The Compassion Adventure

CCT Teacher graduates

In times such as these, when xenophobia, (fear of the stranger who doesn’t look exactly like me), is rampant, when little children are caged to punish their parents for seeking asylum from war, when women and gay people and people of color can be openly discriminated against or abused, and even allies are turned into enemies, we desperately need ways to come together as a global community.

We need compassion warriors, like these in the photo, who work to create unity by opening their hearts to those who do not look or sound the same as us. Right now our world needs people who are willing to train in the cultivation of compassion and share that fundamental human value on every continent. We need intentional compassion cultivation in businesses, churches, hospitals, and educational institutions across the globe. We need to teach children nonviolent communication and conflict resolution, so the seeds of making others their enemy are never planted in the first place.

The photo is of the most recent graduates of the Compassion Institute’s teacher training program, compassion warriors who came together from every continent. We spent a year learning to teach a transformative Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program, originally created at Stanford University by Dr. Thupten Jinpa and the founding faculty. Now we have been sent out to share compassion cultivation as the highest ideal of all the world religions.

We hope to spread the work wherever there are people who are willing and ready to begin this adventure together. But the work will not be easy, as the seeds of distrusting every neighbor are being sown every single day in the public forum.

By definition, an adventure involves “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity; the exploration of unknown territory; an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks with uncertain outcome, requiring boldness and daring.” In this current cultural climate, I would say the mission of actively cultivating compassion in our hearts, minds, and actions will be quite the adventure.

There will be hazards, danger, and unknown risks as we call for a powerful inner transformation toward greater compassion. This is especially true in a time when leaders are so cynical that they have to make fun of people like former president Bush as he spoke of the need for “a thousand points of light.” Is cynicism so high that we have to make fun of a president for creating a giant non-profit in support of volunteerism?

Yes, when there are world leaders who believe everyone is either a “Viking or a victim,” (a phrase for that mentality coined by Dr. Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly), then efforts to actively cultivate compassion will be belittled and ridiculed by some. Compassion will be seen as weak, a trait for victims. When boosting “the bottom line” becomes the supreme human value for some, the supreme call to love God and neighbor as ourselves will be turned into a ridiculous pastime for losers.

And even beyond the risks of being ridiculed and belittled, cultivating compassion is hard! No wonder Compassion Cultivation Training and courses like it are needed to help us undertake this work in communities, with the support of others. This compassion adventure is NOT for weaklings or victims. But why is it so hard?

For one thing, humans have a Critical Voice in our heads which makes up stories about us. It criticizes us, finds fault with us, and stops many an amazing adventure before we even get started. We also have a Fearful Voice in there. It imagines problems at every turn and raises anxieties about our capability to endure the adventure. And both these voices have been limiting us from living up to our potential for years.

There are also cultural voices which get inside our own heads and disrupt our progress and growth. A really common one that comes up in the CCT classes is the belief that we are being “selfish” if we offer compassion or loving-kindness to ourselves. And without that self-love, a central part of the “love your neighbor AS yourself,” we cannot sustain transformative compassion for others.

In times such as these, there is a radical reaction to the question asked of Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Many people seem to despise every neighbor, especially anyone who doesn’t look or sound exactly the same. Jesus’ answer was told as a story, later referred to as the “Good Samaritan” story. In that story, Jesus portrayed a minority man taking extremely good care of an injured man who would have normally despised him. In his usual way, Jesus raised the bar to say your neighbor is the one who usually despises you, and you should love him/her as yourself.

So who is my neighbor? Who is your neighbor? On the challenging compassion adventure, the hardest person to show compassion for will be the one who usually despises me. In our terribly polarized culture, finding haters is not hard. But answering the call to love the haters, now that will take great power, and will require active cultivation of compassion on a daily basis.

Hating the haters is so easy. These days almost every voice you see in the media can evoke hatred from one “side” or the other. Cultivating compassion for every neighbor, including those who despise me, will be exceptionally challenging, “an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks, with uncertain outcome, requiring boldness and daring.” But that Compassion Adventure is the one I am on. And God knows we need each other’s help if we are to undertake this journey in times like these.

