Therapist from the Depths: A Conversation with Michael Eigen

Michael Eigen isn’t only one of the leading and most important psychoanalysts in the world, but also a poet of strong-expression who plays the piano, wanders in the forest, and seeks holiness through Chasidic studies and Kabbalah.

I had a conversation with Eigen, the Jewish kid who became one of Wilfred Bion’s greatest students (“thanks to him I decided to get married”), on the occasion of the publishing of his book Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis. At that time he told me:

When I was a little boy I remember seeing a tree. Half of it was withered and dead and the other half was blooming. Then I realized that one could be dead and very much alive, concurrently. We are not monolithic, and can experience vitality and life on certain levels and on others total deadness.

I met Mike Eigen during my visit in New York. An acquaintance suggested I take part in his seminar on Wilfred Bion. “You have to meet him. At present he is completing the writing of his book on the connection between Kabbalah and psychoanalysis,” she said. The two long conversations that Eigen and I shared passed quickly, a magical journey between the realistic and the hallucinatory, between fiction and wakefulness, a journey which we spent searching together for a language connecting Torah, treatment, and “life.”

Who is Mike Eigen? Maybe a reincarnation of Rabbi Nachman or HaAri (the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria), as his colleague Lewis Aron suggests on the cover of Eigen’s new book, Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis. (The book was issued by Karnac Books, Ltd.,, publisher of Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott, Marion Milner, and other founders of the independent school of British psychoanalysis.) Perhaps Eigen is the world-renowned teacher, researcher, and poet who teaches revolutionary ideas in prestigious training programs.

Michael Eigen

Michael Eigen, a leading psycholanalyst, is influenced by Freud and the Zohar. Credit: Betty Eigen.

Eigen is known to the public for his many books, which are recognized for his unique writing style and the flow of consciousness emerging from brilliant discussion. Seminars, research deliberations, studies, and illustrative treatment stories appear side-by-side in his essays.  I succeeded in counting twenty-one books scattered on the shelves and floor, along with the journal, Psychoanalytic Review, which he once edited, and other journal articles published since the age of thirty-six.

And maybe here is the place to add that Mike or Michael Eigen [Hebrew: Micha-el] grew up in New Jersey to a family that emigrated from Eastern Europe,  abandoned his hometown to go wander in San Francisco, encountered Allen Ginsberg and the enlightenment there, and, on his return to New York devoted himself to analytic research. Today, at the age of seventy-seven (!), he teaches a fascinating weekly seminar on the writings of Bion, Winnicott, Lacan, and others, lectures and supervises the training programs of NYU and the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and in his free time, when he isn’t writing, plays the piano, runs in Prospect Park, and immerses himself in Chasidic studies and Kabbalah.

A Mystic Psychoanalyst

Eigen was exposed to the therapeutic world for the first time when he was twenty, consequent upon a college friend’s dream, when he studied English literature. “The Jungian interpretation I heard from my friend was like a powerful and exciting explosion,” he says. “I fell in love with dreams and with the possibility of interpreting them and began going to the same therapist.” More or less at the same time, Eigen began reading parts of the Zohar, translated into English. “I got to the Zohar in a totally unconscious manner, and it left a remarkable impression on me up till this very day.” After his wanderings in San Francisco in search of the unknown and un-understandable “something” (“I was searching. I didn’t know for what nor did I know what to do with it”), he returned to New York, because “it suited my loneliness.” On his relationships with women at the time, he adds associatively, “I had many women then, and they only added to my loneliness.” And notes: “I didn’t know then that therapy works on an irreparable fracture. When I was young, I still believed it could be corrected.”

Here, just like that, with this sober, down-to-earth statement, begins the conversation with one of the greatest psychoanalytic therapists and thinkers that live among us today. In New York Eigen is known as “the mystical psychoanalyst” or “the mystic psychoanalyst.” For the past thirty-three years he has been providing therapy at the same office, a room on the first floor of a big residential complex on the bank of Central Park. By our third meeting I am not surprised anymore: the room where he sees his patients is surrounded by a big circle of empty chairs, evidence of the ghosts or souls that come to partake in the psychoanalysis. In reality, these chairs always remain in place, a remainder and a reminder of the instructional seminars which take place. Just as in the Beit Midrash, the study room, where life is always sizzling.

