Posts Tagged 'spirituality'

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

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Andrew Cohen and the decline of the Guru institution – Part II

While I have had several spiritual teachers, I have never had a guru – one particular main (or exclusive) teacher to whom had to submit myself and open my heart, trusting him to take me, hand-in-hand, to the end of the road. There are many reasons for this, one of which I am sure, is my excess of pride and ego. In order to surrender, one has to give up one’s independence and I’ve always been too proud to do that.

Do not hurry dear readers, to conclude that it is such a good thing that I’ve never submitted myself in such a way. There is a great spiritual secret in surrender, and sometimes it is surely necessary. Surrender to an external authority is no more than, when all is said and done, acknowledgment of the uncertainty of life and of our feebleness in the face of the forces of the universe – recognition of just how diminutive we are.

Along with its risks, total obedience can be a powerful tool for self-knowledge and development. If indeed “a man’s greatest possession is his choice”, then relinquishing one’s choice is relinquishing one’s greatest possession – and there are important things to be learned from such relinquishment, from such surrender.

The guru institute is in trouble. This is not, however, one of the signs of the Age of Aquarius or of a new spiritual dawn. The spiritual teacher is not some remnant from the past that can now be discarded, since we are now modern, progressive and oh-so-clever individuals. Anyone who assumes that we have hindrances and conditionings that we cannot liberate ourselves from on our own (either because we do not see them, or because we do see them but are tempted by them), also assumes that we need help. The guru constitutes a particular, intense, kind of help.

It is hard to believe that spiritual development that would not include inter-subjective relationships would be possible at all. No Man is an Island, wrote John Donne and as Wittgenstein added – no language is private. The guru constitutes – along with the spouse and the parent – a highly significant “significant other”. The reflections that we are able to receive from the psychological mirror provided by someone close to us can be invaluable – especially if that individual possesses depth and wisdom.

However, as we have been made aware, such relationships are liable to become exploitive and destructive. In a previous article, we touched on the demotion of Andrew Cohen, one of the most well-known spiritual teachers of our time. In order to explore the guru issue, as well as the issue of Andrew Cohen, I asked my friend Amir Freimann to share some of his experiences and insights. Freimann, currently an important social activist in the field of education, director of the Education Spirit Movement, spent twenty-two years of his life in Andrew Cohen’s community, until he left it five years ago. I asked him a few questions:

What made you give so many years of your life to a teacher? What did Cohen give you in your spiritual path?

First of all, perhaps above all, meeting him created within me a commitment to the spiritual life. Until I met him I had one foot in the “worldly” world – studies, career, fame, money, women and the other foot in the “spiritual” world – existential questions, love for the mystery, attraction to the sacred, religious feelings. Even the two years I spent in a Zen monastery in Japan with a wonderful Zen teacher did not lead me to change that ambivalent position. As a result of my meeting Andrew and spending time in his company and as a result of the confidence he gave me in the validity and significance of the spiritual journey, I planted both my feet in the spiritual world. This meant that I availed myself fully to the process of closing the gap between my deepest experiences and insights and who I am as a human being.

In addition, when I met Andrew, at the age of 29, my life revolved around myself and even my “spiritual aspirations” were completely self-centered. I didn’t really care about other people – unless they could be of some benefit to me. Of course, I wasn’t aware how egocentric I was – how could I have been aware of it? But when I left the community five years ago, at the age of 50, I could say whole-heartedly “that life is not for me” and commit myself to work aimed at profound internal development of our society and culture, as well as of individuals and groups that I come into contact with and form friendships and collaborations with.

There’s something else too – thanks to Andrew I had the opportunity to participate in profound spiritual work in a community of serious, intelligent and committed people, for a period of two decades. I don’t think that such communities and such endeavors can really exist without the guidance of a spiritual teacher. I have not encountered or heard of such situations. I’m referring to a process in which I faced and engaged with many of the conditionings that distort and limit my human-ness -, the free, full and creative expression of who I am and of who we are as human beings.

You said that meeting Andrew helped you decide to commit yourself to the spiritual journey – what was it in your meeting that caused that?

When I met Andrew, in the summer of 1987, I was at the end of the fifth year of medical studies in Jerusalem. A good friend of mine, who had already met Andrew in Europe, told me that a “spiritual teacher” was visiting Israel and invited me to join them for dinner. I remember the first impression Andrew made on me – I was surprised by how young he was (around my age) and by his odd laughter. I thought to myself: “He’s just a typical neurotic Jewish guy from New York…” It was not at all how I expected an “enlightened teacher” to be, but during that evening, in which we spoke for hours about enlightenment, time and spiritual practice, I sensed that the man was the most open and vulnerable, unassuming and unpretentious person I had ever met. I felt that in his presence, a kind of tough knot within me started to relax and dissolve.

