Posts Tagged ‘Muhammad’

Bird feed in the park

The previous post ended just as I arrived at the venue for my meeting. This post picks up the threads after the meeting was over.

My friend and I, returning from our meeting via a walk across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, had got ourselves sorted at a table with one reserved seat for the return journey via Newport. My phone was plugged into the charger to tether my laptop ready to answer emails and create the report about the meeting.

Pretty soon after, a pale woman in her early thirties came rushing towards us brandishing her ticket and claiming ownership of the ticketed window seat, loudly but pleasantly. She was clearly a character. My friend slid out and sat across the aisle. She flopped into her seat, plugged in her phone and produced leaflets galore and a writing pad. Someone else clearly on a mission.

I couldn’t resist finding out what was going on and she was more than happy to tell us. She’d been facilitating a Dementia Training Day for support workers. She’d been doing this kind of work for about ten years and was clearly committed to it. She was adamant that people with this problem needed to be treated with care and respect. She shared how people irritated her so much when they said ‘I am just a carer.’

‘Just a carer! I hate that phrase. What on earth are they talking about? Don’t they understand how important caring is? People should recognise how valuable a carer is so that carers don’t feel they have to almost apologise for getting paid. End of rant!’

‘On a related topic but somewhat to one side, I was at a Death Cafe last month,’ I said.

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘A what?’

I explained it was where people could talk about death and dying without being shut up or criticised and how hard it was for some of the dying to feel that they were understood and truly cared for. Death, like dementia, was a subject that was almost taboo. Speaking of it could get you quarantined. And the dying could be rendered almost invisible.

‘Just as with Alzheimer’s, even if ordinary consciousness is warped, lost or nearly lost in the dying process, there is still a person in there. They must be treated the same as anyone else, even though they do not respond or communicate.’

She nodded emphatically in agreement.

The train had not set off yet and we were already in the thick of a deep conversation. I could see my report time being swept away on these waves of thought.

A young girl slid smoothly into the seat opposite me. We all smiled. The lady with the leaflets couldn’t remain silent even though I could see she was jotting down notes on her pad.

‘You just made it in time.’


‘Been doing anything interesting?’

‘I’ve been on a two day training course for dental assistants.’ She was by far the youngest of the four of us and seemed slightly more reserved though friendly. She mostly only answered questions and seldom chipped in with her views as the journey back to Wales began. She was heading for Cardiff like the Dementia trainer.

I never found out their names but feel it would be easiest to give them invented names for this account. So, the Dementia trainer will be Alison from now on, and the Dental Assistant in the making will be Denise.

Denise helped reassure Alison that there need be no pain from injections at the dentist, but the needles, which Alison found so daunting, had to be frighteningly long. She explained this and how the pain could be avoided completely but I was too busy typing my second paragraph to register what she said. I’m afraid I’m not up to Proustian multi-channelling. If the account of his friends is anything to go by Marcel Proust could listen to an opera, talk to his friends and monitor the conversation in the neighbouring box, all at the same time. He even registered key changes in the score, not just plot lines, apparently!

Alison began describing her work to Denise, who wanted to know more. She came across as warm, compassionate and dedicated to her work. She was skilled at keeping her explanations clear and accessible. She avoided the technicalities of amyloid plaques and focused more on the nature of the memory problems and how to help people maintain a happy quality of life in spite of them. I couldn’t resist praising her positivity and dedication. It was truly admirable.

She was hesitant about one thing though. There was the possibility of participating in a research project testing a new medication. She was quite scared of doing so because of the possible side-effects creating long-term damage. Denise thought that unlikely. I wasn’t so sure, sharing that this was difficult to assess as much of the research data generated by drug companies was kept under wraps so it was impossible to determine how many people had been adversely affected.

‘Maybe I’ll do it when I’m older,’ she added, with a rueful smile. I didn’t say so, but I felt that she was contributing hugely as it was. More was not required of her.

The ticket inspector suddenly appeared — well, suddenly to us as we had been so deep in conversation we never saw him coming. Alison produced a hand of cards.

