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In the fall of 1967 I received my first meditation training from the Detroit industrialist and well- known yoga instructor J. Oliver Black. I was 18 years old at the time and had just finished high school, and Mr. Black was 74. For the next two years I received extensive training from him. In June of 1969 my meditation training was exchanged for a different sort of discipline: I was drafted into the United States Marine Corps. However, that's another story. What follows now is a very brief description of this truly great man, a man who made a major contribution to the shape and direction of my life, and to the lives of countless others as well.
During his last years he maintained his mind/body disciplines and was in full charge of all his faculties. He never suffered from any debilitating illnesses; in fact, he was healthy and active until just a very few days before his passing. I was visiting Michigan on the occasion of his 96th birthday and was able to attend a party held by his students and friends. That birthday party held special significance, for he was to leave this world exactly one week later. Mr. Black made a rousing speech that day, and afterwards chatted informally with his many friends. I had a chance to have a private discussion with him at that time, so I have personal experience of his exceptional mental and physical health only days before the end.
That end came on Saturday, September 16, just before midnight, while he was sitting up meditating. One of his close friends who was present was able to give me a detailed account of his final days and minutes. She explained that he was quite lucid and cheerful up until the end, and all through the last day he would periodically sit up on his bed to meditate. The last time he did so, after a few moments in the lotus posture, his body gently fell backward with eyes upturned and locked at the point between the eyebrows, legs still folded for meditation. His spirit was no longer there to keep the body upright. Sometime later a doctor pronounced him dead of heart failure. Not a bad way to close such a successful life, successful both in the spiritual as well as the earthly arena.
"J. Oliver Black was making a fortune as an automobile parts industrialist when he decided to give up financial power to search for personal strength. It happened after he met Indian yogi Paramhansa Yogananda, who is credited with bringing yoga to the Western world."
The story in the News by staff writer Doug Bradford, which was published a day earlier, begins like this:
"J. Oliver Black was a self-made man, a millionaire industrialist. Then, one day in the 1920s, he became Yogacharya Oliver, destined to found a retreat center for yoga practitioners in northern Michigan."
Both of the articles are interesting in themselves and I would print them verbatim. However, they both contain several inaccuracies. The most glaring being that he did not receive the title “Yogacharya” in the1920s, but in August of 1951. Sri Yogananda gave it to him in a special ceremony of initiation. Yogacharya is an ancient spiritual title in the Indian sacred language Sanskrit. It can simply be translated as “yoga teacher,” but it actually carries much more significance and authority. It wasn't until near the end of Mr. Black's life that he began to encourage his students to refer to him by this title, although some of those who were near him at that time would affectionately call him simply 'Yogi.' Some years earlier, when I had the most direct contact with him, everyone referred to him as Mr. Black. Therefore I will continue to do so throughout this brief account.
Even this short a time after Mr. Black's passing, much of the information of his early years is more a matter of stories and hearsay – one might even say legend – than accurate truth. During one of my final conversations with him, I asked him if he could give me a little clarity on some of these facts, so interesting to biographers; however, he had no particular interest in spending his time re-examining events that had happened so far in the past. Even the date of his first meeting with Yogananda is not certain; my best guess is it was around 1932. (Watch video of Mr. Black telling of that meeting.)
To fully understand Mr. Black, a little background information on Paramhansa Yogananda himself would be useful. While Yogananda certainly wasn't the only person to bring yoga to America, he did make the largest contribution to that effort of any other person of his generation. A master of the yoga science from India who lived in the United States from 1920 until his passing in 1952, he is best known as the author of the perennial best-selling book Autobiography of a Yogi. Since the book's publication in 1946 it has never gone out of print, and it is currently available in a dozen different English-language formats as well as countless foreign editions. The Autobiography is considered a spiritual classic and is beloved by truth-seekers the world over. Much of Mr. Black's fame in yoga circles came because he was considered to be one of the most advanced of Yogananda's direct disciples and a powerful living link to that great master's teachings.
