meditation and pain

Being mindful of pain, and the paradox of mindfulness

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Meditation offers us a powerful paradox: that becoming more mindful of our pain reduces the amount of pain we experience.

The use of meditation techniques to treat chronic pain is becoming increasingly common, largely as a result of the pioneering work in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction started by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s scientifically validated work has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people and helped to establish meditation as a highly respected tool in the treatment of chronic pain, stress, and depression.

Some people initially find the idea of using meditation to deal with pain incongruous. After all, isn’t meditation about developing greater awareness? And wouldn’t that mean becoming more aware of the pain itself in an almost masochistic kind of way and therefore experiencing greater suffering? For others, who think about meditation as a technique for “tuning out” and turning attention away from the body, meditative techniques can be seen as a welcome, if almost unattainable, form of escapism.

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In fact, meditation is neither masochistic nor escapist. In meditation we do in fact become more aware of ourselves, but what is most important is that we become aware of and change the way that we relate to our pain. It is that change in relationship that makes meditation a potent tool in pain management.

So what is this change in the way that we relate to pain, and how does it have the effect of helping us to deal more effectively with it, or even to reduce the level of pain we experience? The quality we cultivate through meditation practice is mindfulness. Mindfulness is much more than simply being aware. We can be aware of pain without being at all mindful of it. Mindfulness is a particular kind of awareness, which is purposeful, focused, curious, and rooted in our moment-by-moment experience.

With mindfulness we purposefully observe our experience as it takes place, including any pain that may be present. The mind naturally tends to see pain as being a “thing,” and to give it a degree of solidity, permanence, and coherence that it doesn’t in fact have. In mindfulness meditation we train ourselves to see the many different sensations that we collectively label as “pain.” We may even gently make mental notes of the most prominent sensations that we notice. For example we may note the presence of “tingling,” “pulsing,” “throbbing,” “heat,” “cold,” “aching,” “tightness,” etc. When we let go of the rather crude label “pain” in this way and instead note what is actually present, we can find that each individual sensation is easier to bear. Sometimes we notice that there is no pain present, or that the sensations that we’re experiencing are neutral or even pleasurable.

Additionally, in exercising curiosity about our pain we are also gaining another important benefit in the form of the quality of acceptance. The mind, quite understandably, tends to see pain as something that is undesirable and therefore to be pushed away. This pushing away shows in the body as physical tension in and around the area of pain, causing additional discomfort and even intensifying the original pain. It’s as if, having accidentally touched a hot stove, we were to react by trying to push the stove away. In doing so we would of course simply intensify our pain. So, in mindfulness meditation an attitude of curiosity allows us to let go of our resistance and to see the pain for what it is: an ever-changing variety of interwoven sensations. Much of our resistance to pain is mental rather than physical. When we experience pain the mind can, like the body, try to push it away. We experience desire for the pain just to go away. We crave its absence. Unfortunately, as we all know, wishing that something were so does not make it so, and our frustrated desires do nothing but add mental suffering to our physical distress.

In mindfulness meditation we observe more than just any pain that may happen to be present. We become aware of the whole physical body, emotions, and thoughts, and of how each of these interacts with the others. One thing we can then begin to see is that although pain is present in our experience it isn’t the whole of our experience. Mindfulness gives us a sense of the physical and mental “landscape” within which our pain is experienced, and which helps to give a sense of perspective to our experience of it. At times of stress it may seem as if pain is the only thing that we experience, but this comes about because we have a kind of mental “zoom lens” that is closely focused on the pain. Change that zoom lens for a wide-angle lens and the pain seems much smaller and therefore more manageable.

Without mindfulness, our experiences tend to proliferate in an unhelpful way. We may experience physical pain, and this leads to thoughts such as “This is never going to end,” “This is just going to get worse,” “I can’t bear this,” or “I must be a bad person to deserve all this pain.” In turn, these thoughts lead to anxiety, despondency or anger, because we tend to believe the stories we think when we are unmindful, and this adds further to our suffering. The practice of mindfulness includes becoming aware of our thoughts and seeing that our thoughts are indeed just thoughts and are not facts.