There is something very powerful yet simple in this space, the empty chairs enveloping the room creating, in Bion’s terms, “a container” constituting a sheath of skin and light, fostering internal space. In the middle of the room two reclining chairs are placed facing each other: that of the therapist and that of the patient. Both of the chairs can fold backward, turning into a classical “Freudian couch,” inviting dreams to come. The room’s simplicity stands out: an old telephone and scattered electric wires, a plugged-in kettle situated on the corner floor. Beside it there’s a tea box, Eigen’s thermos, a pile of papers, and a mess on a small and rickety table. The room is empty. The room is empty and yet so full.

On the wall there is a gigantic photograph. In its center is a seagull soaring into the open sky, a wild white seagull, with its arms spread wide open towards infinity. The seagull is similar to Mike. This is his theme. The infinity. The infinite and the final.

Eigen says: “All the religions speak of the One. It is very interesting. Everyone is looking for the One. Unity passes through the fractures. There are different myths—chaos first, or the light, a myth of saturating and exploding light, or a myth of shouting while falling into the world. The world is filled with pain. There are layers of different meanings here.”

I ask: “So how do you believe in therapy, if our fracture, like the one of divinity, is infinite?”

Eigen replies: “At the beginning I didn’t know that therapy deals with unsolvable fracture. When I began practicing I thought it could be mended. Today I understand that it cannot. You can try to soften the rupture. Actually, I don’t believe in therapy. Therapy is a path, a dedication, a search.”

And then he adds, “By the way, the word ‘believe’ isn’t real, but the word ‘faith’ is. I don’t believe in belief.  For me, faith is something else. It is like Bion shifting from the letter ‘K,’ which symbolizes knowledge to the letter ‘F,’ symbolizing Faith. The word ‘Treatment’ is not right as well. Inappropriate. There are other words I like: ‘to foster,’ ‘to encourage.’  It’s like taking a child for a walk, giving him a hand, bringing him candy, to hold her, take care of her.  Not only like a therapist, but also like a parent.”

Separation and Oneness

In the new book’s introduction, Eigen writes: “We are fractured and whole all at once, just like divinity, like the sephirot.”  This is a deep insight accompanying his writings and therapeutic practices, an insight which probably enables him to practice psychoanalysis despite the fact that the fracture cannot be cured. “Bion describes therapy as a pendulum moving between wholeness and the parts that are ruptured, in a movement between fracturing and assembling, between right and left. The Kabbalah, like psychoanalysis, speaks of self-defense, of building filters for the pressure of energy. And still there is a lot of suspicion, examining, in therapy as well.”

Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis

Eigen has published over twenty books. This, his latest, came out in 2012. Credit: The Studio Publishing Services Ltd.

I ask if he succeeds in preserving himself in face of the destructive forces within his patients, and he surprises me by saying, “Sometimes they are the ones who need to protect themselves from me. That’s the truth.” Perhaps this is why he describes psychoanalysis as a ritual, as a prayer demanding preparation and concentration, and elsewhere he writes as a paraphrase on the book of Genesis: “In the beginning there is one-and-two: separation and unity, distinction-union.”

Concerning a dispute between Mahler and Stern in regard to the question what comes first, separation or union or oneness, and whether separation is a goal, a developmental condition, or a natural state of a baby in relation to her or his mother, Eigen’s statement can be viewed as evasive, a decision to not decide. However, I feel this decision echoes the sermonic spirit of Chazal (sages of blessed memory) who say, “It were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions” (Talmud, Eiruvin, 13b). We were created by force, and the infraction is imprinted within us from the beginning, preceding us and registered within our flesh. In fact, this is the deep fracture within divinity; a wound accompanying the finite human existence, as well as the infinite. The wound cannot be healed; however, what matters is creating meaning of it, telling it, placing oneself in relation to it, and transforming it again and again.

