Termination

“Road ends in water” was a road sign on the way to my parents’ house on a lake in rural Kentucky. Turn left, get to a warm bed and cable. Go straight, end up submerged in cold water and mired in clay mud off the end of a boat ramp. The sign is important.

My coach is moving on to an internship across the country. We knew this phase of our relationship was coming to a end months ago when he started filling out applications. He’s ready to move on to other places and bigger opportunities. We both suck at termination. “We’ll be in constant contact,” he promised.

We’ll be in constant contact.

Therapeutic relationships in my office “begin with the end in mind.” At the beginning of care, we agree what conditions will be met for discharge. Clients are free to leave early, but are not allowed to stay late, and the client’s progress is continually monitored for suitability for discharge. The clinician is responsible for preparing the client for discharge during the course of treatment and we are trained in activities to help clients terminate this important relationship. Coaching relationships, while potentially therapeutic, are vague and open-ended. The working relationship continues as long as both parties find it productive. Excellent relationships can last for an athlete’s entire career. Modern communications enable “on-line” coaching anywhere an internet connection can be found. Ending a coaching relationship is more like “breaking up,” even when the relationship is professional.

Termination involves acknowledgment. “Road ends in water.” Goals are met or the situation is changing. “Road ends in water 1500 feet.” Friday will be the last day we train together. “Road ends in water 1500 feet. How was your navigation?” How has the relationship changed the people in it? What did we learn? What will we carry forward?

We aren’t breaking up but distance relationships are tricky. People get busy, priorities shift. Maintaining connection requires deliberate effort and commitment. The infinite non-verbals we exchange in the barn will be gone. I won’t know when he has something on his mind unless he explicitly tells me. He won’t be able to watch me walk up to a bar and assess … everything.

Cherish what you have with who you have it with while it lasts, it won’t be there forever.

former DDO guildy, Married with Children/Argonnessen

No matter what happens next, we will never be the same.

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Don’t Feel Like That

Last night, the Girl Child had some great lifts and I was so happy for her! New PRs on everything with more in the tank on a random maxout day. She’s been showing up for training and putting in the effort and it shows. This also means she now lifts heavier than I do and I felt inadequate. We say things out loud in the barn and so I confessed this awkward feeling. What do you do with an awkward feeling?

Feelings are complicated, squishy things. There is a “fast” system in the brain, powered by dopamine levels, that helps us predict outcomes and generates feelings. There is a “slow” system in which we think and rationalize. These systems appear to be connected in a small area just behind the eyes, so there is a feedback loop. Classical cognitive theory says thoughts generate feelings and by examining and correcting distorted thoughts we can re-align our feelings. Meditation teaches us it really doesn’t matter because nothing is forever, let it go.

My coach said something to the effect of “don’t feel that, it’s a wrong feeling.” Feeling inadequate in the face of someone else’s achievement does sound twisted and we had stuff to do, so the correct thing is set the feeling aside and sit with it later. By the time I was ready to sit with it, the feeling was nowhere to be found. Meditation and mindfulness +1. Then the Girl Child did it again. This time, prepared to watch for underlying thoughts, I learned the thoughts driving the feeling were something like this “I really need to be ‘better than’.” Cognitive theory +1. Returning to meditation, where the heck was this coming from? Why is this comparison killing me? Time to go sit.

The message I received when I was young, whether intended or not, was “I was so talented, if I wasn’t out-performing my peers, I was not meeting expectations and unacceptable,” which morphed into straight up “If I couldn’t out-perform my peers, I wasn’t enough.” I should be beating everyone. This is fucked up. The good news, this passes and within minutes as mindfulness practices predict because I no longer ruminate on my perceived inadequacy. However, it would be nice if I could let go of this now-ancient conditioning.

Trying to outperform the Girl Child would be counterproductive, reinforcing the maladaptive belief “performance can earn worth.” This belief has led me to strive in unhealthy ways by taking on more projects, increasing effort, or even walking away from something I love. Not today. With practice, time, and awareness the thoughts driving this feeling of never-enough will fade.

New Year, Same Me

Back in October, I started reflecting on 2019. The planner sat empty, except for my name on the page at the front where I promise a reward if someone finds it, until this week. Uncertainty loomed large. Planners seem orthogonal to ambiguity.

