Kindling Spirit: Everything is Filled with Spirit, Chapter 3

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Welcome to the third installment of the Reality Sandwich series, Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within, the remarkable memoir by Dr. Carl Hammerschlag. Once each month, we will present a new chapter on RS. Please visit the Kindling Spirit homepage to learn more about the book, and about the accompanying teleseminars led by Carl and his longtime colleague John Koriath. These Kindling Spirit Telecircles will extend the dialog raised by Carl's experiences, related on these pages, and involve your stories as well. To sign up for the teleseminars, click here. Read Chapter One of Kindling Spirit here. Read Chapter Two here.

Do you remember your childhood teddy bear? The one that kept you company when things got rough, who showed you how to love and take care of yourself when you faced the night alone? Everything that holds good memories for us contains a feeling, an essence inspiring us when life seems impossible. Bears, baseballs, rosary beads, stones, sea shells, crystals, wooden carvings, your mother's chicken soup, even the smell of chocolate chip cookies in the oven — they are all filled with an energy that helps us through the hard times. They are reminders of loving connections and they help us when we face new life challenges like moving, job loss, new boss, divorce, or disease. Then those reminders become energetically invested and they become sacred objects; they have an energy that inspires the soul.

Everything that exists in the universe contains its own energy: every stone, animal, tree, and star. Every scientific discipline and religious group describes that energy in its own words. Physicists tell us that the energy is carried in particles or it flows in waves, and that energy and matter are interchangeable.

Priests and shaman call that energetic principal "God" or the "Great Spirit." Physicists, priests and shaman all believe there is an underlying causal process that explains the harmony of the universe and this is hidden from ordinary view. It doesn't matter how we define this energy-it matters more that we acknowledge it exists.

Indigenous healers know that everything in the universe contains this unfathomable energy what they call "Spirit" (Wakan, Hozho, Mastamho, Chi). They see the energy in all things and by careful observation, the shaman find ways to tap into those energies. Shamans have found ways to establish concrete connections with everything in their environment. They learn to befriend stones, plants, animals, clouds, and ancestors, learn their secrets and then use them to promote healing. Shaman spend years developing relationships with these friends whom they call their spiritual allies. These allies accompany shaman everywhere, they call upon them if they need help making diagnoses, identifying the lost parts that must be restored if a patient is to become whole again.

These allies inspire the healer and the patient into believing that they will help make the difference in bringing the patient to back to wellness. This energetic connection with their allies (who may speak in strange languages, and appear in visions) always teaches them something they would otherwise never have seen.

If this sounds a little bit metaphysical, let me assure you this is also the language of science. Doctors ally themselves to their machines and technology but their healing story could be told this way:

"The medicine man enters the outer vestibule of the sacred healing chamber. He dons the ceremonial vestments and performs the ritual motions, purifying himself for the healing ritual that is about to begin. Putting on identical masks, the medicine man and his acolytes enter the chamber, to which all others are forbidden entrance. The patient has already been ushered into a deep trance by another shaman using a magical elixir. Within the chamber the ritual instruments have been purified, and only the initiated are allowed to touch them. The shaman calls for each implement in turn, handed to him by an acolyte. He uses these in a ritual scarification procedure that removes a small part of the ill man's body. When he awakens from the trance the patient is magically healed, though some further ceremonies are required before he is able to leave the grounds of the Temple of Healing." (Eisenstein, C. The Ascent of Humanity, 2009).

All healers go through many years of training that include tests, initiation ordeals, and the mastery of an esoteric language. Upon completing training, they become agents of healing transformation; Western-trained physicians too often depend solely on their technology to become agents of healing transformation while dramatically underutilizing symbolic instruments and ceremonies that could intensify their healing power. I am a Western-trained physician who believes in evidence-based medicine, but I've also expanded my definition of what evidence is, because I've seen the healing power of symbols, rituals and ceremonies. I have incorporated songs, aromas, stories, and trance into my therapeutic repertoire, which has intensified my power as a healer. I even create healing ceremonies.

