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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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Fully Present

Fully PresentIn the Wisdom Circle I’m part of, conversation flows along tangents into topics that interest us or challenge our pursuit of a relevant secular spirituality. Whatever arena we wander into, it’s not just a new perspective we’re after, but some kind of meaningful and responsible course of action. Given such-and-such, what can we do in the interest of greater honesty, integrity, and effectiveness? Our objective in every case is to clarify how a fully engaged spirituality might affect or transform the way we live in this world.

I am reminded of the diagnostic matrix used in conventional psychotherapy for identifying and treating a client’s peculiar form of suffering. Typically a strong and overwhelming feeling of unhappiness is what first motivates an individual to seek professional help, and it’s here that interpretation begins. And as such feeling will commonly exert either a suppressive or compulsive effect on behavior, sapping one’s drive or spurring conduct that only adds to the problem, any counselor who’s paying attention will also look carefully at what the client is doing.

After the linkage between feeling and behavior has been established, the task of therapy becomes one of bringing to light the associated thoughts and beliefs which have the client locked in a mindset that is perhaps irrational, unrealistic, juvenile, or delusional. As thinking provides an overlay of commentary on suffering – adding justification, self-judgment, conspiracy theories, or just more confusion to the pain – it is necessary to get this storyteller out of the closet and into the light of interrogation. It is hoped that by changing up the mental script a client will begin to feel better about things, start acting differently, and thereafter produce more positive results.

In the diagram above, a red line from feeling to doing represents that irresistible impulse to act in ways that perpetuate or amplify an individual’s suffering. The curved green line is meant to illustrate that elevation into thinking which will expose the faulty logic and distorted beliefs keeping it all in play. Higher elevation into thinking involves the individual in more rational reflection and discrimination, where the driving narrative of one’s personal myth can be analyzed, updated, and strategically modified.

In our Western psychology of mental health, these three correlates – feeling, doing, and thinking – form the ‘holy trinity’ of therapy. The better therapies work with all three in a more or less balanced way. Nevertheless, each one has also been favored over the others in the major schools of medicinal (feeling), behavioral (doing), and cognitive (thinking) therapy. Competition among these schools has prompted research into which modality is superior, or what combination of factors represents our magic door to mental health.

Interestingly enough, the research has shown all of them to be about equally effective, and maybe the results improve a little when they are combined in some way. But ‘effective’ here doesn’t mean significantly effective. In fact, they perform just slightly better than placebo and often come with side-effects no one wants. Research consistently bears out the greater influence of another factor, quite apart from the specific treatment protocol: The quality of relationship between therapist and client (called the therapeutic alliance) proves to be the real magic door. Any why is that?

In my diagram, the deeper essence of this fourth factor is identified as the individual’s sense of grounding in a reality that is supportive and provident. Obviously, a therapist (or anyone else) who is welcoming, trustworthy, empathetic, insightful, and encouraging will demonstrate such a reality to the client. The ‘alliance’ part of this involves an individual in gradually calming down, finding ground, getting centered, and opening up to the other person. The more open a client becomes, the more confirmation he or she receives that reality is provident and supportive, which in turn encourages an even deeper release and a larger horizon of faith. This is the dimension of being (be).

This factor of grounding offers a fourth correlate in a more complete picture of mental health and happiness. Changing how we think with talk therapy, how we feel with drug therapy, and/or what we do with behavior therapy is not enough. I have drawn lines from each of these three to the grounding mystery within, because it’s only as they are internally grounded that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be genuinely creative. Otherwise, insecurity will tend to hijack our faculties and generate a delusion of our separateness (isolated, exposed, defensive, critical, judgmental, etc.) – where true happiness is impossible.

You’ll notice that the line between think and be is actually an arrow, from the latter to the former. Because thinking is the mental activity by which we construct meaning and build out a worldview, it is vitally important that its product (i.e., our perspective on and orientation in reality) is properly grounded in the way things really are.

