ARTICLE: The Fourth Wave of Behaviorism: ACT, DBT and Nondual Wisdom

“Out of the One comes the Two. Out of the Two comes the Three.
  Out of the Three comes the One as the Fourth.” — xiom of Maria Prophetessa[1]

“The fourth wave knows itself as the ocean.” — Ram Tirth[2]

One of the many convergences occurring in our time is between the field of behavioral psychology and nondual wisdom. The “third wave of behaviorism” integrates mindfulness and acceptance techniques with behavioral activation and cognitive change technologies from the first and second wave to create treatments like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). These treatments are “evidence based”, meaning that research trials have proven their effectiveness in reducing the suffering caused by many kinds of psychological problems. In this article I want to explore the foundations of a fourth wave of behaviorism in which the techniques and principles of the first three are utilized in the service of awakening and liberation as described by the nondual wisdom tradition that includes Zen Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, Contemplative Christianity, Sufism and the mystical traditions at the core of all religions. One potential is to offer an avenue to awakening free of the spiritual and religious trappings that characterize more traditional approaches. The behaviors and conceptual understanding of third wave behavioral therapists will be compared and contrasted with those of nondual teachers like Adyashanti, Gangaji, Isaac Shapiro and Dorothy Hunt in order to investigate what these fields may be able to learn from one another in freeing people from suffering.

In discussing a fourth behavioral wave, we are mainly talking about how the third wave comes home to completion in the nondual, and the way that behavioral techniques from the third wave can assist spiritual seekers in awakening. I am not proposing major changes in the earlier stages of treatment for most of the people with whom third wave treatments are being used, though I do find myself bringing nondual techniques and that perspective early into the mix of ACT and DBT skills. It is often surprising, and rather unpredictable, who may be ready to notice that self is a verbal construct, and explore into what it is we are as awareness.

We are potentially talking about a new “dharma door” into oneness, in contrast to the other paths to awakening mentioned above such as Zen and Advaita. Religious trappings in these paths have already been substantially stripped away from the behaviors and understandings essential to awakening itself, but a fourth wave behavioral approach that comes in from an even more secular and “scientific” direction may be more accessible to people who have been wounded by or have become aversive to traditional religions for whatever reasons. Additionally, 4th wave behaviorism can be part of the process by which scientific minds attempt to understand how the universe arises out of consciousness.

Nondual Wisdom in DBT

Insofar as third wave treatments are in part modeled on contemplative practices, it is no surprise that they look a great deal like those practices. Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, practiced Zen and contemplative Christianity during the process of its development. She consulted with her own Zen teacher in developing the DBT mindfulness skills descriptions, and the stylistic irreverence of some communicational interventions is clearly based on Zen stories. Linehan has said in trainings that in the early stages she even considered calling it “Zen Behavior Therapy” but knew such a name would doom it to rejection by the mental health community.

In June 2011 Linehan courageously disclosed the adolescent and young adult experiences that later motivated her to develop DBT. At the age of 17 she was hospitalized for nearly 2 years subsequent to suicide attempts. Described at that time by hospital staff as one of the most disturbed patients in the facility, Linehan says that she met criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. Her life continued to be in danger from suicide for several years subsequent to the hospitalization, until a mystical experience in a chapel provided a different point of view: “One night I was kneeling in there, looking up at the cross, and the whole place became gold — and suddenly I felt something coming toward me,” she said. “It was this shimmering experience, and I just ran back to my room and said, ‘I love myself.’ It was the first time I remember talking to myself in the first person. I felt transformed.” (Carey, 2011) As the New York Times article continues, “the high lasted about a year, before the feelings of devastation returned in the wake of a romance that ended. But something was different. She could now weather her emotional storms without cutting or harming herself.” Linehan’s newfound inner strength allowed her to pursue a career in psychology. As she began to work with suicidal patients herself, she developed the concept of “radical acceptance” as a dialectical balance to the behavioral change technologies she was studying, and employed mindfulness practices based on Zen breath meditations.

Linehan describes DBT as having four stages of treatment. “Stage One” is what is most distinctive about DBT, and where comparative outcome studies show it to be more effective than “treatment by experts” in other clinical approaches to treating Borderline Personality Disorder. (Other clinical trials have shown DBT to be effective in treating chemical dependency, eating disorders, depression in the elderly, and several other client populations.) In this stage of treatment mindfulness based behavioral skills are taught to help clients to regulate extreme emotions, increase tolerance of distress, and improve communicational abilities in order to reduce life-threatening behaviors such as suicide and self-harm, substance abuse and so forth. “Stage Two” is exposure-based trauma treatment, and “Stage Three” deals with the “problems of living” typically dealt with by other psychotherapies.

DBT literature describes “Stage Four” as intended to help clients “move from a sense of incompleteness towards a life that involves an ongoing capacity for experiences of joy and freedom.” (Linehan, What is DBT?, 1996-2012) Linehan said in response to my question at an advanced Intensive training that she personally considers Stage Four to be about enlightenment. Although DBT leaves a place marker for spiritual realization in its conception of four stages of treatment, the fourth stage of treatment is not fleshed out much beyond stating these general intentions. DBT’s descriptive model for mindfulness offers an approach that is useful in early stages of practice, but it does not offer much about the awakening process itself.

In DBT Mindfulness skills, clients are taught to “observe”, “describe”, and “participate” “non-judgmentally”, “one-mindfully” and “effectively”. “Mindfulness of emotion” skills teach clients to attend to the somatic experience involved in emotions rather than the thoughts and interpretations that maintain emotional looping. “Distraction” and “Self Soothing” skills direct awareness to sensations in the here and now, again as an alternative to emotion-escalating cognitions. “Wise Mind” is a secular term for intuitive wisdom (called by Buddhists “prajna”, Sufis “kashf”, and Judeo-Christians the “still small voice” of God) found at the balance point between “emotional mind” and “reasonable mind”. In addition to describing “Radical Acceptance” as the way out of the suffering created by fighting against reality, DBT adopts from 12-step treatments the idea of “willingness” as opposed to “willfulness,” and encourages “turning the mind” again and again away from what produces suffering towards what works better.

