraculous things in the world that we have no idea about. We’re psychologists, we talk to what happens to people. If you’re talking about people who get flow, you occasionally have that sort of account, but not necessarily – many others don’t say that. For instance, chess players might say that in a really good game, they have the experience where they feel their mind has become part of the Supreme Rationality that exists outside of them in a sort of Platonic way. You feel that pure logic is coming in to your mind. But mostly the people are talking metaphorically or allegorically. They don’t actually believe it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who actually believes.

JE: You’ve never interviewed an artist or musician who thinks their inspiration is supernatural?

MC: Not that what came into them is a supernatural force, no. But they experience it as ‘wow, I felt I had complete control’ – they explain it as a feeling or experience they had. They didn’t literally believe it was a spirit, not the ones I’ve talked to.

JE: The other big difference with the older idea of ecstasy is that your description of flow very much emphasizes training and mastery and a feeling of competence and control. In ecstatic states, by contrast, there’s traditionally been this idea that the inspired person almost doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re out of control. It’s not an experience of mastery so much as surrender. But you also talk about the paradox of control – that in flow states there’s both a mastery and  a letting go. Can you explain that paradox a bit?

MC: The sense of control is never complete, because otherwise you wouldn’t be in flow. The feeling people have is that, at the moment, they have the possibility of doing things that are really difficult or almost impossible. But they have that feeling only in a conditional sense – they know they could make a mistake. On the other hand, they feel that if they do everything as it should be done, it will work out. In everyday life, you feel even if you do your best something may happen or undo what you are trying to do. When you are in flow, you feel that really you are in control but you also have a responsibility to do what you need to do. You are not worried about anything else, you’re focused and doing your best.

JE: How does your concept of flow feed into the idea in behavioural economics that we have two systems in the brain – a deliberative-conscious system and a more automatic system? Is flow in some ways a side-stepping of the more conscious-deliberative system and an allowing of the automatic system to take over?

MC:  So far, the studies that have been done on flow and the brain are few, but they suggest that’s what is happening is ‘transient hypo-frontality‘ – the frontal part of the brain is not interfering with the rest of the brain. The frontal part is usually the one you use to make choices, evaluate options, think about consequences and so forth. That’s the executive part of the brain. What you are using instead are the older parts of the brain, which store patterns of behaviour, for instance if you’re a skiier, the whole set of notions involved in going down the slope, the movements and sequences, they’re all stored in the lower part of the brain. Usually, the lower part of the brain is being controlled or directed by the frontal part of the brain, but in flow, you get to be so good at practicing that if you have this information well practiced, then you can let it go freely.

Here’s my favourite example of transient hypo-frontality – Ayrton Senna’s mystic lap in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix.

JE: What is the relationship between Positive Psychology and religion? They seem to cover similar areas – virtues, self-control, resilience, gratitude, flow, friendship, awe – but at the same time, Positive Psychology is resolutely naturalistic. Is it a naturalistic alternative to religion?

MC: One distinction we have to make is between religiosity and spirituality. The latter is a non-denominational way of speaking about what religions sometimes do. So for instance, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, respect and love of nature – all of these things are very much part of Positive Psychology. Spirituality is the basis of religions, the problem with religions is they become institutionalized and the form becomes more important than the substance, and you begin to have to differentiate yourself from other religions which have different forms, even though the substances are the same. Instead of being a spiritual religion, you end up with a religion that’s very much material. That happens to almost all religions, even Buddhism, which has lost a lot of its spirituality through institutionalization.

JE: Is there a risk that, as Positive Psychology becomes adopted by governments, it also becomes institutionalized?

MC: So far it’s been more of a critique of politics. As a critical corrective to politics, it may survive. If it becomes institutionalized in political forms, that would be really bad. I make it clear that I don’t think Positive Psychologists should work for the Army or even good political institutions, because then the spirit gets removed in favour of the structure.

As a last thought, I think one of the reasons for the success of the ‘flow’ concept in wider culture is that it given us a way to talk about altered states of consciousness, and their value, without relying on religious or animistic terminology like ‘ecstatic’ or ‘inspired’.  His way of talking about ecstasy also appeals more to the autonomous self of capitalist society – hard-working, self-controlled, diligent, competent. Indeed, flow states are described as moments of supreme control and competence, rather than as a surrender of your ego to something Other. He said in his TED talk that it’s something CEOs can feel when they’re having a great meeting – a sort of executive ecstasy.