At one point during that evening I asked him what he thought the reason was that I was not yet enlightened, even after years of spiritual practice. He looked at me for a while and said “because you’re afraid”. I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you think I’m afraid of?” I asked He replied that I would have to answer that question myself. That night I sat on my bed for hours and tried to work it out what it was that I was afraid of, until I found an answer that satisfied me. In the morning I called him and asked to meet him. When we met I told him that more than anything I was afraid that I would waste my life and die without knowing who I am, what it’s all about and what I am here for. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said that – he was so happy! Then he looked at me very seriously and said: “You should treasure that fear, it will take you all the way.”

It was the first time in my life that somebody validated, with such confidence and conviction, my search for answers to the “big questions” and the possibility that I would find those answers myself. I felt that he knew exactly what I was talking about, and that his confidence and conviction were based not upon belief but upon his personal experience. Looking back, I think that it was that validation and his confidence and conviction – which he expressed again and again in different ways – which enabled me, within a few weeks, to undergo a breakthrough. The breakthrough came in the form of a series of experiences, which transformed me from a “spiritual seeker” to a “spiritual finder” and completely changed my priorities in life. As a result, I decided that my overriding purpose in life was to live an “enlightened life”. Since I lost all interest in my previous ambitions, I left medical school, left Israel and went to England to be in Andrew’s company and continue with him, the process of my spiritual awakening.

I’m very moved by that story. But after all that beauty, what led you to become disillusioned and leave Andrew and his community 5 years ago? Was it related to the latest developments?

The reasons for my leaving were very much related to the reason for which he was recently demoted. However, at the time when I left, neither I nor Andrew’s other senior students realized quite how severe the problem was. At that point I saw the reasons for my leaving as personal and specific to me. I didn’t realize that they were actually related to a fundamental and serious problem in Andrew’s conduct and in all our relationships with him. Only over time, particularly since I heard the news of his stepping down and read his apology and the criticisms of him, have I started to see how my story was only a symptom of a malignant condition.

Anyway, my leaving was triggered by two issues relating to Andrew and to his community. The first was that I felt that instead of moving forward and discovering new territory, as I had felt during the first 15 years or so in the community, we were now going around in circles. Despite all the bells and whistles, we weren’t actually going anywhere, we weren’t developing. The second issue, which I began to become aware of about a year before I left, was that although we said that our purpose was to participate in the evolution of consciousness and culture and facilitate it, in fact we were investing all our energy in attracting people to join us, to join our specific spiritual teaching. You could say that I started becoming aware of our ego, as a spiritual movement and as an organization, and I started feeling increasingly uncomfortable with it.

At the time I was co-managing the center in Israel, and I decided that if we really wanted to contribute to the development of the society and culture here, then we have to go out and get involved with what was happening in the society and culture, rather than keep busy only with our small center in Jaffa. The moment I started doing that, I started flourishing. Within a few months I was managing an online community called “Spiritual Culture”, interviewing cultural leaders for a column I had in Ynet, called “I Have a Dream”, collaborating with a group of educators to establish the “Education Spirit Movement” and connecting with all kinds of people who are contributing, with deep commitment and a lot of spirit, to the cultivation of depth in our society. You could say that I discovered that I have brothers and sisters outside of the community as well and even outside the so-called “spiritual world”.

Initially, to my surprise, Andrew supported me in that endeavor but at some point he must have decided that I and the Israeli center were becoming too independent, and to put a stop to that. He demanded unequivocally that we focus our energy on “inter-organizational” activities related to his teaching. At that point I started doubting his motives and developed an increasing sense of grievance towards him. Then, while I was visiting the community’s world center in the USA, he called me for a meeting and told me that he had decided to close the center in Israel and that he wanted me to return to the US and be part of the “core group” around him. At that moment something broke within me. I knew that he was completely wrong and that I shouldn’t acquiesce – that complying with his instruction would mean I would be betraying myself and all the people I had developed connections with in Israel. Suddenly the magic was gone. As soon as I said “no” to him, I ceased regarding him as my teacher. I returned to Israel as a “free man” and although I went through a lot of pain as a result of leaving him and all my spiritual comrades, who had comprised my entire world for the last 20 years, I was in no doubt that I was doing the right thing. Everything that has happened since then showed me that I was right.