Nondual Wisdom in ACT

With Steven Hayes, the principle founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the story of his personal contact with mystical teachings is less well known. In his writing Hayes has acknowledged an intellectual debt to the est[3] training, and has obviously studied Buddhism in some depth. In a private interview with this author in December 2011 Hayes described a series of “beads on a thread” that have led to his current understanding. These include careful use of psychedelic drugs in the late 1960s, a six-month residence at the Ananda community participating in devotional chanting and Kriya yoga, a powerful experience with Zen teacher Suzaki Roshi, and two near-death experiences in which he experienced a transcendent Self. These experiences have collectively fueled a dedicated exploration from a behaviorist perspective and an international community building process resulting in 60 books on ACT worldwide and hundreds of scientific articles. While it is difficult and perhaps pointless to attempt evaluations of how deeply oneness has recognized itself in a particular mind stream, Hayes seems to me to have access to what is pointed at in various ways in the nondual wisdom community.

ACT’s acknowledgment of suffering as a fundamental human experience, the description of its causation by experiential avoidance and cognitive fusion, and the ending of suffering by following a six-fold rather than eight-fold path of treatment — emphasizing values, committed action, acceptance, cognitive “defusion”, here-and-now sensory experience and a new way of experiencing the “self” — constitute a modern behavioral version of the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”.

Hayes describes three types of “self.” “Self-as-concept” consists of the words and thoughts we believe about ourselves, such as “I’m a student”, “I’m a parent”, “I’m stupid and worthless”, and “I’m a person who ____________ (fill in the blank).” “Self-as-process” is similar to DBT’s “Describe” skill, and refers to using non-evaluative words in description of the present tense experience of our bodies and our surroundings, as in “Now I’m aware of reading words on this page,” “I’m noticing my breathing,” “I feel sad,” and “Now I’m noticing ____________ (fill in the blank).” The third type of self is variously called (in different articles and books) “self-as-perspective,” “self-as-context,” and the “observing self.”

Here is Hayes’ description of the “observing self” (Hayes & Smith, Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy, 2005) “Now notice who is reading this book…. Notice that you are here in this moment reading, and notice too that the person behind these reading eyes was there when you ate breakfast this morning and was there when you were a child…. At the very moment that you gaze at these lines of ink on paper, notice who is gazing…. Hello…. This “I” is boundless…. If this sense of self is experientially boundless (that is, as experienced by the person experiencing), it is also not experienced fully as a thing. That is unique. Almost every event we can describe is experienced as a thing: as an event with known boundaries. Yet here, right in the middle of verbal knowledge itself, is a “no-thing” self…. an event without distinction. Events without distinction include no-thing (or as our language community came to write it later “nothing”) and they include “every-thing”. That’s it. That is why Eastern philosophies call this sense of self “everything/nothing” and point to it with odd sayings like “Wherever you go, there you are”…. You may have been able to watch your thoughts float down the stream of your mind without becoming attached to them. But who is the watcher who observes you thinking your thoughts? Don’t try to answer this by turning this sense of self into a thing. That is precisely what it is not. You know about this sense of self indirectly, for example, by a sense of calm transcendence, or peacefulness. For some, this sense can feel frightening because it may feel as though they are falling into nothingness. And in a non-pejorative sense, that is quite true. It is this observing self that we hope to bring you in closer contact in this part of the book because it is the place from which it is fully possible to be accepting, defused, present in the moment, and valuing. It is immutable and solid, not because it is a thing that does not change, but precisely because it is no-thing at all.”

ACT as a psychotherapy is derived from Relational Frame Theory (RFT), based on behavioral research that supplies a scientific framework for understanding the attraction of consciousness to language. RFT acknowledges the success that language has achieved in supporting our species to become the dominant life form on earth over the last 10,000 years. By creating neurological links that pair objects in the world with sounds and pictures (including the pictures of words that allow you to read these sentences), and developing the ability to create and manipulate connections of all sorts between them, the human brain is able to imagine things and events that are not actually present in the outer world. This ability is tremendously useful for building bridges and houses and solving problems with objects in the outer physical world, but it is also the cause of enormous emotional suffering. Our ability to change things in the outer world by thinking about them leads us to believe that we should be able to change things in our inner world — like feelings and thoughts about the past and future – in the same way, by thinking about them.

The dark side of language’s power can create the experience of depression and anxiety. If a person ruminates about a painful event in the past, looking for some way that it might have turned out differently, no matter how many times he goes over the event it will still come out the same, and he will feel emotional pain at that point in the loop. Then he’ll likely start the process all over again, looking for a way to avoid the unpleasant experience he just had. But no matter how many times he goes over the same tracks in the snow, he will always come again to the same painful place. Thinking about some way the pain could have been avoided cannot change what happened in the past.

Anxiety about the future is created by the “language machine’s” ability to imagine circumstances that are not currently present. The body reacts to thoughts almost as powerfully as if a scary future event were happening right now. As the body activates to meet this threat, thoughts arise to interpret the activation as confirmation that something terrible is indeed going on. This in turn generates even more dramatic and frightening thoughts about what might happen next. Continued cycling between thoughts and body sensation in this direction can bring about full-blown panic attacks.

Continual rumination about past trauma or terrifying possible futures causes additional suffering when it supports what ACT calls “experiential avoidance” of behaviors that could connect a person with the social world and what they value in life. Our language and culture condition us to avoid experiences we find unpleasant, not realizing that as this “experiential avoidance” becomes more pervasive, it makes worse the very conditions we were trying to get away from in the first place. ACT considers this avoidance to be a central factor in most clinical syndromes including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and the psychological components involved with chronic physical pain.

Like fish swimming in water without noticing it, we think in our language without realizing how it shapes our reality. The power of language encourages us to believe the thoughts that arise in our minds without any question or challenge. Taking “thoughts” and stories about ourselves as factual truth — ACT calls this being “fused” with our thoughts — traps us in ways of seeing the world that perpetuate unhappiness. What’s worse, this cognitive “fusion” reinforces “experiential avoidance” that prevents us from taking action to pursue what is valuable and meaningful to us.

Often it is our very efforts to get rid of unwanted experiences, like depression and anxiety, which keep them with us. “Thought suppression” — such as trying to not think about a yellow taxi — can be experientially shown (as it has been experimentally shown) to increase thoughts about yellow taxis. Trying to follow a rule “don’t think about “x”” can never succeed, because it contains “x” within the rule. The same paradox applies to efforts to get rid of unwanted emotions.