Dance and Play

In his book, Kabbalah and Psychoanalysis, Eigen expands on the notion of play and writes that the individual is always playing the ancient game Winnicott spoke of as well: “Now I see you, now I don’t.” This game connects us to our most simple internal sense, to the emotional movement that comes and goes. He believes this is the meaning of the Chasidic idea that in every person there is “a speck or point of soul” in constant connection with divinity. That “speck,” spot, point of light, is the vital spark connected with the divine and with our flowing experience; and like the game of hide-and-seek it appears and disappears, giving meaning to the “essence of existence.” The God itself hides and reveals itself, and we have to learn how to dance in front of her/him/it (beyond all pronouns) and be intermittently present.

Dance, color, and sensual experience play a prominent role in Eigen’s thinking, which links with the therapeutic inspiration of Marion Milner, with whom he corresponded for years, and of Bion, who was a painter as well. In the opening of his book Eigen links Martha Graham’s dance, which emphasizes “contractions,” with the Kabbalistic myth of contraction. Eigen views the Lurianic image of God contracting to make room for creation as a gesture of bowing, a kind of acknowledging, making room for another beside you, within you. As if divinity is dancing for us, and we bow in response.

And indeed, Eigen’s writing dances, moving between the Torah, or many Torahs, and treatment and life.  Poetic and associative writing. Vibrant, very personal and exposed, and yet scholarly and leaning on strong foundations of creative and live knowledge. I ask him why he writes, and he replies, “This is what I do. I can’t do otherwise. I write to connect with the depths.”  I feel that the person saying this sentence is occupied not only with experience but with form and frame as well, a person trying to build tools for his lights and a flexible enough framework to contain them. By this he seeks to also help souls tumbling toward him, searching for a remedy for their pain.

Suffering and Pain

We talk about suffering and pain. I share with him my feeling that pain takes up a different internal space than does happiness, and that in moments of clarity the suffering deepens, taking up more space. “Yes, this is true. Winnicott says that a healthy person suffers more, because s/he has a larger life space. There are many existential possibilities that exist for such a person without suffocating and reducing her/him; by contrast the ‘sicker” person has a smaller internal space, closes up more, and therefore suffers less.”

“The worst situation is when the trauma eliminates the ability to experience. There is a person under my treatment who has been in this situation for twenty years. He just can’t experience the good in the world. He sees and hears, but cannot feel it as true. And I don’t try to explain to him that this isn’t true. I believe him and hear his situation, and I am with him in it. It doesn’t make it easier for him, but something is happening deep inside of him thanks to the acknowledgment of his experience, his truth as it is…

“Sometimes the light fills you up too much, and burns your abilities. Too much light can also be harmful for a person. Noise that is too loud causes deafness. In some cases I feel present like the sea, in the background. A sea that listens. Sometimes thanks to that, things soften. The background becomes present. The situation gets better. Sometimes not even that helps.”

W.R. Bion

Psychoanalyst W.R. Bion was a mentor to Eigen. Credit: The Melanie Klein Trust.

I ask Eigen if everything is always so complex and full of contradictions in therapy. After all, sometimes a hungry baby is crying simply because she needs her mother and milk. “No, it is not all she needs,” Eigen says. “It’s also about the quality of the breast-feeding, the quality of the milk, the quality of the feeling atmosphere.  Sometimes the baby’s suffering is so awful it has to seal its nose while eating, close its eyes and ears, shut out the sound and sight and feel of the mother. Just take the milk and not starve. Does some sense of death hover in the body that drives it to drink even if it hates the feel of life in those moments? The baby lives but the quality of life is compromised. The issue is not survival alone, but what kind of quality of life do you have in surviving?”

Bion and Eigen’s Meeting: An Emotional Storm

Just like our conversation that shifts from subject to subject, Eigen’s office as well is at the same time a study room, a Beit Midrash, a clinic, and a corridor into the afterlife. I don’t always have enough time to contain everything. Eigen helps me, and scribbles some of the words and phrases on pieces of paper, which scatter all over the room. Here, for example, I saved some of the pieces of paper: “Psychic Taste Buds.” 

What’s that?” I ask, positive a known therapeutic notion had slipped my knowledge.

“People taste each other psychologically,” Eigen says. “Psychic taste buds or taste tentacles. It’s a phrase I made up.” We have special glands for mental encounters. “Bion says,” he adds, “that when two personalities meet, an emotional storm is created. Bion wrote this towards the end of his life. I guess I try to say something about this storm. Let the storm speak.”