Remember the Be/Do/Have questions?

  • I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group.
  • I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos.
  • I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend.
  • I want to travel at least once this year.
  • I want to spend more time at the beach.
  • I want to bike more, walk more
  • I want to have a peaceful porch
  • I want to have a productive office space
  • I want to have a tidy home

Take a look at my lists. I am very “BE” driven. Each of the “DO” and “HAVE” items feeds at least one “BE”. Let’s re-arrange these slightly by function.

I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group. To make this happen, there is a lot of lifting. There is also active recovery and stress management, which means consistent quality time on the bike and in the park. I meditate on my porch and like to do yoga there most of the year, which is easier when the porch is peaceful and thus inviting. Travel to a larger-scale meet with an extra day or two for a vacation would support this goal.

I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos. Becoming a better clinician involves actively seeking supervision, taking time to reflect on my practice, and continuing education. A productive office space, a peaceful porch, and a tidy home can give me the mental and physical spaces to support intellectual and emotional effort. Conferences and trainings away from home are a great way to break out of routine and wake up my beginner’s mind. Conference on the beach? I’m there.

I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend. Reflection, meditation, activities like lifting, biking, yoga, swimming, and reading re-fill my cup and make space for everyone else. No one comes to my house for my housekeeping, but having a comfortable space to share with others is important to me.

What goes in the planner? Like most goals, these break down into a mix of one-off to-dos and habits/processes and not everything can go in the planner at once. Lord have mercy, my head would explode and I’d be a sobbing heap of failure by February. Some people can and have done everything, cold turkey. Fix the eating, hit the gym, clean the house, repaint the kids, do it all! However, most of us aren’t like that. The human animal has an enormous drive to return to the familiar and too much change tends to rebound with a nasty bounce.

What’s familiar right now? Lifting four days a week. Meditation three days a week. Eating well 60% of the time. Erratic housekeeping around my erratic “staff” [read teenagers]. Watching Netflix at night with my husband. Reading 70% of the books I mean to read. Tossing and turning at night because I haven’t left work at work. Hot soaks nearly nightly with epsom salts.

Where are my anchors? Lifting is solid. Going to work is solid.

Which existing habits can be a little better? Eating well consistently. This takes at least 90% adherence to be successful and 60% is frustrating. Housekeeping consistently. There are a few things I currently do sometimes, like start laundry and take care of the dishwasher in the morning, that I could do more often and make a big difference in the state of my world. Meditate consistently. More is better, and fifteen minutes daily instead of 15 minutes on three seemingly random days a week might smooth out a bunch of stuff.

There’s January. Three habits. No one-offs. Anything else that happens is bonus and not tracked, like getting to the local yoga studio I tried last week or to the park on a chance warm evening. Let’s see what happens.

Back to Basics and Purple Cows

If you’ve been following along, you know I think my powerlifting coach is great and summer was challenging for us as individuals and as partners. The last strength cycle knocked me flat, literally. My left knee developed an awkward ache and tightness, I was too wiped to get accessory work at my big-box gym for the final ten days, and eventually I lay on the floor of the barn hoping I wouldn’t have to get up and squat anytime soon while we reflected on the mess we were. This cycle had been ambitious and complex with some form of each major lift on each of three days. In exchange for all of this misery, my maxes didn’t move.

After assessing the knee and figuring out it hurt on exertion, he offered “If you have questions about your knee, you should get it checked out.”

From the floor I reply “Why? All they are going to do is tell me to rest and ice it.”

Ain’t nobody got a co-pay for that. He also observed I was old and a woman and didn’t recover like a young man. “Differently,” he said. Yippee-kai-ay.

We laid off squats for a week. Prayer works.

I wasn’t the only one struggling with the programming. His weightlifting was suffering. Back in the barn, he made an announcement. “This was too complicated. I think I’m going back to basics. We will do one lift per day, a variation for strength and then another variation 5 x 5 for hypertrophy. It will be a hybrid cycle.”