From the perspective of a very committed disciple, who also knew when to move on, do you think that the “guru institute” has validity in the current Western spiritual world?

The highly unusual relationship between a spiritual teacher, rabbi or guru, and the disciple, has always offered an extraordinary opportunity for spiritual growth – as well as fertile ground for sexual, financial and mental abuse and for all kinds of pathologies. Anyone who decides to enter into such a relationship with a teacher should take into account both the rare opportunity and the huge risk involved. The way I see it – if the individual making the decision is relatively mature and sane, the responsibility for this decision and its consequences ultimately lies with him or her.

I may not be an objective judge regarding myself but it seems to me that I came out of my 22-year relationship with Andrew a better person than when I entered it – and I can testify that some of my friends in the community underwent a process of significant mental and spiritual deepening and growth. Others, as you know, had quite a different experience, and came out hurt and traumatized from the very same situation.

Based on my impressions of other spiritual communities led by a teacher, it seems to me that in those communities you often find a kind of spiritual work that would not be possible under different conditions. Yet so many people come out of such communities hurt and psychologically damaged, including people from Andrew’s community, that the damage often seems to outweigh the benefit.

What, then, are we to conclude about the validity of the “spiritual teacher institute” in our era? The conclusion is unclear to me, especially because I don’t yet see a proven substitute for this institute. I can try to imagine one but I haven’t yet seen one that actually works, so for me, the question remains open.

Andrew Cohen (left) and Amir Freimann, 1991

Published in Maariv newspaper, 26.7.13, and today aired on Integral World.

The Impossible Exists – an interview with Jeffrey Kripal

On October 17, 1917, sixty thousand people gathered at a field outside a town called Fatima, Portugal, in anticipation of an appearance of Mary, Mother of God. They did so after such revelations occurred on the previous five months. The first time the Madonna appeared, in May, she was seen by three little children. Since she promised them she would appear again over the next few months on the same date, in June they brought the people of their village. She did indeed show up. In July the audience numbered in the thousands, and she appeared again. The audience kept growing until by October there were tens of thousands in attendance, and they were not disappointed. Just as she promised, the Blessed Virgin appeared on the top of a tree.

Or did she? Many did indeed see the figure of a woman atop the tree, but others actually saw a cloud, or a ball, or an airplane, or a disk, or something large descending from the sky, emitting sounds akin to prolonged thunder, or lightning and flames and fireworks. Some saw “a large cross emerging from the sun”, and others “an illuminated boulevard” in the sky. There was also multi-colored fog. Some of the witnesses – and, as mentioned above, there were thousands of them – testified that “the earth divided into squares, each in a different color.” Some felt the earth move. Some saw a white matter falling from heaven and accumulating on the ground.

artwork by Michael Brehm of the University of Chicago Press, used with permissionSo what happened at Fatima? For the Catholic Church, there was no question. It was divine revelation. The site was declared holy and today it is the location of the church of Our Lady of Fatima. Some thought the end of the world had come. Some tried to explain it as a novel natural phenomenon, and, as of the 1960s, many associated the matter with UFOs, seeing it as evidence for aliens visiting earth.

So what did happen at Fatima? According to Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, one of the foremost living scholars of religion, we really don’t know. All attempts to explain the apparition are nothing more than projections of our symbolic world outward onto the phenomenon. According to Prof. Kripal, the UFO narrative is also nothing more than a translation of the supernatural into the technological age in which we live. But that’s less important. What is significant is that something indeed did happen there which simply cannot be explained without turning to the realm of what Kripal terms “the impossible”; and Kripal wants us to understand that even if it is difficult – or actually impossible – to define, “the impossible” does exist. And it impacts us. And it’s a very essential part of us.

Kripal himself is hard to define as well. He is a professor specializing in the study of contemporary spirituality, but his readership is not limited to academics. Nearly every book he published has become a story in and of itself, and his research has ranged over the years from an analysis of the tantric-sexual motives of the great Indian saint Ramakrishna, through a summary of the history of one of the mainsprings of new-age and counterculture in the US, the Esalen Center, to the study of the paranormal – which is to say, “the impossible.”