ACT treatment therefore frequently begins with the exploration of how our efforts to get rid of clinical symptoms have repeatedly failed. Fostering a sense of “creative hopelessness” about avoidant strategies is usually necessary to support clients in “defusing” from believing thoughts as reality, and learning that acceptance of emotions, thoughts and experiences that arise as they take action in valued directions is how suffering is reduced and life acquires meaning.

A Behavioral View of Nondual Teaching

I will assume for this paper that the reader has some familiarity with the nondual wisdom traditions of Zen Buddhism, mystical Judaism, Advaita Vedanta, Contemplative Christianity, Sufism, and so forth. We will next look at the fundamental behaviors performed by nondual teachers through the comparative lens of third wave behavioral psychotherapy techniques.

1. Like DBT and ACT, nondual teachers such as Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, Gangaji, Isaac Shapiro, Byron Katy, Loch Kelly and Dorothy Hunt employ a combination of dyadic conversations, psycho-spiritual education in group settings, and behavioral exercises like mindfulness practice and dyadic eye gazing to bring about experiential change. Conversations with a nondual teacher closely resemble the interactive structure of psychotherapy: a mostly verbal interaction investigating the suffering of the client/student in order to bring about healing and transformation.

2. Nondual wisdom is a behavioral and empirical approach to exploring what is aware within us, completely independent of any religious tradition or beliefs. Nondual teachers never say, “we believe” this or that; instead, they encourage students to deconstruct beliefs and trust their own experience. Nondual wisdom is similar to ACT and DBT in that it does not posit non-observable mental structures: neither “radical behaviorists”[4] nor nondual teachers believe in an “ego” or “self” inside people. The behaviorist view tends to remain an intellectual understanding, however, unless the mind of the behaviorist can be stopped long enough for awareness to notice what happens when it is not fused with thoughts.

3. Nondual teachers greet students with friendliness, even deep love and curiosity about who they are at all levels. This corresponds to the first level (out of six) of “validation” in DBT, in which there is an eagerness to engage the client demonstrated by alert physical posture and attention to the client. It is also a fundamental stylistic aspect of ACT, which asks therapists to consider whether they are treating clients more as “math problems to be solved” or “sunsets to be enjoyed”.

4. Teachers of nondual wisdom demonstrate an enormous amount of validation of students, meaning that they acknowledge what makes sense and is most positive within the thoughts, feeling and behaviors of the student, even as they point toward what will more effective. At a more radical level, nondual wisdom is validating of every experience and behavior that arises anywhere, insofar as it is an expression of Oneness moving “as it moves,” as Dorothy Hunt often says. Validation of what’s valid in client experience and behavior is a central stylistic component of DBT in reducing emotional dysregulation and reinforcing positive change.

5. On the other hand, nondual teachers frequently employ irreverent, nonlinear, and confrontive remarks to “jump the tracks” of the ways students are thinking about themselves and the world. The literature of Zen Buddhism is of course the most famous source of stories about this kind of teacher behavior, followed closely by Talmudic and Sufi tales. I have observed Gangaji and Adyashanti to say opposite and contradictory things to two students within the space of five minutes. Both of them, as well as Isaac Shapiro, are sometimes quite blunt and confrontational. The stylistics of irreverence play a prominent role in DBT, and appear in ACT as well.

6. Nondual teachers provide psycho-spiritual maps of the awakening process, and normalize experiences that are common on the path of awakening, such as a pre-awakening fear of emptiness, and the typical return of conditioning and re-identification after awakening. There is a substantial amount of psycho-education in both DBT and ACT, though not specifically about awakening itself.

7. The most prominent behavior in nondual teaching is the pointing at what is aware within us, as in Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry question, “who are you?” A more modern version of the question is “what are you?”, “what is aware of that experience?” or “what is already awake within you?” ACT has picked up some of these questions, while DBT points in a similar general direction with its “observe” skill.

8. Nondual teachers support the deconstruction of the stories we have taken ourselves to be, through the investigation and challenge of thoughts that create separation and suffering when believed. Byron Katy has made this the foundation of her “4 Question Work”. DBT (like most cognitive behavioral therapies) challenges thoughts by “checking the facts”, and ACT teaches “defusion” from thoughts by seeing them as thoughts (with dozens of metaphors and cognitive tricks).

9. Nondual teaching supports acceptance — allowing things to be just as they are – by pointing towards what within us is already and always completely accepting of what it experiences. This is another (and arguably more fundamental) way of arriving at what DBT teaches with the skills of Radical Acceptance, and Observing Non-judgmentally. ACT brings acceptance right into the title of the treatment.

10. A stronger version of this support of acceptance involves bringing it to experiences that have been avoided or feared. Nondual teachers urge students to investigate painful self-concepts (such as worthlessness), painful emotions and body sensations, and even that most feared no-thing, “emptiness” itself. Behaviorists call this technique “exposure” and employ it in the treatment of panic disorders, phobias and trauma. ACT treats “experiential avoidance” as one of the most significant factors in the maintenance of human suffering. In DBT “inhibited grieving” is seen as a feature of Borderline Personality Disorder that leads to “crisis generating behaviors.” Both treatments utilize exposure to reduce the impact of historical trauma and increase tolerance for distress so that clients can pursue values that create, in the DBT phrase, “a life worth living.”

11. Nondual teachers frequently ask students to consider what they value the most. Teachers who are not also psychotherapists will use this kind of question to clarify that what they are able to assist with is an investigation of what we are as awareness, and not how to communicate better or get a higher-paying job.[5] It seems important for students who seeking to experience “who we are as awareness” that the process of awakening usually requires a substantial commitment of focus and energy to accomplish and complete.[6] Adyashanti says, “All it takes is one thought being more important than attending to Oneness for the view of it to disappear.” There is nothing wrong with this – actually, to the mind, the view of oneness can get boring after a while, and there is a draw in the direction of other values. Nondual teachers frequently support students to discover that the essence of whatever they are seeking in the material world is embodied in what they are as awareness. The question of values and committed action in their pursuit is central to ACT, and has been picked up in recent versions of DBT emotion regulation materials.