In schools of yoga science much attention is given to the teachers one learns from. Of course, this is not only true in yoga, but in many other fields as well. I once conducted a radio interview with a young symphony conductor who had been a close student of the American maestro Leonard Bernstein. Even though this young man was clearly quite brilliant himself in the field of music, much of the interview was spent talking about his world-renowned mentor. Music and spirituality have much in common in that their highest and most sophisticated aspects can generally be best transmitted by gifted teachers to their most receptive and talented students. In yoga this intimate teacher/student exchange is referred to as the guru-disciple relationship. Yogananda is internationally accepted as one of the greatest exponents of yoga in the twentieth century, and Mr. Black was one of his most gifted students.
There are some facts about Mr. Black's life that are more generally agreed upon. In 1917 he was 24 and working at a carriage works in Rockford, Illinois. At that time the enterprising young man decided to explore broader horizons. It was in those early years of the last century that the auto industry in Michigan was beginning to coalesce and take on the form that we know today. Mechanically minded folk from all over the nation were being drawn into this booming new industry. One could go so far as to say that what Florence, Italy was to the development of the Italian renaissance, Detroit was to the development of the culture of the automobile; and just as the cultural renaissance of Italy has had, and continues to have, enormous impact on the world at large, so too the culture of the automobile continues to have repercussions all over the world. The energetic and highly talented young Oliver Black felt irresistibly drawn into that world. He began his career by doing bits and pieces of work in early auto plants like Maxwell-Chalmers, Saxon, Studebaker, and Hupmobile. By 1920 he and his new wife Ethel were firmly established in Detroit. And they weren't the only ones; this was the era of Henry Ford's famous five-dollar day, and there were literally thousands and thousands of others being drawn into this growing city.
Detroit was, and still is, something of a mecca for the innumerable small shops that manufacture parts for the auto industry. Like many of these small manufacturing plants that have come and gone over the years, the business that was to build Oliver Black's fortune and establish his reputation as a key player in the economic life of the Motor City was started on a very small scale: it began in his garage. The company was named Peninsular Metal Products and was started with an investment of $500. By the time Mr. Black retired from the business in 1952, it was a publicly traded concern valued at $35 million dollars a year. Even after retirement Mr. Black stayed on with the company on the board of directors. Eventually, however, he left that world that he knew and loved so well, and which he helped to build, to follow a higher calling.
Most of his Detroit years were spent living with his family in a comfortable home at 18094 Parkside on Detroit's near-northwest side. He and Ethel had two children – a son Robert who was killed while a pilot in WW II, and a daughter Phyllis who Mr. Black also outlived. His wife Ethel died in 1970, and the last years of his life were spent at his retreat home “up north” near Gaylord, Michigan.
Over the years Mr. Black was involved in various pursuits. Along with being one of the stalwarts of the prestigious Detroit Athletic Club, he operated a working farm, bred show dogs and horses, and at one time was the largest individual landowner in the state. He was an avid inventor and held patents on several items (among them a three-dimensional camera and a design for a vertical takeoff/landing airplane). He was greatly influenced by his friend Frank Lloyd Wright and designed several unique buildings, which were built on his properties. He also studied painting and drawing and created many innovations in furniture design, one of which resulted in a company manufacturing a unique design of his called the Clusterbed. This company went into business during the years of his so-called retirement.
Throughout the years he also drilled for gas and oil on his various lands; in fact, on the occasion of his final birthday at 96 he was still seeking investors for further planned drilling. By 1971, however, he had sold off all of his other properties except for a beautiful, forested 800-acre parcel located near Gaylord, Michigan along the Pigeon River. The property was founded as a hunting-and-fishing club in the early part of the century, but by the time I met him in 1967, he had built a lovely summer home on the river.
For the months of July and August he would leave behind the heat and humidity of Detroit for his sequestered, albeit posh, forest retreat. Among his many yoga students it was made known that we were welcome to join him in this idyllic setting. I have many fond memories of summer days spent with him sitting by the Pigeon River. The river had been dammed up to create an incredibly beautiful and serene lake. While we sat enchanted by that tranquil view, our souls would drink in the wisdom of the ages being spoken by this very unique Detroiter. Small groups of friends would gather there to bathe in his wise discourse. Just as the lovely Pigeon flowed steadily by, so too Mr. Black would share a steady stream of insight on Eastern and Western thought, and especially on the ancient science of life known as yoga. It was an unforgettable and life-changing time for me. The Pigeon River property was eventually incorporated as a full-time yoga retreat called Song of the Morning Ranch. It still functions today.