“the impossible” is the name Kripal gives to various phenomena of the paranormal, supernatural, religious and sacred realms. These phenomena, he stresses, arise as a sort of dialog between one and the world, perhaps between one and existence itself, and will therefore always manifest as a reality one can relate to (for instance, the Holy Mother). Later on one will interpret them accordingly, and add description from one’s own imagination. This is the moment at which the impossible becomes a narrative, and in essence a myth. It is in this form that we receive it through the stories of all religions. But in its essential form the impossible is always inexplicable, always alien. Those arriving at Fatima today will hear about a revelation of the Madonna, although from testimonies gathered later it is clear that many did not understand it this. Did not, in fact, understand it at all.

In the modern, Western secular world the impossible is twice-removed from us. Firstly, because, as usual, we do not understand it. Secondly, because we deny its existence. We won’t even accept the religious myths about it. Both the impossible and the symbolic story it’s wrapped up in are rejected by modern secular society, so that we are left with no contact with the mysterious dimension of life. In his most recent book, Mutants and Mystics, Kripal points to the last place that allows us contact with the impossible: Fantasy and Science Fiction novels. According to Kripal, in modern Western society the impossible has been exiled and marginalized to the spheres of literature and cinema.

Kripal finds it in particular in the superhero stories of American comics. These develop super-powers due to exposure to radiation (Spiderman, Hulk), or sometimes they are creatures from another planet who actually lose their powers upon exposure to radiation (Superman); at times they are simply humans who have mutated (X-Men) and thus acquired powers which anywhere outside the confines of the comics universe would be considered spiritual and even holy. Adolescents today dream of becoming superheroes and not saints or spiritual guides. They immerse themselves in fantasy tales such as “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” which talk of epic battles between absolute good and absolute evil, while religious myths of the exact same nature are left to collect dust.

The paranormal is something that occupies Kripal’s life. In fact, while writing his PhD dissertation, he himself underwent an out-of-body experience in which he felt “electrocuted by God” and began floating above the ground. He claims that this experience has influenced all of his research since, and the fact that he is willing to speak of it is exceedingly rare in the academic world. Most researchers maintain a strict separation between their personal lives and their studies, and discussing personal mystic experiences is almost taboo.

In late May Kripal will be coming to Israel, to speak at the opening of The Fifth Israeli Conference on the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality, to be held at Tel Aviv University on May 28-29. The conference will feature over seventy lectures, which will touch upon a wide range of topics (spirituality and philosophy in India, spirituality in economy and business, spirituality in psychology and more), and will particularly examine the (paradoxical) process of the creation of new traditions. Kripal will give the opening keynote lecture. I used the opportunity to speak with him a little about his research and ideas.

Jeffrey Kripal - photo by Michael Stravato, used with permission

Let’s begin at the end: Looking at the books you’ve written, one gets the odd feeling you are not interested in simply producing academic knowledge. What, if I may ask, is the hope you hold concerning your research? What might be added to the lives of your readers from it – or to our cultural life in general?

It has certainly felt to me like the books were orbiting around a something, a kind of “black hole,” if you will. As the dark metaphor suggests, I do not claim to be entirely clear or even conscious of what that work might mean. If I had to say, I would suggest that my books are, first, about challenging false religious and cognitive dualisms (sex/spirit, mind/matter, human/divine), and, second and more speculatively, about the cosmic dimensions of human nature as that supernature is glimpsed in extreme religious experiences.

Now about the sex/spirit dualism… In your writings one can note a leitmotif that connects the sacred with the sexual. What do you think is the connection there? Why do you think sex especially prominent in encountering the sacred (and not food, property/money, social status etc’)?

This is an immense and complicated subject, but, very generally, I think it comes down to “energy” and the ways that erotic energies can mediate and morph between the material and spiritual dimensions of our experience, from the most carnal to the highest flights of religious ecstasy. I do not think we actually know what these energies are. They have something to do with the secret of life, with biological evolution, and with cultural, artistic, and religious creativity. They are certainly more, way more, than we imagine.

I think you might have heard the word “controversial” attached once or twice to descriptions of your work. Why do you think such work is at this time “controversial”?

Yes, I’ve heard that. Part of this, I think, is a function of the fact that much of our religions depend on the dualisms that I seek to challenge and move beyond. My early work was “controversial” because it denies any ultimate difference between the mystical and the erotic (sex/spirit). My later work is “controversial” because it denies any ultimate difference between consciousness and the material world (mind/matter). It’s really the same project in two different forms. In any case, to the extent that any intellectual project in the study of religion gets at important matters, it is bound to be “controversial.”

I want to understand better: you say that you oppose false cognitive dualisms – now what’s so irritating about that? What does our (Western? Modern? human?) culture have invested in these dualisms as to make them so dear to it, and make any change of them “controversial”?