That is the real reason I am now teaching compassion cultivation as a fundamental part of my own life mission. I need other compassion warriors around me. I need them to teach me what I do not know and to remind me of what I forget. I need them to inspire me to keep at this when I feel I am drowning in a culture of hate. I need to belong to a community of Good Samaritans, who are not so cynical that they have to make fun of volunteerism. I want to be surrounded by people who have transcended the survivalist mentality of “Viking or victim.” I want to help create a world where we actually live compassion and love as our highest ideal, and I need friends to stand with me.

As the photo attests, I do have friends on every continent who are part of the Compassion Adventure. Some of us just spoke of the joys and perils of our adventure in a video conference this week. Once again we felt the interconnection with compassion warriors across America and from many other countries.

Maybe you too have grown tired of drowning in the hatred and have longed for a way to turn things around. Maybe you have wondered if there is a way to find others who will create a compassionate community with you, who are also seeking to love every neighbor as ourselves. Well I can tell you one way to find such a community: join a Compassion Cultivation Training class near you.

We will launch our next 8-week CCT class for the general public in New Orleans in early September, (after launching the training for prisoners reentering society in August). Our friend Lara Naughton, a senior CCT teacher, will offer a weekend workshop here this fall. There are also CCT teachers on every continent, and some of us are willing to travel to share the training wherever people are seeking this help.

Are you like me, needing help to answer the compassion challenge in times like these? If so, send me an email at William.thiele56@gmail.com and I would be glad to help you find a CCT group near you, or create one with you and interested friends. The Compassion Adventure means answering the cry of our world, in times like these.

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Dear sisters and brothers,

Heart in stone photo

In times such as these, I keep noticing that I cannot find real security in national or international events. I cannot touch a deep peace by watching or hearing news, ever. I am not filled with compassion or loving-kindness–the heart of Christianity–by trying to change anyone’s views about anything, or change anyone period, including me. I am beginning to get the hint that there is NOTHING outside of me that can bring what I long for on the inside.

You have probably known such things forever, but I have to keep being reminded to quit looking in the external places for what only lives internally. And I do wonder if there are just a few people around the globe who are like me, needing reminders to STOP looking outside for what is an “inside job,” as my AA friends say.

But it is so easy to keep looking elsewhere for whatever I am really longing for. Maybe the next Netflix show will do it. Maybe Walmart has what I need. Maybe a meeting, a job, a relationship, or a certain salary will fill me. Maybe some comfort food has the answer, (especially sweets and milk chocolate). Maybe accomplishing more so I feel I am more. Maybe proving my value to God, church, company, family, friends, or even strangers with the right behavior will reveal my worth. Or what if I find the right self-help book or seminar that will finally show me how to fix myself and be exceptional – finally!

There seems to be no end to the outer directions we turn to find what is only ever inside. And some of us have to become very weary in our bones from all that searching, or we even have to fall down very far into our brokenness, before we wonder if there is another way.

Evening has fallen and I am just now settling into my meditation space. All day long I have stayed busy. I knew from early this morning that I needed my dose of turning my attention within, bringing the mind down into the heart, but I have resisted by doing every other thing. That’s just it: all my doing never helps me locate my being. I only have one option–stopping the doing–that helps me finally find my being.

So I will turn on a guided meditation from the Compassion Cultivation Training class I am currently leading, and use it to help me turn to the inner being. I will open my heart wide to myself, others, and the Great Love, to source the compassion and loving-kindness I want to locate. Then I will turn off the spoken guidance and settle into the inner stillness, slowly finding my way beneath the barrage of thoughts and mental stories, and letting go of the thousand distractions of the mind–one by one. I know where I am heading now. I am getting my bearings again. I am on the way to True Home.