And then he moves on to tell me about how they met in Bion’s last year of life, when Bion came to New York to give psychoanalytic seminars in 1978. People were going to see him for supervision. Mike decided he’d go to see him for some analytic sessions – two sessions it turned out. Mike declares, “Those two meetings changed my life. It was thanks to Bion that I got married. Bion told me, “Marriage isn’t what you think it is. It’s someone to speak truth to and mitigate the severity to yourself.” It’s hard to convey the impact of the moment. I believed him. It’s a sense that somehow goes with truth. I felt that way when I met Socrates as a young man – the first person who used terms like “truth” that I could believe. When most talk about truth, one senses hidden agendas, untruth.  With Bion I felt I was meeting a living Socrates face-to-face. Bion wasn’t the first person to tell me to get married, but it never got all the way through before. Now it felt real, past the lies.

Eigen adds: “Bion believed in couples living together and raising children, immersed in daily life. His first wife died giving birth. I think Bion had a strong sense of life and death, indistinguishable from and opposed to one another. For him, marriage and raising children meant life. Yet death struck in childbirth. He, too, said he died in the First World War, in grotesque mutilations on the field of battle. A death that lingered as his baby girl grew. In one incident he recounts, his little daughter was trying to reach him while he was sitting staring into space in their garden. She tried to crawl to him, crying, but could not reach him. He was in a frozen state, paralyzed. Finally, unable to bear the scene, the housekeeper picked the little girl up and comforted her. Years later this girl, a grown woman and mother, died in a car accident in the Italian mountains, a daughter with her. (For more on this and other aspects of meetings with Winnicott and Bion, see Conversations with Michael Eigen, by Eigen and Govrin). His second wife, Francesca, thawed him. His two children with her are grown, well along in life.

A week later, in the seminar, Eigen teaches Bion and discusses the positive side of projection. “The person I am married to,” Eigen says to the therapists sitting in a circle, “takes upon herself my dark side. Everything I cannot bear she bears.” Silence in the room. Unique people come to learn from Eigen. He does not select them. Rather, in his words, “they leave by their own initiative.” Eigen has been teaching fifty-five years, and has been teaching this seminar for thirty-seven. He says, “Bion spoke about a lot of things with me. One moment after a quiet he looked at me and said, ‘I use the Kabbalah as a framework for psychoanalysis.’” Like Winnicott, Bion was also Klein’s student. Following her, they were both concerned with destruction, inner madness, describing experiences of destruction not quite touched before. Melanie Klein is an analyst of the death drive; hers is a kind of war psychology.

“Like the strong sense of an ‘evil inclination’ in mystical Judaism, she focuses on the dark side, the ‘other side,’ diving into psychosis and disintegration. She helped to create a big wave of creative psychoanalysis, including Bion, Winnicott, Milner, Andre Green. With Klein, psychosis was out of the closet and a wave of great analysts found/made madness a central theme.

“On the other hand you can say that after Klein passed away, Bion became more creative. His great works written between 1960-1970, after Klein’s death, went beyond her, opened windows. The last one in this series, Attention and Interpretation, my favorite, is deeply Kabbalistic.”

Years after Bion passed away Eigen heard that their encounter had left a strong impression on Bion as well. I ask if he misses Bion, and actually mean to ask a totally different question: how did the two reach such depths in only two meetings. Can lasting analytic work be done in such a passing encounter?

Eigen explains it was not just a quick, transient matter, but an influence on the depth of life. “My encounter with Andre Green was also influential for me. It was wonderful. But it wasn’t like it was with Bion, not with the same bell ringing ‘truth, truth.’ With Bion I felt a deeper sense of – what to call it? An unpopular word now – essence. Essence to essence in the passing moment. I felt he somehow found me. I benefited from Green too, but saw his ego as well. His “other side’ obtruded – but not overly obtrusively.”

I ask Eigen, “So you truly believe in therapy of two meetings?”

Eigen replies: “Yes, even a minute. One moment can help things. It’s not just a matter of reliving lost or dead parts. More like something happened, something changed, opened. Something totally new was going on within me. It was like an intuition, a birth of intuition, vision, a taste bud talking to you.

