willpower

“Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness” — Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh, who is also known as Abba Isaac and as Saint Isaac the Syrian, was an important figure in the 7th century Christian church. He is most remembered for his writings on asceticism.

One thing he wrote was,

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.

These words are a powerful reminder of the importance of humility.

Humility is where we’re not afraid to admit our weaknesses to ourselves or to others. Humility involves self-awareness, because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we can admit to them. Humility requires honesty, in the form of a willingness to be open about who we are. And it requires trust: knowing that it’s okay to reveal our weaknesses to ourselves and to others.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us compensate for them

If we understand our weaknesses we are able to compensate for them. Here’s a minor example. Let’s say I’m aware that I have a weakness for a particular kind of snack (that would be potato chips). I can avoid walking down the supermarket aisle in which they’re kept.  I can ask my partner not to buy them for me. Knowing my weakness helps me to avoid its pitfalls.

Or let’s say I know I tend to be unkind when replying to someone who’s criticized me. I can be mindful that it’s wise to wait until I’m in a calm, clear, and kind state of mind before replying.

A weakness understood is a weakness we can work around.

You might notice that I talk about strategies for overcoming weaknesses. That’s very deliberate, because I find that the concept of will-power is overrated. I’ve written about this elsewhere, for example with regard to social media addiction. Rather than simply try really, really hard not to get sucked into social media, I found it much easier to create barriers between me and the object of my craving.

For example I could:

  • Not keep my phone by my bedside so that I didn’t pick it up first thing in the morning.
  • Have my phone switched off overnight so that I was more conscious about turning it on.
  • Turn off notifications so that I’m less tempted to open an app.
  • Not have social media apps on my phone at all, so that I had to access these services through a browser.
  • Block social media sites in my phone’s browser, so that I could only access them on my computer.

Those kinds of strategies helped me break my addictions to Facebook and Twitter (neither of which I use any more). This successful strategy was not based on willpower. It was based instead in an awareness of my weaknesses combined with a strategic approach to overcoming them.

Expressing our vulnerability leads to intimacy

Being aware of our own flaws helps us to develop more trust and intimacy in our closest relationships.  A few years ago I realized that some traumatic early childhood incidents had left me with an over-sensitivity to any hint that I didn’t matter to other people. For example, if I greeted my partner when I came home, and she didn’t reply (usually she was absorbed in something) I’d get hurt and irritated. The same would happen if I’d cooked a meal for us and she didn’t comment on whether she liked it or not. And since she spent a lot of time living on her own, she habitually turns lights off when she leaves a room, even if I’m still in there. I can get very reactive when I’m suddenly plunged into darkness.

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Realizing that my reactivity went back to early childhood incidents helped me to be more understanding of it. It allowed me to practice self-empathy. I could see that in being reactive it wasn’t that I was a “bad person.” It wasn’t that I was “failing” at being a mindful and kind partner, or at being a Buddhist. It’s just that my mind was wired at an early age to be scared of being ignored by those closest to me.

Knowing my weaknesses makes it easier for me to forgive myself. It’s also easier for my partner to be forgiving of me, because I can tell her, “I”m sorry I snapped at you; my sensitivity about abandonment got triggered when you switched the light out without checking whether that’s what I wanted.” She can understand that.

Revealing our weaknesses to each other helps us to be more understanding and empathetic to each other. We no longer see each other as “bad partners” but as flawed human beings who want to be kind to each other in the face of our internal obstacles. Revealing our flaws to each other, we learn to love each other’s flawed nature.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us to be tolerant

Weaknesses are part of the human condition. We all have them. Weaknesses are not “sins” that condemn us. Recognizing this, we free ourselves from the burden of pretending to be something we are not. We no longer feel the need to defend our bad behaviors. We can just explain them.

Recognizing our own weakness makes it easier for us to be tolerant of others’ weaknesses as well. We no longer try to hold them to an impossible standard. We understand, in Voltaire’s words, that “We are all formed of frailty and error.” And therefore, as he enjoins us (continuing his train of thought) “let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” We can recognize that we are all doing a difficult thing in living this human life. Knowing this, we can support each other rather than try to make life even harder.