Thoughts are not facts. This can be a revolutionary discovery, and also a liberating one. When we learn to see thoughts as just another experience coming and going against the background of our overall physical and mental experience, we free ourselves from the kind of runaway thinking that is so characteristic of stress. We can see thoughts like “I can’t stand this” coming into being, realize that they are thoughts rather than facts, and instead of indulging in them and encouraging them we simply note them and let go of them.

Finally, mindfulness can help by reminding us that pain is not “the enemy.” Pain is the body’s naturally evolved way of letting us know that something needs attention, and can play a vital role in maintaining physical well-being. It’s easy to see how important pain is when we consider what life would be without it. There are medical conditions in which people can’t experience pain, and those people find that life is very hard indeed. Imagine, for example, trying to warm yourself at a fire without being able to tell when your skin was overheating: serious burns would be a distinct possibility. So we can see that pain is an essential part of being human. Of course when pain goes on for a long time, or when it’s particularly intense, it can be hard to remember that it evolved as a helpful function, and it’s easy to see it as an enemy. The meditative approaches outlined above help us to develop acceptance of our pain, but an even more powerful aspect of mindfulness that allows us to accept our pain is the quality of lovingkindness.

Mindfulness has a quality of appreciation and welcoming that can radically transform our relationship to difficult experiences. Buddhist meditation techniques can be used, for example, to cultivate an attitude of lovingkindness towards those people that we find difficult and towards whom we experience aversion, anger, and even hatred. Millions of practitioners over thousands of years have found that the cultivation of lovingkindness leads to the lessening of conflicts and the growth of love and appreciation for those who were previously enemies. Lovingkindness transforms our relationships.

The development of lovingkindness can also be used internally, by cultivating lovingkindness for painful experiences (or self-compassion) so that we can accept them as a part of life. Wishing our pain well can be a powerfully healing experience in which we let go of inner tensions and barriers on a deep level and come to see that our pain is a part of us, and a part of us moreover that is greatly in need of cherishing and love.

But do these approaches actually have medical benefits? Do they reduce pain, or do they simply allow us to handle our pain better? Clinical studies are unequivocal in demonstrating that the practice of mindfulness meditation both increases the ability to deal with the effects of pain and reduces pain overall. A study published in General Hospital Psychiatry followed 51 chronic pain patients who had not improved with traditional medical care. The dominant pain categories were low back, neck and shoulder, headache, facial pain, angina pectoris, noncoronary chest pain, and GI pain. After a 10-week program of meditation, 65% of the patients showed a reduction in pain of greater than 33%, and half of the patients showed a reduction in pain levels of more than 50%. It should be remembered that these were patients whose pain had shown no improvement with traditional medical care. In other words people with the most difficult cases of chronic pain still showed dramatic improvements in their condition.

A more recent study, at the University of Montreal, shows that Zen meditators were better able to detect painful stimuli than non-meditators, but that the sensations weren’t processed by the brain as “pain.”

The practice of mindfulness is particularly effective because it “decouples” the physical sensations of pain from mental and emotional processes that heighten suffering. Pain comes to be seen as “just another sensation” and the fear of pain is significantly reduced. The development of mindfulness, as Buddhists have known for 2,500 years, brings about mental and emotional freedom and a decrease in suffering.

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Mind over matter: can zen meditation help you forget about pain?

Living without pain may not require potent drugs, according to a new study published in the medical journal Pain — all you need is a cushion, a quiet corner and maybe a mantra.