If I keep writing about this inner journey, I will not arrive on time. So this is where I stop clacking the computer keys and disappear. But don’t worry, you will see me again. I will just stay Home a little while, until my being is rejuvenated. And when the fulness returns, I will venture back out into the world. Perhaps we will see each other, and smile, and know that we both know we will never find what we are looking for by looking on the outside.

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“Sneaky Grace,’ as Anne Lamott calls it.

CCT Teacher graduates

The following lines really speak to me from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: “Everything slows down when we listen and stop trying to fix the unfixable. We end up looking into other people’s eyes, and see the desperation, or let them see ours. This connection slips past the armor like water past stones. Being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter.”

Spoiler alert: This slowing down, listening, and looking into each other’s eyes cannot happen on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Sorry to have to remind you my friends, but the devices in our hands do not possess this power. Reading this blog won’t do it either. We have to be in direct contact with each other, actually be with each other, with open hearts and minds. That changes everything. That opens a crack in the door so that “sneaky grace” can slip in, between us and among us.

Last Monday I was flying from San Francisco back to New Orleans, after being with the beautiful global community pictured in this photo. We were completing the academic portion of our teacher training in Compassion Cultivation* through the Compassion Institute of Stanford University. Among us were friends from every continent as well as the faculty and staff of the Compassion Institute. Now I know each of them by name.

These faces represent my direct experience of the global community. I have heard that term as a concept. Now I have first-hand experience of the unique joy which rises from a deep place in the soul when making friends with people from South Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, India, Africa, Denmark, France, the Czech Republic, Tibet, Australia, Belgium, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Canada, Brazil, and all over the U.S.

We became friends through sitting face to face, telling our stories, or at least the vulnerable and crazy parts we were ready to share, and listening to each other with full attention. That’s how I know what Anne Lamott is writing about. I am learning how “everything slows down when we listen,” and trying to let go of my terrible need to fix. I still mess that part up, that wanting-to-fix part, but at least it’s not every single time I am with someone.

In our compassion cultivation teacher training we delved into the challenging art of opening the heart wider even as we hold our personal boundaries, of finding our way through empathy distress into active compassion, of overcoming compassion fade and fatigue through self-compassion and sourcing in a Compassionate Image. And all of that begins with the willingness to see and hear the suffering in myself and others. Anne named that being willing to “see the desperation” in another’s eyes, “or let them see ours.”

I am learning that compassion includes embracing the smile on another’s face and knowing there might be some painful places hiding behind the smile. I was continually amazed through the teacher training as the new friends across the globe shared their stories. With the super-power of courageous vulnerability, many of us ventured into that place where we feel a bit naked and yet take the risk of saying the unsayable. We peeled back the armor enough to allow others to look on our beating heart, just like we sometimes do in the groups of our School for Contemplative Living. As Anne wrote, that act of “being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter.”

I guess the One who made us knew grace would have to be sneaky, since beneath the skin we are really pink flesh, blood, bone, and water, walking around as though we had on a suit of steel-plated armor. Actors are we, pretending we are “just fine,” even when we are quivering inside like Jello in a shaking bowl. When we are scared we try to look brave. When we are mad we try to look unaffected. When we are sad we try to look, “just fine.” No wonder grace has to sneak up on us when our guard is down. No wonder divine grace takes the opportunity to reach us when we are face to face and really listening to each other, letting the eyes be the window to the soul.

So I challenge you to gather your courage today, and practice some face-to-face time, in place of the Facebook kind, as I hope to do the same. You could start by stopping your reading of this blog. Words about sneaky grace have little power. Real face time, experiencing how “everything slows down when we listen,” now that’s where the power is, the power to let sneaky grace find us. Let’s begin now.

*For anyone in New Orleans this weekend, I will be offering an information session on the 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course this Sunday, May 20, 12:45-2:45 pm at Rayne United Methodist Church’s Epiphany House, 3924 St. Charles Ave. For details or to RSVP, email me at William.thiele56@gmail.com.