12. Teachers of nondual wisdom frequently foster a sense of what ACT calls “creative hopelessness” about the attempts of thoughts to get rid of thoughts. A common difficulty that spiritual aspirants experience at many points in the awakening and liberation process is trying to get out of their identification with conceptual mind, either for the first time, or when it has returned after an awakening experience. Adyashanti’s pointer that “it is only the mind that is trying to get rid of mind, only thoughts that have a problem with thoughts” is echoed in the RFT research about thought suppression. Adyashanti has called nondual wisdom “the path of failure” insofar as all strategies of mind for achieving or holding onto awakening are doomed to fail.

13. Nondual teachers point to the wisdom that arises directly out of the stillness and silence of awareness. This is the wisdom of the obvious, that doesn’t know until it needs to know. Sometimes it is invoked by Adyashanti with the question, “What do you know that you wish you didn’t?” (Of course you have to watch out for judgmental voices of self-attack jumping in here – there’s a learning process involved in differentiating the voice of intuition from conditioned responses.) DBT calls this intuitive guidance “Wise Mind”. If I were asked to sum up DBT in 7 words, I would say “Reside in Wise Mind and speak behaviorally.”

Would a Fourth Wave be useful?

Having discussed what DBT, ACT and Nondual Wisdom have in common, it remains to explore in what ways they are different, and whether a potential 4th wave of behaviorism has any value to current practitioners of ACT and DBT. Do these third wave treatments already contain everything of behavioral importance that is described by the nondual wisdom traditions? If one is inclined to credit the reports of mystics and spiritual teachers that unity with the awareness of the universe is possible, will ACT and DBT take us there, or is something additional needed?

Marsha Linehan includes spiritual awakening on DBT’s list of treatment stages (at least in private training contexts), but outsources that stage of treatment to “treatments such as spiritual counseling, existential analysis or any work with a wise person.” (Knowlton, 2001-12) Without mentioning awakening or enlightenment per se, ACT techniques go a very long way toward providing what is useful in the awakening process. Yet, much as I admire ACT, it seems clear to me that teachers of nondual wisdom take at least one significant step beyond ACT, and perhaps two.

Although the techniques in ACT appear to me to have the potential to take us right to the gate of what nondual teachers call “awakening” or “enlightenment” — that moment when awareness sees itself as awareness — I have not seen any mention of this in ACT writings. This is typically such a dramatic and attention-grabbing moment that its lack of description within ACT is noteworthy. When I interviewed Steve Hayes in December, he did describe near death experiences that took him outside of how he had formerly experienced reality, and correspond to accounts of awakening in nondual literature. It remains to be seen how he will speak of this in public.[7]

The experience of awakening involves moving through a looking glass, a gateless gate, into a completely new operating system. Whereas ACT language still refers back to a somebody who is using these techniques and having an observing or contextual self, enlightenment is about the one Contextual Self seeing itself as what does everything. Simultaneously there is the recognition that there never was an individual self that was doing anything, that what we are as the oneness is what we have always been and always will be. This typically brings a colossal sense of relief and well being, and the sense that all is impossibly well.

In awakening, there is no individual that awakens. Instead, it is oneness that suddenly recognizes in a new body that it has always been the only being in all forms. After awakening we become a sense organ for oneness, nobody present except for what is aware. As God reportedly said through Mohammed, “My servant never ceases to seek nearness to Me until I love him. When I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks.” [8]

Dramatic as the “awakening” experience is, however, it is usually only the beginning of the next stage of the spiritual journey — called by Adyashanti and others “life after awakening,” “the embodiment process,” or the journey from “awakening” to “liberation.” Although there apparently are people for whom the initial awakening is so powerful that awareness within them never re-identifies with conditioned mind, this is not usually how it flows. What more commonly occurs is a gradual re-emergence of conditioned mind, as some particularly sticky thoughts are believed by awareness to be true. A Zen patriarch said, “Make the slightest distinction, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.”[9] Adyashanti has modified this to “Believe the slightest distinction,” while ACT would say, “Become ‘fused’ with the slightest distinction”. Like those trick birthday candles that reignite after being blown out, the sense of identification with a personality can reappear even after a powerful experience of awakening.

If and when personality reappears there can be an experience of deep disappointment, as if what had been “attained” (if it was thought of that way) had now been “lost.” When I first awoke at age 25 during a 2-week Vipassana retreat, and then re-identified with my conditioning about 3 months later, I was not involved with a teacher who understood these matters. The literature of the time said very little about how the experience of enlightenment could be “lost” and what to do about that. I experienced a deep depression lasting about 3 months, in which I believed I must be crazy to have thought I’d awakened. It took about 13 years of spiritual effort before I awoke again, only to “lose it” again. Gradually these glimpses of how reality works became more frequent, and I encountered in working with Adyashanti and his dharma teachers much better maps by which the mind could understand how this all works. I came to understand that the experiences of “got It, lost It” are usually an inevitable part of how oneness comes to take over.

In speaking of this journey from “awakening” to “liberation”, Adyashanti, Hunt and Kelly have become teachers to a large collection of students who have had awakening experiences but are seeking guidance in how to work with “life after awakening.” Adyashanti has spoken of experiences after which conditioned mind was no longer able to get a grasp on the attention of awareness – this is what he is calling “liberation.” If “awakening” is the first step beyond the door to which ACT can bring us, “liberation” would be the second step, though rather than a “step” it may perhaps more accurately be described as a process in which conditioning falls away, one chunk at a time. It is not clear how one would know that this process is really finished, except perhaps by noticing that there has not been a major re-identificaton lately.

All of these terms invite fusion and confusion – no nondual teacher worth his or her salt would claim to be “awakened” or “liberated” and therefore beyond the possibility of re-identification. When HWL Poonja was asked if he still need to be vigilant about the pull of conditioned mind, he replied, “To the last breath!” On the other hand, and to the further infuriation of a mind seeking to get this all properly “understood,” a nondual teacher might also sweetly inquire: “And what’s the problem with identification? Oneness is Oneness!”