No doubt this reveals my cognitive bias, but enough of my own experience and observation of others has convinced me that until our thinking is reality-oriented and the meaning we construct is sufficiently clear-sighted to acknowledge that the grounding mystery cannot be captured in words or theories, we will tend to become prisoners of our own convictions and fall that much farther out of touch. By the time that happens, how we feel and what we do have been commandeered by a distorted, outdated, and dogmatic orthodoxy.

A human being is a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment. Ideally we live our lives as passionate and reasonable people, growing ever more proficient in the skills that help us be successful individuals, partners, parents, community members, and citizens.

The big question has to do with the degree in which we have realized our full potential, evolved our consciousness, and found our way back to the place it all begins, right here and now.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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Soul and Reality

In my last post, I introduced the idea of body, ego, and soul as “standpoints in reality” – not as pieces of a human being, but rather as different mental locations where we can take a perspective on things. Body is organismic and biological, providing us a standpoint in the physical realm. Ego is tribal and personal, giving us a standpoint in the social realm. And soul is psychological (from the Greek psyche, soul) and spiritual, offering us a place in the presence of mystery, in the present mystery of reality.

Instead of breaking these aspects of the self into separate and warring opposites – ego against body, body versus soul – seeing them as distinct access points in our experience of reality can help us transcend the arguments over which one is “the real self” and contemplate instead human being in its wholeness. Rather than identifying ego with the soul, and then dissociating both from the body so “I” can elude the finality of death and live forever, we can appreciate how each contributes to the marvel of what it is to be human.

I reflected on how ego develops out of a simple identification with the internal state of the body. “I am happy” or “I am sad” are among the first ways a young child is taught how to declare him- or herself to the world. This affect (pronounced with the accent on the ‘a’) is where a child’s experience of the world is registered: “The dark closet makes me afraid”; “You are making me angry.” Behavior is then the output channel of this affect, in the way it motivates the youngster to run and hide, or push and pout.

Many people get stuck at this level of development. They remain in the I-am-angry-and-can’t-help-but-push-you-down mode of life. A significant number of them seek out professional help because they are hostages to affect and can’t stop doing things that are counterproductive to happiness. A truly helpful counselor will teach the client how to reflect on these powerful affect states. Instead of simply acting out the affect in behavior and only making things worse, the client can learn how to separate identity (ego) from emotion (affect→behavior) and use this freedom to choose more desirable outcomes.

The “liberated ego” can thus become a springboard into still higher experiences, which the wisdom traditions around the planet have named Love, Communion, Being, and Bliss (among others). It’s important to understand that these are not merely synonyms for “happiness.” The ego wants to be happy, but the soul seeks after something much higher than personal happiness. To get there, ego (I, me, mine) must be transcended, gone beyond. If it stays in charge, the personal self (ego) will be in the way.

As I suggested last time, a shift from the standpoint of ego to that of soul opens the self up to a much greater experience. Engagement with reality at this higher level is not impersonal (as it is for the body) or personal (as it is for the ego), but transpersonal – again, beyond the personal. This is where affect differentiates into feeling and thought. These are the Yin and Yang, respectively, of the soul’s experience. Their “tension” is not combative but creative, like the tension in a string that produces a musical tone.

The wisdom traditions refer to these higher faculties of the soul as “heart” and “mind.” Once liberated from the urgencies of the body and the self-interest of the ego, heart and mind are free to contemplate the present mystery of reality. If I were to describe in one word what each of these faculties of soul contributes to the experience I would say that mind/thought represents reality and heart/feeling participates in reality. Let’s see how this plays out.

Ego, under the direction of the tribe, constructs a world, which is less a representation of reality than it is a projection of what is needed to help us feel safe, loved, capable and worthy. In its service as a faculty of the soul, mind represents reality apart from what I (ego) need it to be. Two favorite ways of representing reality across the wisdom traditions are as “ground” and “universe.”

Representations of Reality

Insofar as mind is dependent on language to name and describe something (the present mystery) that is ineffable, it has offered up these two metaphors for contemplation. Ground is the generative source and deep support that stands underneath all things. Existence – which literally means “to stand out” – properly refers to everything above the ground, so to speak.

