Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Midwinter Bliss with Yogi, Surfer and Blissologist Eoin Finn

Midwinter Whiteout, Toronto January 7, 2014, photo: 100M

I don’t know where you live, but I live in a city. Cities can be confusing places in the wintertime; friends and strangers can get worked up in the holiday hustle. Remember the holidays not so long ago? During the holidays some buy more than they can afford, as if that little bit more would help manage, placate, enable the desires of their loved ones. Others can’t afford to get to a yoga class or find a second of peace over those holidays, those holy days that bring a flurry of gifts, exchanges, returns and ribbon. And so, at the cash register first-world fingers overreach and warp the seams of need until the celebrations of solstice and spice cake are nothing but a cosmopolitan habit, a low-level hum that spills out of the city’s safe neighbourhoods into the urban sprawl, onto the margins, overwhelming what common sense remains. Equanimity is hard, when it’s one for feast, another for famine...

I recently had a wonderful conversation with the much loved yoga teacher, self-confessed blissologist Eoin Finn who had a number of salient things to say about finding your bliss during this midwinter season that can bring together a confusing mix of want, wish and need. 


Eoin Finn, (BA, EYRT 500 hrs) is a yogi, surfer and blissologist, who teaches his unique, transformative, alignment-based Blissology Yoga all over the world. He shares his passion that the nurturing mindset required to practice yoga with sukha as well as an intimate connection with nature is at the foundation to allow us to live our most meaningful life possible. Fusing his passion for athletics and yoga, Eoin has prepared over 100 Olympians as well as pro-athletes from around the world for high-level competition.  Eoin is one of Canada’s most renowned teachers, was one of Lululemon’s first ambassadors, has a line of platinum selling yoga DVDs, teaches sold out workshops and YES (Yoga Ecology Surf) Retreats around the world and has been featured in InStyle Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Huffington Post, Elle, Flare, Yoga Journal, Vogue Australia, the Globe and Mail and Oprah Magazine. He has studied Eastern and Western philosophy in Canada and France and been a student of yoga, meditation since 1988. He counts among his teachers Ravi Ravindra, Nadia Toraman, David Swenson, David Williams, Pattabhi Jois, Nancy Gilgoff, Donna Holleman, Orit Sen Gupta and Gioia Irwin, Myofascial Alignment teacher Tom Myers and Body Mind Psychotherapist Susan Aposhyan. 

In our conversation Eoin talks about the childhood he spent wishing he were a fish in the great Canadian waterways, his childhood studying yoga and his years praising the surf in the Mediterranean. But for anyone who has ever been in any of Eoin Finn’s ecstatic yoga classes, it’s probably hard to imagine Finn as anything but the irrepressible conflagration of near shamanic energy that he is... So you’ll be surprised to realize (as our conversation bears out) that Eoin was, at one point long ago, indebted to a self-definition that was well beyond his means.

Eoin Finn

Eoin Finn's father (left), Eoin Finn (right)

"When you’re being paid, you often think: Well, I can deal with not being switched on... I got so much respect from my role as a businessman. I had respect from my dad who was a lawyer. All of a sudden, he and I could talk business. His other passion was horse racing. I don't know if you've ever watched thoroughbreds running around in a circle every 20 minutes, but he spent most weekends at Woodbine Racetrack. He owned horses and he loved horse racing. And I really wanted to connect with him." (Eoin Finn)


Shivers up the Spine: The Yoga Examiner, A Conversation with Eoin Finn, September 2013.
 
Eoin Finn

Priya Thomas: I know you’re a surfer. Did you grow up near the ocean? Where did you grow up?

Eoin Finn: Yeah, right on. We're right into it, huh? [laughs] Awesome. Where did I grow up? I grew up in Haliburton, Ontario. When I grew up, I considered it the boonies. But now that I look back on my life I feel like it was such a fortunate thing because it's a small cottage town two and half hours north of Toronto. I grew up on a lake, surrounded by water and trees. Access to nature really saved me... and access to water. I wanted to be a fish my whole life. [laughs]

Eoin Finn
Priya Thomas: So it wasn't really much of a stretch when you started to surf and that kind of thing.

Eoin Finn: No. I got into wind surfing first when I was a teenager. And that brought me to the greater oceans, the bigger body of water. I guess I graduated from the small lakes of Halliburton to the great lakes to the big oceans of the world.