Along with colleagues from the Turtle Island Project, I recently conducted an experiential workshop entitled "Creating Healing Ceremonies." The Project was founded by Western and Native American healers interested in learning from each other and integrating each other's stories, symbols, rituals and ceremonies into their healing practices. Ceremonies, for example, provide the structure by which people get in touch with their feelings; and that's where the human spirit dwells. If you can inspire that soulful place, you can stimulate the healing process.

As a preparation for the workshop, participants were asked to bring along a sacred object (not necessarily a religious one), but something that held special significance for them. During the workshop, we explored ways to intensify the power of their sacred/symbolic/totemic objects. Using the language of neuroscience, as well as legends, dance, drumming, meditation, and ceremonies, we explored many ways to influence healing.
One of the attendees was participating for the second time. Brenda had completed a yearlong treatment program for a metastatic cancer just three weeks before this workshop, and wanted to celebrate the end of a torturous regimen of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. She was declared cancer-free, and left mostly hairless, without saliva or taste, and easily tired. Brenda felt like a deeply scarred warrior and wanted to welcome her future.

We set the stage for Brenda's healing ceremony telling the story of the Native American Sun Dance ceremony. Among the tribes of the Great Plains, this ceremony ensured their survival as tribe, and the survival of the planet. In this annual summer ritual, warriors pierce their flesh and hang from a tree until they break free to fulfill their vows to themselves and their ancestors.

In Brenda's ceremony, we would sing and dance to those songs, while we as a group created a healing mask for her. She laid down on a long table clutching her sacred object to her chest. A Hopi/Havasupai Medicine Woman blessed the space and prepared Brenda's face. I applied a plaster cast to her face, leaving her eyes uncovered.

While the mask was drying, the other participants (holding their sacred objects), circled the table to the drum beat and songs. Everyone had an opportunity to look directly into Brenda's eyes; they touched her, whispered to her, filled her mask with the healing power of their love, and their investment in her continued health.
This is how Brenda remembers the ceremony.

"I learned about healing in community at last year's retreat, "The Last Mask Of The Authentic Healer." It was in this workshop that Claudia formed a plaster mask around my face three days before I was to learn that I had stage 4 cancer in my sinus cavity that metastasized into my brain and bi-laterally in my neck. This mask captured the large tumors in my neck and oddly enough I decorated the mask in a way that looked sickly.

"Grandmother Mona drummed with her brothers and sisters at this retreat and sang healing Native songs. Dr. H told healing stories, sang Native songs and played the water drum that he so eloquently put together. The music, stories, and people all made this retreat sing to my soul. Grandmother Mona put her hands on my neck; gazed into my eyes with a peace I have never known and said a prayer for me. Dr. H and Mona taught us about the how healing is possible through rituals. This retreat transformed my life and gave me a new way to look at people that crossed my path. I came to the realization that I am never alone as long as I saw all of humanity as my brothers and sisters.

"This new way of seeing would later be key to my successful healing. The Native music and drumming, followed by Grandmother Mona putting her hands on my neck and saying a prayer, was instrumental in my healing. I listened to Native songs as a source of comfort during my treatment and saw Grandmother Mona's face with her peaceful eyes in my visions. The love and support that my partner and I received during treatment was amazing and the depth of support restored my faith in humanity. I have never known this depth of love and support and I commend all of those that supported us through this trying time.

"I endured 13 months of rigorous cancer treatment to include surgeries, chemotherapies and radiation.  When Dr. H announced this year's retreat, "Healing Ceremonies," I knew that I would only be 3 weeks out of chemotherapy and final treatment but the timing seemed to be  serendipitous. I wanted to celebrate the end of my treatment and my new way of seeing with the Healing Ceremonies retreat. I had no idea how much I could do and decided that I would do the best that I could and rest when I needed to rest. This retreat was equally transforming.

"Dr. H asked if I would be willing to participate in a group healing ceremony where he would make a healing mask for me. I can't explain the emotions that rushed through my body. I felt honored, scared and totally excited all at one time. The tears flowed from my eyes and I had no idea what this would all mean to me. I was in total awe over the anticipation of this experience.

"Before my healing ceremony Dr. H randomly selected 3 small groups and asked us to create a healing ceremony for one of the group members. I learned how to create a healing ceremony for one of my sisters and saw the impact of healing ceremonies. Through these healing ceremonies I was drawn closer to the entire group and especially to my individual team. It is uncanny how the selected groups became a perfect match for all of us.  It also gave me an idea of what the healing ceremony for me that evening might look like.

