“What you think, you become”

“What you think, you become,” or sometimes “The mind is everything; What you think, you become,” is commonly attributed to the Buddha, but doesn’t seem to be scriptural. At best an overly-free — well, inaccurate — paraphrase.

Jayarava did a blog article on this one some time ago and concluded it was not from the Buddha. His exposition is rather long, but worth reading. I agree with him, by the way.

The closest I know of to this quote is in Majjhima Nikaya 19, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” That’s a rather different statement, of course.

“What you think, you become” has always puzzled me. If I think about Lady Gaga I’m not going to become an outré pop star. But that’s probably just me being literalist. I suppose it’s intended to mean something like “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

Here’s a fuller version of that quote:

Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.

This is from a sutta called the Dvedhavitakka, or “Two Modes of Thinking,” where the Buddha is talking about his realization, before his Awakening, that there were two tendencies within the mind.

First, he would notice that, ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality [or ill will, or harmfulness] has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Nibbana.’

He further noticed that as he mindfully observed this kind of thinking, with an awareness that it led to suffering, it would subside.

Second, he would notice that ‘Thinking imbued with renunciation [and non ill will, and non-harmfulness] has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, and leads to Nibbana.’

And having observed the arising of this kind of thinking, he would give it his mindful attention. As he says, in a rather lovely simile:

Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been gathered into the village, a cowherd would look after his cows: While resting under the shade of a tree or out in the open, he simply keeps himself mindful of ‘those cows.’ In the same way, I simply kept myself mindful of ‘those mental qualities.’

From that point on, to cut a long story short, he entered the jhānas and then got enlightened.

So this is the context of “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” It means that the mind is trainable, and what kind of thoughts we put our energy into come to shape the mind, and affect both its affective tone (are we happy or unhappy) and its ability to discern the truth.

It’s been suggested that the “what you think, you become” quote may also stem from the first two verses of the Dhammapada, which express in poetic form what the Dvedhavitakka Sutta explains in a more expanded form:

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

These verses are from the “Chapter on the Pairs” (Yamakavagga) which explores these two modes of thinking, or being.

This derivation, rather than the Dvedhavitakka Sutta origin, may be supported by the fact that “What you think, you become” is often seen in another form: “The mind is everything; What you think, you become.” The connection may not be obvious, but sometimes those Dhammapada verses have been translated to include “our life is the creation of our mind” rather than “our mind is the creation of our thoughts.” And it’s not a great leap from “our life is the creation of our mind” to “the mind is everything.” So that may be the origin of this suspect quote.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the first verse of the Dhammapada in fact begins, “Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.” This is not at all far from “The mind is everything; What you think, you become.”

And that fuller version of the quote is very old indeed. I’ve found it in a 1897 book, In Tune with the Infinite, by Ralph Waldo Trine. Trine used “The mind is everything; What you think, you become” in several of his books, but I haven’t been able to establish where he got it from. I’ll keep looking.

These two Dhammapada verses are often rendered in a very different way from how they were intended, along the lines of “The world is the creation of your mind” — but that’s for another fake Buddha Quote post.

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59 thoughts on ““What you think, you become”

  1. A close one is ‘You are what you think’ (from the 11th verse of Chapter 1 of the ‘Ashtavakra Gita’ – Marshall’s translation, 2005). The usage in this verse clarifies what this one line is meant to get at, and fits the quote you have posted above as well.

      • The fuller quotes are this.
        It is true what they say:
        “You are what you think.”
        If you think you are bound you are bound.
        If you think you are free you are free.

        You are Self—the Solitary Witness.
        You are perfect, all-pervading, One.
        You are free, desireless, forever still.
        The universe is but a seeming in You.

        I am neither free nor bound.
        The illusion of such things
        has fallen into disbelief.
        Though I contain creation,
        it has no substance.

        • Thanks. Actually I make reference to this passage in discussing a fake Dhammapada quote in the forthcoming edition of Tricycle.

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  3. The “inclination of awareness” reminds me of the so-called Law of the Instrument. As Maslow put it, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

    • The first line of Dhammapada 1 is Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā.

      I would translate this as “All experiences* (dhammā) are preceded by mind (Manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā).”

      I don’t see anything in there that corresponds to “we become what we think.”