It’s not that I oppose them. All human cultures work out of cognitive dualisms. They appear to be necessary for social life. As a member of society, I live them by them, too. It is simply that I do not think they are finally true. Whether something is necessary is one thing. Whether it is true is quite another. I am after truth, not functional necessity.

Following that, you talk a lot about “the human as two” (from your first answer it can be understood you mean that us humans have both a nature and a supernature) – why isn’t that a false cognitive dualism?

By this phrase, I do not mean that there are two things in a human being, say, a body and a soul. Not at all. I mean that the human being is far, far more than the social ego or conscious self. We tend to think of ourselves as one thing, as a stable singular body-self. But this is not what extreme religious experiences reveal at all. They reveal that this singular body-self is fundamentally an illusion, and that there are other dimensions, other states of consciousness, matter, and energy just “below the surface” or “beyond the physical ego.” I do not claim to know what these other forms of self and body are; only that, if we are to take comparative mystical literature seriously, that they exist and are us, too. Hence my little four-word poem: “the Human as Two.”

artwork by Michael Brehm of the University of Chicago Press, used with permission

In your book Authors of the Impossible you described the paranormal as semiotic dialogical events, collapsing the subject-object structure. Now that certainly sounds good, but I wonder if you could explain it in a way understandable by a teenager. Is there any simple way to “get” what you mean, short of experiencing it?

I do think real understanding requires actual experience, but I would guess that about a half to two-thirds of the people I lecture to have known just such an event, so this is hardly a minor “knowing” audience. In any case, the basics are quite simple to explain, even to someone who has never had such an experience. A paranormal event is one in which the world “out there” and the world “in here” manifest themselves as the same world. It is as if the mental and material dimensions of our experience have “split off” the same deeper Ground or One World. The physical world now begins to behave like a story or a series of signs. Hence the common descriptors of these experiences: “It was as if I were a character in a novel” or “It was as if I were caught in a movie.” These sensibilities, I suggest, are very accurate perceptions, because, of course, we all are caught in novels and movies, which we call culture and religion. A paranormal moment is one in which we realize that this is so. What we then do with this realization is up to us.

As such, I think you would agree that any question about the actuality of paranormal events is very difficult to phrase, since the paranormal is not – it’s a dialectical hermeneutical occurrence, not a thing. Yet, you claim it holds something real. Pray tell, what???

If by “real,” you mean “that which can be measured and controlled as an inert object,” then, no, these events are not “real.” But what if that is not what reality really is? What if there is some deeper dimension of the world that is fiercely alive, super-conscious, neither an “object” nor a “subject,” but something Other and More? This, it seems to me, is precisely what paranormal events suggest or point to.

And why should we care about it?

Because thinking that your “subjective” experiences “in here” are separate from an inert and dead “objective” world “out there” is (a) likely false and (b) depressing; while realizing that you are an intimate part of a living conscious universe is (a) likely true and (b) really, really cool.

It definitely is cool, though what people have done with the intuition of this is about as uncool as it gets, beginning with religious hierarchies and wars, and ending with low-brow New-Age mambo-jambo. It is almost as if this deeper dimension has a real knack for making us act like total asses. Dear God, why???

Yep. I couldn’t agree more, Tomer. And this is why we so desperately need a way of addressing these states that is free of any traditional religious authority or tradition. We need a new way of talking and thinking about them that is at once deeply sympathetic and radically critical. My own answer here is simple: we need to think and speak of them comparatively. Once, after all, we realize that these special states are in no way unique to any particular religion or culture, that they are globally distributed and appear to be universal human potentials, we are well down the road of addressing their most problematic, and frankly dangerous, characteristics.

What about experiencing the paranormal, or the mystical for that matter? Should we try to? Why? Have you noticed that some people are better at it than others, and do you think that may be part of the reason for experiences being a taboo in academic circles?

Although some people appear to be more gifted when it comes to such states, I do not think these events are reliably replicable, not at least in their most robust forms. They tend to occur in moments of life-crisis, trauma, or physical danger. Individuals who are more “open” to such gifts are often more open because they have themselves been “opened” by some previous trauma, injury, or near-death experience. This is one reason that rational people rationally reject them. Reason and science depend upon publically verifiable and replicable truths. But the paranormal simply does not play by these rational rules. Studying paranormal events in the light of pure reason is like studying the stars in the middle of the afternoon, and then claiming that they don’t exist. As long as one can only know things in the afternoon, that is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. It is also perfectly false.