However, to continue the thread of exploring how Fourth Wave Behaviorism or Nondual Wisdom moves beyond ACT as the most transcendent Third Wave treatment, awakening and liberation are quite different from what people are usually after in pursuing “happiness,” “mental health,” “spiritual experiences” or “encountering God.” The latter pursuits leave intact the “experiencer” or the “someone encountering God.” Awakening is the experience that there is no “one” separate from “the One,” and liberation is when that becomes final.

Most people use the transformational power of unconditioned awareness as fuel for making their “dream-state” operation run better. They will dip into the “unborn” to feel better for a moment, recharge their batteries, and then go back to pursuing the values that interest them. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with doing this, and this is probably how ACT works to help people be happier. This is only problematic if one has a belief that liberation is better than living in the matrix. It’s probably true that the less one is run by conceptual mind, the less suffering there will be.

A poem from Jelalludin Rumi illustrates the difference in these perspectives:

There’s a fur coat floating in the river.
“Jump in and get it,” says the teacher.
You dive in. You reach for the coat.
It reaches for you.
It’s a live bear that has fallen in upstream,
drifting with the current.
“How long does it take!” your teacher yells from the bank.
“Don’t wait,” you answer. “This coat has decided
to wear me home!” (Barks, 1995)

Rumi poems describe many different moments in the flow of awakening towards liberation, some in complete unity with Oneness, others in various states of separation. This one describes the process by which Oneness takes over, but it doesn’t quite make clear that we, as awareness, are the bear that is taking over.

At the beginning of the poem, “you” as the “student” (implied by the word “teacher”) are going after a fur coat as if it is something wonderful that you can take back to shore and wear to be warm, look cool, etc. This would correspond to an ACT client seeking to be happier, healthier, become enlightened, whatever. This is how we all enter onto our paths of healing, and perhaps even spiritual seeking. However, your teacher has tricked you. Instead of getting something that “you” will have for yourself, your life is taken over by what is alive within you as awareness. This “Infinite Mystery,” “no-thing-ness” or “whatever you want to call it” may have a different agenda than what was previously operating the system formerly known as “you.” The bear, your own deepest being as what’s aware, is wearing you home! What you end up doing may be very similar to what has been going on before, if you were in fairly close alignment with the flow of life, or it may be rather different.

The amount of comfort or discomfort we experience with the process at this point has everything to do with our ability to surrender to it. Surrender is not really very different from acceptance, though it sounds a bit more threatening. Like Adya, I have a preference for threatening formulations. What Oneness is up to may be the destruction of concepts that are important to your mind, and when that is the case, the experience is like how Jeanne Zande put it[10]: “God moves into your house, and She doesn’t like your furniture!” The journey from awakening to liberation involves the wearing away (or seeing the ineffectiveness) of the mind’s strategic efforts to reassert its claim of being in charge of behavior and experience. The continued demonstration that mind is unable to control reality is painful to the mind and an awareness identified with it, but in moments of clarity we can see the compassion in a universe that pulls us towards awakening and liberation.

What can Nondual wisdom contribute to ACT?

Although the intended function is different — for ACT it’s a life effectively lived in pursuit of meaningful values, for NDW it’s awakening to what we have always been — both ACT and NDW therapists are in the same business of teaching defusion from thoughts connected to experiential avoidance that distort our view of what’s going on. In acknowledging the convergence of ACT with nondual wisdom, Steve Hayes made a joke at an ACT workshop last spring: “How did a bunch of lab geeks become Buddhist monks?” It seems to me that a corollary of that question is this one: “As ACT therapists converge upon nondual teaching, what else could we learn from the awakened masters of that craft?”

As therapists, we have all had the experience of moments or even extended periods in therapy where the work is effortless and obvious. We have entered a wonderful state of flow, even a state of grace, a zone in which the words that come through us are just absolutely right. In contrast, we’ve also had therapeutic hours in which nothing seems to go right, we don’t know what to do, and it just feels crappy. Part of the point of working on psychological theory, and devising new models of how therapy can work better is to have a way to work with those crappy moments where what is coming to us doesn’t work. However, one of the most important things I have tried to teach my students in 25 years of training and supervising MFT interns is that the best first response to these moments is “to be willing to not know what to do.” In the willingness to not know, we stop desperately looking into our thoughts for what to do, and can instead rest in the silence of what is aware. Usually, out of this ground of awareness, inspiration arises about how to move in the session. It utilizes whatever models we’ve learned and experiences we’ve lived are most relevant and useful in that moment. We can find a way to rejoin with the flow of that moment, even if it’s a painful, difficult one.

In dropping into the silent stillness of awareness, there is no end to the depth of peace and wisdom available to us. At some point in that dropping we recognize that awareness has always been what we are, and that there is no finer therapist than awareness itself. This becomes therapy without a therapist, or therapy by the oneness of the whole universe. For ACT therapists to discover what has always been doing the therapy, and to learn to stay out of its way, will certainly allow more effective therapy to occur.

The more deeply any therapist is able to drop into the flow of this moment, the more effectively he or she can support a client in defusing from thoughts and finding self as context. Awareness calls to itself from within one body to another – there is a field effect in the presence of a spiritual teacher or a collection of people experienced in dropping into what is aware. When the student’s mind is momentarily stopped in the atmospheric field of a teacher in whom oneness has recognized itself (and if the student’s mind has been supported to relax by silent meditation and intellectually wearied by it’s efforts to comprehend what cannot be comprehended), the recognition by oneness of itself as the foundation of everything is more likely to happen.

At the level of verbal behaviors supporting defusion, NDW can continue to offer new metaphors and linguistic maneuvers beyond what has been borrowed by ACT thus far. As we experiment with these techniques, small corrections in the wording of what we say can make powerful differences in what our clients are able to experience. In watching videos and reading verbatim accounts of ACT therapists demonstrating interventions aimed at teaching self-as-context, I have noticed changes I would suggest in how some of the interventions are worded[11], based on years of watching and practicing such techniques.

What can Nondual wisdom contribute to DBT?