"The ceremony was to start after dinner so I had some time to lay down and pray for the ability to stay present and take in all that was about to happen with a heart of gratitude. When I entered the group room I saw a long thin conference table set up in the middle of the room with towels covering it. There was a folded towel on the end of the table that led me to believe that I would be laying down on this table. I had to catch my breath at the initial sight and walked out back to look at the stars and pray once again to stay present with an open heart. I asked the Great Spirit to bless me and the group in white light and allow me to feel the healing that was about to take place.

"I laid down on the table and again prayed for the white light and healing. Dr. H told me that Claudia cut up the strips of plaster to make my healing mask. Grandmother Mona, whose healing hands have touched many people all over this world, would apply the Vaseline to my face. He would then create the healing mask that the entire group would later decorate. The lights were subdued and the mood was created.

"Grandmother Mona's hands gently and ritualistically touched my face as she deliberately applied the Vaseline. She told me that she was honored to be doing this for me and it was I that felt honored to be receiving her gift. I continued to breathe in the healing touch and then Dr. H began to apply the plaster strips to create this healing mask. He told me that he would leave the eye holes open so that every group member could dance around the table and show me their sacred objects as they danced around the table. He would sing the Lakota Sundance song that represents a song for warriors. The honor, gratitude, and excitement was overwhelming.

"I closed my eyes as the mask was being made. The water from the plaster strips dripped into my eyes, ears, neck, and back of my head. I can still feel the healing waters on my skin. This mask was created with detail and balance. I had the vision of the sickly mask that Claudia created for me last year and felt an excitement about my new mask and new life cancer free. I thought about the rigorous treatment over the past year and how I learned about a will to live through the toughest time of my life. The entire year was transforming from being sick to being healed and this mask represented all that I was about to become.

"The mask was done and Dr. H wiped the water from my eyes. He held my hand and then the drumming and singing started as the entire group danced around me on the table. I saw the group, their sacred objects, and felt their hearts through their eyes and touch. They held my hand, touched my feet, and said prayers over my head. I couldn't help but to smile. The mask shaded me enough that I was able to see deeply and feel the healing. People leaned over the table to look at me through my mask with the most loving eyes I have ever seen. I could see and be seen like never before. These objects danced, people danced and I completely felt the love. My heart was touched so deeply as I thought to myself, "They are all doing this for me." This is the love that I felt during my treatment and it is a love that could only come from the Great Spirit. It is the true essence of healing.

"Dr. H removed the mask from my face and I could see the group with a different set of eyes. I hugged every group member and felt like I knew their hearts on a deep level. Tears fell from my eyes with a feeling of honor, love, gratitude, and awe. No words can describe this experience and Dr. H knew it. He said to go back to our rooms and hold the experience in our hearts without talking about it. Something absolutely incredible happened and we all knew it.

"I went back to my room and took a shower to get all of the plaster off of me. There were no words to describe what I had just experienced and as the water sprayed on my baldhead I started to weep. What greater gift could I receive than the gift of healing? The only word I could come up to describe what just happened was, "awe." Describing it now seems so limiting to what I actually experienced.

"We had an early morning sweat. This was the longest days that I had been up in a given day without taking a nap. I approached the sweat with a sense of cleansing from so many chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The sweat was beautiful and I could feel the toxins drip out of my body. Again the songs, prayers, and community solidified my experience from the night before. I could feel the heat on my radiated neck and face. I took a buff into the sweat and covered myself when necessary. I witnessed the power of ceremony and Grandmother Mona led the most beautiful sweat with a graciousness of prayer and song. I heard the cries of pain and quest for healing during this sweat and couldn't think of any other place that I wanted to be.

"During the brunch period the group was encouraged to decorate my healing mask. Before entering the group room Gloria walked out and told me that this mask was different than she expected it to be. She walked me into the room and I saw people cutting locks of hair to give my mask the hair that I didn't have on my head. One man was bald so he cut his chest hair. They didn't have scissors so they used a knife to cut their hair so that I could have some. One woman told me that when Grandmother Mona put sage and cedar on the ancient's lava rocks during the sweat she swore that she saw a butterfly. She said that she was inspired to color a butterfly on my mask as a result of this vision. It is the most beautiful mask and punctuated a new beginning for me.