Priya Thomas: And did you start practicing yoga in Canada as well?

Eoin Finn: Yup, I did. Well, I had kind of two phases for yoga. One is kind of the more dabbling phase. That was in the late 80s. I'm talking physical yoga, meditation and philosophy had already been in my background. But it would have been the late 80s. Actually, right there on the lakes close to where I was describing were a lot of summer camps. And one of my friends was a yoga teacher and she knew a lot of the poses that I was quite curious of because my major in university was philosophy. And I was really into Eastern religions and meditation. So she showed me a lot of the basics right there by the water. And I probably never really looked back.

Priya Thomas: Do you remember some of those early classes? What did you get from them?

Eoin Finn: It was really soulful. I was quite young at the time, but I think when I look back on it it's really the connection between body, mind, and soul. I kind of consider those different compartments. And to have one activity that connected all three of those places together was one of the first things that sticks out in my mind. And I definitely consider it a counterbalance to my kind of teenage adrenaline guy side. That definitely felt like it was the yin to my yang. So I definitely remember that being a large part of it.

Priya Thomas: Most people probably feel invincible in their teen years. Do you wonder why you were interested in yoga during your teens?

Eoin Finn: Yeah, that's funny, I've always had those two sides. Even when I look at my university side, I had the fun loving. Actually, my mom could tell you more stories than I could.

Priya Thomas: Is she willing to do an interview? [laughs]

 Eoin Finn: When I first starting dating who I'm now married to, she would go on and on about my university wild times. And I'd feel like, “Mom, stop!” [laughs] And Insiya (Eoin’s wife Insiya Rasiwala Finn) was like, “I'm never having a kid with you!” [laughs] But it's too late for that now! I went to university in Halifax and then for the last two years in France in Nice. And I'd wake up every morning and meditate and do yoga, looking at the Mediterranean, so I definitely feel like I've always been kind of trying to keep balance and not kind of numb out my guy side or my fun side, but kind of balance it.

Priya Thomas: Your classes certainly have a raw, free-spirited quality to them. I remember a Stones tune you played just following one class I attended... Somehow it made me remember your story about the dangers of playing ‘yogi.' You told a story about how you had played the part of yogi as if it were a script, doing yoga three hours a day, eating organic, doing all the right things etc, And then you wound up at a house party one night wondering where your mojo had gone. I believe your words were, “In my quest to become healthy I had become boring.” What did you mean by that?

jesuisperdu.tumblr.com/page/44
Eoin Finn: Yeah, I definitely went through that. I was doing a talk the other night in which I talked about that. The analogy I used was that I look at the heart chakra as one triangle going up and one triangle going down. And the one that's going up, I consider the heart, and the one going down are the “shoulds” of life. And I was saying, the word “should” starts with “sh.” Shoulds are about making you quiet. And the word “heart” starts with “hear.” And that takes a lot of courage sometimes to really honor or hear your truth. 

Priya Thomas: I suppose people in your classes might often presume to know what a proper twenty- first century 'yogic’ lifestyle ought to look like... There must also be, I suppose, a celebrity aspect to being a well known yoga instructor. It must come with its own set of circumstances, reactions... Do you consider yourself a guru?

Eoin Finn: Well, I mean, I was just in Bali and the term “guru” means teacher. So if you consider guru to mean teacher, then sure, I'm a teacher. And mostly what I do is I share what I've learned from life with others in the most authentic way I can. So whatever label you want to put on that, if you want to call that a guru, then that's fine. But I never call myself a guru because it seems to have connotations, I think, of superiority. I don't consider myself superior to anyone. I've heard a lot of great definitions for the word guru. I remember a long time ago I read a book by another Vancouver yoga teacher named Jeffery Armstrong. And he was talking about “ru” meaning the mover and “gu” meaning darkness, so anything that takes your darkness away is a guru. And he was talking about the remover of “gu.” [laughs] Anyone that removes your “gu” so you can see more clearly is great. Right? You are your own authentic self. I don't know. In my mind I just feel like I'm just a guy from Haliburton, Ontario that loves moving my body a certain way and turning my whole organism into an antenna that picks up a signal of love.