We are now at Week 2 of the new plan with time and space to chat about Big Ideas instead of being exhausted and cranky and making small talk. Tonight’s topic was Seth Godin’s Purple Cows, giving people their pickles, and figuring out what makes a service provider unique. As part of a new hire process at a local barbell club he was asked to watch a TED talk by Seth Godin…

 

What is my coach’s Purple Cow?

There were somewhere north of 100 other exercise science graduates walking across the stage with my coach. There were maybe a half-dozen of those 100 who are as obsessed with building training spreadsheets, but still, a half-dozen this year and there will be another half-dozen each year. He prides himself on being highly technical and inhaling Russian, Bulgarian, and Chinese training programs while developing his own process. His Instagram feed is his teaching tool, full of training minutia, with the exception of just a few posts.  What is his Purple Cow? Can you tell? It won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who are destined to be loyal clients this thing makes him irreplaceable. I’m not telling him, as payback for squat days and not talking about the new A Star is Born until I see it. He’s not the only one who loves his process.

Developing self-awareness is the pre-cursor to the intimacy challenges of early adulthood. I like this Khan Academy video explaining Erikson’s psychosocial stages, but all I’m interested in today are “Identity vs Role Confusion” and “Intimacy vs Isolation”. Longer life spans and a relatively wealthy society have conspired to extend the time we are allowed to spend in adolescence/ “Identity vs Role Confusion” well into our 20s. Developing supple answers to The Big Four (h/t to Krista Scott-Dixon)

  • Who are you?
  • What’s important to you?
  • What are you willing to trade?
  • What is non-negotiable?

allows individuals to move forward into intimate relationships conscious of what they have to offer as well as their wants and needs.

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What the heck is intimacy anyway? Let’s borrow this one from Weinbarger, Hofstein, and Whitbourne (2008)

Intimacy was defined as the potential to establish close relationships involving high levels of communication, closeness, and commitment.

[Without going full Bowenian (and you never go full Bowenian), spot me the idea when we say “closeness” we are talking about closeness-caregiving and not enmeshment, those icky relationships where the one partner is trying to manage the other’s feelings/solve their problems and personal boundaries are for people who don’t care enough.]

The Eriksonian definition of intimacy also defines modern marketing. Social media enables high levels of communication, perceived closeness, and commitment to a brand which expresses shared values and ideals or aspirations. Godin’s Purple Cow. Further, the more authentic the communication, closeness, and shared values, the more loyal the fan. From a psycho-social perspective, as a human, failure to stake out an identity independent of authority figures and peers expectations leaves the individual wandering in the wilderness looking for a tribe he can’t describe and feeling out-of-place and discontented at best. Using this psycho-social perspective, as a brand, failure to stake out an identity independent of the larger, undifferentiated market leaves a brand wandering looking for clients he can’t describe and feeling unnecessary or unappreciated at best.

My spouse tells it this way:

When we’re little, we’re playing in the sandbox and some new kid comes into the sandbox. We both like the sandbox and so we’re friends for now. If the new kid also likes the same flavor of Kool-aid, we’re besties. When we get older, the process is the same and we pretend it’s more complex. If you can’t decide if you like orange or grape flavor better, or all flavors are just as good, or if the flavor you think you like depends on what the last new kid liked, how can you find your True Besties?

My coach’s Purple Cow follows him everywhere, and for the moment, like Mr. Snuffleupagus, the Purple Cow is large and just out of view.

He asked me what my pickle was, as a client, but that’s another post because I think I misspoke.

Birthdays and Planners

My birthday is in October, along with my uncle’s and brother’s and grandmother’s birthdays. Now, my preferred planner ships to me in October and every year about this time I start taking stock and reflecting on goals, process, outcome, and direction for the next year.

This year was a solid “B”. I meant to finish grad school, lose a bunch of weight, be able to deadlift 250 pounds, start a business, and either learn how to dress intentionally or find a job where I wouldn’t have to. Grad school finished, I lost some weight and packed on some muscle, my deadlift is sitting at 225 with two months left in the year, the business is on hold until I can find a partner, my friend is teaching me how to dress and I found a great job where I can wear stretchy pants and untucked dress shirts. Not bad.

What about next year?

I am 51 this year, and I’ve been setting SMART goals since my early teens. There is a difference between setting goals and achieving goals, between being motivated and being committed, and between striving to please your Self and working to ward off outside negativity. The framework I use has layers stolen or borrowed from other sources.