"I brought the mask home and set it next to last year's mask. The difference between the two masks is enormous. Last year's mask is decorated in dark colors with a large neck amplifying the tumors. The new mask has bright colors, hair, and a smile. I can still hear the beautiful voices and feel the gentle healing touch. I can see the people and sacred objects dancing around me and I feel so alive. I asked Dr. H how to explain this to others and give it the power that it deserves and he told me that it is through sharing the story that others will know the power of healing. I still don't know that the story will give the experience the power that it deserves. I know that I am truly blessed."


I've had back pain for most of my adult life, and three surgical procedures to repair herniated discs between the ages of 36-45. The surgeries left me with significant postoperative complications. I was healed by a Hopi Indian medicine man who was my friend and spiritual guide (The Dancing Healers, 1988). Herbert took a six-hour bus ride to come and see me right in the middle of his planting season because after the failure of his first corn planting, he had a dream in which I was featured.

In the dream, his cornfield was barren except for a single, withered stalk atop which was a single ear. As he approached the stalk and looked closely at it, the ear of corn had my face. My mouth was open and pleading, but he could not hear the words. He came closer and still couldn't hear because my mouth was open but speaking soundlessly.
Herbert came to see me, because he understood that there was something going on in my life that had influenced his planting and was threatening me. He wanted to know what was going on in my life. The dream disquieted me to say the least, but at the moment I couldn't think of anything special going on in my life. Herbert sat silently, and then I remembered I was planning to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota for my fourth operation.

Herbert looked at me and said I should not have the operation. As much as I valued his opinion I was still a believer in the edifice of surgical science to restore me to health. I found the best surgeon, picked the finest facility, "Why should I not have surgery," I asked him? Herbert said this is what the dream is about. I was that lean, dying corn stalk with the big head and open mouth that wasn't saying anything. My mouth could not speak because I was not standing in truth. Herbert said my stalk was telling me something my head did not want to know, and it was killing me.

It still wasn't clear to me until he said for me to pay more attention to what my body is telling you than what my mind thinks I have to do. Only then did it come to me that my bullshit was killing me. If I continued to believe my manhood would crumble if I gave up competitive athletics, then I was going to keep aggravating my back pain. My wish for surgical relief was a way to avoid facing my whole truth and changing my lifestyle.

I went to the Mayo Clinic anyway, and a renowned back surgeon told me that with even with surgery, I had only a 50-50 chance of operative success. He added that if I made some lifestyle changes and stopped playing competitive racquetball and basketball (which required rotation) and did some lower impact exercise like swimming, he thought I could live reasonably pain-free.

This time I heard the shaman's dreams clearly. Get it straight, change your way of seeing, look again at what you thought you knew and face your truth today. It would have been easier if I could only have heard that wisdom sooner, but we are always limited by what we can see in any moment. If we are open to expanding our energetic resources (dreams, plants, animals, healers) then we magnify our power to heal.

The recent book and movie "The Horse Boy" is a glowing example of an energetic connection between an autistic boy and a horse When Rowan Isaacson was two, he was diagnosed with autism. He manifested all the classical symptoms: he stopped talking, retreated into himself, avoided eye contact, and screamed uncontrollably. His father, Rupert, noticed that when Rowan wandered into a neighbor's horse pasture, a testy, quarter horse mare, dipped her head in a submissive posture and stood perfectly still. When the horse calmed down, so did the boy. Rupert (an avid horseman) was intrigued and took his son for horseback ride. Holding the boy in front of him, they walked, and then trotted; Rowan became quiet and uttered his first new word in a year. They continued to ride together, his tantrums and isolationism lessened.

Rupert, a journalist who had written about what he experienced with Kalahari Bushmen, looked for an indigenous culture the combined horsemanship with shamanic healing. He discovered the oldest horseman tribes that still practiced shamanism were the Durkha in Outer Mongolia, Rupert took his wife Kristin, and his son there to participate in healing ceremonies. The boy was exposed to an assortment of rituals that include animals, and ordeals. When it was over, Rowan's emotional firestorms stopped, he talked more, and by the time they returned to the States, he was potty trained for the first time.