Priya Thomas: Is that what happens for you? I remember at the end of the first class that I did with you – it seemed to me anyways – you were in tears. I think you were...You said you were picking up on the feeling in the room.

Eoin Finn: Yeah.

Priya Thomas: What do you make of that? 

Eoin Finn: I think I've always had that side of me. And my original definition of what that experience was mysticism. Trying to understand this mystical experience really led me to get deeper into Joseph Campbell's work when I was a teenager. And he talks so much about yoga. That's what really peaked my curiosity about yoga. But yeah, I think I've always had some kind of antenna for something bigger. And this is something that I assume everyone has, but as I get older I realize that actually not everyone has it opened in the same way. So it's taken a little bit of time to realize that others are maybe not as clued in to that antenna to the same degree or maybe that their sensitivity is getting drowned out by other messages. And even with age as my own life becomes more about mortgages and how much I owe people, my antenna gets shut down. I have to work harder to keep it open. And that's what I'm sharing. It's how I keep my antenna open to something bigger, to this force of love.

Priya Thomas: As a child, what was your vision of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Sketches of life in the Hudson's Bay Company, 1880
Eoin Finn: The very first thing I wanted to be when I grew up? The very first thing was – it sounds funny – but an Indian. I mean, that's the term we used. Whenever my grandmother asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” all I could think about was I wanted to run around in a forest in a loincloth and hang out with the wolves and trap rabbits. I don't know.

Priya Thomas: (laughing) Right. I know you went to a boarding school for high school, is that right?

Eoin Finn: Sure, I guess technically it would have been Anglican. I mean, for whatever difference that makes. As the religious part of it, well we had chapel I guess 15 minutes every morning. I wouldn't really consider it a religious school. It was more about traditions than it was about the actual content. but yeah, there were a ton of rules. And yeah, I had a lot of fun trying to navigate around them. [laughs] I think that as a teenager you only know fun and boring. You don't really know right or wrong. [laughs] It's just one big experience of “What's fun? Let's do that. And what's boring? Let's skip that!

Eoin Finn, Heading an Army of Bliss
Priya Thomas: (laughing) Speaking of which, I think you went through a number of occupational choices before you finally decided to pursue yoga.

Eoin Finn: Yeah. God, where do I start? I went to a boarding school and definitely there was a lot of pressure to be a success in the business world. But again, being inspired by my own heart and the message of Joseph Campbell, which was follow your bliss, I always knew my bliss was love and connection and mystical experience. And actually even way back then I wanted to try and somehow make it accessible for modern living. So to find language that would speak to the average person. So when I went through university my goal was to be the professor of the philosophy of love. Doctor Love. [laughs]

Priya Thomas: [laughing] Tell me you’re being tongue in cheek!

Eoin Finn: Yes. Absolutely. Doctor Love. Yeah, I don't know. Absolutely tongue in cheek. Yeah. But it was one of these things where the people I went to school with and my teachers and even my dad were like, “You want to do what?!” But I was very clear on my path. And yeah, the interesting part is in the early 90s right after university I fell in love with a girl who was teaching English in Japan and that brought me there. And besides yoga and surfing, my other big love was martial arts.

Priya Thomas: I read about that.

Eoin Finn, early experiments with bliss
Eoin Finn: Yeah. So I was training karate in Japan, and one of my sparring partners, his dad was a developer in Osaka. And the short story is that he presented an opportunity to me and next thing I knew I went from kind of a free-spirit yogi, wind-surfer, philosophy-of-love-blissologist, to a businessman. It happened almost literally overnight. I had dreadlocks one day and was wearing a suit and tie the next kind of thing. And I would have been maybe 20, 21, whatever age you graduate from university. And so it was a really critical time in my life because it was the one time I stepped off my bliss path. I really did listen more to the “shoulds” and kind of silenced the message of my heart for a long time. And I think in total I did that business for two years, maybe two and a half years. And I did it from Vancouver. It wasn't horrible or anything. It was just that I had this deep feeling that this was not what I was really put on earth to do. I was not in harmony with my life calling, or my dharma or whatever.

Priya Thomas: What gave you that feeling?

