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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

What Is Mindfulness Meditation? 7 Ways to Start Meditating

What Is Mindfulness Meditation? 7 Ways to Start Meditating

You’ve probably heard about the growing trend in mindful meditation, and all the benefits of the practice. You might even be interested in giving it a try, but don’t know where to start. Maybe you’ve even tried meditating, but had trouble figuring it out.

It took me several years to fully understand meditation, but once I did, I realized that it is actually quite simple. In fact, it is so simple that I can teach it in less than an hour. In this article, I’ll cover the “what, why, and how” of mindfulness meditation in its simplest form, so you don’t have to spend years trying to figure it out like I did.

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation, sometimes called mindful meditation, is a non-religious form of meditation that is basically a training of the mind to help us calm our mind, and live in the present moment. The main goal of the practice is to attain freedom from suffering. We accomplish this by developing self-awareness, or mindfulness, because it is our inaccurate views of the world that trigger our painful emotions and harmful actions.

With mindfulness meditation, we can develop an awareness of the true nature of reality. By observing what is happening within our mind, body, emotions, and the world around us, we’ll begin to see the sources of our suffering. Then we can work to transform them, so we can be free of them once and for all.

There are various techniques in the mindfulness meditation practice. But it generally involves relaxation techniques, breathing techniques, guided imagery, and awareness of the body, mind, and emotions.[1] These techniques are designed to calm your mind, so you can become a more objective observer of yourself and the world around you.

Is Mindfulness Meditation the Same as Meditation?

There is a great deal of confusion about what mindfulness meditation is, as it relates to meditation. The term “meditation” refers to the practice in general. It describes a group of practices that are designed to help calm and focus the mind. The term “mindfulness meditation” refers to a specific form of meditation, as describe above.

You see, there are several different forms of meditation, such as transcendental meditation, relaxation meditation, and contemplative meditation. In addition, most religions have their own form of meditation. While the various practices are similar, their goals and techniques can vary.

My general advice to beginning meditators is to pick one form of meditation, and learn that practice well. Then, if you find that that form doesn’t suit you so well, feel free to try another form.

If you begin by dabbling in all different forms, you probably won’t become proficient with any of them, and your results will be poor. And when you don’t see much results, you’ll just end up quitting within a short period of time.

Why Practice Mindfulness Meditation?

You’re probably wondering why you should practice mindfulness meditation. Well, there are so many benefits that I could write a whole chapter to explain them all, and the scientific research behind them. Here is a summary of what you can expect:

Better Physical Health

Researchers have discovered that mindful meditation helps people overcome many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and chronic illnesses, which cost millions of dollars in healthcare—not to mention all the pain and suffering. The practice also improves the immune system, and slows the aging process.[2]

Lower Stress

Numerous studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation improves people’s ability to cope with the pressures of modern life, and avoid the health consequences. By calming their mind, they calm their emotions and achieve greater peace of mind. This also leads to better sleep at night. [3]

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Improved Mental Health

Mindfulness meditation is so effective in treating mental and emotional disorders that mental health professionals are now using the practice to treat various conditions, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, and more. Practitioners are also reporting higher self-esteem and self-confidence.[4]

Improved Relationships

Mindfulness meditation helps practitioners improve their relationships by gaining greater control over their emotions, and by learning how to practice such skills as deep listening, mindful speech, and forgiveness.

Improved Social Skills

Those who practice mindfulness meditation tend to be more outgoing. They develop greater love, compassion, and understanding of other people. This leads to them becoming more open and receptive to others.

Also, as they develop greater inner strength, they become more resilient to personal attacks.

Improved Cognitive Abilities

Researchers have also found that mindfulness meditation helps people enhance their mental capabilities, such as concentration, abstract thinking, memory, and creativity.

Benefits to Organizations

Studies have shown that the practice has many benefits to organizations, such as reduced stress levels, lower healthcare costs, greater teamwork, increased productivity, greater leadership, and increased profitability.

As you can see, the mindfulness meditation practice can improve your life in so many ways. And the great thing about it is that there are no negative side effects, which are usually associated with most medications used to treat physical and mental illnesses.

7 Ways to Practice Mindfulness Meditation

The mindfulness meditation practice is quite diverse. There are various techniques you can incorporate into your busy schedule, some of which don’t require you to sit in meditation. Here are the main techniques.