First

The Big Four questions, borrowed from Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.d, at Precision Nutrition:

  • Who am I?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What am I willing to trade?
  • What’s not negotiable?

These are beautiful questions that go straight to the soul. If your heart pounds with anxiety when you see the questions because you don’t have any of the answers, it’s okay. Part of life is figuring them out. Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Here is Vaynerchuk talking about “tasting” for 2:54.

Whether you’re in your 20s, 40s, 60s, or 80s, tasting is still a great idea. We change as we age. It would be foolish for me to predict at 24 how I will think or feel at 64, and then act at 64 as if those predictions must be true.

Second

I’m starting to enjoy thinking of

  • how do I want to BE?
  • what do I want to DO?
  • what would I like to HAVE?

The Big Four put a fence around all of the acceptable versions of me, so I can think about what my life could look like when lived with integrity. For the last two years, learning was my most important value. To learn, I neglected my family, my health, and almost every other opportunity. Learning dominated to such an extent when graduation came, I felt adrift and created those “lost” months of the summer.

This short video is about parenting, but even if you aren’t parenting, the advice is still great. Find your Thing, do that Thing, enjoy your Thing, value your Thing. Don’t do the thing you hate. Do you. Check your expectations of yourself and others.

This is where I’ll start. It’s a messy process full of color markers, washi tape, scrapbook paper, and Pinterest. What is speaking to me at this time of life? I’ll do some work, take some pictures and let you know.

Power Struggles

We are now through the second meso-cycle, a mini strength cycle that was intended to end in a competition in Charlotte, my weight is down some, body fat is down 7% from the last time we measured, and my strength hasn’t moved. Like most of life, last month’s effort has brought mixed results and mixed emotions. I’m on the road for a week, visiting family and friends before starting a new job, sliding workouts between day-long driving marathons and being with people I don’t see often. In my bag is Yalom’s book, The Gift of Therapy.

Last night I was reading a vignette on pp 58 – 61 in the paperback edition. Yalom describes an interaction with a patient to illustrate how to work with the process of the therapeutic relationship to draw out themes from “back home” relationships and issues. The patient’s frame equated improvement with losing, she would lose and Yalom would win, and being positive about and in the relationship with vulnerability. She was critical and negative as a protective mechanism. Yalom’s curiosity about the roots of the power struggle kill it. Yalom’s text convicted me. In my own past, I’ve used power struggles to assure myself of the other person’s ability to take care of me. What’s the lesson?

July and August have been awful. There has been no training routine and I’m not lifting well in the new gym even though my anxiety has been slowly declining for a couple of weeks. How has that shown up in training? I’m regularly 15 minutes late for appointments, less aggressive with effort, afraid of engaging with soreness and discomfort, generally more negative and a pain in the ass to be around. This is a power struggle and my coach hates power struggles. To cure my struggle, it is essential I be honest with myself about the root of the struggle. If I allow myself to be positive and enthusiastic about this relationship and even about my own improvement, I leave myself vulnerable to a loss. I will lose. Yalom’s patient said she could feel the sharks circling.

According to Merriam-Webster, loss has six definitions. Number 4a is

failure to gain, win, obtain, or utilize – loss of a game

and 2b is

the harm or privation resulting from loss or separation – bore up bravely under the loss of both parents

My natural language is that of a game, of the power struggle, and it would be easy for a coach to stop at this level and attempt to win. He could call me out for being late, reduce or cancel my workout time, push through all my resistance, show me I can do more, call out my complaining, or even let it all go. The subtext is the “harm or privation resulting from loss or separation” and this is where we have to go. I feel vulnerable to the loss of a valuable ally and the uncertainty is affecting my training and our relationship. I am retreating behind a wall of power struggle. This wasn’t an efficient communication strategy when I was four, and it certainly isn’t helping now.

The difficult-difficult task is to say out loud “I am scared, I have been rude,” give him a case of San Pellegrino sparkling water to make amends for breaking social norms, and have a conversation about how I feel and what I need.