When other people mess up, as they will, we can recognize that they’re not fundamentally different from us. We all have brains that misunderstand things. We all have conditioning that leads us to over-react to certain events. We all contain selfish craving, ill will, and confusion. These are what we’re working with, and our tools for working with them are very imperfect, so that changing ourselves isn’t always easy.

Accepting our weaknesses helps us to see things as they really are

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the concept of anatta, or not-self. Sometimes people translate this as “no self,” but the Buddha never said that there was no self. He even said that holding the view that there was no self was a source of suffering. When he talked about anatta, he pointed to many aspects of ourselves — our perceived physicality, our feelings, our thoughts, our emotional habits, and even our consciousness — and says we should regard these as “Not mine; not me; not my self.” What he encouraged us to do was to stop trying to define who we are.

Many of us tend to assume that our faults and weaknesses define us. In many people’s way of thinking, having a flaw or weakness — some habit that causes suffering to oneself or others — means that there’s something wrong with us. They think that they have a self that’s flawed: that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is shame, in the sense that psychologists use the term — meaning that we believe we are unworthy because of something we’ve done, of because of some trait we possess. We don’t just see the trait as being unhelpful or harmful — we see ourselves as being fundamentally bad because we contain it.

This belief that our flaws and weaknesses define who we are can lead to us trying to conceal what we’re really like.  We become dishonest, trying to hide parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. When our faults do slip out into the public eye we try to rationalize them or explain them away, perhaps by blaming others (“It was you that made me angry”).

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta — not-self — suggests that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within us. Rather, what we perceive as the self is an ever-changing collection of physical and mental elements. This means that who we are is not fixed, but is indefinable. It is something that is different in each moment. We can never define ourselves. We can’t define ourselves by our weaknesses; they are not intrinsically who we are. We can’t define ourselves in terms of anything.

Accepting our weaknesses is part of the process of opening up to the reality that we don’t have an unchanging “self” with fixed characteristics.

Accepting weaknesses doesn’t mean being passive

Accepting our weaknesses means just what I’ve said: that we see them as facts to be taken into consideration, and as things we need to work with.

As I’ve explained, we can work with them by:

  • Observing our patterns of reactivity, and gently letting go of them.
  • Being conscious of weaknesses and learning how to compensate for them.
  • Being honest about them.
  • Relating to them with more compassion and understanding, so that we don’t torture ourselves.
  • Using self-awareness to help us understand how they create suffering in our lives.

At the same time as we’re doing all these things, we can be cultivating skillful qualities of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

We’ll never get rid of our flaws entirely. Life etches them deeply into the structure of our brains, and I consider the notion of even the “perfect Buddha” being as being a myth. (He was only perfect insofar as he was completely free of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. He wasn’t omniscient and he sometimes made mistakes.) But we can’t get rid of our weaknesses entirely.

And we don’t have to. Accepting our weaknesses, confessing and explaining them to others, forgiving ourselves for having them, getting to the point where we can stop them from causing major suffering for ourselves and others, and above all continuing to develop skillful qualities alongside them; that’s enough. That’s enough for us to live lives that are meaningful, joyful, and beneficial for the world at large, and for those who we’re closest to.

But the first step is knowing our weaknesses. As Isaac of Nineveh points out, this  knowledge becomes “the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.”

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Who needs willpower anyway?

I confess that I have a bit of an addictive personality — not in the sense of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but more in terms of getting hooked on stimulation. A minor example is that I had a tin of mints in the car recently, and I would often find that as soon as one mint was gone, I’d reach for another. The mints are sugar-free and this form of addiction isn’t a big deal, but boy can I get through a tin of mints quickly!