‘Which one do you want?’ she asked. ‘I never travel on trains. This is only the second time in ten years. I’ve no idea.’

‘Paddington to Cardiff looks good,’ he said. ‘I don’t need the other ones.’ He moved on down the carriage.

I had noticed the silver crucifix pendant on her necklace and decided to comment on it now.

‘It looks as though you have a spiritual angle on all this as well.’

‘Some people see me as very Christian about all this,’ she sidestepped slightly, looking a bit embarrassed.

I decided not to push the issue of her beliefs.

‘I certainly have a spiritual take on it all. As a Bahá’í I believe our soul is still intact even when our body and brain are shutting down. At that level we know how we are being treated. That’s even more reason to deal with those who are damaged in this way with dignity.’

Another idea flashed through my mind.

‘At the Death Cafe . . .’

I saw the look on Denise’s face.

‘Ah! You weren’t on the train when talked about that were you?’

She shook her head. I briefly explained again.

‘At the Death Cafe,’ I picked up the thread, ‘it was amazing to be able to discuss the whole spiritual dimension freely with everyone feeling it was OK to say what they believed.’


I looked down at my computer and the first few words of the report I had been planning to draft on the train. I began to type. I noticed that my friend across the aisle was nearly asleep. For a short while Alison seemed happy to sort her papers out and make her notes in silence.

But not for long.


Park FountainI’m not sure how we got there but Alison was explaining how, at a recent training, she had seen how someone with dementia was managing to take care of herself and perform routine tasks with the help of prompts and lists. This triggered my memory of a recent TV documentary by Angela Rippon on the subject of dementia. It included a moving section in which a GP explained how she coped with her dementia with the help of a QR reader and an iPad, and by keeping all her dishes in the sink to remind her what she had eaten and drunk during the day. She was handling her problem so well she was even able to run a cognitive stimulation group for other sufferers based on Japanese research. Truly inspiring.

Even antihistamines came up as a topic as Alison shared that she might have to consider which brand to take. Amazingly I was able to share my own attempts to shed light on the topic. The evidence I’ve found suggests that anticholinergics like Piriton which cross the blood-brain barrier, trigger memory loss in some people. This may be true even for Loratadine, whereas Zirtek, which apparently doesn’t get into the brain, is safer. Alison was surprised that her own team did not seem to have this knowledge and noted it down to check it out.

I cannot help but feel that this established for me a degree of credibility so that when it later became my turn to rant I was listened to with patience and understanding.

The conversation had reverted to mortality, death, and the importance of being compassionate and helpful.

‘From my perspective as a Bahá’í, it’s really important that we all recognise that we are all members of the same human family. None of these divisions we’ve created count for anything really. Nationality, creed, race, and all the other labels we bring out are real. They’re creations of our cultures. Beneath all that we’re fundamentally the same, in body, mind and spirit. And until enough of us really believe that we’ll never solve the problems we’re facing now. The core of all positive belief systems in the end is love and wisdom, and as the being of light told someone before they were sent back to this life, that is all we can take with us when we die.’

“You had your rant before the end!’ Alison said with big grin on her face. We all laughed.

My friend roused from his slumber at this point. He seemed to have heard more than we thought and spoke of how this was true of all Faiths, including Islam, which he explained is much misunderstood at present. Both Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and Muhammad, expressed this spirit of love in their lives.

‘We can see this aspect of Muhammad’s character in the incident with an old woman. She really did not like Him. To express her contempt she used to throw garbage in His way whenever He passed by her house. One day, when He walked past her house there was no garbage thrown. This made Him check out where the old woman was. He came to know that she was sick and went to visit her offering His assistance. The old woman felt extremely humbled and ashamed of what she had done. She became convinced that Islam must be a true religion.’

As my friend spoke I tried to read the expression on Denise’s face. Was it boredom? Irritation? I couldn’t quite tell. She was looking a little pale.