In considering how to relieve the life threatening suffering of clients who meet criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, Marsha Linehan knew from personal experience that a profound spiritual shift was required to set her on a more hopeful path. Her initial experience (described above) occurred within a contemplative Christian context, but as she began to study Zen Buddhism, nondual wisdom came to be at the core of DBT. She included a stage four into the treatment in recognition that dealing with fundamental spiritual issues was necessary for resolving the terribly unhappy feelings — including “chronic feelings of emptiness” — that torment BPD clients. At times Linehan has acknowledged her own doubts that any treatment can entirely heal the damaged lives of clients who have dealt with BPD, but if anything could, it might be the “all is well” feeling that comes with recognizing that we eternally are the oneness of the whole universe. Anything less than direct personal experience of this – “to your own satisfaction” as nondual teachers put it – will not suffice. Hearing about it from someone else, or having an intellectual understanding of the concepts involved, will not long satisfy a sensitive person who has suffered serious emotional pain.

Unfortunately, however, many clients are frightened of potentially transformative spiritual technologies as a result of traumatic experiences in religious settings, both in childhood and later. In an effort to circumvent these fears, Linehan has created secular descriptions for DBT mindfulness practices that have been traditionally associated with the contemplative side of world religions. These practices can help clients at the beginning of the path to wholeness, but because there has not yet been elaborated a purely behavioral approach to stage four, DBT therapists have had to outsource stage four to spiritualities traditionally taught by people in robes. This can be accomplished with some work on the religious trauma itself, but it would be useful to have nonreligious, behavioral maps of the whole journey of awakening.

Insofar as DBT was originated as a treatment for suicidal clients who met criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, DBT therapists necessarily work with clients at very high risk of killing themselves. This can be quite terrifying and stressful if the therapist does not experientially know that “what we are as awareness” was never born and cannot die. A therapist who knows “who we truly are” will support the parts of a client who wish to remain living as a physical body, but will not be frightened of the possibility that the client may die. Paradoxically, this lack of fear can enable the therapist to be much more effective (like a skier willing to lean out over the fall line) in performing therapeutic maneuvers to save the client’s life. For example, the “willingness to die” can be utilized by the therapist as a “willingness for radical change,” and it can be acknowledged that perhaps there are aspects of what clients takes to be themselves (for example, conditioned habits of vicious self-attack or ruminative cycles of hopeless thoughts) that do need to be allowed to die.[12]

Another nondual perspective that is relevant early in treatment concerns our reaction to client reports about “chronic feelings of emptiness, ” one of the nine DSM4 criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. Part of what is going on in these feelings of emptiness (in addition to the difficulty these clients have in maintaining satisfying interpersonal relationships), is that the genetically heightened emotional sensitivity of people who meet criteria for BPD allows them to perceive what is deeply true about the human condition – there is no “self.” It can be quite liberating for people terrified of this inner emptiness to be told that there is actually nothing actually wrong with this emptiness, except for the mind’s reaction to it. A mind led to believe that this emptiness should not be present and is a sign of terrible inadequacy reacts in fear, indeed horror. As Linehan described her own experience, “I felt totally empty, like the Tin Man; I had no way to communicate what was going on, no way to understand it.” (Carey, 2011) The only escape she could find was in self-injurious behavior.

The experience of emptiness upon awakening is quite different from the suffering experienced by people who meet criteria for BPD. However, the difference lies in the mind’s reaction, rather than an actual difference in the existential condition between someone with BPD and a person who has experienced awakening. In awakening, emptiness is seen as what is aware, and the infinite potentiality out of which all manifestation arises. It is also seen that all sentient beings possess this awareness, whether it has come foreground for recognition or not. So, as ACT teaches in many contexts, the problem lies in experiential avoidance of emptiness and fusion with concepts about a self that is supposed to be there, that everyone normal is believed to possess.

There is a popular saying in therapy circles that, “you have to have an ego in order to transcend it.” Although this is a comforting thought in the minds of therapists on the spiritual path — and although it is true that ego functions and skills are useful to have in operating within the dream state of duality — upon awakening it is seen that there never, ever was a separate ego self other than a collection of thoughts within a language structure utilizing pronouns. It may be true (as is suggested in Relational Frame Theory) that verbal relations do play some kind of role in developing a sense of self-as–context in children, that almost certainly verbal relations allowing the understanding of spiritual teachings helps people awaken, and that being able to regulate emotions and tolerate distress is useful in the awakening process. None of this requires the concept of an “ego.”

People who meet criteria for BPD have become particularly accustomed to looking to relationships with other people as a distraction from the emptiness present within everyone. When these relationships end or seem threatened there is the experience of “abandonment” – “the extreme fear” of which is another DSM4 criterion for BPD – as the mind desperately fights to keep a relationship in place to avoid experiencing the emptiness of what is aware. Adyashanti has pointed out that when people feel abandoned they imitate the action of the person who has left by “abandoning” their own awareness of what’s going in somatic experience of emotion. It can be useful to encourage people to “be there for themselves” as awareness, in the same way that Jesus was said to “suffer the children” to come sit in his lap while he taught. I frequently use this “inner child” metaphor with Christian clients.

DBT teaches “mindfulness of emotion” – in this context the meeting of somatic emotional experience – and NDW would see this as antidote for abandonment of awareness in contact with the body. A general direction of DBT mindfulness training, although I’m not sure I’ve seen this articulated by other DBT trainers, is to encourage borderline clients to look more within themselves to find what they have sought in outer relationships. It is by practicing mindfulness skills that clients may find an inner stability – not in their thoughts, but in what is aware. To paraphrase a familiar Buddhist saying, “Everything changes,” we can add that “what doesn’t change isn’t a thing.” The only stability to be found in a changing world is as “what is aware.”

As discussed in the section about NDW contributions to ACT, the more deeply emptiness has penetrated the experience of a therapist, the more effective he or she will be in teaching DBT mindfulness skills. There is no better meditation teacher than oneness itself. In teaching mindfulness, it is the emptiness within the teacher that makes contact with itself inside the student or client.

What can behavioral science tell us about the process of awakening that may be helpful? What can ACT and DBT contribute to NDW?

Steven Hayes has argued (Hayes, Making Sense of Spirituality, 1984) that it is appropriate for behavioral psychology to investigate the phenomenology of spiritual experience. He arrived at a description of “observing self” based on an analysis of “perspective taking” in human language rather similar to his observations described above on page 4. ACT subsequently elaborated techniques for helping clients defuse from taking thoughts about themselves to be reality that are undistinguishable from the behavioral procedures of nondual teachers. The behavioral analysis of language from which ACT derived these techniques provides a vantage point from which to understand how perceptual conditioning occurs through language acquisition.