Similarly I can overeat, particularly on unhealthy foods like potato chips or popcorn. Again, as soon as (or even before) one morsel has been swallowed my hand is delivering another to my waiting lips. This is a bit more serious because I’m maybe 12 to 15 pounds (roughly 5 to 7 Kg) overweight, and although I run and generally try to eat healthily my occasional binges make it hard for me to lose that excess.

You might say that I lack willpower. A lot of us would say that about ourselves. But what I’m finding successful in reducing these little addictions has nothing to do with willpower. Instead, I’ve been practicing being mindful of cessation — specifically of the way that flavors fade away in my mouth.

The flavor beginning to fade away is the trigger for my habit. My normal, unmindful, habit is to reflexly seek a new “hit” of flavor as soon as the previous one has started to fade. So the phenomenon of a flavor fading away is what I’m choosing to observe.

This is a really interesting practice! Watching a flavor decay, curving slowly down to non-existence, gives me an opportunity to practice equanimity and non-reactivity. As the flavor fades, I feel no desire to reach for another hit. Watching the old flavor disappear is actually way more satisfying, just as watching the fading away of a sunset is satisfying. And I’ve discovered that I can observe the fading away of a flavor for a long time. I’ve found that the flavor of a mint is still detectable in my mouth an hour and a half after eating it.

So far this is working very well.

Now, I can also get addicted to mental stimulation as well, and this often manifests as a restless desire to consume social media. If I get a bit bored I reach for my phone or open up a new tab in my browser so that I can check twitter.

I’ve been writing this article as I wait to renew my driver’s license at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Having written the previous paragraph I picked up my phone and my finger moved toward the Twitter icon. But before it got there I checked in with the feeling tone of my restlessness. And I just watched it as it faded away. The feeling itself is hard to describe. Fortunately I don’t need to describe it, but just observe it passing. Again I found that it was enjoyable to observe it passing away, and when it was gone I had no desire to read Twitter. Instead I just let myself connect compassionately with the other people waiting with me. That was enjoyable too.

I’ve found that the concept of willpower is overrated. We either strongly desire to do the “right” thing or we don’t, and the difference is often to do with strategies. If not eating a mint or not opening Twitter can be made enjoyable (making it enjoyable is a strategy), then that’s what we’ll do.

I’ve been finding that observing the process of cessation of an experience is fun. Maybe that’ll be true for you as well. Maybe not. I’m just suggesting this as an experiment that you might want to try.

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Meditation: “It’s just what I do”

Impressionistic painting of the Buddha meditating, which he did every day

I received a lovely message today from someone who’s participating in Wildmind’s 28 Day Meditation Challenge. (It’s too late to join the current one, but we have others running later in the year.)

It’s a great example of how a simple phrase can change your whole attitude to meditation, and radically alter your sense of self and your life. (I’ve removed a few identifying details.)

I have been meditating in a more focused way for nearly a year, after 30 years of playing with the idea. I thought I would let you know that my ‘full turning point’ has happened as a result of this 28 day challenge.

Finding the time always seemed to be the challenge. Making the decision to turn this around using your Mantra “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s who I am” has put meditation right in the centre of my life. I sometimes only meditate for 5 minutes but have begun to feel like I used to feel when I was younger and needed to go for a run. My body and mind actually remind me that they feel like meditating each day now.

So to fit this in with my busy schedule I am now not only meditating at home on my mat and stool, but I do walking meditation to and from work, sometimes stop and sit on a park bench on the way home or a sand dune when out walking with friends, even if its for only 5 or 10 mins, rather than miss a day. My shyness over the last 30 years and reluctance to tell friends who I really am has evolved in to their complete comfortable acceptance of it. They see it as ‘who I am’ and all say that they see a real change in my demeanor and health too.

The most important thing is that I now see meditation as just ‘what I do … every day’ and am happy because of that.

Many thanks for your encouragement and support in this.