Let’s ask the opposite as well: if experiencing IT is revelatory in terms of the awakening to truth is can bring to our lives, what is the value of academic research? Why bother spreading and spending your intellectual and spiritual strength and capacities all over, and not just enter into an esoteric tradition, delving with all of your dedication into its depths? Surely with this intensity you will enhance your chances at “getting” the paranormal (I know a number of Kabbalah schools here in Jerusalem if you want a quick conversion and career change).

I tried this. I began my youth in a monastic seminary. It was wonderful, but I ultimately decided that my vocation was an intellectual one. I understand that vocation to involve engaging matters of great importance in a more or less public fashion and free of any religious or political control. I see my own specific task to be about carving out “safe spaces” within public discourse—in this case, my books—into which thoughtful people can enter to engage in discussions that are otherwise impossible. As for esoteric communities, I deeply admire them, but there are two problems here. One is that such traditions are, by definition, esoteric and so generally against open, public discussions of these matters. They thus tend to shut down, deny, or censor conversations that I want to begin and help develop.

The other problem is that these communities too often conflate their own histories and symbolic mediations of the real with reality itself. That is, they fail to see that their specific experiences of revelation, salvation, or enlightenment are conditioned and shaped by their place and time and can never be universally true for all human beings.  The basic paradox of the history of religions is that every manifestation of the sacred reveals and conceals, illumines and distorts, at the same time.  It is as if the real can only show itself to us in forms that are limited and finite, and so fallible.  Any religious tradition that does not understand this basic truth and communicate it to their faithful in honest and open ways I find both unhelpful and unconvincing, if not actually dangerous, at this historical moment.

In your book Mutants & Mystics you write about the paranormal’s (and parts of the sacred, and the religious) exile to the fantasy worlds of pop-culture. Let’s return to the above mentioned teen. She has a fascination with vampires. What can you tell her about her love for blood-sucking misfits? What is lurking in its dark depth?

Well, I don’t do vampires. Or zombies. But I suspect what is lurking here is a spiritual eroticism (the vampire) and a critique of a materialist worldview that understands the human being as a walking corpse without real life or true consciousness (the zombie).

Would you then say that what attracts us to these myths is our own inability to put up with the materialistic-secular worldview forced upon us by hegemonic scientific (and, I might add, bourgeois-protestantish-religious) discourse?

Yes. That is what I am trying to say. This is basically my thesis in Mutants and Mystics. The paranormal migrates into popular culture because it has been exiled from both the religions (which want to demonize it) and elite science (which wants to demonize it). It goes where it can get away with being something of itself—fiction, fantasy, and film. And it makes billions of dollars there, since these genres speaks so directly and beautifully to that part of us that has been denied by orthodox religion and orthodox science.

Where does contemporary spiritual culture come into all this? What do you think is the New Age’s business vis-à-vis the paranormal, the mystical and the religious? Certainly, aside from the more superficial masses, there are some very devoted and serious spiritual seekers out there. What is their place according to the way you understand current western culture?

I understand paranormal phenomena (telepathy, precognition, apparitions, out-of-body experiences) as proto-religious, that is, as “building blocks” of future religious systems, to invoke the language of my colleague Ann Taves. So too with the New Age movements. Many of these are quite profound and very sophisticated, but they have not had enough time to take stable forms and become recognized “religions.” Most interesting to me is the fact that they tend to locate divinity in the human being, and so they are much more comfortable with psychical and paranormal phenomena, which point in the same direction.

Concerning the paranormal, Modern-Orthodox Judaism must be one of the most schizophrenic religions on earth. It tries to uphold a distinguished, (divine-)law-abiding and “moral” front, while at back, and down under, and really all over, it carries the symbols and effects of the Kabbalah, the esoteric, magical-mystical tradition. Why, the major Halakhic lawyer, on whose books most of contemporary halakhic law is based, Rabbi Joseph Karo, held a diary in which he recorded his daily talks with a female angel – talks which are of course never discussed by contemporary rabbis. What do you make of this? What is your assessment of Judaism as one looking from outside?

Well, on one level, I doubt that modern Orthodox Judaism is any different than other established religious systems. Similar public/esoteric splits could easily be found in any of the other established religions. On another level, however, Orthodox Judaism probably shares the same “mystical challenge” that any theistic tradition does: as a public religion, it wants to locate the divine outside the human being, in an external or transcendent “God,” but as a tradition of countless human beings extending over centuries and millennia, it is always stumbling over cases in which the divine manifests in and as the human being. One way to handle this disjunction is by creating what amounts to a dual tradition, with both a public and an esoteric face. Christianity, of course, handled the problem differently: it embraced the divine human, but restricted it to a single historical case. I don’t find that particularly helpful either.