By exorcising ecstasy of any spirits, ‘flow’ is in keeping with the great project of modern science, which Barbara Ehrenreich describes as the attempt ‘to crush any notion of powerful nonhuman Others, to establish there are not conscious, subjective beings other than ourselves – no spirits, demons, or gods…Human freedom, knowledge and – let’s be honest – mastery, all depend on shooing out the ghosts and spirits.’  Flow is not just a ‘toned-down form of ecstasy’, it is a completely disenchanted idea of ecstasy, in which the human agent is in fact triumphantly masterful, rather than surrendering to some Other more powerful than it.

Miyazaki and some of his creations

Miyazaki and some of his creations

As an account of what artists think about creative inspiration, it seems to me too narrow and naturalistic. In all his research on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi has really never come across any artist who thinks their inspiration is supernatural? Well, here are some: Ted Hughes, David Lynch, Hayao Miyazaki, TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Goethe, Seamus Heaney, WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, ST Coleridge, John Keats, William Blake, John Milton, George Herbert, John Donne, Homer, Sophocles, Pindar, Aeschylus, Schiller, Dante, William Shakespeare, Garcia Lorca…

They all thought their creative inspiration was at least partly supernatural, a gift from the spirit world. I’m sure there are many, many more examples. This is not to say creativity is entirely some unconscious ecstatic process – not at all, it involves a lot of conscious craft and struggle. But for these artists at least, it is also partly a gift from the spirit world.

For many artists, as for mystics, ecstasy is a relationship – it’s a going out, a meeting, a melting, a mingling, a giving and receiving. Positive Psychology wants spirituality without Spirit, it wants awe without leaving the confines of the self – but I’m not sure you can have gratitude without a Giver, or ecstasy without a venturing forth. Peeking out of the window of the self is not the same an opening the door and walking out into the night.

There’s a sort of institutionalized blindness to the supernatural in psychology – it doesn’t see it, because it can’t see it. Previous generations of psychologists  – Carl Jung and William James particularly – had the courage to see beyond the naturalistic fence of their discipline, and this enabled them to talk about how people actually experience and interpret altered states of consciousness. ‘Flow’ manages to cover some aspects of those experiences – but it’s a very toned-down, buttoned-up, lights-on, staying-safe-inside version of ecstasy. Have we become so afraid of the dark?

1  Comment

KCUK1As you know, I’ve been researching altered states of consciousness for the last year and a half, for my next book. As part of that, I started going to various churches around London, including a big charismatic-Anglican church in South Kensington called HTB.

This week, I went to something called the Leadership Conference, which HTB organizes in the Royal Albert Hall every year. It brings together 6000 Christians from all over the world, and another 30,000 or so watch it online. There’s some stadium-rock-style worship, and talks by the likes of Rick Warren and Justin Welby. Not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but interesting for students / seekers of what the Bishop of London called ‘corybantic ecstasy’.

On the first evening, the speaker was Mike Pilivachi, who runs something called Soul Survivor, the biggest teen Christian festival in the UK. Mike walked on the stage, in front of 4000 people, and didn’t say anything. He just looked round at us. Two minutes went by, three, four. Not a word. This immediately built up the tension and focused our attention. Something weird was happening.

Mike Pilivachi

Mike Pilivachi

He looked down at his hand, felt it as if his palm was sticky. I’ll come back to that. Then he looked round at us some more. At this point, it got too much for one guy up in the balcony, who cried out ‘Lord, we stand on the shoulder of giants and we…’ but Mike interrupted with a ‘Shhh! Just wait. Wait for the Lord to come. I have a talk prepared but Jesus told me to wait for a bit, to let something happen. Jesus wants to do something now, he wants to anoint some of you. For some of you, it began this morning, for others it’s just starting now. You’re beginning to feel it. Stand up if you feel it happening.’

At this, a few people stood up, maybe 10 around the hall. ‘OK. Don’t be afraid of what’s happening. Jesus wants to do something, let it happen. Come Holy Spirit. We want more, Lord, more, a deeper anointing, a fresh wave of you, Lord.’  Charismatics are very importunate of the Lord. More, Lord, more! Like yuppies in Starbucks: make it a double dose, Lord, I’ve had a tough week.

Some of the people standing up started to rock, to groan, to shake their heads and hands. A lady up in aisle 4 started to scream. A young man right behind us let out loud groans, his pelvis thrusting forward, much to the annoyance of my friend sitting in front of him. I looked around in amusement, and wondered if the Shakers on the top balcony were safe. It was a strange scene. I’ve been to some fairly charismatic services before, in Wales. I’ve even felt the Holy Spirit myself on occasion. But that was in Pembrokeshire, where anything goes. This was the Royal Albert Hall. This was Kensington. Was nothing sacred?