Previous research has found that people who practice Zen meditation are less sensitive to pain. For the new study, researchers at the University of Montreal aimed to figure out why. They exposed 13 Zen masters and 13 comparable non-practitioners to equal degrees of painful heat while measuring their brain activity in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

The meditators reported feeling less pain than the control group did. What’s more, the Zen group reported feelings of pain at levels below what their neurological output from the fMRI indicated. In other words, their brains were receiving pain signals, but they weren’t translating them to actual feelings of pain.

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What Zen meditators don’t think about won’t hurt them

Zen meditation has many health benefits, including a reduced sensitivity to pain. According to new research from the Université de Montréal, meditators do feel pain but they simply don’t dwell on it as much. These findings, published in the month’s issue of Pain, may have implications for chronic pain sufferers, such as those with arthritis, back pain or cancer.

“Our previous research found that Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity. The aim of the current study was to determine how they are achieving this,” says senior author Pierre Rainville, researcher at the Université de Montréal and the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. “Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrated that although the meditators were aware of the pain, this sensation wasn’t processed in the part of their brains responsible for appraisal, reasoning or memory formation. We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labelling of the stimuli as painful.”

Training the brain
Rainville and his colleagues compared the response of 13 Zen meditators to 13 non-meditators to a painful heat stimulus. Pain perception was measured and compared with functional MRI data. The most experienced Zen practitioners showed lower pain responses and decreased activity in the brain areas responsible for cognition, emotion and memory (the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus). In addition, there was a decrease in the communication between a part of the brain that senses the pain and the prefrontal cortex.

“Our findings lead to new insights into mind/brain function,” says first author, Joshua Grant, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal. “These results challenge current concepts of mental control, which is thought to be achieved by increasing cognitive activity or effort. Instead, we suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more passive manner, by ‘turning off’ certain areas of the brain, which in this case are normally involved in processing pain.”

“The results suggest that Zen meditators may have a training-related ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus,” says Rainville. “Such an ability could have widespread and profound implications for pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control. This behaviour is consistent with the mindset of Zen and with the notion of mindfulness.”

About the Study:
“A non-elaborative mental stance and decoupling of executive and pain-related cortices predicts low pain sensitivity in Zen meditators” was authored by Joshua A. Grant, Jérôme Courtemanche and Pierre Rainville from the Université de Montréal.

Partners in research:
This study was funded by a grant from the Mind and Life Institute with support for Joshua Grant provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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Meditation benefits people with brain injuries

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Vik Kirsch, Guelph Mercury: People with acquired brain injuries, typically from car crashes, strokes and falls, experience improvements coping with life’s challenges through a specific type of meditation, a new study at the St. Joseph’s Health Centre suggests.

“It was an amazing thing to be part of,” clinical resource worker Paula Rogers said Wednesday, as she and community support services director Audrey Devitt and senior research associate Janine Maitland outlined the two-year study’s results to staff.

In interviews afterward, the three noted patients with brain injuries, though no two are alike, face a variety of challenges from brain damage. In addition to physical ailments, they may be overwhelmed by day-to-day living, struggle with their emotions, suffer memory damage and must cope with a loss of who they are as they go through personality changes.

Researchers developed a 10-week program of what they termed “mindfulness meditation.” It taught participant volunteers how to gain insight into their daily lives as they live “in the moment” through mental coping exercises. Mental faculties, as a result, are sharpened.

This leads in part to stress reduction, relaxation, self-awareness, problem-solving and self-monitoring that elevates the quality of life.

Devitt said participants became happier, calmer and more content with their lives because of the course, though which they saw gradual improvement. They gained better insight into themselves and became more confident. People who had been frustrated with their limitations tended to gain “a general sense of individual acceptance,” Devitt noted.

For the study, 47 adult survivors of injuries participated, with proponents now intending to publish their results and take further steps. “We hope in future to offer this as an outreach program,” Devitt said.

The $12,000 cost of the study came primarily from the centre’s foundation and endowment funds.

To date, Maitland said, there’s little research in the scientific literature on acquired brain injuries available, so it’s an open field ripe for further study. “There’s very little done.” That means any new insight is valuable.