The ground itself, then, does not exist in this sense. It is pure being, the internal essence of all things, the be to their ing, the creative power of being-itself. No words can describe it, because language can only qualify what exists and the ground is beneath all qualities. Even the name “ground” must finally be released. In contemplating the mystery as the ground of being, the mystics advise us to stop talking.

As a representation in thought of the real presence of mystery, ground inspires the heart to a certain exquisite kind of feeling. This is not crude emotion, where affect drives behavior. Rather, this feeling registers our participation in the mystery that cannot be named but only surrendered to in complete self-abandonment. In letting go of qualities and attachments, the self can sink into the “solvent” of being itself. The feeling of participation gives way to the bliss of unqualified union or oneness.

Another worldwide representation of reality is universe. This is not to be confused with a term such as “cosmos,” which is a more-or-less scientific name for the vast order of things (cosmos is Greek for order) that can be analyzed into galaxies, stars, planets, moons, minerals, elements, atoms and quarks. Universe is another metaphor, like ground, and not merely a designation of order. As metaphor, universe is a concept of pure thought, a representation by the mind of the mystery all around us.

Literally universe means “turned into one,” which is precisely what this concept does for the soul. It provides a way of contemplating the comprehensive unity of all things – inclusive, interdependent, balanced, turning as one. The soul seeks after wholeness, and the representation of reality as universe offers a simple – though admittedly infinitely complex – image for contemplation.

Notice how “ground” and “universe” stand at opposite ends of a vertical continuum. Ground is in and down; universe is out and up. Ground is beneath us, whereas universe is all around us. Ground is unqualified being, while universe is qualified to an infinite degree. Finally, ground cannot be said to exist, but the universe is the totality of existence.

Contemplating reality in the representation of universe inspires a different sort of experience for the heart. Participation here does not lead to a feeling of dissolving into pure being or oneness, but rather of being elevated into an expansive community. Whereas the former experience is that of sinking into no-thing, the latter is realizing your connection to everything.

In thought, then, the soul represents the present mystery of reality as ground and universe, as the underlying oneness and overarching all-ness of existence. Depending on which representation is the focus of contemplation, the feeling of participation will be distinct and complementary. This interplay of feeling and thought, of heart and mind, of Yin and Yang, is how the soul touches the mystery and finds salvation.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Standpoints in Reality

My “Conversations” with recent philosophers, theologians, and mystics over the past year have helped me reconsider some terms we commonly use in the investigation of what makes us human. The longer history of higher thought has continuously required us to make distinctions in what we had earlier grasped as “one thing.” The words individuum and atom once named basic and unbreakable units of reality. Now we have created numerous and sometimes competing disciplines for exploring the many parts of the individual and the atom.

Of course, these many parts can become disconnected in our minds, giving rise to further specializations that eventually leave us with so many scattered pieces that we might abandon all hope of ever recapturing a sense of the whole. This “sense of the whole” is what Abraham Heschel meant by wonder. Somehow, after or on the other side of all this mental business of dividing and defining reality into its many pieces, we need to pause and re-member – put them back together so we can appreciate the unity of being.

In that spirit, I want to pause and reflect on that fascinating bit of reality called a human being. And I want to engage this reflection in light of the philosophical commitments of perspectivism, constructivism, evolution theory and metaphysical nonrealism. These were commitments of my Conversation partners, and they are major features of our emerging postmodern worldview – which is still being worked out, by the way.

A human being is a trinity of body, ego and soul. Each of these terms names a particular standpoint in reality, a certain mental location, as it were, where we can take a perspective on things. They are not pieces of a human being – as if one could be removed, lived without, or left behind with a human being still intact. Rather they are aspects or dimensions, distinct ways by which our existence as human beings is expressed and extended into reality.

Standpoints

I’ll begin with the body, for that is where we all begin. Also called our “animal nature,” body is the organismic basis of life. It is a complex organization of vital impulses that I call “urgencies” – urges which have evolved around the need to convert energy from the environment (sunlight, water, nutrients) into biological fuel. As a biological organism, the body has evolved ways of adjusting itself and adapting to its surroundings so as to maximize the efficiency of this energy conversion.