So how does one explain this? Was it the ceremonies, the animals, or the new relationships? The result does not lend itself to an easy explanation, because the power of reason is limited in explaining the universe. It's clear, however, that some new pathway of learning opened Rowan to seeing what was familiar from another perspective.

The worlds of autism and shamanism intersected — both the shaman and the boy found a way to go into their own worlds where they connected with their demons and allies. Rowan looked at the shaman and watched him go into trance and then saw how he came out of it and reconnected with the world. The magic of all therapy is finding ways to open new channels into the mind that allow one to move beyond old limitations.

Equine-assisted therapy is an increasingly popular treatment modality for people living with various physical and emotional challenges, including autism. There is a physical stimulation when riding which exercises the same pelvic and trunk muscles used for walking, and it also improves balance and coordination. Sitting high up on the horse can do wonders for the rider's confidence, and then there is the energetic relationship between horse and rider. The horse knows when the rider tenses and as their trust/experience grows, they move together with greater confidence. There is something about the connection between Rowan and horses that allowed him to reach a place inside himself that moved him beyond his old path of symptomatic isolation.

There are modern shaman who utilize these principles in downtown Taipei. A jitong (Chinese Shaman) sees patients in a busy modern office building. Chang Yin is carrying on the folk tradition that goes back to antiquity. Ms. Chang dispenses advice while channeling a spirit that comes to her in a trance (New York Times, December 7, 2008). In the past, such shaman played a central role in village life. Based in local temples, they settled disputes, dispensed counsel, and healed the sick by channeling spirits.

In today's developing economies in modern cities, people still come to the jitong. The questions they ask may be a little different because the community and workplace have changed, but they still come to seek guidance about marital problems, raising children, and family conflicts. Ms. Chang has adapted this shamanic tradition to meet the needs of modern city dwellers. She regularly sends text messages to about 300 clients and has created a virtual community network that has replaced the old, tightly-knit village.
Ms. Chang does not charge for her shamanic healing services; most of her income comes from teaching and advising businesses on feng shui. In an interview, she said that she was called to be a jitong, she did not choose it. When she was six years old, she asked her mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds. Ms. Chang said her parents didn't blame her or think that she was making it up; instead, they brought her a book with pictures of holy beings and asked her which one she had seen.

When she was 12, a Buddhist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong. At 16, she was capable of being possessed by the spirit of Ji Gong, a maverick Chinese Buddhist monk who lived in the 12th century. After completing school, she held several jobs but said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages.
Ms. Chang said that along with changes in society, the jitong needed to adjust their practices. People still needed advice, guidance, support and hope from a believable person who was experienced in mobilizing healing energies.

Professor Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Technology of the Academia Sinica in Taipei said, "Although we have become middle-class oriented, 70% of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways. We believe the jitong channels the spirits of revered ancestors, so when they speak, we pay attention to what they're saying."

Shamanic healers have existed in every culture; they are wise, experienced, skillful, well-respected people who help us through hard times.

I learned about the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers from my beloved sister Mona Polacca, a co-founder of the Turtle Island Project, who is one of them. Five years ago, 13 grandmothers (ages ranging from their 50's to their 80's) representing indigenous people in the Americas, Asia and Africa got together to share a vision for the healing of the planet and its peoples. They came together as a collective to speak for the Earth mother and to keep this a sacred home for humanity. They were committed to building a global community through their prayers, peacemaking and healing work. They wished to maintain their ceremonial practices, affirm the right to use plant medicines free of legal restrictions, and protect the land where indigenous people lived and upon which their cultures depended. Since their coming together as the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers in 2004, the Grandmothers have been the subjects of a book and movie, have spoken at the United Nations, and have met with the Dalai Lama and the Pope.
Mona and I first worked together in the early 70's when she worked as a mental health specialist for the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona. She is Hopi/Tewa/Havasupai, an Masters of Social Work (MSW) social worker, spiritual leader and healer. Mona found a way to incorporate her traditional teachings and her Western training in a way that maximizes her ability to heal. She says, "I pray for people; that's all I do. I acknowledge my ancestors, and all those who came before who made it possible for us to be here today." Mona says that prayers are like an arrowhead that moves in front of her making a way, clearing a path, and all she does is walk behind it. She travels around the world telling her story about how we utilize all resources around us to build a foundation that will carry our youth healthily into the future.