As to specific physical results, Maitland said participants reported a reduction in ongoing pain from brain injuries after learning the new meditation techniques.

Among psychological benefits, participants of the St. Joe’s study reported a significant improvement in mood (less depression) and a reduction in stress, Maitland said. While there was no apparent boost in sense of attention among individuals, self-esteem improved in women, though not men.

For both sexes, a sense of well-being grew stronger.

“Mindfulness (meditating) does have value,” she concluded.

The course required some “homework,” as participants practised techniques, which Rogers said took effort for some to get used to. But this became easier over time, she added.

With practise, some found they didn’t require as much pain medication. “That was a positive sign for us,” Rogers said.

They reported having more energy, better sleep, having an easier time breathing and more general relaxation. They were also better able to control their tempers, anxiety and resentment levels toward others. That led to improved relations, Rogers reported.

St. Joe’s operates the region’s only adult day program teaching brain injury survivors life skills and coping strategies. ABI patients this month moved into a new addition on site for them, part of a larger, $19-million expansion of the Westmount Road long-term, chronic and complex continuing care facility.

Original article no longer available


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For health benefits, try Tai Chi

The gentle, 2,000-year-old Chinese practice of tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion.” But the Harvard Women’s Health Watch newsletter suggests a more apt description is “medication in motion.”

Tai chi, the most famous branch of Qigong, or exercises that harness the qi (life energy, pronounced “chee”), has been linked to health benefits for virtually everyone from children to seniors. Researchers aren’t sure exactly how, but studies show that tai chi improves the quality of life for breast cancer patients and Parkinson’s sufferers. Its combination of martial arts movements and deep breathing can be adapted even for people in wheelchairs. And it has shown promise in treating sleep problems and high blood pressure.

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Study: Yoga helps with fibromyalgia pain

Yoga that includes gentle stretching exercises combined with meditation can lessen the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a U.S. study found.

Twenty-five women diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome, took part in a 2-hour weekly yoga class for eight weeks.

At the end of the study, the group reported improvements in both physical and psychological aspects of fibromyalgia, including decreased pain, fatigue, tenderness, anxiety and better sleep and mood, HealthDay reported Thursday.

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To reduce pain (and alter your brain), try meditation

Meditation is a known painkiller, easing people’s pain perception even after brief sessions. Now a study reveals why: Meditation changes the way the brain processes pain signals.

In a study presented Nov. 16 in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers reported that practicing a mindful awareness of the body and consciousness for just four days affects pain responses in the brain.
Brain activity decreases in areas devoted to the painful body part and in areas responsible for relaying sensory information. Meanwhile, regions that modulate pain get busy, and volunteers report that pain is less intense and less unpleasant.

Earlier studies suggested meditation reduces anxiety, promotes relaxation and helps people regulate their emotions, said study author Fadel Zeidan, a post-doctoral researcher at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Also, meditation may reduce pain by essentially making the physical sensations less distressing. “It’s really all about the context of the situation, of the environment,” Zeidan told LiveScience. “Meditation seems to have an overarching sense of attenuating that type of response.”

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“Living Well With Pain and Illness” by Vidyamala Burch

Living Well With Pain and Illness

“You don’t have to get through until morning. You only have to get through the present moment.”

That thought transformed Vidyamala Burch’s relationship with her pain. A catastrophic car accident had left her with permanent damage and permanent pain – and that was on top of an incident during life-saving practice that had already damaged a vertebra.

Following one procedure she was required to sit upright for twenty four hours. During the ordeal she felt “impaled on the edge of madness.” It was as though she could hear two voices arguing inside her. “I can’t bear this. I’ll go mad. There’s no way I can endure this until morning.” The other replied, “You have to bear it, you have no choice.” Then, out of the chaos, came something new, a third voice which said, “You don’t have to get through until morning. You only have to get through the present moment.”