Sitting Meditation

At the heart of the mindfulness meditation practice is the sitting meditation session. This meditation session usually consists of 3 parts: relaxation meditation, concentration meditation, and mindful meditation. They are described below.

You generally want to pick a quiet time and place to meditate. The time of day you meditate is entirely up to you, but you want to choose a time when you feel alert, as you are trying to develop awareness.

You can sit either in a chair or a meditation cushion, whichever you prefer. Don’t meditate lying down, as you’ll probably fall asleep. The whole idea of the sitting position is to be alert and comfortable. The position of your hands is also a matter of choice. You can either hold them interlaced in front of you, or simply resting on your thighs.

1. Relaxation Meditation

Remember, the goal of mindfulness meditation is to develop mindfulness. That is, we want to be able to observe ourselves objectively. But we can’t do that if our mind is agitated, and we can’t have a peaceful mind if our body is tense. That’s why we usually start a meditation session with a short relaxation meditation.

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To practice relaxation meditation, close your eyes, and begin following your breath. After a couple of minutes, turn your attention to your body, beginning at the top of your head. As you slowly move your attention down through your body, make a conscious effort to relax the muscles in each body part as you exhale each breath. This relaxation meditation should take about 5 minutes.

2. Concentration Meditation

The next part of a mindfulness meditation session is concentration meditation. If we want to observe something on a deeper level, then we need to be able to keep our attention on it. Concentration meditation will help you develop mental discipline.

If your mind is agitated, then your observations will only be superficial. Concentration meditation will help you steady your mind, so you’re able to observe things on a deeper level. This process is the key to developing greater understanding, that is, wisdom.

For example, if we have a painful emotion we don’t understand that keeps coming up, then we need to be able to keep our attention on it in order to identify the source. Only then can we transform it, so that it ceases to cause us pain and suffering.

To practice concentration meditation, begin counting your breaths 1 through 5 silently in your mind. When you get to 5, simply start over again. Keep your attention focused on the air passing through the tip of your nose. When you find that your mind has wandered, immediately bring your attention back to your breath.

Concentration meditation can be challenging, but it’s important to do your best to keep your attention on your focal point. Your mind is going to wander a lot. That’s normal. Just keep bringing it back to the air passing through the tip of your nose. It will get easier as you progress.

3. Mindfulness Meditation

After doing relaxation and concentration meditation, you are then ready to do mindfulness meditation. The relaxation meditation has helped your body and mind relax, and the concentration meditation has helped you focus your attention. You are then better prepared to observe things on a deeper level.

Remember that the mindfulness meditation practice is a training of the mind. We are training our mind to see with greater clarity. Then we take our improved observation skills and apply them to everyday life. It is much like training in the gym, so we can perform better in sports.

After a few minutes of concentration meditation, transition to mindful meditation. Continue observing your breath. However, instead of counting each one, observe the entire breathing process mindfully. Observe it in a more relaxed manner, without forcing your mind like you did with concentration meditation. When distracting thoughts arise, gently bring your attention back to your breath.

4. Emotional Awareness Meditation

An alternative to the mindful meditation portion of your meditation session is emotional awareness meditation. As the name implies, you’re training yourself to observe your emotions. Over time, this type of meditation will help you gain more control over your emotions, and develop greater inner strength.

To practice emotional awareness meditation, do the relaxation and concentration meditations first. When you finish the concentration meditation, turn your attention to your emotions. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Are you feeling happy, sad, angry, lonely, hurt, restless, bored, or some other emotion?

Some emotions arising from your subconscious mind may be quite subtle, and harder to identify. They tend to manifest themselves into a general mood without seemingly any rhyme or reason.

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Emotional awareness meditation can be more involved than this, but for now, simply focus on identifying the emotions. If you feel ready, you are welcome to explore those emotions deeper. Look at the thinking behind them, and try to look at the situations differently, that is, from a broader perspective.

Other Techniques

The mindfulness meditation practice has several tools and techniques besides sitting meditation to help you develop mindfulness. Here are a few simple tools you can use.

5. Walking Meditation

This is something you can do if you are too restless to do sitting meditation. You can also do it in lieu of the relaxation meditation. Walking meditation is another way to help calm your restless body and mind.