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Listening to Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott photo

Listening to Anne Lamott’s unique voice is like attending a good AA meeting: terrible and wonderful truth is all mixed together in there, and you leave feeling a little saddened at the stark reality of our human condition, and really joyful at the wonder of being redeemed. Today I want to share a few lines from her last book, Hallelujah Anyway, as an example of how she speaks to me.

“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine or the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

I, for one, am pretty good at feeling mercy for the people I like, (which unfortunately circles a lot around those who like me), pretty crappy at feeling mercy for those I judge, (which is most everyone sooner or later), and especially retarded in feeling it for myself. So I guess I am starving for mercy too. Thanks a lot for reminding me of this Anne!

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves….”

I am starving for a little mercy when I see myself being “a great big mess” in one of our contemplative community groups: alternating between shining with a super-spiritual insight in my own mind, relishing a delightful word of vulnerability shared by a peer, noticing how sexy she is as she speaks, punishing myself for having that thought, trying to focus on something more pure, wondering how long it will be until we are done and I can drive home to eat dinner, hoping someone will say something that inspires me, trying to stop talking so much myself so I can actually let someone else speak, and on and on it goes inside the “great big mess” of my mind.

“I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that? The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right.”

How many times have I settled for trying to be right, in place of surrendering to mercy? With my tribe I want to be inside the group who welcomes everyone, the inclusivists. And I love to say little digs at the exclusivists, who seem to pop up in the news everyday with their rejections of women, African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQs, the “other” political side, the poor described as “lazy,” (just making this list makes me glow at how “right” I am and how “wrong” they are). All of this is to show that I have special expertise at excluding the excluders. I can make subtle and blatant points within my tribe about how right we are, but I have a dang hard time making myself walk back up to the neighbor and chat after he told me how poor, black people in the inner-city are lazy and how we all need guns to protect ourselves from those dangerous criminals. Is there some way to have mercy and still hang onto how right I am?

“I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect.”

Over the past year I learned Anne and I are not the only ones who struggle with genuine self-respect, which might mean practicing little acts of mercy toward ourselves. The Stanford professors teaching our Compassion Cultivation Teacher Training course have reminded us of the studies showing how people in the West have a much easier time feeling compassion for others than ourselves. This caused them to rearrange the order of practicing compassion cultivation to start with a loved one, and then work into cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves. (If we get a little experience with that hard work under our belts, we can move toward compassion for strangers, difficult people, and all beings. More about that later).

Maybe the uphill battle of practicing a little mercy for ourselves is one of the greatest gifts Anne Lamott has been trying to offer us all in her writing. In describing her own daily battles with this monumental task, she is telling us it is okay if we struggle with boarding the self-mercy train. I know I need help with this one. I really need friends around me who accept, and even kind of like, me as I am. Being illiterate in reading the truth of my own innate value, the kind that is based on nothing but simple being, I need them to be professors of the high art of having mercy for me. I need their teaching of acceptance. I need the remedial class in mercy-for-self most every day. (No wonder I built a career around forming contemplative communities who meet everyday).

In a few months we will welcome Anne Lamott to New Orleans. She will not speak for many hours in a lecture format like we often have for our annual contemplative conference. She will share like someone does at a good AA meeting: telling her story of terrible and wonderful truth all mixed together in a way that helps us touch our own humanity and walk away feeling a bit more redeemed. We will try to withhold our projections of greatness and offer her the mercy of accepting her as a messy human just like us. We will thank her for sharing her own story, just like AA friends thank each other: expecting nothing but Anne being herself, and hoping we can have eyes to see the presence of The Mercy right there in the messy middle of it all.

If you want to join us for “An Evening with Anne Lamott” on Saturday, October 20, and get a copy of her next book, Almost Everything, watch our website for registration details at http://www.thescl.net. In the meantime, practice a little mercy for yourself here and there, and if you want to, come share your own messy story in one of our contemplative communities. We will try to do the same.