My friend paused for a moment. No one spoke. He continued, ‘Bahá’u’lláh showed the same spirit. He was being taken to prison. As He was approaching the dungeon, an old woman emerged from the crowd with a stone in her hand. She was eager to throw it in the face of Bahá’u’lláh. Her eyes glowed with determination and fanaticism. Her whole frame shook with rage as she stepped forward and raised her hand to hurl her missile at Him. “I adjure you,” she pleaded, as she ran to overtake His captors, “give me a chance to fling my stone in his face!” Bahá’u’lláh said, “Suffer not this woman to be disappointed. Deny her not what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God.”’

Just then Denise almost fell off her seat in her sleep and had to be steadied by Alison. I put this down to her tiredness at the end of her demanding training rather than to her lack of interest in the topic. Not that I’m biased in anyway.

With perfect timing the train approached Newport where my friend and I had to get off. As I did so Alison spoke of how a blog would be a great way of capturing what we had all been talking about. I barely had time to scribble the name of this blog on her pad before I sped to the exit just in time to descend onto the platform as the train came to a complete halt.

My friend, who lived close by, helped me find the bus stop I needed. We said our goodbyes. As I stood waiting I noticed that a tanned, slim, elderly man in a dark suit carrying a suitcase was looking slightly puzzled. We started chatting. He’d been to London to watch the cricket at Lords.

I was able to help him clarify which bus we needed and he was grateful as he had not understood the mumbling rail staff’s hurried explanation that the first bus was a stopping service and the 18.00 was the one that went direct to Hereford.

Once on the bus our chat continued. It roamed across many topics: left-wing politics including socialism, pacifism through Buddhism to the Bahá’í Faith, republicanism, as well as our experiences of university. To go into more detail would tax any reader’s patience.

I definitely felt at the end of these two journeys in and out of London that my declared delight in deep conversations was being put to the test. I think it passed because, even after such an early start and all the constant talking throughout the day both on the trains and in the meeting, I was uplifted rather than exhausted. I am grateful for having been able to spend such fascinating spans of time with such interesting people.

Birds across water

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I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2012.

I’ve been catching up with an intriguing three part series called ‘Divine Women‘ in which Bettany Hughes looks back through the mists of history to bring into the light of day the important part women can be shown to have played in the development of religion. The link is now only to a 30 minute group of extracts. I’m posting this quickly so those in the UK who are interested can download it before it disappears on Friday.

In the first episode, When God was a Girl, she goes back for clues to a 12,000 year old site at Gobekli Tepe and what she described as the oldest religious building so far discovered. A nomadic people, with no complex settlement, had shifted 16 ton blocks of stone to erect it. She made the interesting observation that such a site preceding a settlement strongly suggests religion is key to forming human society rather than the other way round. In terms of her main thesis, the prominent position of the picture of a woman carved into the rock suggested that women played an important role in the religion of that time. She looks at the same trend continuing on the artefacts found at other site throughout the immediately succeeding millennia.

The next part Handmaids of the Gods, leapt to the age of the Greeks. Professor Judy Barrington could be seen declaring: ‘If you take women out of Greek religion, it’s basically empty.’ Then things get really interesting with the Romans and the rise of Christianity.

She begins with a text, not included in the Bible, that describes the acts of St Paul and Fekla (the Cyrillic form of the Greek ‘Thecla’ and the Latin  ‘Tekla’). Bettany Hughes feels that the ‘end of the world’ emphasis of Paul’s message at the time would have released women from the burden of their traditional roles which suddenly ceased to matter. ‘Motherhood! Why bother?’ captures the feel of it. There’s no need to struggle to keep the population up when it’s all going to be over soon anyway. Even when the end of the world was seen not to be nigh at all the position of women was more firmly established. They were seen very much as equal in the early Christian Church.