What will you be talking about in your keynote address in the 5th Israeli conference for the study of contemporary spirituality and religion?

I will be giving my lecture “Authors of the Impossible: Telepathy and the Study of Religion.” I’ve honed this at various universities in the States and Europe. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here. In any case, I am honored and grateful to be invited to this event.

My lecture Is about how paranormal events so often manifest in narrative or textual forms (hence we still speak in English of “psychical readings” and “automatic writing”), that is, how they work like stories that appear to be written (by whom, it is not at all clear).  Basically, I will focus on how the paranormal is a kind of writing and reading and, to flip this, how writing and reading are potential paranormal powers.

Spirituality, Athletics, Yoga, Pizza

At the end of February this year a woman named Ronnie Abramson went to a yoga class. Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. She wrote a short account of the experience for ‘Haaretz’ in which she asks that secular folks be allowed to practice yoga without being forced to listen to religious sermons.

In a certain sense she is absolutely right – what does yoga have to do with Purim? Why must she serve as a captive audience for the creative homilies of the yoga teacher? In another sense, the history of yoga allows us to appreciate the deep irony of this situation. Yoga, which originated as a spiritual, even religious discipline, has undergone a radical process of secularization and has turned in the West into a series of exercise techniques. The gulf between what yoga once was and what it is today is as deep as it takes for Westerners wishing to purchase a yoga class as just another product in their shopping cart to be totally devoid of any awareness whatsoever as to its roots, and so are shocked when someone tries to add God into the mix.

The Living Point of Conception

So how did we get from this...Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to be the father of modern, non-traditional yoga. Vivekananda grew up in Bengal, in Northeastern India in the late 19th century, in a family belonging to the region’s rising middle-class. The Bengalis were the most Westernized of all Indians under British occupation, and were deeply influenced by Western culture. Accordingly, Vivekananda planned to become a lawyer. But in 1881, upon meeting Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Indian saints of all time, his life changed forever and he assumed the habit of a monk. As a Hindu monk Vivekananda sought to revive religion in his homeland, but his karma had a different fate in store for him. He was among those chosen to represent Hinduism in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held in Chicago in 1893.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was one of the first attempts at ecumenical symposium, and attracted many representatives of religions. Vivekananda was not the sole representative of Hinduism, yet he quickly became its most famous. But then again, how can Hinduism even be represented? After all, more than a religion, it is a colorful amalgam of beliefs, schools, customs, laws, competing philosophical approaches and several thousand gods and idols. Vivekananda’s solution to this problem was simple: He presumed to present the American audience with “the very centre, the very vital conception” of Hinduism, as he put it. And what is this center, this point of conception? This is nothing less than the living experience in which the individual soul comes face to face with the divine. This, said Vivekananda, is Hinduism itself. For those seeking to reach this living point, he added, Hinduism had developed yoga.

A Universal Technique

Vivekananda claimed that yoga is a universal technique beneficial to all – men and women, Occidentals and Indians – and that there is even no need to convert to Hinduism in order to reap its benefits. He stated, in so many words, that it is the heart and essence of all religions, and that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) can become better Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) by practicing it. He explained that yoga is the gift of spiritual India to the materialistic West.

And he reaped thunderous applause. Americans couldn’t get enough of him. Vivekananda promptly embarked on a series of lectures throughout the US, which in turn led to the writing of books that became international best-sellers, and these led to the establishment of instructional and spiritual centers. Due to his popularity in America Vivekananda became a national hero in his native India. The Indians, who were accustomed to being the target of scorn from Westerners due to their supposedly primitive and idolatrous Hindu religion, could thanks to him proudly raise their heads and feel that they, of all people, have the deepest religion and philosophy. Here, even the Americans admit that yoga is the universal spiritual path!

Modern yoga centers, inspired by Vivekananda, were opened both in the US and in India. Yoga became the flagship of Indian spirituality seeking renewed legitimacy, and Vivekananda was the captain at the helm. The problem was that in order to enter the fast lane the skipper was forced to jettison most of the cargo. Therefore, it is perhaps worthwhile to return for a moment to the roots of yoga in order to understand how Vivekananda’s version of the practice and of Indian philosophy differs from traditional yoga.

Who’s in for Kaivalya?