PARAMHANSA YOGANANDA once confided to a friend that of all his many thousands of students and disciples around the world, he considered Oliver Black to be his second most advanced. To those familiar with the degree of Yogananda's mastery of the ancient and infinitely remarkable spiritual science of yoga, this was very high praise indeed. Mr. James J. Lynn of Kansas City, another business and family man and Yogananda's spiritual successor, was mentioned as first in spiritual advancement.
For many years Yogananda had been quietly encouraging Mr. Black to withdraw from the active pursuit of business and take on full-time the work of teaching and training yoga students and truth-seekers. By 1951 Mr. Black had conquered the worlds that he had set forth to conquer when he had left Rockford Illinois 35 years earlier; his material wealth was firmly established, and now the work of helping to reveal the light of Spirit in truth-seeking souls could begin in earnest. Therefore on May 11, 1951 his guru wrote to him, saying:
"With your organizational power you can do something much greater, much more lasting, much easier, and much more secure than present-day business organizations in which one works to pay taxes, ruining his health and happiness. Detroit, being in the center of the United States, has a great opportunity to draw true seekers, both from the East and West. I would like nothing better than for you to establish a sub-headquarters there . . . Please make ministers like yourself. They will come: and we will help build a new world, even though it’s growth may be slow." more of that letter . . .
In July, 1966, an article about Mr. Black written by Eileen Wood Jasnowski appeared in the Detroit Free Press Magazine. It was titled 'The Secrets of Yoga From Detroit's Mr. Black and India's Yogananda.'
THERE IS A NEW KIND of man in the sphere of the snake charmers, the fakirs who walk over hot coals, and the mystics in loincloths. He is J. Oliver Black, the great American yogi. J. Oliver Black conducts Raja Yoga (meditation) services at the Detroit Institute of Arts every Sunday. The dapper Mr. Black seems as far removed from the sparsely clad Indian as can be imagined. He looks more like a prosperous midwestern executive, mainly because he is one.
Black made his fortune in the automobile industry in the early '20s. The story as he tells it is vivid and vibrant, but one is inclined to disbelief. The star of such a drama would have to be in his mid-70s.
"Of course," he admitted, "my wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last April and I've never felt better in my life. It was my guru Paramhansa Yogananda who helped me put it altogether; he set me straight. When I first met him 35 years ago I was afraid to get half a mile away from a drug store. I was a regular hypochondriac. Took pills for laxatives, aspirins for headaches, and probably would have taken tranquilizers if they'd had them. In those days the automobile business was a fast track, and without realizing it I was digging my own grave. Many of us hit paydirt, but they're all gone now, except for maybe two or three."
J. Oliver Black looks like anything but 'the last leaf on the tree.' It is difficult to believe that this man of vitality is in his 70s. He looks, acts, stands, and walks like a man who has just celebrated his 50th birthday.
"I was a victim of inner pressures too, like all of my colleagues. Besides running a successful company, I studied and taught a small philosophy class. We were trying to find an answer to man's existence. Everybody is, after his fashion. I was close to 40 when I met Yogananda at a private party. I instantly recognized him for the spiritual giant he was. Like many Americans I had been searching for the truth because I knew it was there. Yogananda taught where to find it. You might say he handed me a blueprint, and I've been following it ever since."
What was so important about his meeting with Yogananda?
"He changed the whole direction of my life. Haphazardly, I had studied the yoga exercises – hatha yoga – from Rishi Grehwhal in Santa Barbara, California. I had listened to all the wise men from the East who came through Detroit, for whenever they lectured I was in the audience. They said the same thing: 'Go within; learn to meditate.' But they never told me how. I'm an American and I was impatient for results. I wanted them right away. Yogananda taught me that important things aren't achieved overnight. His contribution to the West – Self-realization – means exactly what it says. Realize yourself. YOU HAVE TO DO the work: no preacher or priest or pundit can do it for you. Yogananda told me that you could try to describe sugar to a man, you could show him pictures of sugar, but he'd still never know what it was until he tasted it. It's the same with yoga.