“Freud calls the dream ‘the other space.’ Sometimes I feel it as a talking from the heart, from another space within you. It is like a trance of reaching out of yourself. It happened because I believed him. Many people told me to get married, but I believed Bion. Truth is truth is truth.”

From the very first moment, I was taken captive by Eigen’s great soul. I believed him. I heard the pain and fractures, which he accumulates and envelops within himself and his patients. “Psychoanalysis tends to forget that we are the children of God way before we are the children of our parents,” Eigen says in his unique way, which isn’t afraid to undermine the foundations of the psychoanalytic tradition and to connect between such different worlds.

He tells me about his encounters with Rabbi Menachem, Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) and with Winnicott. In an attempt to further understand his sources of inspiration, I asked about the traditions of study from which he stemmed and about his analytical training. He draws from many traditions and influences, including phenomenology, existentialism, Buddhism, Taoism, Gestalt psychology and various kinds of body work. “I wrote my doctoral dissertation on time and speed perception when people move towards or away from each other, towards and away movement, but never published it. It was useful as an experimental psychology project to satisfy requirements of the program, but did not reach the places I needed to go to. I am not a very scholarly person. More patch-quilt, more collage, eclectic, lots of stuff thrown together by life.”

Reaching a Spiritual Dimension

We move on to talk about spirituality and religion. To my question about religion’s place in his life, he replies: “I have more spiritual and religious periods and less; more especially when I am afraid. After my father died, I had a very religious period, in which I kept the mitzvas (commandments), but after a few years it did not last, not in a literal, observant way. I also love aspects of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi “mystics.” I like things that speak to my soul. The system is of less concern, rather what it raises or opens. It is like many keys opening many doors.”

Half-dead tree

To Eigen, the half-dead tree is a symbol of the fractured psyche. Creative Commons/Kasia Kokocinski.

Later on we get back to this, talking about Kabbalist approaches that see in the “Mitzvot” ritual that constitutes or connects with or is a pathway to the divinity. It is clear the subject touches him from within. His relation to the religious world and to the world of Halacha (religious Jewish rules) is complex, due to his background. “I know the Orthodox world. I know how devastating all that guilt can be.  Paradoxically, Chassidus helped me to get released from religion, to get to the level of “yechidah.” This is what cured me. Yechidah is a special soul or spiritual dimension in which the individual’s essence is united with God’s essence. I am speaking of course with poetic license  – but I mean it as real.

“I could suddenly experience moments of grace I didn’t think I am capable of feeling. But this wouldn’t have happened had I stayed in the world of worry and obsession over what is permitted and prohibited. The latter was like a suffocating grip, and I wanted to breathe. There are many ways to communicate with God – through the Mitzvot or through something else. Mitzvot are like psychoanalysis as a tool. You need to know how to use it right.”

At moments he dives in, sometimes I even think I am under his treatment, as Bion accepted him for two meetings that changed his life. Always after my questions Eigen listens to their echo until it stops, not afraid of the emptiness, until a vacant space is created, which perhaps is the primary goal of the analysis.

Eigen is touched by Chabad melody and by the words of the unknown writer: “the soul descends into the body; she cries ‘va-eee, va-eee, va-eee’ – she wishes the descent to earth is for the purpose of ascending, till all this is worthwhile.”  I ask where the cry begins, where does the “va-eee” come from, from here or from there, when the soul collides with the contraction and with the body in this world, with partialness and compromises, or perhaps when she descends to the womb, with the first compromise – the loss of the light of infinity that was shining on her head.

Eigen says: “We don’t know who is actually crying or screaming. Maybe it’s the ‘baby God’ who is crying. We all come here in an explosion. It’s the big-bang. The person begins life outside the womb with a cry. Were there also silent in-womb screams? The cry can deafen or be silent. But it is always there, from the beginning.

“By the way, talking about beginnings, it is interesting that Melanie Klein and Winnicott write about many beginnings and each time it is about a different beginning. ‘In the beginning there is love and hate.’ ‘In the beginning there is the good mother and the bad mother.’ ‘In the beginning there is aggression.’ There is something reassuring about all these different beginnings. It means we can disappear and return, and each time begin differently.”