“I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am” is an affirmation that appeared in my mind when I was considering how to move from being an “almost daily” meditator to a rock-solid daily meditator. These phrases help us to change our view of ourselves so that we no longer have to make a choice to meditate every day. With enough repetition of these phrases, you no longer need willpower in order to keep your practice daily, any more than you need willpower to brush your teeth. It just becomes something you do.

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How to get out of your own way

Woman peeking out from under the covers of her bed.

I used to write regularly for this blog. Pretty much every month, for years. But then last summer I went through a major house move that totally disrupted my life and brought my writing to a halt.

But that’s really just an excuse. I’ll admit it’s inertia and my inner critic that’s getting in my way now. Despite my wanting to do it, I’ve always found it hard to write. And when I fell off my routine, and weeks and months passed, it just got harder and harder to get restarted.

I’m wondering if this sounds familiar to any of you out there. When it feels like YOU are the main thing getting in your way?

I wish I could say there’s a surefire way out of this, but of course there isn’t. As I slowly nudge myself back, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’m pursuing.

My main approach is to think in terms of planting small seeds of change. The forces of inertia and my inner critic are too overwhelmingly powerful to confront directly. They’re way bigger than me. It’s futile to struggle against them.

But I can mindfully step back, take a breath – and in each moment of awareness, choose to do one very small thing differently than I have before.

So, when my inner critic tells me that last sentence is awful, I don’t have to delete or rewrite it immediately. A friend of mine says she responds to her critic by saying, “Thank you for sharing!” At the very least, I don’t have to fall hook, line, and sinker for the babble my mind is coming up with. Even if I still think that sentence isn’t very good, I can leave it there and at least allow for the possibility that it’s useful in some way. That’s one step in a new direction.

Another strategy is to respect and work with the natural processes of the brain – specifically, its capacity for productivity and willpower. A recent New York Times article cited research that the brain is productive for about 90 minutes at a time. And to sustain productivity, it’s best to rest – take a nap, take a break, or go meditate. So I’ve stopped making myself sit for hours trying to produce something. I now get up, and at least stretch and walk around every hour and a half.

I think this is the same basic idea that Daniel Goleman writes about in an article about building willpower. He says we each have a fixed budget of willpower. If we keep pushing hard on one thing, we’ll have nothing left to face whatever comes next. And that leaves a perfect opening for my inertia and inner critic to step in and mess me up again.

See also:

On the flip side, Goleman says that being disciplined in small doses on a regular basis does help to strengthen the willpower muscle. It gets easier to do that thing as time goes on. So I take heart in the knowledge that writing in small doses regularly will help me get back into a routine.

I know it will take some time before things feel like I’m back on track. And I suspect there will be a few stumbles and backward steps along the way. Above all else, I’m being careful always to stay kind to myself. No beating myself up, no unrealistic expectations.

I’m just going to point myself forward and know that I’m doing the best I can. And I’ll keep the faith that over time, many small seeds of change can grow into a forest.

What about you? What are your strategies for getting out of your own way? I’d like to hear from you.

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Meditating behind bars: How yoga in prisons could cut overcrowding

wildmind meditation news

Rachel Signer, Christian Science Monitor: Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that state of California prisons were so bad as to be inhumane, violating the 8th amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

The reason? Overcrowding. California must to reduce its prison population by 30,000 prisoners, according to the ruling.

Overcrowding is a perennial issue in US prisons in no small part because the recidivism rate is remarkably high. In 1994 the largest study of prisoner recidivism ever done in the United States showed that, of nearly 300,000 adult prisoners who were released in 15 different states, 67.5 percent were re-arrested within three years.

James Fox, who founded the nonprofit Prison Yoga Project, has been working with incarcerated youth and adults for more than 10 years and has some ideas on what keeps the recidivism rate above 50 percent. In his opinion, the prison system overly emphasizes retributive justice – that punishment alone is a sufficient response to a crime. Fox is an advocate for restorative justice, an approach that focuses on criminals as individuals with needs and seeks to find ways to empower them to meet those needs, and thinks an emphasis on restorative justice could lower the recidivism rate.