"A yogi wants everybody to take advantage of the same benefits he's had. Yoga isn't a religion, you know. It's a science, and this is the scientific age. The law of cause and effect applies here, just as clearly as when you mix yellow and blue, you'll get green. It's a fact. Now when you begin to stretch the nerve endings and your muscles, and you flex the spine, ankle, knee and hip joints, you're just naturally going to improve your health and feel better. Immediately."
"The physical branch of yoga, hatha yoga, boils down to this: if you practice the exercises, you'll feel better. By stretching the nerves you lessen tension. Yoga is for everybody, not just a few rare individuals. It helps adolescents with posture, complexion, and growing problems; it definitely helps them overcome teen-age inferiority complexes. Older people get all the benefits of calisthenics without any of the drawbacks. Men and women in their 60s become so flexible that they have better posture and health than their children. We can all do these exercises if we're taught properly. Yoga is non-competitive, but challenging; the individual can play against par, you see, almost like a golf game, if you want to look at it that way.
"If you just learn how to breathe correctly and nothing else, it's worth it. Doctors are pointing out what yogis knew 5000 years ago. Proper breathing prevents heart attacks, and can help you avoid ulcers, strokes, and other diseases. Back troubles that plague many men and women are caused mainly by their terrible postures. The spine is meant to be erect-and yoga teaches you how to work at this. Then you'll find a good percentage of your back troubles disappearing."
"Yoga will take weight off you, redistribute it, and build you up. It will improve your memory and sharpen your brainpower. You'll stop having colds every winter. Your hair will grow faster than it used to. Our teachers work on limbering your spine, ankles, knees. Mind and body work together; through concentration you'll learn balance control. The American businessperson has an enormous amount of concentration and vigor. Usually it's misdirected, but it is there."
Do you do these exercises now – well, at your age, is it necessary for you?
"Absolutely. I stand on my head every day, and always do a combination of at least six and seven exercises daily. I meditate in the lotus posture, and I find the shoulder stand as invigorating as a cocktail-without the stick.
"And we need to learn to meditate, to be alone without being bored or afraid. The poet W.H. Auden called our age 'the age of anxiety.' It'll remain that until we learn to find that inner peace that we were originally steeped in. 'Study to be quiet' says St. Paul. 'Be still and know that I am God' says the Bible. And yogis throw you a challenge that will keep you busy the rest of your life: 'Learn to still your restless mind.'"
Lorne, Mr. Black, and Debbie, 1968
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I FIRST HEARD ABOUT Mr. Black and his guru Paramhansa Yogananda in the Spring of 1967. In January of that year I graduated from Henry Ford High School in Detroit and spent a large part of the next few months around the Wayne State University Campus. It was there that stories of Mr. Black came to my attention. I heard that every Sunday Morning, from September to June, a couple of hundred people would gather at the Detroit Institute of Arts for meditation sessions and to hear his wisdom teachings. I wasn’t sure what to make of these stories so I did some personal investigations.
As I mentioned, every Sunday he would offer these morning gatherings; then afterward he would host a kind of informal fellowship time in a private room at the DIA for anyone who wanted to sit in. During the fellowship sessions Mr. Black would simply talk informally with anyone who wanted to listen. He would answer questions and share insights of a lifetime of deep meditation. These informal sessions would finally adjourn in the mid-afternoon. And that was pretty much it as far as contact with him was concerned, until the following Sunday. The jolt of inspiration and energy we gained from him would then be carried into our private week-day meditations and into our daily lives.
In describing that spiritual eye he would often quote the words of Christ, “The light of the body is the eye, if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body will be filled with light.” (Mathew 6:22) He would explain that the restlessness of the mind could be compared to a pail of muddy water that was constantly being agitated. All one needed to do was let the pail be still and rest and, eventually, the mud in the water would sink to the bottom and the true nature of the water could be seen – crystal clear. So too the restless and wayward mind and emotions, if one were able to calm them by the practice of the meditation techniques, one would eventually realize that the true nature of the mind was also clear and bright with the clarity of inner peace.