Eigen’s Many Worlds

Eigen has two sons, David and Jacob. One is a poet, the other a computer scientist. Eigen admires his wife Betty (Bat-Sheva) and says she “can help and treat people no one else can help.” Betty is a therapist, and they live in Brooklyn. In the summers he goes to Cape Cod, enjoys the water and air, writes, eats fresh fish, runs, walks, sees the night sky.

Despite the many worlds he is part of, Eigen has the ability of quietness, stability, listening, and containing. While we are stuck in a gigantic traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge, after he offers me a ride home from his Manhattan office, Eigen looks at the city lights in the distance and says we don’t have the tools to endure our internal world. “The breaking of the vessels is actually a problem of containment. We produce emotions we cannot contain and mentally digest, and therefore we are in an early evolutionary stage of the development of our mental digestion. It is part of our catastrophic situation and part of our inspiring challenge. We have no idea how to work with all the materials within us.”

And after further thought he adds, “On the other hand, thanks to our many abilities we can be totally alive and totally dead at once, believe in God and not believe in God, be my present self and the self which isn’t present. Like Bion says, we have an embryonic freedom. We can reverse the direction of evolution and return to a pre-womb level. There is an essence within us which always remains undeveloped, ‘unborn,’ primal, and primitive. There is something reassuring and hopeful about it, our amazing psychospiritual capacities.”

Adam Phillips, a well-known psychoanalyst himself, edited a collection of Eigen’s essays in 1993. The title of the book, “The Electrified Tightrope,” is a faithful reflection of the burning ecstasy of the bold seagull of the psychoanalytic world. One of Eigen’s claims that appears over and again in the book is that without the illusion of omnipotence, creativity suffocates. We need the illusion of greatness in order to experience life with all its intensity. The titles of Eigen’s books testify for his internal search, and his desire to encounter all emotions, including the dark ones among them. Madness and Murder (2010), Rage (2002), Psychic Deadness (1996), The Psychotic Core (2004), Toxic Nourishment (1999) and more.  In addition, there are books called Ecstasy, The Sensitive Self, or Contact with the Depths. On the words “emotions” and “feelings,” Eigen doesn’t compromise. A feeling pulse is in every page, page after page, in every breath.

In the seminar that week, we read from his book Feeling Matters. This books opens with the declaration that as long as “feelings are second class citizens in public dialogue, people will be second class citizens.” In the group we talk about the sense of catastrophe and a sense of the self, of aliveness ending. An experience that now it really is the end, the place in which we lose our minded lives.

Eigen says: “Sometimes we hide ourselves to survive. To make pain go away we simply make ourselves go away, and that is how madness is created. Freud teaches that trauma is overwhelming, like a baby after screaming out of hunger, that unknowingly sinks, falls asleep, ‘loses consciousness.’ We also do the same, as adults.” And he adds, “But we always return and always survive.”

Suddenly someone from the group is alarmed and she says, “No. Sometimes we really do not return.” An older psychoanalyst joins her, offering, “True. One can suddenly actually die, be exterminated, and become annihilated. It isn’t just a metaphor. I know it.” Silence in the room. Eigen looks at her and breathes deeply and loudly. He says to her. “Really?” She repeats what she said, almost word-for-word. He says again, “Really?” and I begin to understand what is happening. All the participants in the room hear feelings, pure. It echoes. Therapy is happening now, in the group leaning forward, in the psychic Beit Midrash.

Eigen begins to talk about the differences of perspectives. “There are all kinds of pasts, a live past and a dead past,” and then he adds, “That is why there is a Jewish prayer you say every morning: ‘Thank you God for resurrecting us. Thank you for your faithfulness.’

“Every day everything is created from nothing. At every moment you are created from nothing.  Nothing is an important part of us. From nothing we come. To nothing we go. Nothing interlaces us. We return to and are born from nothing all life long.”

These are the words Eigen tells me repeatedly before we part, echoing the seminar. Then he throws into the space a remark that accompanies me ever since: “Love and hate are actually one thing. That is what Bion and Blake taught me. Blake says this in his poem, ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’ He also says, ‘Enough or Too Much.’”

This Q&A was first published in Makor Rishon, Jerusalem, 12:10:12, pp. 12-14. Translated from Hebrew by Sharon Zack with additions by Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel and Rachel Berghash.


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