The way to practice walking meditation is simple. Preferably, go some place that is quiet, and has beautiful scenery. Begin walking at a much slower pace than normal. Apply the same techniques used in concentration and mindful meditation described above. But instead of focusing your attention on your breath, focus on your footsteps.

Alternatively, you can focus your attention on your whole body as you walk. Notice the movements of each body part as you take each step.

A variation of the walking meditation is mindful walking. The techniques are the same, but instead of making a meditation session out of walking, practice mindful walking during the normal course of your daily routine. For example, when you’re walking around at work, home, or any other place, walk mindfully instead of getting on your cell phone, or letting your mind wander aimlessly.

What mindful walking will do is prevent your mind from getting too agitated. And the great thing about it is that you can do it anytime of the day without taking up any of your valuable time.

6. Writing Meditation

This is a technique I developed to help people reprogram their subconscious by assimilating positive affirmations, mainly the loving-kindness meditation practiced in Eastern traditions.[5] The affirmations are basically meant to help you become more loving, compassionate, understanding, etc. It also helps you stay committed to your practice.

Instead of reciting, listening to, or meditating on the loving-kindness meditation, you simply copy the affirmations by hand in a notebook. You do this for about 10 minutes a day. That’s it. You can do it at any time, and you don’t even need a quiet environment.

After a few days, the affirmations will begin manifesting themselves in your behavior, as your attitudes about other people will begin to change. It is great for healing and improving your relationships.

7. Mindful Activities

You can turn just about any activity into mindfulness meditation. Choose an activity that requires little attention, such as washing dishes or folding clothes. These types of activities are so routine that we do them without thinking, and we usually just let our mind wander off. Now you can use them to help you develop mindfulness.

To perform activities mindfully, start by doing them slower. Don’t be in a hurry to finish them, like you usually do. Pay close attention to every action you are performing. For example, when folding clothes, pay close attention to how you’re folding them, how the clean clothes smell, and how they feel to the touch. You may even want to fold them a little neater than you usually do.

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I know this may sound boring and unproductive, but it’s quite the contrary. What you’re doing is calming your mind, and keeping yourself grounded in the present moment, where all reality is taking place. And when you calm your mind, you’ll begin to see the whole world on a much deeper level. Now, how exciting is that?

Suggested Practice

“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” — Confucius

The great thing about mindfulness meditation practice is that it is flexible. There are several techniques you can combine to suit your lifestyle and busy schedule. You can also change things up, so you don’t get bored, or if things change in your life.

If you’re new to the practice, I would start with about 5-10 minutes of sitting meditation, that is, sitting quietly doing the relaxation, concentration, and mindfulness meditations described above. Gradually increase the duration of your sitting meditation sessions to about 20 minutes or more.

I would also suggest adding some walking meditation, loving-kindness writing meditation, or mindful activity to your routine. These not only will help you calm your mind, but they will also keep your mind from getting so agitated in the first place.

It’s important to practice regularly, such as every day or every other day. It’s okay if you miss a few days. Just try to get back on your routine as soon as you can. Also, don’t be hard on yourself if you struggle with the practice in the beginning.

As you meditate, you may notice things going on in your mind that you never saw before. That’s normal. It is the arising of mindfulness, and part of the learning process.

Over time, you will become more observant, and everything around you will become clearer. Not only will you be able to see everything on a deeper level, but you will also begin to see how everything is interconnected. When this happens, the whole world becomes new and exciting again. This is enlightenment.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, mindfulness meditation is not as complicated as you may have thought, and the benefits are tremendous. Sure, there is more to the practice than I have described here, but the basics are quite simple. Remember that you don’t have to do it perfectly to get the benefits. You just have to do it.

One of the great things about the practice is that you can realize some of the benefits rather quickly, especially with the loving-kindness writing meditation. That is a simple practice that yields tremendous results.

The benefits are real, and well within your reach. Just imagine what your life would be like with better health, more control over your emotions, better relationships, and better sleep. Your life would certainly be much more fulfilling.

Here I’ve given you a blueprint to help you get started. If you’re serious about learning how to meditate, I suggest you print this article, read it again, and keep it as a reference. Then get started, and soon you’ll begin to realize the peace and happiness you’ve been searching for your whole life. Good luck!

More About Meditation

Featured photo credit: Martin Sanchez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Charles A. Francis

Author, meditation teacher, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute

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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

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