Fox teaches yoga to male prisoners as a form of restorative justice. Criminals, and especially repeat offenders, he told Dowser, are suffering from unresolved trauma from their early years, and stunted …

Read the original article »

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A cheat sheet for keeping resolutions

If you are making a New Year’s resolution you would like to keep, consider the example of Charlene Zatloukal.

A year ago, the Lincoln, Neb., artist and writer was so disorganized that she spent much of her time looking for misplaced supplies in her office clutter. To find all the Web sites where she had posted her artwork, “I often had to Google my own name,” she says. But she made a resolution last New Year’s Day to get organized, and now, a year later, she is sticking to it. With the clutter gone and her deadlines and routines under control, she says, “my life is so much easier.

‘I had to give myself time to achieve my goal step by step. If I had tried to change everything at once, I would have set myself up for failure.’

It is no secret that the odds against keeping a New Year’s resolution are steep. Only about 19% of people who make them actually stick to their vows for two years, according to research led by John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

But those discouraging statistics mask an important truth: The simple act of making a New Year’s resolution sharply improves your chances of accomplishing a positive change—by a factor of 10. Among those people who make resolutions in a typical year, 46% keep them for at least six months. That compares with only 4% of a comparable group of people who wanted to make specific changes and thought about doing so, but stopped short of making an actual resolution, says a 2002 study of 282 people, led by Dr. Norcross and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

To explore what separates the winners from the losers, I tracked down several people who have kept their resolutions for a while. In addition to Ms. Zatloukal, Michael Haenel, a Phoenix, Ariz., commercial real-estate broker, has for more than a year kept a vow to practice a daily ritual of writing down and reflecting on three things for which he is grateful. Cristina Barcia, a Melville, N.Y., paralegal, has kept for several weeks a pre-holiday resolution to take off a few pounds. And Mark McGuinness, a London coach and trainer, has kept for two years his New Year’s 2008 resolution to meditate every day.

Their stories illustrate several rules for success. Contrary to popular belief, the secret isn’t willpower, Dr. Norcross says; people who rely on hopes, wishes or desire actually fail at a higher rate than others. Instead, the successful resolution-keepers made specific, concrete action plans to change their daily behavior.

Read the rest of this article…

“Getting ‘psyched up’ is helpful for creating motivation before Jan. 1; but after the New Year comes, it’s perspiration time,” Dr. Norcross says. Three of the winners made changes in their environment at home or work. Two make a habit of rewarding themselves for small successes. Three have benefited greatly by tapping other people for support. And while all faced lapses and setbacks, they expected them and didn’t allow discouragement to creep in. Here are the principles they followed:

  • Take one step at a time. Too many people “make large resolutions, such as losing 40 pounds by March, that are just too hard to accomplish,” says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, Chicago, and author of a forthcoming book on avoiding procrastination. Most do better if they break big goals into small steps.

For Ms. Zatloukal, who works from home, trying to clean up all the clutter and disarray in her office and studio at once would have been “setting myself up for failure,” she says.

Instead, she started by making a list of the underlying reasons for her messiness. Admitting, for instance, that she is by nature a “hoarder,” hanging onto used, nearly empty tubes of paint, was the first step toward seeing that her frugality had become counterproductive.

Step by step, she started tossing out old supplies once a month. She began clearing clutter every day before relaxing in the evening. She consolidated several calendars into one, avoiding conflicts and missed deadlines. And she rewarded herself for small improvements, buying herself an attractive new in-basket as a payoff for sorting the mail.

After 30 days, the small changes became habit, adding up gradually to an overhaul. Now, she says, “it’s easier to meet deadlines when I don’t spend most of my day searching for things.”

  • Get a little help from your friends. To build a deeper appreciation for the good things in his life, Mr. Haenel has enlisted like-minded friends to help. For more than a year, he has been making a list every morning, in a pocket-sized journal he carries with him, of three things for which he is grateful. Recent entries: playing golf with his two sons; a morning run with his dog; a hot shower; his deep and enduring relationship with his wife; a busy schedule; his ability to learn yoga; the taste of a morning cup of coffee with cream; the look of a full winter moon in the night sky, and simply being alive.