      *dhammā is more often translated along the lines of “mental phenomena” but I rather like “experiences” because it’s more, well, experiential.

  4. I just came across this quote attributed to William James on FB:

    “The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. As you think, so you shall be.”

    While most quotation sites have only the first sentence, another quotation site (http://schipul.com/quotes/499/) gives the second sentence as: “As you think, so shall you become.”

    Maybe “What you think, you become” is just a sloppy rendering of this sentence, when someone was quoting from memory alone.

    According to Wikiquote (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_James) this quote is, however, misattributed to William James. So we have something misattributed to the Buddha turning up in another quote misattributed to William James. LOL.

    Now, what about this one:

    “You become what you think about all day long.”
    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

    This would also be quite close if shortened to “You become what you think” (e.g. here: http://www.purposefairy.com/798/what-you-think-you-become/).

    • A more extended treatment of this theme is in the following quote, which is often attributed to the Buddha (but then isn’t everything?)

      Watch your thoughts. They become words.
      Watch your words. They become deeds.
      Watch your deeds. They become habits.
      Watch your habits. They become character.

      I started investigating this and found that it had already received a very thorough treatment here: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/

    • By the way, I believe:

      “You become what you think about all day long” is not by Ralph Waldo Emerson at all. There’s no trace of that quote in 19th century literature, and it seems to have been coined by Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru.

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    • I doubt very much whether the Buddha would discourage us either from investigating the meaning of his teaching:

      “…a lay follower himself is consummate in conviction and encourages others in the consummation of conviction … when he himself explores the meaning of the Dhamma he has heard and encourages others to explore the meaning of the Dhamma they have heard…”

      or from clarifying what are and what are not his words:

      “Monks, these two slander the Tathāgata [a synonym for “Buddha”]. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are two who slander the Tathagata.”

      Of course perhaps you have some special psychic connection with the Buddha such that you can know what he though without needing to refer to his teachings :)

  7. Thanks for this. My cousin posted this on his fb and I said “So I think Shampoo, will I become Shampoo?”. I thought knowing Buddha, this could not be his quote. You helped solve the puzzle :)

    • When i first saw this in meme form, I also knew it couldn’t be right. It is basically the opposite of acknowledging that the world is always changing, and that change causes pain when we attach ourselves to things. This quote suggests that we could make the world permanent, or that we can end pain simply by thinking it away. Silly, really. Like saying ‘Buddha says pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’

  8. 1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
    2.. Mind it is which gives to things their quality, their foundation and their being. Whoever speaks or acts with impure mind, him sorrow follows, as the wheel follows the steps ofthe ox that draws the cart.

    I am not a Pali scholar but if the translations of these two stanzas from the Dhammapada are correct do they not imply that we have a choice of becoming happy by fostering pure wholesome thoughts or becoming miserable by indulging in evil thoughts?
    In other words we become happy or miserable by what we think?
    After all is not Buddhism is all about eliminating suffering?

    • Hi, Nihal.

      Thanks for writing. That’s a 19th century translation, and probably influenced by the modern self-help movement. The word that’s translated in your verses (which are from Max Müller’s translation) as “thought” is “mano,” which is a tricky term. Most of the respected contemporary translators render it as “mind,” which is something much broader than “thought.” For example, Gil Fronsdal, Narada Thera, and Buddharakkhita all have it as “mind.” Thanissaro has it as “heart,” which I think strays a bit too far, but is nicely poetic.

      Our thoughts (if by that you mean the words we speak inside our heads and the things we imagine) are certainly important and need to be become skillful if we’re not to cause ourselves and others suffering. But we also need to transform the emotions that lead to the arising of those thoughts and the the actions that arise from those thoughts.

  9. I agree with the above comment concerning actions and dealing with our emotions. The world is full of suffering and disasters because we keep spiritual concepts too much in mind while our lifestyles, greed and emotions are not in alignment. Yes, “mind precedes everything,” but how quotes get distorted, they take out the real heart of Buddhas message which some of this feels deliberate as you never really see quotes of his circulating that do not fit in with the new-age/consumer-age.