A child learns to speak words for objects like “bear” or “mommy” by positive parental reinforcement for doing so. Words for relationships between these words such as “bigger than”, “before”, and “behind” are learned in the same way, and build into more elaborate hierarchies of relationships. These “relational frames” come to constitute the structure of language, which comes to structure how we perceive the world and ourselves. RFT describes as “deictic frames” words such as “I”, “you”, “here”, “there”, “then” and “now” that establish a perspective from which other words are spoken. Awareness may come to take these perspective frames as literal definitions of what it is. Positive reinforcement of these concepts by parents becomes the vehicle through which language becomes dominant in experience, and awareness identifies with concepts about being a particular someone.

Although awakening is a leap beyond conceptual mind, and concepts can never really understand oneness, a mind that is shown a compassionate theoretical map for the terrain leading up to that gateless gate can be more trusting, more willing to let go and allow attention to turn to what is always awake. Learning maps of the terrain from multiple sources can increase the mind’s confidence that it is safe to let go. Maps that explain the inevitability of re-identification many times in the passage from awakening to liberation can soothe the tendency to view it as a moral failing. I am speaking rather personally here; these maps have been helpful to me, though it remains to be seen if they will be helpful to anyone else. It is of course unnecessary to learn any particular model for awakening and liberation to occur, but this work is being offered in the likelihood that it may be a useful support for some beings along the path.

Of particular usefulness may be what ACT and RFT know about the paradoxes of efforts to get rid of unwanted experiences. A common difficulty that spiritual aspirants experience at many points in the awakening/liberation process is trying to get out of their ego identification, either for the first time, or when it has returned after an awakening experience. Adyashanti’s pointer that “it is only the mind that

is trying to get rid of mind, only thoughts that have a problem with thoughts” is echoed in the RFT research about thought suppression. Fusion with concepts about enlightenment and the consequent avoidance of “non-spiritual” experiences such as “negative” emotions are primary obstacles to awakening. It is the suppression of experiences considered “unspiritual” that constitutes “spiritual bypassing” as frequently mentioned in East-West psychology programs like CIIS. It’s a common cliché in nondual circles that the “only thing preventing you from experiencing yourself as enlightened is the belief that you’re not,” although defusion from this concept — and discovering how to look into “what is already awake” — is more challenging than a simple denial. Again, approaching these paradoxes from the vantage point of behavioral research may help some minds, like mine, to relax a bit and trust letting go into the “empti-full” ground of awareness.

The techniques of DBT can provide help to students whose emotional sensitivity and strong emotions interfere with their ability to explore into what is aware. For some such students, Adyashanti has prescribed emotion calming techniques such as breath counting prior to settling into what he calls “true meditation”, which involves residing in awareness and allowing whatever arises to be present. DBT offers a diverse and robust set of skills for regulating emotions sufficiently to pursue self inquiry. The detail supplied in DBT’s model of emotional functioning, and its emphasis on tracking somatic experience in “mindfulness of emotion” offers a similar amplification of Adyashanti’s remarks about the importance of attending to somatic experience in “meditative inquiry.”

Lastly, approaching awareness and awakening from a behavioral point of view is part of the larger convergence between science and consciousness being explored in our time. Bringing a scientific methodology to the behaviors of nondual teachers, and to the experiences of students going through the awakening and liberation process, can add to what is being explored at other levels of study such as the quantum level interface between neurological microtubules and the “zero-energy field in what Hayes refers to as “the game we call science”. This game, a sophisticated manifestation of curiosity about what is going on around us and within us, meets a certain kind of resolution as we discover through inquiry into the nature of what is aware, that what is “around” and “within” us is fundamentally undivided.

The Fourth Wave

Warning for hard-core behaviorists: Ontological Rapids Ahead! A couple of paragraphs from now, I’m about to make statements from the feel of Contextual Self that I cannot scientifically prove and that may not make sense to your mind unless you’ve had the same experiences that I’ve had. From my point of view, they meet the pragmatic truth criterion[13] insofar as they are intended to create an experience of deeper contact with Contextual Self. I hope that by acknowledging this issue, and your potential discomfort, we can remain in dialogue about it from different sides of an experiential divide.[14]

“Out of the one comes the two,” is the beginning of the Axiom of Maria Prophetessa. Although the poetry of this line might be elaborated in many directions, I find myself thinking in this context about a group of primates who began to use language, discovering an enormous power that allowed them to move to the top of the food chain. As they evolved into the human beings we know today, their fascination with the power of this language machine not only transformed the world around them, but also themselves and their experience of the world. When they looked at the world through the lens of language, it became divided by the knowledge of good and evil, here and there, you and me. The price paid for the power of language was the ability to create suffering in many new ways, both internally and externally. And yet it was out of this very tension, strife and even warfare between opposites that new possibilities could emerge: “Out of the two comes the three”.

G.W.F. Hegel used the term “dialectical” for the process through which life evolves more inclusive and transcendent structures out of conflict and struggle. As an intellectual process this eventually leads to the recognition of the relativity and limits of thinking itself, which invites a search for other means of experience as a balance to our thoughts. The integration of emotions and intellect promote healthier psychological functioning and increased personal freedom. Learning to understand and respond to the needs of other people while also attending to those of our own creates better relationships and undermines the tyranny of self-centered thinking. All of these dialectical processes support the arising of the next part of the Prophetessa’s axiom: “Out of the three comes the One.”

It seems “paradoxical” (a dialectical term in itself) that a return to the consciousness of original Oneness would arise from processes of spiritual exploration that are built from dualistic verbal and relational components. We use words to describe the limits of words – we tell stories that encourage people to leap beyond stories! Yet somehow this works, aided by the pull of what underlies and is aware of words and stories – our own original and eternal nature as the only being in the cosmos. What we have always been, the whole time that we took ourselves to be limited, struggling personalities, can always be relied upon to eventually bring us home.