The next day, the entire audience stood up to pray, and a lady called Ellie Mumford led the prayer. She’s the mother of the singer Marcus Mumford, and quite a charismatic lady. While she importuned God for yet another fresh anointing (‘more, God, we want more!’), I felt my mind settling into a sort of deep state, and I thought something like ‘I surrender to you, Lord’. This wasn’t some big conversion moment (that happened last year) just the latest in a series of surrenders!

Ellie Mumford

Ellie Mumford

Mumford’s voice rang out: ‘If you see the Holy Spirit working on someone near you, put your hand on their shoulder’. To my surprise, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was surprised because I certainly wasn’t shaking or groaning or any of that nonsense. Yet somehow whoever it was knew something was going on inside me. Their hand felt really warm on my shoulder. I felt my mind going deeper, and I found myself in an enormous room (I’m speaking metaphorically).

And it felt like the room was at the centre of our minds and at the centre of the cosmos, and it is filled with light and love for us all. I felt a sort of painful joy in my stomach, and I was crying (quietly, I assure you, I’m not one to make a scene), which was really a sort of over-brimming. I noticed my legs were trembling, so I put out my hand to steady myself on a rail, and whoever had put his hand on my shoulder took it off, and I gathered myself together. I looked round, and the guy who prayed for me was on the next aisle. Afterwards I said thanks and asked his name – he was an American called the Reverend H. Miller. I’ll come back to him.

So what was going on? Here are four possibilities.

1) Pathology / personality

Some personality types may be more prone to ecstasy

Some personality types may be more prone to ecstasy

Perhaps the people freaking out were unhinged personalities, suffering from hysteria or dissociation, because of trauma or stresses in their life, or because of inherited neurological infirmity. And perhaps, because I did a lot of LSD when I was a teenager, I am something of a cracked pot myself, hence my occasional dissociative moments. I’ve always been a bit prone to dissociative states long before I was a Christian, so it might be my personality-type:  Intuitive-Thinking-Oddball. It does seem that certain personality-types are more prone to religious experiences – some people are more suggestible, more dissociative, less critical, more capable of absorption or flow, and more manic and generally excitable. Doesn’t mean they’re necessarily holier or better humans.

But if this is so, what is the harm in creating safe places for odd-balls to have their occasional schizoid episodes? It might mean they can express an aspect of their personality and not feel ashamed or afraid of it, indeed, to feel proud of it, and to find love and support from others. This might be better than telling them they’re sick, putting them through the NHS psychiatric system, and giving them a lifetime prescription of Prozac or Thorazine.

2) Fakery / performance art

Alternately, one could say all this Holy Spirit nonsense was an elaborate piece of performance art, in which the ring-master stages a bit of drama, and then the more histrionic or exhibitionist members of the audience get up and shake their thing. It’s self-indulgent, a bit childish and vain, and mainly about displaying how inspired and special you are to other people. But it’s basically harmless. In my own case, I wasn’t ‘putting it on’ to look good to others, if anything I was a bit embarrassed, but I suspect some people may have been making the most of whatever they were feeling – they weren’t necessarily faking it, they were just uninhibited and somewhat exhibitionist.

3) Mass hypnosis

Or perhaps such ‘outpourings of the Spirit’ are really mass hypnosis. It often strikes me that charismatic preachers tell the audience what they’re likely to feel. Note how Mike Pilavachi looked at his palm, as if to say to the audience ‘you may be feeling sweaty palms now – a sure sign of the Holy Spirit!’ He said things like ‘Jesus wants to do something, don’t be afraid of what’s happening’.  All of this creates an expectation of an ‘anointing’, thereby putting some of the more suggestible members of the audience into a hypnagogic state.

This would be the magician Derren Brown’s take on the proceedings. Brown was a teenage Pentecostalist, who then decided he didn’t believe in God, and that all that Holy Spirit was merely mass suggestion. He even claims to have manipulated a normal, healthy atheist into a full-on conversion experience in 10 minutes, using NLP-type techniques (I asked him if I could interview the ‘convert’ from his show, but haven’t been put in touch with her yet).

The question is, if mass religious experiences are a form of hypnosis, how bad for people is this? Another of Brown’s shows explored the placebo effect – how suggestion, expectation and faith can unlock healing powers in the unconscious and cure many common psychosomatic physical and mental ailments, from psoriasis to phobias.