As a dynamic energy converter, the body is an organic intelligence that carefully balances its own internal state with the changing conditions of its environment. This orchestration of maintenance (state) and adjustment (reaction) keeps a human being in providential niches where life can be sustained and supported in growth.

If all that sounds coldly impersonal, that’s because it is. We now know that body precedes the personality and serves as the biological basis to the formation of ego. Ego, then, is a second standpoint in reality, extending out of the body and engaging the world at a higher level. This doesn’t make it better or more essential to what makes us human – although it seems right to acknowledge ego as an evolutionary stage beyond the vital urgencies of the body.

Ego refers to the socially constructed identity of a human being. In order to become “one of us” at the tribal level, each human being must gain sufficient liberation from the urgencies and compulsions of biological life. The tribe helps this to happen, by giving the child an alternative set of directives, which Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality is necessary to the formation of identity, providing a counter-force to the animal instincts and redirecting (but also repressing) these impulses into socially acceptable behavior.

The body’s internal state serves as the subjective reference of the ego’s stand-point in reality. If the body is anxious, the ego says, “I am afraid.” If the body is incited to aggression, the ego says, “I am angry.” If the body is satisfied and content, the ego says, “I am happy.” The “I am” in each case exposes a tendency of the ego to identify with the body’s internal state.

Otherwise, the ego might say something like, “I feel afraid” – which demonstrates an ability to distinguish between a subjective feeling and its underlying biology. This ability to separate affect and behavior provides an important gap that the ego enjoys as freedom – the freedom to choose a course of action (or restraint) above the compulsions of the body’s animal nature. Not everyone is successful arriving at this point, as evidenced in the proliferation of neurotic disorders where the individual gets stuck in overwhelming affect states and compulsive behaviors.

But if – and this is a very big if – an individual is able to gain sufficient liberation from reactive impulses and adequate moral guidance from the tribe, another standpoint in reality is made available. This is what we call the soul.

My challenge here is to understand soul without relying on metaphysical realism. It is becoming less meaningful and relevant these days to regard the soul as some kind of ghost in the body, which can carry on perfectly well (or even better) without the burdens of mortality. Metaphysical realism treats the soul as a thing, separate from and independent of the body. This thing is believed by many to not only survive the body, but to live forever. As we should expect, the tribe has exploited this belief for the purpose of enforcing the moral conformity of the ego.

Just as ego uses the body’s internal state as the basis of identity, soul is a still-higher standpoint in reality where feeling and thought differentiate out of this subjective affect. The ability mentioned earlier, of distinguishing between “I” and “this feeling I have,” is a sure sign of the individual’s transcendence of ego. But again, transcending only means “going beyond,” not leaving behind.

Once lifted above the need to either protect or promote identity (ego), affect can differentiate into even subtler experiences, which have produced great works of art and other cultural achievements of our species. Feeling and thought are the Yin and Yang of the soul, with each creative expression adding spread and height to the growing tree of wisdom. They complement each other, deepening and expanding in creative partnership.

Only ego sees them as opposites, where one must win and the other lose.

Soul joins the dance, where the push and the pull, the rise and fall, the silence and the sound come together, only to spin out again. In that moment – yes, in every moment, but now in full mystical awareness – the soul is in the presence of mystery. This is the place of inspiration (feeling) and enlightenment (thought), where all the “parts” are suddenly seen – in a sustained flash of intuition – as rooted in a common ground, as diverse fruits of a single tree.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Life Without Hooks

De Mello: “Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”

In both East and West you can find a high value placed on detachment. In the East this detachment is more contemplative and mystical in orientation, while in the West it has been more speculative and experimental. Despite these different cultural “accents,” however, each type is well represented in both East and West.

Of whatever type, detachment represents a decision at some deep level not to get emotionally “hooked” in reality – as it seems or how it feels. Mystics and scientists are fellow researchers in this way, choosing not to allow their feelings to filter or prejudge what’s really going on. From one angle this can sound as if a vital part of human experience is being subtracted and dismissed. Who really lives this way?