Eoin Finn: First of all, it was just a feeling. I was continuously lit up when I thought about teaching the philosophy of love. I stayed awake at night talking to friends about ideas. I read a lot. I was enthused about life. I had a big conversation with my wife recently about enthusiasm because I use that word a lot. A lot of people translate it as excitement, but it's more than excitement. It's actually when you're enthused it means you're welcoming God within you. So whatever feeling enthusiasm was in my body, complete joy, complete waking up in the morning and going, “I can't wait to journal 
about this! Or write about this! It was not about waking up in the morning, having a drink of coffee and going, “OK, what's come across the fax machine this morning that I've got to deal with?” But
when you’re being paid you often think, “Well, I can deal with not being switched on.”

But there were other things that made it easier to drown those voices. I got so much respect from this role as a businessman. I had respect from my dad who was a lawyer. All of a sudden he and I could talk business. His other passion was horse racing. I don't know if you've ever watched thoroughbreds running around in a circle every 20 minutes, but he spent most weekends at Woodbine Racetrack. He owned horses and he loved horse racing. And I really wanted to connect with him. And I was into surfing and wind surfing and he was into horse racing. So I'm like, “I'll go to the track and really spend some bonding time with Dad!” But I just couldn't. I just couldn't find it enjoyable. So later, when my dad and I had business to talk about, it was magical. All of a sudden I had this great relationship with my dad and his friends. And I had so much respect from that whole segment of society. And that more than anything was what I considered those years about. And it just took a long time before I had the courage to go, “I have to get back on to following the bliss path, no matter what it takes.”

Priya Thomas: It's interesting because the motives that were guiding you to even be a businessman were well-meaning enough... I mean, on some level you wanted to connect with your father. No one could fault you that...

Eoin Finn: I keep thinking about it and go, you know, if I had stayed on that path I still could have brought love out into the world, used it to interact with my family when that eventually happened. I could have taken some of the profits that we were making in Japan and tried to work with poor people in Japan. But the love I always talk about I guess is – I guess it's more of a universal love that I wanted rather than a love that felt more like approval.

Priya Thomas: It also sounds like also you were surrounded by a certain kind of material comfort that made you uncomfortable.

Eoin Finn: Absolutely. Yeah.

Priya Thomas: I remember reading that you decided at one point to pay tent instead of rent, which I thought was a really cheeky way of addressing overconsumption... camping in the great outdoors not owing anything to anyone and not taking more than your immediate need.
Do you think there's something about yoga that goes hand in hand with letting go of creature comforts? Is there something monastic about that? To what extent can the ordinary person live like that?

Eoin Finn: That's a great question. And when I really think about it, that is probably the biggest question facing yoga. What is yoga now that it's in the modern era? To what degree to we balance out spirituality with materialism? Because they're definitely in tension, as they were 5,000 years ago. But I do believe you can have both. I think the universe is trying to tell me, “Do not make decisions based on trying to make money out of this.” Instead, any success I've ever had in life has always been where I actually go, “I am doing this to spread as much love and joy and awe as possible.” And then the success tends to come. So it comes down to motivation. I think you have to be really clear about your motivations. So let's say I'm in the yoga industry business, whatever you want to call it. And someone is opening a yoga studio. I would say, “You really have to be in the business of serving people, trying to make an impact in people's lives, and trying to bring more love into lives; more happiness, more joy.

And as long as you stay focused on that mission, then you can let go of your fear of how the Excel spreadsheet is going to turn out, how your year end statement is going to turn out.” And that takes trust. And that takes a real critical and authentic look into your own heart and your own motivations. And that's really what we have to do both as modern yogis and mystics is to really answer that question, each one of us in our own hearts. So it's not that materialism is bad necessarily. But if that is your prime motivation, then I would say it's time to check in.

Priya Thomas: So in your own experience how did doing these physical yoga poses actually tune you in to your motivations?

Eoin Finn: Well, let me speak to yoga first. (because surfing is maybe a little different). The clarity in yoga in the physical yoga practice happens in Savasana. I say it over and over again that as fun as the physical yoga practice is, it's remedial compared to Savasana, which is really what meditation used to be to the yogis, right? Given the pace of modern culture, if we can get people to meditate, that’s unbelievable. But at least if we can get people to practice Savasana, that is awesome. So in Savasana, physically that's when your body turns into an antenna.