    In fact, I posted a real Buddha quote from the Dhammapada on facebook a while back and someone left and angry comment saying it was a “fake” because Buddha would never say that. From all the quotes they had seen on facebook they couldn’t perceive Buddha as someone who would bluntly ask us to release our attachments. So, for the commenters who says its a waste of time to confront the fake quotes or that Buddha wouldn’t wish us to, I disagree. After all, people get upset the bible has been twisted and so they don’t trust it anymore.

    Buddha was not a new-ager. And it isn’t ethical to twist his words to falsely project him as something he was not. This quote has a “law of attraction” feel to it. However, Buddha would not have used the law of attraction how it is currently being used. Buddha was more about using the mind to release everything rather than to gain things. So, is it misleading to attribute these kind of quotes to Buddha without circulating other things to give a fair picture of who he was and what he teaches?

    • I get that all the time here, Mandy: people telling me what the Buddha would and wouldn’t feel/think/do, despite their obviously having no familiarity with the Buddhist scriptures, and no idea of what the Buddha taught or what he might have been like. Basically “their” Buddha thinks just like they do and has their opinions.

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  11. I found this variation on facebook today….
    “what you think you become, what you feel you attract, what you imagine you create”

    • Ah, the Law of Attraction, masquerading as the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha said that what you imagine has no effect whatsoever unless it’s in line with what you do, and that a desire for results without the appropriate conditions is like trying to make butter by stirring water.

    • i saw the same meme, which is how i ended up here (i googled the quote and this was the first page listed by the search engine). My first hint that something was off (besides the fact that the whole idea runs counter to buddhist teaching about how the world in impermanent and we would be powerless to change that, and therefore must change ourselves to be at peace with impermanence) was the fact that the meme was advertising some bullshit new-age food website (foodmatters.tv)

  12. eh, didn’t Buddha mean your thought in doing something?
    for example, when you think about positive thoughts, you become happy?

  13. I don’t see what is confusing about the saying. There are people who make a living poking themselves with metal spikes and not be bleeding, not be in pain, and when monitored, have no reaction in the equipment of body trauma. Now THAT is mind over matter. To the extreme, no doubt, but a good indication that our mind is more powerful than our bodies.

    WE are the placebo. Your mind tells your body what to do. It doesnt know the difference between your independent thoughts or the gears that are already turning in there. People are given placebos and have changes sometimes just as equal as the person on actual medication. People who imagine their bodies healing, often heal. People who are always worried about getting sick, or say that they feel like they will never get better when they are sick… often hold on to colds and illness much more frequent and longer than they usually would.

    My Dad used to say you can do anything you put your mind to. And considering my Dad was a great artist, and a self taught chemist, carpenter, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, aquarium dude, bonsai trainer (I really could go on and on about the things my Dad had done), but it leads me to believe it is possible.

    While you wont physically become Lady Gaga, if you set your mind on a thinking positive only mission to become a popular performance artist, then you can become that. You have to set your mind to DRIVE. Obviously it would be important to keep your eye on the prize and think of becoming a pop star…. because if you think you will fail, or suck, or not be as good… then you already set yourself up to not put in your maximum effort. When there is no such thing as fail, then there is only success, because there is no giving up. Thinking positive, and you will become positive. Even if you set out to become one thing in particular, but while on the path ended up somewhere kinda similar that still worked for you…. You still became what you thought. Successful, happy, free, creative, whatever. But you built the road for success by only thinking about success. A path that you build with negativity will always be under construction

    If you follow Mr. Emoto’s and similar studies, water has memory. Plants watered with water that was told “I hate you” grew far worse or died over plants watered with “I love you” water. Negative water froze into ugly crystals, while positive water froze into pretty snowflake crystals. Our bodies are made up of water. Imagine how our body retains negativity when we think it, speak it, or are around it all day? Theres a lot of negativity in the air, and wi-fi/cell phone waves everywhere… no wonder so many people are such a douchey bunch nowdays, you know?

    Thoughts become things. What you think, you become.

  14. What of the alternate quote “What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.”

    It is very philosophical, but the problem is these quotes circulate for so long we don’t always know their origins.

    • Interesting, J. That version seems to come from Sogyal’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, where it’s apparently attributed to the Buddha. I’ll look into it at some point. Thanks.

  15. You are already free. Since thought is actually perception captured in one’s time stream, one becomes aware of being free by seeing where and when one is in this place. All is paradox so being right about anything is useless to freedom. Being willing to see all opens the door. My experience.