 

Transitions

The Shapely Ass Project is in full swing. We are now eight weeks deep into the Precision Nutrition curriculum, through the first round of hypertrophy and into a small strength cycle. My coach moved, so I lost my training space and joined a commercial gym this week. Losing the training space has been jarring for several reasons. First, the garage was the crazy safe space. Second, my routine was disrupted. Third, contact with my coach has changed. How do you handle mental, emotional, and physical disruption? His dog vomits every morning at the new house. I whine like a four-year-old. It isn’t pretty and some days I can’t tolerate myself, but the whining is slowing down as I settle in to our new reality. There is hope for the dog, too.

Why should the disruption of a routine be so disruptive to an adult? I don’t have any diagnoses like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which would indicate a clinical difficulty with transitions.

Motivation is what gets you started

Making changes stick has several elements. First, we “harness the elephant,” or our limbic system, by appealing to emotion and creating a motivating feeling. Most people don’t overhaul their eating and movement patterns because they looked at a set of lab results, evaluated how far out of lab limits their various levels were, and decided those levels just wouldn’t do. It even sounds silly. The changes come after you look at a sky-high A1C and you react to the vision of not being able to play with your children or grow old with your spouse. Maybe you’re inspired by how you think you would feel completing an Ironman triathlon. Emotion gets us started. In my case, about a year ago I realized I needed to get back into the gym for stress management. I felt terrible and knew the gym made me feel better.

Next, we “direct the rider,” also known as the prefrontal cortex, by creating support systems and conditions that make the path as smooth as possible. The rider is what makes plans and choices and will take the easiest path possible. If our desired path is smooth enough, the rider will use the energy of motivating emotion to get us where we want to go. I made my path smooth by creating a set schedule and booking time with a trainer. There were no choices to be made on first two, and then three mornings a week. I was meeting AO at the gym. In fact, when we made the transition to three mornings a week, I paid for six months of training up front. This removed even more decisions from the queue and allowed each of us to not worry about our side of the relationship and focus on training for six months.

Imagine the strength of the habit created by the stress/anxiety – lifting – relief habit loop. For six months, three times per week and then five times per week for the last six weeks of the program, I knew I would start my day by generating enough endorphins to relieve my anxiety. In six months we missed three workouts.

In the new set-up, I lift alone in a commercial gym four times a week by following a spreadsheet shared in a Google drive. We meet for metabolic conditioning, or “metcon”, in a local park a few times per week. Because of the nature of the work, we chat less and are physically farther apart. It feels strangely lonely. The schedule is still variable, I’m constantly making decisions about when to work out and how to implement the workout once I’m in the gym, and even went to the wrong location to train one day. Before we were able to even structure this much, the ambiguity surrounding the transition was brutal because none of it was mine to resolve. The elephant is skittish and the rider is picking his way down a cliff face during an earthquake. All of my most functional cue-action-reward loops are blown to hell.

So, I whine like a four-year-old about discomfort and wet grass and ego challenges. His dog vomits every morning. Today was better than the first day and as we find our stride, the path will smooth and the elephant can keep charging ahead.

 

Being Lost

This week I was reminded of  story. When my oldest child was learning to drive, we would make her drive home from unfamiliar places to build and reinforce her mental maps of the metro area. The city was laid out in a perfect grid, so if you knew key cross-streets it was possible to navigate without understanding where you were. In the days before Google maps, this was an essential skill. The time to feel lost and desperate in the dark, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, is when your parents are in the car to help if necessary.

Reviewing the Merriam-Webster definition of “lost,” it appears lost is a state of mind rather than a state of being. The world has not changed, I am merely unaware of my place in it. I am disoriented. When my oldest drove us home that horrible (her word) night, she was disoriented. We were confident in her ability to take us home, so confident we mocked her misery by singing the first bars of “O, Canada” repeatedly, as if she would manage to drive us to Canada before she figured out where she was. It was not helpful.

If I am lost, I am unaware of my place in the world.

What am I, if not lost? Roget’s thesaurus suggests when we are no longer lost, we are connected to purpose and to others. The oldest child, driving on that dark street, was “lost” until she recognized familiar landmarks. Once she understood the relationship between her current position and her goal state, even though her physical position did not change, she was “found.”