She is among of a handful of people who have taught me how to pray. Prayer is a song that comes from your heart to your lips without thinking about it first. Speech is something that comes from the head to the lips after considering its potential impact or reception. To speak directly from the heart to the lips without thinking about it is a prayer. The more we come from a prayerful place, the more ways we find to connect to our universe.

Every year, one of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers brings all the others to visit her tribe. When it was Mona's turn to bring the grandmothers to Phoenix in 2009, she introduced the Turtle Island Project board members to her sisters. This is where I met Aama Bombo (Buddhi Maya Lama), a Tamang from Nepal. Her father was a renowned shaman, but in her tribe women were not permitted to practice traditional healing, and her father restricted the development of her visionary gifts.  

When she was 25, Aama developed violent shaking all over her body and it lasted for over a year. The people around her thought she had become mentally ill and took her to many healers to seek a cure but to no avail. Before she was to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Aama's grandmother took her to a Buddhist lama who told her what was the matter with her. In the nine years since her father's death, his spirit had been seeking someone through whom he could transmit his teachings. But he could not find anyone with a good enough heart and he had to accept that, even though she was female, she was the one for which he could transmit his teachings. The shaking was her father reaching out

to her. As soon as she was able to recognize his spirit within her and that of others, she stopped shaking.

Grandmother Aama is a well-known shaman in Nepal who treats the poorest of the poor as well as members of the royal family. People arrive at her home by 6:00 a.m. and the healing goes on until noon. After a short rest, she resumes her work. She can easily see 100 people a day. She guides them on the journey during which she helps them find an untapped power that lies within them. Grandmother Aama channels a host of spirits: first she calls on her father's spirit, then the spirits of her clan, the nature spirits that surround her, and the spirit of the powerful Hindu deity Hanuman who delivers man from the forces of evil. She channels all these spirits and deities and through her work she has become a trusted go-between between the long-standing political divisions in Nepal.

Another of the Grandmothers, Bernadette Rebienot, is Omyene from Gabon. Bernadette's own grandmother was an initiated shaman who was taught the traditional healing practices from Gabon's rain forest Pygmies. Through her, she was introduced to the plants of the ancestors that needed to be protected for future generations. She listened to the stories of how to respect the forest and to speak for the Mother.

Bernadette was about to start school when her mother died. Nuns in a convent school then raised her until she became seriously ill. The right side of her face became paralyzed in excruciating pain. Sunlight intensified her illness and she was forced to stay in darkness. The illness lasted three years despite the efforts of modern medicine. Her grandmother brought Bernadette to see her Pygmy master, who told her that she had a special gift and that she had to accept the illness as her path to initiation. It was he who initiated her into the sacred medicine, Iboga.

When the Iboga root is chewed a person can work long hours without getting fatigued, and go along time without feeling hunger. Iboga also opens the body to the euphoria of spiritual dimension. It is classified as a hallucinogen. The psychoactive substance found in the plant's root is called Ibogaine. In the early 60's anecdotal reports appeared about its effectiveness in treating traumas and addictions of all kinds. Research into its anti-addictive properties came to a virtual halt in this country after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.  But Ibogaine is currently being used in clinics in 12 countries on six continents to facilitate detoxification and chemical dependence from substances such as methadone, heroine, alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine. The programs all include psychological introspection and spiritual awareness.
Grandmother Bernadette explains that "Iboga is a cultural treasure and it is a crucial ingredient in allowing us to get rid of the blocks within ourselves, get past emotional memories, and it helps resolve all conflicts." Well known in her country, she has been president of the health department of traditional medicine since 1994. Grandmother Bernadette says, "When the grandmothers speak, the president listens. There is war all around us, but there is no war in Gabon."

Everything that exists in the universe is filled with its own spirit that can help us heal ourselves, and the planet.


Teaser Image by milena mihaylova, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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