Title: Living Well With Pain and Illness
Author: Vidyamala Burch
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-747-0
Available from: Sounds True,, and

She recalls: “Immediately, my experience was transformed. The tension torturing me opened into expansiveness…..I knew, not intellectually but in the marrow of my bones, that life can only unfold one moment at a time.”

But her insight is not only applicable to living with pain – it’s one any of us could adapt to countless unpleasant situations. This adaptability is a major strength of her book Living well with pain and illness – the mindful way to free yourself from suffering.

So much in this book applies to everybody who practices mindfulness as well as to those who experience chronic pain and stress that it will be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of every mindfulness practitioner.

It has an additional value if you suffer chronic pain: when it comes to developing a mindful relationship with with pain, Vidyamala Burch has credibility: she has walked the walk.

Her transformative insight set her off on her journey into mindfulness. Since then she has started the Breathworks programme for people who wish to use mindfulness to help with their pain and chronic stress. She lives in Britain and her website is at

As I said above, this book has all sorts of great information and advice in it for anybody who uses mindfulness in their lives. Consider her Five-Step Model of Mindfulness:

  1. Notice what you are experiencing right now.
  2. Move toward the unpleasant.
  3. Seek the pleasant.
  4. Broaden awareness to become a bigger container and cultivate equanimity. In other words realise that you can contain both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
  5. Choose to respond rather than react.

When I took a group through this series of steps recently they were very impressed by the third one – seeking the pleasant. Somehow they had got it into their heads that advocates of mindfulness were all in favour of turning towards pain but rather dismissive of turning towards pleasure. The idea that we should pay attention to the pleasant as well as to the unpleasant, since both are fleeting, was new and welcome.

But that’s not always easy if you’re in pain or discomfort. “Seeking the pleasant is like being an explorer searching for hidden treasure,” writes Vidyamala. “It might be as simple as noting the warmth of your hands or a pleasant feeling in the belly, or seeing a shaft of sunlight streaming through the window.”

Shutting out physical pain, she notes, can also mean shutting out pleasure: “Hardening against pain also shuts out the pleasurable side of life, and we lose the sensitivity that allows us to feel vibrantly alive and experience pleasure and love,” she writes. “You might not feel the pain so much, but you’ll numb yourself to other people, the beauty of nature, or the simple pleasure of the body’s warmth while sitting in the sun.”

I also loved instruction in the mindfulness of breathing practice to “drink from the well of the pause.” She is referring here to that little pause between the end of the out breath and the beginning of the in-breath, “A moment of hovering anticipation, a vibration that gathers into the next in-breath.” It’s a great way to practice mindfulness of breathing – for me, that’s a mindfulness practice in which I need something to hold onto and “drinking from the well of the pause” is that something.

The book also has many physical exercises with illustrations. These will be of particular help to people with chronic pain or stiffness – a source of hope and a practical demonstration of how to change your relationship with suffering.

I hope I’ve given enough indications here that this book is a gem, both for those who suffer pain and stress and for everybody with an interest in mindfulness. If you buy it and read it, you won’t be disappointed.

Padraig O’Morain teachers mindfulness in Ireland. His most recent book Is Light Mind – mindfulness for daily living. His mindfulness blog is at

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Meditation, ritual, and pain

Welcome to our new format of news, which is more of a news round-up, often with links to several stories in one post.

The Times of India has a couple of stories about meditation. One is based on an article by University of North Carolina (Charlotte) psychologists Fadel Zeidan, Nakia S. Gordon, Junaid Merchant and Paula Goolkasian, in the current issue of The Journal of Pain. The study found that relatively short and simple mindfulness meditation training — one hour of training spread out over a three day period — can have a significant positive effect on pain management.

The other Times of India article, Sit still, breathe!, reviews a number of meditation techniques, from “Osho’s gibberish” (their term, not mine), to a Hawaiian (who knew!) form of meditation called Ho’oponopono. It’s a strange selection of techniques that they review: no Vipassana, no lovingkindness meditation, no Tibetan visualization — it’s a totally random and lopsided selection.