Nobody. It’s important to understand that this detachment is more a discipline than a lifestyle. The point must also be made that we’re not talking here about people with severe affective disorders, who lack an emotional engagement with the world due to a brain dysfunction or because separating themselves emotionally from their experience was the only way they could cope with early trauma or abuse.

We are talking about “the rest of us” – the billions on this planet presently who get triggered and hooked every day. You make me mad. I miss my dog. God loves me. These are all emotional judgments I use to arrange reality into a world around me. I have a world, and you have a world.  What’s on the other side of our worlds, beyond them as the unnamed mystery of reality, hardly interests us. It rarely even occurs to us.

Emotional feeling might attach us to reality, but the place where we get hooked is no longer reality just as it is. It feels a certain way (“to me”) or has a certain meaning (“for me”) because I am here. My interest in it makes reality instantly personal and uniquely mine.

Most people would probably concur, as this relates to how IT feels – IT being what I am hooked into at the moment. But meaning … well, that’s “out there,” separate from us, just waiting to be discovered. Right?

Not so fast.

Wherever I’m hooked to reality, a kind of duality emerges. On the “me” side of the experience is how it feels (sad, delightful, scary, annoying, etc.). This part of my experience is personal, subjective and “biological” – in that these are all measurable reactions in my body. The particular emotional state of arousal is really a syndrome of numerous biological events in my cells, glands and organs. When I’m in a state of fear or desire, reality has the character of being scary or seductive, but it’s all happening inside of me.

On the other side of my hook is an expansive association of meanings – how IT connects to other hooks of my past and present. Once upon a time I set that hook over there (or my ancestors did) and then forgot I did it. Now it’s just a part of the way things are. This hook gets connected to all those other hooks, and together they comprise the illusion of a seamless fabric of meaning called my world.

The awareness that human beings “construct” meaning rather than simply “discover” it out there in reality is a very recent realization. If it is discovered, then it’s as a mental or material artifact of human creativity. We come upon hooks left on reality all the time. The worldview of a given community or culture is actually a more complex hooking-together of many personal worlds, through many generations of time. That it goes on into apparent infinity gives the impression of timeless permanence.

The Buddha said that if we can’t learn to manage our cravings we will continue to latch on to reality, and then suffer when it pulls away from our hooks. It’s always pulling away, if only because our hooks of feeling and meaning are organized around “me” and reality isn’t. Whereas the orthodoxy of his day insisted that we are caught on the wheel of suffering for as many turns as it takes to get our act together, Siddhartha taught that it’s our craving for all things “me” that keeps us stuck there. Extinguish the flame of craving (the “blow-out” of nirvana), and liberation just happens.

Jesus, too, had much to say about hooks and our need to forgive or “let go” of the places in our relationships, particularly with “my enemies,” where the pain of injury and misunderstanding keeps us gripping down in self-defense. While orthodoxy claimed that the one sinned against (god/me) is free to forgive in response to a satisfying repentance of the sinner/enemy, Jesus flipped the whole thing around. When asked how many times we should forgive “the one who sins against me,” he advised his disciples to stop counting and waiting around for repentance. Forgive first.

In some ways, Siddhartha and Jesus were “postmodern” in the way they deconstructed the metaphysical assumptions behind their respective cultural mythologies. The Buddha (“awakened one”) overturned the idea of a permanent soul and its endless cycles of rebirth, while The Christ (“anointed one”) pulled down the doctrine of a vengeful god and his insatiable demand for propitiation. They are both honored and worshiped as world redeemers because they showed how letting go of “me” allows for a larger experience of peace, freedom and joy.

Yet we continue to hook in and hold on, if only because it’s the primary impulse of our ego to do so. The significance of my world is an extension of my identity (ego), and my identity is a function of where I hook in for security. What would it be like to live without hooks, or with fewer hooks than we presently do?

No doubt, everything would change.

 

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