The canonical text of yoga is called ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’. This short text was composed sometime around the 3rd century CE, and it presents yoga as an intricate spiritual path which starts with the assumption that our pure true self, our ‘Purusha’, must disengage from the world and all that is in it, which are known as the ‘Prakriti’. This Purusha, mind, is different from everything we usually define as a ‘self’. It has no thoughts, memories, aspirations or any characteristics whatsoever. In short, it is not a ‘self’ in any accepted sense. Everything we are accustomed to seeing as a ‘self’ is considered a Prakriti which we must leave behind on our spiritual journey.

The over-arching goal, the supreme ideal of yoga according to Patanjali, is therefore not seeing the divine or even communing with it, but what is called Kaivalya, which means “alone-ness”. The yogi is supposed to reach a state in which their Purusha is completely detached from the Prakriti, and “they” exist in shining eternal solitude as pure, content-free awareness. It is hard to find anyone who is much tempted by such an existential state nowadays, and perhaps that is why Vivekananda did not mention it much to his American admirers.

It should be said that since the 3rd century yoga has undergone many changes and broad alterations, and a goal such as meeting or communing with the divine has become accepted within its circles. On the other hand, until the 19th century it has never been conceived as a neutral and universal technique applicable to believers of all religions. It most certainly was never conceived as a series of exercise drills meant to bring helath and proper posture to its secular practitioners.

The Pizza Effect

...to thisHinduism scholar Agehananda Bharati coined the phrase “The pizza effect” back in 1970 to describe what has happened here. Pizza, in its Italian origin simply a sort of bread, arrived in the US along with Italian immigrants. In the land of opportunities the pizza became a doughy tray of cheese, vegetables and meat, and became immensely popular. When Rome saw how much people love the American version of their traditional dish, they also began to bake pizza as we know it today, and Italian pizza integrated the American innovations. Today, not only are we blind to the process undergone by this popular treat, but we also know for certain that pizza as pizza should be – original pizza – can only be had in Italy.

The pizza effect, therefore, describes a process of acculturation – that is, change, integration and cultural customization – in which a traditional item undergoes Americanization, and then returns to its homeland and wins popular acclaim in its new form. This form then becomes the authentic form of the item not only for Americans (or Westerners in general) but also for the local culture, due to a naivete eager to buy anything the global market offers for sale. Agehananda Bharati shows that many Indians practice modern yoga, which is not traditional at all, a yoga that returned to them following “adjustments” in America (and at this point we may note that Bharati himself was an Austrian Catholic named Leopold Fischer who became a Hindu monk).

In the case before us the pizza effect works both ways. Vivekananda brought yoga to America, where it met with phenomenal success and has become an export item that fills the hearts of Indians with pride (‘Look at us, teaching the decadent West what true spirituality is all about!’). On the other hand, Vivekananda’s yoga wasn’t the ancient yoga, but a modern, white-bread version of Indian tradition, which gives up the traditional context of its beliefs and customs, and adds to the original dough base various goodies such as humanism, feminism, materialism and empiricism. Vivekananda learned all of these from the British colonialists. The Americans who fell in love with Vivekananda’s gospel fell in love with a westernized version of yoga, even before changing it further themselves, each according to their own lights. They bought Indian goods which even on Indian soil had taken on more than a bit of the West’s image and likeness.

Jewish yoga, Yogi Judaism

The yoga we find before us today, therefore, is a modern product presuming to distill a universal technique from the Indian tradition. Sometimes it still preserves spiritual pretensions, and its practitioners treat it as part of their spiritual journey. At other times it has turned into nothing more than a light athletic endeavor, in which case it is seen as the ancient Indian method of keeping tight skin, a firm butt, and finding a mate with similar attributes. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that different people find use in a foreign cultural heritage, and that they have the freedom to choose and adjust themselves to whatever advances them by their own lights. We call it democracy.

On the other hand, the wonder at God being mentioned in a yoga class is misplaced. Yoga was a religious matter from the start, and there is no reason that it shouldn’t continue to be so. True, it was never associated with Purim, but that is only one of the changes yoga is undergoing these days. And at this point we meet one of the changes Judaism is undergoing these days. Here we have a new-age Judaism seeking to utilize a foreign spiritual technique in order to enrich its world. Jewish yoga produces yogi Judaism. Like yoga in the modern age, Judaism is changing, and often turns from a covenant between a certain god and a certain people, or from a tribal nationalism, into a ‘spiritual path’ for the seeking individual. And that is also not a bad thing at all.

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Published in Maariv newspaper, 19.4.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman.


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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