The soul needs time to be lost. I can’t imagine a life with each step pre-determined. When we are lost we are gifted the opportunity to learn about who we are, what we do and don’t value, and a chance to make abysmal trades and discover what is non-negotiable. Being lost is uncomfortable, yet necessary. It is how we learn our way home. I think we err by standing still and waiting to be found. Make a choice. Check, adjust.

Being lost is uncomfortable, yet necessary. It is how we learn our way home.

 

Habit: On the One Hand…

In this series, we are looking at routine, ritual, and habit. If routine is the mid-point, habit and ritual are the end-points on a continuum. Routine is one or more actions taken as a matter of course, they are fairly automatic and can serve us if chosen purposefully. Today we are looking at habits. For a long-form treatment of habit, the book by Charles Duhigg is an excellent, easy read on how habits work and how you can establish new ones.

What makes a habit different from a routine? Habits live deep in the brainstem and become nearly as automatic as breathing. They are literally mindless. You can acquire habits without conscious thought, the involvement of active learning strategies or even memory structures. A habit has three parts.

  1. Cue. The cue starts the chain of events. Substance misuse counselors will talk about “people, places, and things” for cues for unwanted habits like alcohol use, smoking, or substance misuse. Waking up can be a cue to pick up your phone or to go sit and meditate. A feeling can be a cue. The story in Duhigg’s book everyone appreciates involves his afternoon cookie habit. Duhigg realizes he has put on weight by standing up in the middle of his afternoon at the office and going to the breakroom to eat a cookie every day. Was hunger the cue? Not at all.
  2. Routine. The middle part is the thing you do. Duhigg would stand up, go get a cookie from the breakroom and chat with his colleagues for a few minutes and then return to his desk.
  3. Reward. There are two kinds of “rewards” – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
    1. A positive reinforcement is a good thing you get as the result of the action or activity in Step 2. This is what we usually think of when we think of rewards – work hard, get a raise or promotion, behave yourself during a meeting, get an ice cream. Do the action, get something good.
    2. The second kind of reward, negative reinforcement, is a bit more subtle and wickedly effective. Put on your seatbelt, make the stupid beeping/pinging/plonking sound stop. Eat a whole pizza, make the hole in your heart stop aching. Give in to your child’s whining about the candy bar, the whining stops. Do the action, make a bad thing stop. The reward is what sends us to the activity again and again, building up strong biological connections between the cue, activity, and reward.

Learning theory tells us habits are never “broken”, the biological connections always exist. Thus the biblical exhortation to “raise a child up in the way he should go“. Early learning theorists, before the age of fMRI and brain scans, estimated replacing an old learning/habit with a new learning/habit would take three times the initial effort to establish the old habit.

Let’s return to Duhigg and his cookie problem. He realizes the afternoon cookie is a problem, and also realizes the cookie is solving some other problem. The $1,000,000 question is – what problem? The cue is easy to identify, mid-afternoon at his desk. He tries substituting healthier snacks like apples or granola bars, but still ends up in the breakroom with a cookie more afternoons than not. Over a period of weeks, he comes to understand he isn’t hungry. What he wants is a break and a chance to chat with people for fifteen minutes, about the time it took to eat the cookie. By replacing the cookie action with something else, he is able to work within the established chain. The cue still sends him to the breakroom to talk with friends, the reward.

For example, my husband and I have very different habitual movement patterns when we first enter the house. This means vehicle keys are either in a “Dad place” or a “Mom place.” Neither place is bad and we don’t feel the need to establish a single place for keys to go, however it does mean when looking for keys you have to know who drove the vehicle last. In college, I knew people who only smoked when they drank beer from a bottle of a particular shape and were baffled by it. There are people who will immediately run through their mental to-do list if they find themselves with a few moments of ease.

If half of your life is by pseudo-choice, there are a series of cues for you and the beings you live with, do those habits serve you, or by solving one problem ineffectively, are those habits creating other problems?

To analyze a habit pattern, look for the three pieces.

  1. What started this?
  2. What action am I taking?
  3. What do I get out of it?

Remember the cookie problem? It isn’t about the cookie.

Here is Duhigg making an entertaining 15-minute presentation.

Habits establish themselves. The cure for maladaptive habits is mindfulness and intention. Next, we will talk about the ritual or supercharged mindfulness and intention.

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