  16. Bodhipaksa,

    Let me tell you something :)
    There is thousand quotes and sources who say things like “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.” or “You are what you think”… And it is quite logic if you try to understand. So many “great” minds told it, so many philosophies, many of them from India, even Jesus. So there is a great chance that Buddha said it.

    I read many books written by Buddhist monks and often they put that quote in their books, I don’t understand why you want only your interpretation to be true? Isn’t that arrogance and ego?

    – Meditate on that quote and try to understand better =)
    – Or, reject all others interpretations and believe only in your own
    DON’T say “Buddha never said it” because there is many quotes from Buddhist philosophies that goes in that way. It is very probable that he said it and meant it, because it is logic. You can’t be a good dancer for exemple if you don’t think you are. You can’t be a good monk if you don’t have thoughts that correspond to that … Of course actions follows the thought.

    So please, don’t think all people’s comments and interpretations that you don’t like are false. Just because you choosed one that is a little different.

    • I think you may have a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the Buddha’s teaching, and also regarding achievement generally. To take the latter first, there are in fact a great many excellent dancers who believe they are not good dancers. The better a dancer is, the more likely they are to think they lack skill. On the other hand, those who lack skill often lack the ability to know they lack skill. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Apparently this phenomenon also affects many people who comment here, and who believe they have some special insight into what the Buddha said or even thought (even though they may have no familiarity with the scriptures and don’t actually practice the Dharma.)

      To take another example, it’s also very common for people to go into examinations thinking they’re going to fail, and yet pass, or to think they’ll pass, and yet fail. I’m sure you’ve observed that yourself. The whole notion of “positive thinking” that some people try to import into Buddhism is rather questionable.

      To address the former, the Buddha did not think that thinking in itself was effective at bringing about change:

      These five things, householder, are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Which five? Long life is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Beauty is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Happiness is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Status is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Rebirth in heaven is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them?”

      What was effective, he said, was following the path of practice that leads to these outcomes.

      • Are you saying that Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and so many other people are wrong? And that you are right?

        “To take the latter first, there are in fact a great many excellent dancers who believe they are not good dancers.”

        No this is never the case. I was a dancer. So I know what I’m talking about. And you cannot know what others think. Some people yes, love to cultivate false modesty and say “oh no I’m not good” but inside they have confidence and know they are very good. Just because in our society it is not seen as “good” to talk good about yourself.

        Can you think that you are miserable and poor and be rich? Can you think misery and sickness, stress, depression and be healthy? Can you have only hateful and violent thoughts and have a peacefull life? Observe your thoughts about yourself and your life, you will see that you and your life reflects them perfectly. “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”

        “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
        Muhammad Ali

        “Man is made by his belief. As he believes so he is” Bhagavad Gita

        “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” Proverbes

        (there is thousand quotes of people who did great things that goes in that direction and that philosophy…)

        Ps: I use that philosophy since 5 years and I changed everythng in my life, my life is amazing just because I apply that philosophy. And I helped many people to chainge theirs, If it was false it would not be possible =)
        Buddhism NEVER denied that our thoughts create or life, it is just not the goal of buddhism, the main goal is to wake up from the dream, but all dreams are made by the mind. Even in my lucid dreams (dream yoga) I create everything with my mind, like in this life, just here there are physical laws.

        I hope you will make your research =)

        • “Are you saying that Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and so many other people are wrong? And that you are right?”

          You have a problem right there. First, you haven’t established that the Buddha said anything like “What you think, you become.” You’re simply insisting you know he said it, even if it was never recorded that he did so, and even when presented with evidence that he did not think that thoughts alone create “success.” Second, Krishna is a mythological figure, and it’s not very meaningful to say whether you’re wiser than someone who never existed.

          “No this is never the case. I was a dancer.”

          So, because you are were a dancer you know the thoughts and opinions of all other dancers? That seems unlikely, and so I doubt the clarity of your thinking.

          “And you cannot know what others think.”

          Wait, so now you’re saying you don’t know the thoughts and opinions of others? I’m confused.