50% of Rome’s early churches were apparently founded by women. As is widely recognised, in the catacombs there are images of women presiding over the Eucharist and one is clearly wearing an alb, a long white robe worn by priests and other ministers.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the whole of this programme came when Bettany Hughes spoke to Father Scott Brodeur at the Gregorian University in Rome. He prepares men for the priesthood. He quotes from St Paul to the Romans (16: 1-2) as follows:

1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

(This is not the wording in every translation: my own copy refers to her as a ‘servant.’ Others have his wording: see link for an example.) And Father Brodeur claims Paul was asking the Christians to be guided by her in understanding his message to them. This was in his view testimony to the real importance of her position in the early church.

She locates one of the key influences in reducing the status of women in the church to St Augustine, of  ‘Lord, make me chaste but not yet’ fame. He apparently contended that the state of original sin is perpetuated by the sexual act that produces us. Because Eve had encouraged Adam to sin the role of women was increasingly sidelined and the history of the church rewritten to bring it into line with that version of reality. The Council of Nicea in 393 A.D. defined women as laity, setting its seal of approval on the relegation of women in the Western church.

In the east, covered in the third part, it was rather different. St Theodora, though vilified in the west, was admired in the east and played a huge role in the formation of the foundations, legal and religious, of the Byzantine Empire. To her is attributed the idea of ‘innocent until proved guilty’ for example. In early Islam also women such as Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammad, and Aisha, his second wife, were central to the development of Islam in its early years.

When it comes around again as it probably will, this series is well worth a look.

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Bahá’u’lláhThe Seven Valleys‘: pages 21-22 which ends with a hadith or tradition about a saying of Muhammad.)

Is the soul a smoke and mirrors job?

There is, in some scientistic quarters where materialism is dogmatic rather than enquiring, a prevailing distrust of any statements of a mystical nature. This scepticism routinely crosses over into suspicions of insanity even when the source of the mystical statement would, on closer investigation, be found to demonstrate a strong, balanced and exemplary character without any other sign of delusion. In fact, in the real world as against in the fantasies of reductionists, mystics are almost invariably very practical people, something that gives their mystical pronouncements added credibility in my view.

Ever since the so-called Enlightenment, our culture has been increasingly losing the ability to discriminate between madness  (seen as meaningless because hallucinatory and delusional, though for reasons I argue elsewhere not necessarily meaningless even so) and mysticism, which is not hallucinatory or delusional in any acceptable sense of those words. I would earnestly request anyone harbouring such a sceptical tendency as I describe, to suspend their habit of disbelief for a few moments for reasons that will become clear as this exploration advances.

Before you read beyond them I would like you ponder on which of the following passages was written by a philosopher and which by a religious person.

Meditation, the first man says:

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

The second man states of meditation that it:

. . . frees man from [his] animal nature [and] discerns the reality of things.

Even though I tried to equalise the style you probably got it right. The first statement comes from Peter Koestenbaum (page 99) and the second from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Paris Talks: page 175).

I think you will agree though that they are more complementary than in conflict.

What each goes on to say is even more intriguing. Koestenbaum ends by saying:

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . .  the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are:

[Meditation] puts man in touch with God.

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

The terms meditation, reflection and contemplation are used almost synonymously in many passages. In discussing what he terms reflection within the existentialist tradition, Koestenbaum speaks of it as ‘separating consciousness from its contents.’  It can be also termed disidentification when it involves separating our consciousness from our ideas of ourselves and leads into the deepest levels of our being.

So, it is not just mystics that find our ability to reflect remarkable. Existentialism, which is not known for a fairytale take on experience, gives it tremendous weight as does the Bahá’í approach. This is not a trivial issue. Both schools of thought, and many therapeutic approaches, see reflection in this strong sense as a key pathway to personal transformation, self-transcendence and the enhancement of society.

The Importance of Experience

We will postpone for a moment whether this entails an acceptance of other things such as the reality of the soul. What it does mean is that this capacity we have is subject to the test of experience by all of us. And when we try it out we may find it leads us in unexpected directions that call into question some of our most cherished assumptions. It will inevitably do so because it separates us at least for a moment from those assumptions, cuts across our identification with them, and enables us to look at them afresh. This is why we need to be prepared to suspend our disbelief long enough to put these ideas to an empirical test.