 

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Earth Day Poem: Sexy Maker

IMG_0053

Warning: The Earth Day poem below arose from a place of cataphatic prayer, the kind where we celebrate the divine as experienced in the natural world. It came from watching Spring explode throughout our cypress swamp. The language is overtly sexy at times in celebration of the One who makes all things beautiful. People familiar with nature poetry and mystical poetry will think nothing of this. Others could find the imagery outright offensive. But April is such an inspiring month, when the divine turns everything that looked dead into new life, and Earth Day seems like a fitting time to share the joy in this way.

Sexy Maker 

Who are you

Maker of the million shades of spring green now waving in the wind

squirting Your juicy self up through crooked gray limbs that looked dead

just a minute ago?

How do you

turn Spirit into organisms of brown, yellow, red, and purple

rumblin’ up from the dirt and oozing out through microscopic buds

’bout this time o’ year?

Why do you

fly through white cumulus formations, changelings across the bluest sky

one minute

and spill yourself out in wetness across this earth home the next?

All I know for sure, is that

I want You

making, waving, squirting, turning, rumblin’, oozing, flying, and spilling

in me.

 

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On Knowing and Not Knowing

William's SCL talk

Almost Everything is the title of Anne Lamott’s upcoming book. I think the title is short for “Almost everything I know for sure.” Our School for Contemplative Living will bring her to New Orleans to speak from the book on October 20, four days after it is published. And yes, you can buy a ticket to hear her speak, which will include a copy of the book.

Her TED talk on YouTube gives a hint of what her book and talk will focus on: everything from life to death, truth as paradoxical, grace, chocolate, aging, and writing. Her theme is “What I know for sure,” in an age where “alternative truth” and blatant lying has become a norm.

So, I got to thinking about the paradox of “knowing for sure” and “not knowing.” And I have to say that one of the great gifts of walking through life as a contemplative is slowly learning to accept “not knowing” as a path. I do NOT mean that we cannot really know what is true. That is the current political myth in America. I do mean we can learn the humility of becoming comfortable with not knowing much with certainty, we can hug our own not knowing, even as we stand firm on what little we do “know for sure.”

I wonder if each of us might compile our own list, as Anne Lamott has done, affirming our own “What I know for sure” and humbly adding “What I don’t know.” My list starts here:

“What I know for sure,” by first-hand experience, comes from Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion: “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a Speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”

After that, the list gets very personal: I know I love my family, deeply, no matter what. I know I love to gather people and sit in silence together. I know practicing the presence of God is True Home and sharing that is my mission. And I know I love milk chocolate with caramel and sea salt. After that it gets a bit fuzzy, except I know I am comfortable with not knowing much of anything these days and am uncomfortable with people who act like they know everything.

What about your lists of knowing and not knowing? Get to work on them, share them when you are ready, and come hear Anne Lamott’s list with us October 20.

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I want more…

Heart in stone photo

I want more than the experience of mindfulness these days. I want heartfulness: loving-kindness and compassion as the focus of my life and contemplative service.

I have been in several mindfulness retreats in 2018, and many over the years. So don’t get me wrong. I do not mean I do not value the practice of being in the present moment. That has been a very important foundational practice in my life and teaching for 20 years, ever since I first trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But I do mean I have become more clear that mindfulness is not enough for me personally. I want more.

For instance, I have listened to guidance at the mindfulness retreats about working with thoughts and emotions. The usual instruction goes something like this: “Notice the thoughts and feelings which arise as soon as you can, label them, and let them go. Each time they return do the same.”

I understand the basic concept beneath this teaching: we suffer less if we notice thoughts or feelings as such before they become a story which the mind believes, like “I feel terrible because of what he said to me.” Or when we notice the mind has already created a story, we suffer less if we recognize that it is only a story in the mind, not reality. That can give us the strength to let the story go. I do find those ways helpful and share them with people regularly in counseling and spiritual direction.

But I realized in the middle of a recent mindfulness retreat, as the usual instruction was being repeated for working with thoughts and feelings, that I find another step from heartfulness work even more helpful. I personally use this step and share it more frequently in counseling and spiritual direction. The question is simple: “Can I/you/we hold this in loving awareness?” And to emphasize the point, I usually cup my hands together to make space for the compassionate holding.