And I think that – this is my theory on it – a lot of it has to do with your nervous system. Because if you read the yoga texts, it's all about trying to increase the sattva, the calm and peaceful energy. And if you tell people in modern living, “OK, let's sit down and meditate,” half of them are going to fall asleep and the other half are just too wound up to. We're too rajasic or too tamasic. So to try and get to the sattva is too hard, but the physical yoga practice, the way it works it's magic because after the Savasana you are a manifestation of the sattvic energy.

And when your body feels like that, relaxed and calm and open, then your mind follows. Because anyone who's worked with the body a long time knows that you're not just working with the body, you're working with the body mind; it's one unit. And so much of classical yoga is about meditation, which is too hard of a path for most people. It's too cerebral. So physically create that sattva in your
own body will make your mind more sattvic.

Priya Thomas: Why do you think we do these fairly strenuous postures in modern studio classes?

Eoin Finn: Sometimes I feel modern life means our bodies move less, while our minds might move more. But I think our body that's stuck at desks or in traffic or on an airplane, generally speaking. That’s why there is a need for both meditation and yoga... And as soon as you get your body involved in the process your awareness is not only happening from the neck up. I mean, you have to get your body involved in the process, your breath, how you're feeling. The physical yoga practice moves stuff through you. I mean, for me a lot of times if I just sit down when it's been a busy day and try to meditate, I don't have as much success as when I move my body and let feelings and emotions move through me. I feel like I can get to that empty mind, open state – whatever you want to call it – way more easily after moving the body with physical yoga.

Physical yoga can turn your body into an antenna. You experience a physiological state of parasympathetic nervous system tone. Meaning, you're not in a stress response. And Hatha yoga definitely gets us there if you allow it. I'm saying that because I travel a lot and I see a lot of yoga studios that skip Savasana, especially now that yoga's become such a big business and we've got to get bums on mats.

Priya Thomas: I didn't realize that was happening.

Eoin Finn: Oh, it's a trend. It's a trend. And the other trend I hate is do Savasana if you want to and half the people get out to leave and the other half of people try and lie there in a sattvic state, but it's a rajasic state in the room; you can't do it. So what I'm saying is a well practiced yoga class will have a lot of time for Savasana at the end. It will increase the sattvic energy. That will put you into a parasympathetic nervous system tone.

About four or five years ago I was talking about this in Japan. I lived in Japan and I can speak decent Japanese, but I didn't learn the word for nervous system. So I asked the translator in the room, “What's the word for nervous system?” And she wrote down the word “Shinkeikei.” And of course, every word in Japanese has a symbol system for it. So I looked at the symbols behind it. I was like, “Oh my god, doesn't the first one mean 'God?'” She said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Doesn't this mean a path?” And they're like, “Yeah.” “Isn't the last one like a system?” And they answered, “Yeah.” And  as a foreigner looking at those symbols, I was thinking, “Oh my god, nervous system in Japanese means 'god flow system!' And that's just it. How does physical yoga turn your body and mind and heart into an antenna? That's it. You're interfering with your god flow system, treating our nervous system for modern living.

Priya Thomas: What are the things that interfere with that system?

Eoin Finn: Stress. No doubt. Stress is the biggest inhibitor to feeling your heart.

Priya Thomas: I guess you must see a lot of it in your travels.

Eoin Finn: Oh, it's the disease of our age. Man, start living in Vancouver. It's not getting any cheaper. It's a rough place to make a go of it anymore with the price of real estate and raising a family. I feel stress. [laughs]

Priya Thomas: Yeah, of course.

Eoin Finn: It's stressful bringing up a family with the price of life. And so what it does is it forces you to have to do probably more work than you would normally do. And it's completely doesn't allow you to have the time to get in touch with this other side of your self.

Priya Thomas: And does it bother you that yoga classes then can be so expensive? I mean, some people just can't afford to go and they wouldn't even think of it.

Eoin Finn: Yeah. 100%. It 100% bothers me. I don't know if you know this, but I actually haven't taught yoga in Vancouver – I had to give up my daily classes. I mean, the reason why is only because I needed to live closer to the surf. I really miss that experience with the community that we had, but at one point I was offered equity partnership by a large yoga studio to become part of their studio. And there's no way I can possibly start charging people $18 for a yoga class. I just philosophically don't believe in it. I mean, I'd never ever changed my rates. And drop ins were actually always $10.