Our culture embraces its own narrow idea of empiricism. By this it generally means only controlled experimentation and excludes

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

personal exploration through experience. There are many things in this world that we can only discover by doing not by reading, talking or thinking about them. Nor can we understand them by a method of scientific exploration that turns people into objects rather than subjects. In ‘objective’ mode, we become like a colour-blind neuropsychologist who knows everything about the way the brain processes colour but can never know what colour is like when we see it (I have adapted this comparison from David J. Chalmers: page 103).

Experiencing our ‘self’, in the fullest and deepest sense of that chameleon word, in order to discover who we really are, is one of those things.

So, I have a challenge for us all. I am suggesting that between now and the next post we all try the following experiment. We need to find a quiet space to do the following exercise at least once a day: it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. It is based on ideas from Psychosynthesis, psychology, Existentialism and the Bahá’í tradition. It is worth persisting with even if it feels somewhat artificial at first. Not to even try is pre-empting the possibility of an experience that could expand our minds. It works best if we approach it with open-minded curiosity as a personal experiment, not as a holy grail or a superstitious ritual.

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

Sit comfortably and at first simply read the following suggestions several times. When you feel ready, close your eyes, breath slowly and gently, and in your mind repeat the suggestions to yourself at least three times. Put your own ideas into the round brackets if you wish.

I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts. My thoughts change from moment to moment. Just now I was thinking of (money): right now I am thinking of (these words): soon my mind will be preoccupied with (my next meal). So I cannot be my thoughts. I am my capacity to think, the well spring of all my thoughts.

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. My feelings change from moment to moment. One minute I’m feeling (angry), perhaps; the next moment I’m feeling (sad). So, I cannot be my feelings. I am my capacity to feel from which all other feelings grow.

I have plans, but I am not my plans. My plans change from moment to moment. One minute I plan to be (rich), perhaps; the next moment I plan to be a (poet). So, I cannot be my plans. I am my capacity to will from which all my plans grow.

I am a mirror of pure capacities. I am a mirror created to reflect the highest possible reality. I will do all in my power to cleanse this mirror and turn it towards the highest imaginable realities.

(This exercise is an adaptation of the Disidentification Exercise originally described in `Psychosynthesis’ by Roberto Assagioli: see earlier link.)

Next time we will take a long look at the implications of this. We will look at what the distinction between a mirror and what it reflects suggests about us. In the meantime, happy mirroring!

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How dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form

When within thee the universe is folded?

(Ali, Successor to Muhammad,

quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in ‘The Seven Valleys‘ page 34)



Near death experiences come to the same conclusion as Ali:

As I indicated at the outset, what I have quoted here from our conversation describes only a portion of Mellen’s NDE, but it is enough, I think, to make clear that his vision is one of absolute wholeness in which all things are connected in a living cosmic web of organic unity. The visible universe is a universe of vibrating fields within fields, a dance of exquisite harmony, where, as Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight,” and everything sings of God’s immanent presence. At its core, exfoliating from the Void, is that radiant Light, which some have called the Central Sun, and which metaphorically may have its physical representation in the Big Bang, the genesis of it all, including the star-stuff we call ourselves. Because all things are truly one within this vision of life, we human beings-indeed, all living creatures-are one body indivisible and, as such, not separate from God either, but His very manifestation.

(‘Lessons from the Light‘: page 291)

Reductionists, those who would explain everything in the simplest possible material terms and insist there is nothing left over, find all such experiences irrelevant to an understanding of ‘reality.’ When we explore the issue carefully though, it is my belief that we will find a way of reconciling the idea of a soul and a limitless interior (inscape as I called it in an earlier post) with ordinary human experience.

Let’s start relatively small.

The Ghost in the Machine

The argument rages over whether the ghost in the machine, the pilot in the cockpit of our being, really exists or not. The question would then become not ‘Are we a self or a soul?’ but ‘Are we even a self?’