Once I see that I am suffering with something, including thoughts, feelings, and stories about them, can I, will I, be aware of the suffering with compassion? When I notice the suffering in me, will I care about the me who is going through this? Will I hold myself in love? Will I even decide to radiate the one who is suffering–me–with compassion? It is the same thing I would offer someone else who is suffering: I would radiate compassion and loving-kindness into them. (Some people call this prayer). So why not treat myself in the same way?

Can you see what I mean in wanting more then just noticing what is happening when there is suffering, and just labeling the suffering as that? I no longer believe that is enough.

I have miles and miles to go before I sleep, but on the journey ahead I want to practice a deeper level of self-compassion. And I want to share that practice with others. I want more than mindfulness alone for myself, and I want to share more than mindfulness. I want to live and share the work of heartfulness.

In the Spring of 1992, at a retreat with the faculty of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I learned the biblical Hebrew phrase for a whole heart: leb shalem. Heartfulness work to me is the cultivating of a whole heart, a fullness of heart, and living with a heart full of compassion and loving-kindness is the more I have longed for. That is my intention.

Heartfulness is the way I want to live in my better moments. But the more I study compassion cultivation in my current teacher training program, the more I see how often I am not compassionate. Focusing on the heartfulness work is like shining a light on my current experience of compassion and loving-kindness for myself and others. And in the light, there are so many times when I see my failing, my fading compassion.

To be clear, this is not a bad thing. It is a needed seeing. It is bringing the myth of, “I am a pretty caring guy,” out from the shadows of my unconscious assumptions so that I can work with it. How else can a gradually convert the myth toward a reality?

During the training I have learned about “empathy distress,” and the way it can lead to “compassion fade” if left unchecked. So rather than turning my struggles with the intention of heartfulness into another reason to judge myself unworthy, the training is showing me how natural it is for us humans to slip out of compassion mode and into a kind of heartless reaction to suffering in ourselves and others. Something in us tries to protect us from becoming overwhelmed with great needs in ourselves or others. This is part of being human.

No wonder people sometimes like to “blame the victim.” It is painful to see below the surface to the suffering of the young man in prison who never had an education, or real love in his impoverished family. It is easier to say “he is just lazy” or “he deserves what he got.” It hurts to see the deep pain of the rape victim, how helpless she felt, how ashamed that it happened to her. So we want to blame the rape on what she wore, or how much she drank, or how late she was out. It brings empathy distress into us to really see her need, pain, suffering. And we want to relieve our own distress with a short-cut, a story that separates us from the inherent suffering in others.

I want to offer that young man in prison more than mindfulness, more than the ability to see and label his thoughts and feelings over and over. I want to help the rape victim with more than a way to notice what is happening within her in the present moment. I want to help them find leb shalem, a whole heart, heartfulness again. I want to show them how to hold their suffering in loving awareness. And I want to find the radical courage to not turn away from their raw need, letting my own compassion fade. I want to learn to cultivate compassion that lasts.

I want more…. This is not a criticism of mindfulness training. This is a call to the next step: compassion cultivation. Now I see them as part A and part B. Both are part of the journey into living an abundant life.

This summer I have the opportunity to begin teaching Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) for the first time. And then we will begin to make it part of our core curriculum in the School for Contemplative Living. I am super grateful for the training I am receiving from the Compassion Institute faculty. And I have loved learning more about the teaching process by watching Lara Naughton teach CCT at Angola State Prison. Soon I will begin being a beginner at teaching CCT myself.

My free CCT Intro Workshop will be held on Sunday, May 20, 12:45-3 pm at Rayne United Methodist Church’s Epiphany House, 3924 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA 70115. You can email me for more information or register at William.thiele56@gmail.com.

You can also learn more about CCT at the Compassion Institute website:

https://www.compassioninstitute.com/

If you want to experience a taste of why “I want more,” come join me in May.

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