As Jellaludin Rumi said, “Waves are supported by the ocean, all the way to shore,”[15] and I have added in a song, “What it is we truly are, lives forevermore.”[16]

As long as our eternal being animates a particular body, however, there is a difference from the original oneness worthy of mention in the final part of the axiom. Based on the experience acquired by a particular mind stream flowing within the river of human life, the consciousness of Oneness that emerges is fully inclusive of human experience, both “personal” and shared by all people. It is in recognition of this paradox — that “this very personality is emptiness, this very emptiness is personality”.[17] — that the axiom concludes, “the One, as the Fourth.” A fully human life, with all its sorrows and joys, triumphs and pain, is experienced from the perspective of what is never born and cannot die.

While these prosaic explications do not do justice to the poetry of the Prophetessa’s Axiom — any more than words can describe the unity of what we truly are –it seems to be in our nature to try to communicate to one another about what we experience and understand. This article is an example of such an effort, and only time will tell whether a behavioral approach to describing the process and methodology of spiritual awakening has value to some members of the community of third wave behavioral therapists and some members of the community of nondual teachers and students. From one point of view, the ultimate question is whether these words support a way for Oneness to rediscover itself within “you”, or if it has already done so, to help “you” support that discovery in the rest of your other bodies. Of course, in the big picture, there is really nothing to worry about in any of this – what you have always been will bring home all the parts within “you” and the world that have been playing hide and seek in separation. Oneness is doing just fine at liberating its creatures, — part of its play is the writing of these words and the reading of them right now.


Adyashanti. (2004,2006). Emptiness dancing. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Adyashanti. (2008). The end of your world. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Barks, C. (1995). The essential Rumi. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Carey, B. (2011, June 23). Expert on Mental Illness Reveals Her Own Fight. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from New York Times — Health:

Gangaji. (1995). You are That. Gangaji Foundation.

Hayes, S. (1984). Making Sense of Spirituality. Behaviorism , 99-110.

Hayes, S., & Smith, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Hayes, S., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy, The process and practice of mindful change, Second edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Hunt, D. (2004). Only this. San Francisco, CA: SF Center for Psychotherapy and Meditation.

Katy, B. (2003). Loving what is. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Knowlton, L. (2001-12). Original Justification. Retrieved 5 14, 2012, from DBT Self Help:

Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. (1996-2012). What is DBT? Retrieved May 14, 2012, from Behavioral Tech, LLC:

Shapiro, I. (2001). It happens by itself. Leuchow Press.

Wikipedia. (2012). Mary the Jewiss. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

[1] Maria Prophetessa, according to Wikipedia. (2012), “is considered to be the first non-fictitious alchemist in the Western world”, living sometime between the first and third centuries AD. Her axiom was used by C.G. Jung as a metaphor for the individuation process.

[2] An obscure American yogi given that name by Neem Karoli Baba to inspire imitation of the 20th century nondual sage Ram Tirth.

[3] According to Wikipedia, “Erhard Seminars Training, an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard, offered a two-weekend (60 hours) course known officially as “The est Standard Training”…. The est training was offered from late 1971 to late 1984.” The Wikipedia article mentions “Erhard’s connections with Zen beginning with his extensive studies with Alan Watts in the mid 1960s.”

[4] Behaviorists following the line of exploration laid out in the work of B.F. Skinner are “radical” not in any political sense but rather in their thoroughness in applying behavioral principles throughout human experience including the process of scientific investigation. This application eliminates reliance on invisible verbal creations such as the word “ego” or “self”. It also precludes any claim to articulate ultimate “truth” about anything we attempt to study and describe.

[5] Teachers like Dorothy Hunt, who is also a psychotherapist, asks people who want to see her whether they are seeking psychotherapy or “dokusan”, a meeting with the purpose of investigation what is aware

[6] This is suggested by the title of one of Adyashanti’s workshops, “The Initial Awakening – Above All Else.”

[7] – Steve Hayes has agreed that we will do a videotaped dialogue about these matters to be shown in a workshop I’m offering at the 2012 ACT World Conference this July, entitled “Who ACTS? An Exploration of Self as Context”. It may be possible for him to personally attend some of that workshop as well.

[8] A hadith qudsi, or saying of Mohammed recorded by one of his followers. One website listing this and other hadiths is

[9] Sengtsan, third Chinese patriarch of Zen. His “Faith of Mind Sutra” is available, among other places on the web, at

[10] At the Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy conference, San Francisco, September 2011.

[11] A thorough discussion of these are beyond the scope of the current paper, but the general idea is that when attempting to help clients notice what is aware within them, it is more effective to remain with interrogative pronouns like “who”, “what” or “where” than to slip back into terms like “the person behind your eyes” or even “a part of you that’s noticing”. These latter words reinforce the sense that there is an object to be found, thereby reducing the defusion effect.

[12] (I will elaborate these ideas further in an article I’m working on called, “Who Wants to Die? What Cannot Die?”)

[13] “In all forms of contextualism and in ACT, what is true is what works.” (Hayes, et al, 2012, p. 33) “Unlike correspondence theories of truth, the pragmatic truth criterion contains no element of ontology. It will not and cannot lead to claims about the nature of existence or reality as such. Pragmatically speaking, when we say a statement is “true”, we mean that it facilitates the desired consequences….” (ibid, p. 35)

[14] The issue of ontological statements being spoken from mystical states is an ongoing part of has my discussions with Steve Hayes and is likely to keep coming up as nondual teachers dialogue with behaviorists. I’ve mentioned that nondual teachers verbally contradict themselves with great frequency. Adyashanti, for example, has been recorded making any number of statements to students that sound like confident descriptions of spiritual reality, but he also said the following when an interviewer asked, “You suggested that we ask of ourselves, “What do I know for certain?” I would ask that question of you. Is there anything you know for certain?” Adya: Only that I am: that’s it. So in many senses I’m the dumbest person on the planet. Literally. Everything else, to me, is in a state of flux and uncertainty. Everything else we only dream that we know…. But the thing is, I know that I don’t know.” Adyashanti. (2008)

[15] The Rumi quotation, from Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi, may be found at

[16] “Trees of Life”, on the album “Seasons of Freedom” may be heard at

[17] This formulation paraphrases Heart Sutra, which states in various ways that “emptiness is form, the very form is emptiness.” One translation, by Edward Conze may be found at

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