Daniel Dennett is clear. There is no ghost whatsoever in the machine. It’s a myth. Serial consciousness is itself an illusion. We also kid ourselves  if we believe for one moment that the self we feel ourselves to be is really in charge.

I’d better say, right at the outset, I’m not a philosopher as Dennett is. I am or was until I retired an applied psychologist by profession

A real lamp post!

A 'real' lamp post!

and before that a teacher of English Literature. When it comes to philosophy I’m about as advanced as Dr Johnson when he kicked a lamp post to refute Bishop Berkeley‘s solipsistic claim that things existed only as ideas in our minds placed there by God.

I will argue none the less that Dennett is fundamentally mistaken.

He produces what for him is compelling evidence that our complex brain has plotted and initiated its responses before we were even aware of what we intended to do let alone had the faintest possibility of making a decision about it. The fact is though he is talking about a response time experiment when we also know, for instance, that athletes delegate their decision to react to the gun to parts of the brain that respond subliminally before conscious attention gets the signal. That’s one of the reasons you get false starts.

But the decision to delegate is not made by those parts of the brain. So that we do not get eaten all that often by tigers and the like, evolution has shaped us to be able, in emergency situations, to react faster than we can think: that does not mean we choose to do that all the time. It’s not how we decide to buy a house or write a book. If it were ‘Consciousness Explained‘, the Dennett book in which this theory is propounded, would simply be the product of the automatic processes of a complex calculating machine not the purposeful carefully wrought creation of a person.

The brain has also evolved to automate well-learned skills such as driving a car. We’ve all had the experience of driving several  miles on ‘automatic pilot.’ To suppose, as Dennett seems to do, that  this is the same kind of process as deciding where to drive is treating mud as though it were cheese. Even if we were blindfolded with a peg on our nose, the latter error would become immediately obvious when we put the mud in our mouth. Unfortunately we do not have a similar palate wired in for distinguishing logic from confusion. So, Dennett gets away with his extravagant overgeneralisation. We end up believing, if we are not very careful, that my decision to go and visit my cousin in Manchester was not an act of will but of unseen processes in the brain automatically unfolding.

I’m afraid free will is a lamp post for me. When I decided to write this blog I kicked it and it was definitely there. (The brain’s complex automation adds a further complication to this which, for simplicity’s sake here, I am deferring to a later post: in spite of it I still can kick my lamp post of free will!)

But if there is still some kind of ghost in the machine what kind of ghost and what kind of machine are we talking about?

Identity, Self, Character and Soul

Previous posts on this blog looked at some of the arguments and evidence as to whether or not we will enjoy some kind of afterlife. If this belief has substance, then we have some kind of soul. What are the implications of that for our identity?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his conversations with Laura Clifford Barney (Some Answered Questions [SAQ]: Page 212), explained that there are three kinds of character: the inherited, the acquired and the innate.

`The inherited character’, which he sees as the source of weakness of strength, most closely corresponds in layman’s terms to the idea of `temperament’ or `constitution’. ‘The acquired character,’ which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the source of good and evil, has no simple equivalent being a composite of all that results from our life experiences: the concepts that stand closest to it are the `empirical self’, (which interacts with others, performs social roles and meets the gaze of introspection), and, perhaps, the `personality’ (which, it is claimed by some, can be measured by questionnaires and tests but generally has no moral implications for the psychologist who studies it).  The last, `the innate character’, is described as `purely good’ because it is a `divine creation.’ This seems to relate it closely to the human soul: `The personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body . . .’ (SAQ, page 240).

This description suggests that our sense of who we are is likely to be a composite and we may choose at different times to identify with these different aspects. We could be a self and a soul on this model, and not have to choose between the two as the title of this post suggested.

It is easy to see how we come to identify with our body and with the character we slowly develop as we grow and learn from interactions with the world and with other people. It may be harder, if not impossible for some of us, to experience our soul at all let alone identify with it.

How do we do that? What does it feel like?

Those are big questions and will have to wait for the next post.

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