          You obviously knew different performers than I did. I’ve known many performers (dancers, actors, musicians) who have had a very poor opinion of their talents. But leaving aside performers, not only is there the Dunning-Kruger event (which you ignored), but there’s the Impostor Syndrome, where “Despite external evidence of their competence, [sufferers] remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” By definition, Impostor Syndrome affects successful people. There’s also the Downing effect, which “describes the tendency of people with a below average IQ to overestimate their IQ, and of people with an above average IQ to underestimate their IQ.”

          People who are good at things often think they are not good at things. They are aware of their flaws, and they often compare themselves unfavorably with others.

          Here’s a few quotes for you:

          Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

          Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.”

          Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

          Charles DarwinL “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

          Shakespeare: “The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.”

          Are you saying all these people are wrong? And that you’re right? :)

          Now our thoughts have effects. The Buddha recognized that in pointing out that what we repeatedly turn our attention to becomes the inclination of the mind. But he also (as I’ve shown) believed that this had limited effects.

          “I helped many people to change their [lives], If it was false it would not be possible.”

          I’d suggest that you may be a victim of confirmation bias. When it hasn’t worked, have you ever, for example, told yourself that “deep down” the person must have had some self-sabotaging belief that undermined their positive thinking (thus demonstrating your tendency to think that you do in fact know the thoughts of others)?

      • Hi Bodhipaksa,

        A Google search brought me to your discussion here after I felt a twinge dubious about a version of this “Buddha quote” shared by a friend on Facebook. Some of your content was too scholarly for me to fully appreciate but I’m grateful for your well-reasoned arguments and citations that also cast doubt on the ‘Law’ of Attraction. Personally, New Age rhetoric such as Law of Attraction feel false to me, and it’s refreshing to read a scholar’s perspective that Buddha taught no such philosophy.

        As I told my friend on Facebook, my conscience winces to think a molested or terminally ill child ‘attracted’ her situation by her thought patterns. Part of the beauty and mystery of life is that it will surprise us no matter what we think or how we act. To me, when Buddha is mis-quoted to promote Law of Attraction, it feels like another form of clinging to the idea we can somehow exert control over the Mystery through our thoughts alone. We still look both ways when crossing the street, no matter how powerful our ‘intentions’ are.

  17. I do not see anything wrong with a short random “quote” (though they may be innacurate but embody the meaning). I think a liberal quote is alright to use …if people take an interest then they can discover more and find the full translation.

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  19. I read a quote that is supposed to be from Buddha somewhere that resembles this quote, namely:
    “We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
    When I searched the internet, I found the same quote and a different version:
    “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.”
    It said that both of them came from The Dhammapada. I can not find a lot of sites that are trustworthy as they use other quotes which I learned to be fake.

  20. Thanks for the website. I like it and value the effort you put in.

    I think you might have hit the nail on the head when you said maybe that’s me being a literalist.

    You answer the question and validate the accuracy of the quote when you reference translations of the dhammapada which are “not a great leap from the end point”

    Translation is a tricky business. If the buddha had said “that hits the nail on the head” and a translator went with ” that reaches the essence of the issue” you might say it was a valid translation.

    In this case “what you think you become” and “that becomes the inclination of his awareness” “mean” the same thing.

    I think what you might think is fake is the idea that the Buddha intended to give the impression that through the power of thought you can “manifest” things in the parlance of the new age.

    To me, the buddha quote which you call fake, is one of my favourites and gets to the heart of his teaching.
    If you think about Lady Gaga all day everyday, you become someone who thinks about lady Gaga all day everyday, and all of the consequences that one may infer from that.

    I would call it a valid quote, or at the very least I think it would be fair to say that the myth is not entirely busted.

    But it is your site, and your perspective and I thank you for allowing comments.

    • Hi, Tom.

      Thanks for your comments and your appreciation. I agree that the phrase, “hits the nail on the head,” means the same thing as “reaches the essence of the issue.” That’s a very straightforward use of an idiom. But “what you think you become” has a very different meaning from “what becomes the inclination of his awareness,” both in ordinary understanding and in terms of spiritual/religious philosophy. The first is ontological and ambiguous, while the second is psychological and clear. The simple fact is that there’s no record of the Buddha saying anything remotely similar to “what you think you become,” and I consider it not only an inaccurte reflection of what he taught, but potentially very misleading.

      • You know what, you’ve convinced me. I just wanted it to be real because I liked it, which is not the same as being real. Thanks for taking the time to respond

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