But I actually don't believe in free yoga either. I don't think you need to give away yoga classes. Make them cheap, sure. But I just feel like people don't value free. I think it encourages people to go to one studio during the free week and then go to the next studio on the next week kind of thing.
And I don't know if that's necessarily healthy for the business side of things either.

Anyhow, I completely said no because I don't think yoga should be $18. I had never raised my rates once. In fact, I never collected people's money the whole time when I was teaching yoga in Vancouver. It was an honor system. We had a pile of cash and then those class cards that people bought. People signed in, people punched their own class cards. And I had so many great experiences came from that. I mean, I had someone come up to me with $600 with an elastic band wrapped around it and said, “You know, I've been coming to class for the last three years and I didn't have a job. And I just got one. And you know what? I haven't been paying and here's $600.” [laughs] And people love these opportunities to be nice. But yeah, I think the major thing we've got to address in yoga is how it's becoming a kind of spa experience for middle class women.

Priya Thomas: Yeah, that is something... a whole kettle of fish that's tied in with the whole beauty industry, which has its own effects on the practice... Has it become easier over time now to talk with your family? Have you found a way to talk about things other than business? Have they come around?

Eoin Finn: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, my dad's dead, unfortunately. Because I really feel like I would have broken through and found that way of relating to him. And I think it is – well, having a baby would have definitely helped that process. I think he would love this little guy that we have. (Speaking of his young son Ananda, audible in the background)

But also I think a lot of it is just completely being comfortable with it, being yourself, right? I don't know how to describe it. It's almost like – well, like that idea of ‘coming out,’ but 'coming out' to be yourself. When I was young, I wondered how do I tip toe around this with my parents or with society, right? How do I behave, or be who I truly am, you know? But you see this happen with lots of people, somehow they reach a certain age or stage of life and they're like, “This is just me.” And so I think if my dad was around now – I would definitely be like, 
“Dad, this is who I am. I love you, old guy. And I love making people feel inspired.” 





A s Eoin, aka Dr. Love makes clear, we can max-out on more than credit. The process of bliss-making may be similar to repaying a kind of debt (some call it karma) that forces you to get off the main road. But Eoin is right, the stakes are high when you've indebted yourself to a script where the horses don't run free, a racetrack of your own making.

I met a musician on tour who had written a song about climbing a roof with an antenna in a lightning storm in the hopes of being a conduit, his entire body lit up against the sky like a neon sign. It didn’t stop there for him; in fact, he recommended I take part in his ritual practice of covering himself in yak butter and setting himself on fire. I suppose it was his savasana. And while this might seem outlandish, outlandish might be exactly what’s called for sometimes.

Maybe for some, it’s an immediate cleansing, a jolt of enlightenment; for others it’s just a daily ritual of walking away, of a bit of nothing-doing, of visiting that outlandish island of savasana five minutes at a time..  

Eoin, I think, would concur. He would tell you to visit savasana... he would probably tell you it's an island surrounded by electric oceans where people live without undue concern for what other people think, they don’t make decisions based solely on projected outcomes, they dare to do things and live their lives at the helm of the contrary... and as a matter of course, they occasionally find themselves isolated. But these people, like the desert fathers, like Ikkyu, or like yogis (it is said) eventually find the keys to their own ignition. As Eoin Finn (I continue to guess) would say, they find their bliss.

Was it a simple decision for Eoin to stop tip-toing around those he loved, to stop showing up in denial, and to give only that which was his, that which he could afford? I don’t know. But why should it be? Like many of us, antennas held to the sky, hands up in a salute to the sun, we hold out for a bit of bliss as if no one on earth had any other way left but — upward.

~
• If you are not yet a member of the Bliss Army or have not yet attended a yoga class with Eoin Finn, make it a priority for 2014. Eoin's detailed website (http://www.blissology.com) provides up-to-the-minute information about his touring/teaching schedule.

• Eoin has contributed several pieces recently on The Huffington Post. You can read Eoin's entry entitled, "How I Learned to Love the Chaos of Bombay" here.

• Note to readers: The last line of this blog entry is paraphrased From Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s speech “A World Split Apart,” delivered at Harvard in 1978. That tract is available at Harvardmagazine.com.

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