I took his lessons to heart and established a regular morning and evening routine of meditation. I set aside a space at the foot of my bed for daily practice, putting a warm blanket there for the chilly Michigan mornings, and a firm but comfortable cushion to sit on. On the wall in front of me I put up a picture of Yogananda to remind me of the state of higher consciousness I was trying to achieve. His kindly and joyful smile quickly became a great comfort and inspiration to me. At first it was difficult to wake up a few minutes earlier, but I soon became used to the new routine. And so a lifetime habit of morning and evening meditation was soon established.
In the Autobiography of a Yogi Yogananda speaks about the power of an advanced meditation technique called Kriya Yoga. He points out that, in a sense, we all become yogis when we sleep; unconsciously releasing ourselves from bodily identification, and merging with the healing currents in the main brain region and spinal nerve centers. In doing so we unknowingly dip into the reservoir of life energy that vitalizes and sustains all beings. Therefore when we wake we have renewed strength to go forward with our lives. He then points out that the voluntary yogi performs this process consciously, not unconsciously like the slow-paced sleeper and it brings great energy, higher awareness, as well as a joyful loving affinity for all. And he tells us that this Kriya Yoga technique is one of the greatest ways to enable us to consciously bring about this inner connection. The Autobiography puts it this way:
“Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened. The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge. The life force, which is ordinarily absorbed in maintaining the heart-pump, must be freed for higher activities by a method of calming and stilling the ceaseless demands of the breath . . . This ancient yogic technique converts the breath into mind. By spiritual advancement, one is able to cognize the breath as an act of mind—a dream-breath.”
For an entire chapter he makes a dynamic case for the value of this advanced meditation practice. He then explains that because of certain yogic restrictions he isn’t able to give a full explanation of Kriya Yoga in the pages of a book intended for the general public, and that one must learn the technique from an experienced practitioner. Quoting from the original 1946 first edition of the Autobiography, “The actual technique must be learned from a Kriyaban or Kriya Yogi.
Many of the people who were drawn to Mr. Black had read about Kriya and came to him wanting to learn it. I was among them. The requirements for learning Kriya were three-fold. Begin by developing a daily meditation practice as taught in the initial lessons (ideally morning and evening); learn other of Yogananda’s basic meditation techniques and begin to include those in your practice, as well as learning other of the valuable “lessons for life” from the yoga spiritual philosophy. And thirdly, he encouraged us to come to his meetings so we could get to know him, thus getting to know what his teachings were really all about, and also so he could get to know us; observing us to see how sincere we were about diving deeply into the life of spiritual awakening.
Over time we discovered that this mystical Kriya key was much more than a mechanical technique. It was a living seed planted within that could be quickened by being in the presence of longtime Kriya practitioners. Kriya was indeed a step-by-step scientific yoga technique, however, the real possibility of success with Kriya could be profoundly enhanced by being with those who exemplified the results of such practice. Kriya meditation practice was as much an art as a science, and the nuances of this art could best be understood by mixing with those who had demonstrated it’s effectiveness by their attitudes and behaviors.
Everything about spending time with the deeply peaceful and joyful Oliver Black and his long-time students underlined the truth of this teaching. When I was with him, and with other meditation practitioners, I was simply happier and more confident about my life than I had ever been before. After about a year of regular practice, study, and participation, I finally was able to attend the initiation ceremony in which the higher teaching of Kriya meditation was given. That Kriya initiation took place in June of 1968 and I still mark its date, (42 years after it took place) as one of the most significant of my life.
My two years of ongoing outward contact with Mr. Black sped by. The larger social backdrop to the yogic life-training I’d been experiencing with him was the Vietnam War. As I mentioned above, I graduated from High School in January of 1967. My 18th birthday took place later in that month. Upon turning 18, I dutifully made my way to my local draft board and registered for the draft. Once I registered, unless I went to college, thereby receiving a student deferment, I became 1-A on the draft board’s list of eligibility to be inducted into the military. I certainly had the intelligence to go on to college (a few years later I went on to get a Bachelors degree from Wayne State) however, even with the draft looming, I didn’t feel it was my time for a traditional higher education. Especially in light of the clear fact (clear to me at least) that I was already getting a higher education from Mr. Black and his informal school of yogic-life science. Two full years went by before the draft board finally called me up for military, but call me up they did.