Trance+StateIn a post-religious society, we tend to access the placebo effect through our faith in doctors and particularly in pharmaceuticals. But this is very expensive for the state (NHS England spends £270 million a year on anti-depressants), it creates a depressing mindset that we are entirely determined by our chemistry, it doesn’t lead to any ethical or social commitments in the patient, nor any artistic inspiration (no one’s written a hymn to Prozac), and it is entirely individualistic, leaving the patient alone and disconnected from his fellow humans. Isn’t religion a much better, cheaper and more pro-social way of unlocking the placebo effect?

But what about the side-effects? Ecstatic experiences lead to in-group bonding, but also to outsider-exclusion – there weren’t many gay people at the Royal Albert Hall, at least, not openly gay. The person who prayed for me, the Rev H. Miller, turns out to be a leader in a splinter Anglican group in the US which left the Anglican church over female and gay ordination. Evangelical Christians tend to be more intolerant of homosexuality than non-charismatic Christians. Evangelical Christians are more likely to support the death penalty than atheists or liberal Christians. Evangelical Christians are less likely to care about man-made climate change than liberal Christians or atheists (I’ve heard several sermons on porn addiction, never heard one on climate change). And Christians (according to one meta-study) can also be more racist than atheists. So all that experience of God’s love doesn’t necessarily soften people’s hearts. It can lead to the belief ‘we’re OK, you’re demonic’.

At its worst, religious ecstasy leads to anti-outsider violence – this week, a busload of Boko Haram soldiers gunned down over 300 people, while chanting ‘God is great!’  Religion can have some very nasty side-effects – because it taps into the unconscious, and that can be a nasty place. But I don’t think the unconscious is going anywhere just yet, so there is something to be said for preserving millennia-old traditions of wisdom and love as guides for unlocking the unconscious safely (while condemning those who use religions as a vehicle for hate).

I personally think you never get into a hypnagogic state against your will – there’s no such thing as ‘brain-washing’. People choose to surrender to a loving God, or they choose to surrender to a xenophobic Fuhrer, or to money, or sex, or any of the gods we worship. The conscious choice comes first, then the trance state.

4) Personality + Performance + Hypnosis + God

The fourth possibility, the one I tend towards, which was first put forward by the great psychologist William James, is that ecstatic moments may emerge from pathology or personality, they may be pure histrionics or performance, they may be natural states of consciousness triggered by suggestion or chemicals. But they may also be genuinely supernatural.  As James put it, ‘if the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door’.

By ‘supernatural’, I mean that I believe the foundation of both our psyches and the cosmos is an infinite loving-consciousness. This loving-consciousness is both natural and supernatural (which literally means ‘more than nature’). It is within nature, but it’s also beyond nature – it’s both immanent and transcendent. I think we can get occasional glimpses of this deeper level of reality, particularly when we surrender our ego, which veils the infinite within us. When we die to ourselves, we pull down the veil and get a glimpse of the infinite.

Music can give us transcendent experiences - guess which band this is!

Music can give us transcendent experiences – guess which band this is!

Sometimes this revealing happens gratuitously, as when we’re riding along on the bus and are suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the ineffable (this particularly happens on the Number 19). Sometimes we get visions after years of contemplative practice, or unearned peeks on drugs. Sometimes, music, poetry, film or dance can give us a glimpse through the veil.  And sometimes it happens collectively, through services and festivals.

The risk however, as William James well knew, was that we become obsessed with the experience of God’s love, while not letting it transform us. We become spirit-junkies, chasing the free gifts rather than asking what we can do for God. We can decide we’re special, and anyone who disagrees with us is demonic. The transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer created a good set of tests for spiritual experience:

How much does the cultivation and embodiment of these truths result in a movement away from self-centredness? How much do they lead to the emergence of of selfless awareness and/or action in the world? How much do they promote the maturation of love and wisdom? To what degree do they deliver the promised fruits?

These are valid questions, and it’s for each of us to examine ourselves and answer, whatever our faith or philosophy.  Anyway, I’m grateful to the Rev H Miller for anonymously praying for me, despite our ethical differences. We all have differences – Christians, Muslims, Stoics, atheists. But I honestly believe we are all connected by loving-consciousness, it is our deepest nature and the nature of the universe. It’s far bigger than any words, labels or doctrine, and there’s far more of it within all of us than we realize.

Or maybe I should snap out of it, and accept that our deepest nature is selfish, and the universe is an indifferent ball of matter. I’ll keep repeating that to myself until I get better…

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