On a more somber note, the LA Times reports that a memorial wall and meditation garden has been dedicated to Chinese laborers and others whose forgotten graves were excavated during Metro construction. Coming to this resolution seems to have been difficult, and has involved what the LA Times described as “tense negotiations” with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Los Angeles County. Gordon Hom, the president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, said the ceremony provided closure on painful reminders of a time when Chinese Americans faced discrimination.

There was also tension within the Chinese community, with younger members tending to believe that pottery, coins, etc, disinterred along with the bodies were valuable cultural artifacts that should be preserved, while older members thought they should be re-interred along with the bodies, to respect tradition. Hopefully these tensions will subside, now that the ceremony has been performed. While meditation can heal physical pain, community ritual can be a powerful way of healing emotional scars.

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The tao of happy kids

Araina Bond (Ottawa Citizen): Want your children to be happy? Help them develop their spiritual side, researchers say

When Kayleigh Brown began to suffer severe, unexplained knee pain that kept her from doing yoga and the sports she loved, at first she was upset.

Each time her knee flared up, she visited countless experts, from doctors to physiotherapists to naturopaths, but no one could pinpoint the cause. It was a frustrating, discouraging experience — especially for a 12-year-old — but young Kayleigh found strength and resilience in a daily ritual: her evening aspiration.

“Each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, we take some time to be thankful for the world around us and think about the other people we’re sharing it with,” Kayleigh says of her ritual. “Realizing there are lots of other children out there in the world who may be going through the same thing and wishing they wouldn’t feel pain helped me feel better.”

A new study shows that the positive effect Kayleigh felt by focusing on something bigger than herself may be one of the keys to happiness.

“Until recently, there has been very little research done on happiness in children and almost nothing on spirituality in children,” says Mark Holder, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of a recent study on spirituality in children aged nine to 12.

One of the findings that surprised the researchers, Holder says, is that spirituality – having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life as well as a connection to something larger than your personal experience – has a big influence on children’s happiness.

“In our other studies we have shown that family income and the marital status of parents accounts for less than one per cent of children’s happiness,” he explains. “But a child’s spirituality accounts for up to 26 per cent.”
Another compelling finding was that there are striking differences between the paths by which adults and children find happiness. For example, spirituality can account for only four to five per cent of adults’ happiness, though being religious — which doesn’t give children a boost – does raise adults’ contentedness levels.

Holder believes that one of the reasons being religious – defined as attending services of worship – may not affect a child’s mood is because many children don’t attend voluntarily; their parents make them go. Spirituality, however, comes from within.

Kayleigh’s mother Sheila Craig believes connecting with that spirituality can be fun for children.

A Buddhist, Craig teaches the children’s group at the Ottawa Shambhala Meditation Centre, where one of her students’ favourite practices, called Candy Meditation, involves eating two candies either really slowly or really quickly and noticing the difference in taste, texture, enjoyment. The children then eat a third candy whichever way they like.

“This helps the kids slow down and focus on the moment, instead of having their minds go in 10 directions,” Craig says, adding that feeling connected to the moment you’re in is a big component of being spiritual. “It’s amazing to see the transformation kids can go through when they get in touch with their spiritual sides.”

Craig also owns and operated Windhorse Yoga in Wellington Village and teaches children’s yoga in schools.

“Even the toughest kids, who start off goofing around, usually end up connecting with a calmer, more contented part of themselves.”

Believing in something greater than yourself affects happiness because it gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, explains Dr. Sonja Lyumbomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Lyumbomirsky also believes that the benefits of spirituality are much larger than just one child’s personal happiness.

Happy people, she has found, are not only healthier, but also “more creative, helpful, charitable and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities.”

That means that by helping your child enjoy the advantages of being spiritual, you’re also making the world a better place. Now who can argue with that?

Original article no longer available…

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