My letter from our Uncle Sam arrived at my home in the spring of 1969 instructing me to show up for my Physical and induction in mid-June of that year. As you can probably imagine I was not particularly keen to march off to war. On one level my reasons for not wanting to go were the normal ones of being separated from family and loved ones, and the fear of terror and death in Vietnam. More American soldiers, marines, sailors, and Air Force were killed in Vietnam in 1968, than any other year in the entire eight years Americans were fighting there. There are various debates over the exact number killed, but it would be safe to say it was approximately 14,400 deaths in 1968, or an average of 1200 a month. The next highest total was 1967 with 770 a month. The odds in the spring of 1969 of a young American draftee going to Vietnam and being killed, or maimed for life, were very, very high. Nevertheless, the thing that saddened me most was leaving my spiritual preceptor and my loving spiritual family.
My exact memory of those days isn’t entirely clear, but somehow or another Mr. Black was made aware of my eminent draft. He was obviously not oblivious to the likelihood of my being shipped off to Vietnam. However, it turns out he had strong feelings about the subject. One warm day that spring I was sitting on the porch outside my parents house when who should I see driving up in front but Yogacharya Oliver Black himself. This was an utter surprise, because, as I said earlier, our lives outside the yoga ashram moved on two totally different tracks. To me it was as unlikely that I would see Mr. Black drop by my house, as I would see the governor drop by. However, there he was. He gestured for me to come to him, so I walked down to the curb to see what was on his mind.
Mr. Black rolled down the car window and spoke just a few words. All he said was, “it’s your duty, you need to go.” He gave me a penetrating look to make sure I got the message, and then he rolled up the window and drove away. He didn’t need to elaborate for I knew very well what he was talking about. My spiritual teacher was telling me in no uncertain terms that my call to arms was no mistake, it was God’s will, whether I liked it or not. Many years later I found out Mr. Black’s only son had been killed as a World War Two pilot. So he was well aware of the seriousness with which he gave me that advice.
By God’s grace I survived the Vietnam Era and have since lived to experience many more life lessons. From 1980 to mid-1999 I lived in Northern California spending most of those years living and working at a yoga and meditation retreat based on the Yogananda Kriya Yoga tradition. During all the years between my being drafted and the year of Mr. Black’s passing I made periodic visits to him for his inspiration and insight.
The night he finally passed from this world in 1989 I was visiting Michigan on a book tour for the meditation retreat publishing company. The weekend before his passing was Mr. Black’s 96th birthday celebration – his last. I mentioned at the beginning of this book that I was able to attend his last birthday party and spend a little private time with him.
The business I was doing kept me in the state. So one week after Mr. Black’s birthday found me staying over with friends in Grand Rapids. Early on Sunday morning the phone rang in the room next to the one I was sleeping in. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door from my host. He came in and said he’d just received a call to tell him that, “Yogacharya Oliver Black left the body last night.” I marveled to hear his words because the phone ringing had awakened me from a vivid dream, a dream about Mr. Black. In the dream Mr. Black was looking at me with a blissful smile and saying, “come out here and help build Master Yogananda’s work!”
Interestingly, a few years earlier I had come out from California to visit him and he’d told me, with great force, to take dreams about him very seriously. At the time I wondered why he said it so strongly – in a very odd sort of way he practically shouted it at me. Needless to say, I took him at his word and kept alert. Naturally the dream I had the very night of his passing gave me great food for thought.
However, at that time I was well aware of my short-comings as a teacher and representative of the Kriya Yoga tradition. The Yogananda-based retreat I was living at in Northern California, and its ancillary teaching outlets were filled with many deeply experienced people with whom I was learning many useful lessons. It seemed only common sense to take full advantage of these opportunities to become more grounded in experience and understanding. Ten more years in that super-charged yoga school-house gave me the necessary tools to do something much more spiritually clear and effective. That’s when the guidance finally came to make the big move back to Michigan.
At the age of 50 and with the 20th Century drawing to a close, I left my job and packed my car and headed East. After an adventurous drive across the country I drove into Michigan on May 1, 1999. I came with one goal alone: to share the dynamic teachings of yoga, meditation, and the art and science of higher consciousness as it was taught to me by the great Yogacharya Mr. Black and other of the students and disciples of the Kriya Yoga tradition that I’ve had the great blessing to meet, work with, and learn from. And so the work continues. SEND E-mail Comments
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