Then, he makes a five-minute phone call every day to one of several friends who have agreed to keep the same resolution, and they read their lists to each other. “If I’m not calling my friends in the morning, they’re calling me, saying, ‘Hey, are you still on track?’ That interaction with another person keeps it alive and keeps us sharing and listening.”

After more than a year, Mr. Haenel has filled two journals with his gratitude lists and is working on a third. “Now that I’m focused on being grateful for those things, I think they mean more, and I sense them more,” he says.

  • Change your environment. Another catalyst of change is to alter your surroundings to support your new behavior. Tracking your progress by recording or charting it also helps, Dr. Norcross says.

To keep a resolution she made before Thanksgiving to take off some pounds, Ms. Barcia has joined a weight-loss contest with nine co-workers at the 20-employee law firm where she works, Genser Dubow Genser & Cona. The contestants have stocked the office kitchen with carrots and celery. They weigh in weekly with their office manager.

All day, Ms. Barcia is surrounded by co-workers who are either cheering her on or competing with her. She has skin in the game—a $10 contribution to a winner-take-all office pool. And she has a side bet with her boss, attorney Ken Kern, that she will lose more weight than he does. The stakes: A restaurant gift card.

The friendly battle to best her boss has been highly motivating, Ms. Barcia says. Hearing Mr. Kern talk with the confidence of a lifelong athlete about getting back in shape “brought out the tiger in me,” she says. Displaying the confidence Dr. Norcross says is a strong predictor of success, she told him, “You know what? Bring it!” She has dropped seven pounds and is in a dead heat with Mr. Kern for first place. She wasn’t above bringing him gourmet cheesecake recently as a holiday “gift.”

Mr. Kern, a litigator who hopes to take off 15 pounds, says, “I welcome this challenge, and we have been having a lot of fun with it.” Describing Ms. Barcia’s cheesecake as “sabotage,” he retaliated with a “gift” of cookies for her. “I’m here to win,” he says. A final weigh-in is set for March.

  • Announce your intentions. After trying and failing repeatedly to build meditation into his routine, Mr. McGuinness raised the stakes on New Year’s Day, 2008: He published his resolution to thousands of readers of his blog at www.wishfulthinking.co.uk. The public commitment has made the difference, he says. When he feels like shirking, he asks himself, “what am I going to tell my blog readers?” Clients and readers sometimes ask if he is keeping his resolution.

Mr. McGuinness started by setting an easy “mini-goal,” resolving at first only to sit completely still for five minutes every day. That helped him get past the first hurdle, his reluctance to stop his activity and sit down. After that, it was easy to extend the time to his current 20 to 30 minutes a day.

He advises focusing on the rewards of your new habit. For him, meditation affords the “sheer pleasure of sitting down, letting things go and enjoying being present in the moment.” As an added incentive, he bought himself a meditation cushion; “it’s important to invest something in a new habit,” he says. If he misses a day, “the cushion sits there reproachfully. It’s a little reminder.”

  • Figure out your attachment to bad habits. We often become attached to old behaviors because they benefit us in some way. Psychologists advise figuring out what your bad behaviors do for you and finding healthier substitutes. If you overeat to ease stress, for example, start practicing deep breathing or meditation.

As Ms. Zatloukal became more organized, she realized that her messiness had served an important purpose. When her supplies were strewn about, it was easy to pick them up on a whim and start painting. Now when she is inspired, she has to stop, lay down a cloth and take out her paints. “By the time I actually get down to the business of creating, the inspiration has passed.” Undaunted, she is resolving in 2010 to set up a fully equipped, readily accessible “mini-studio,” enabling her to work spontaneously again.

  • Expect setbacks. People who fail at resolutions, Dr. Norcross says, tend to criticize or blame themselves for slipups. In contrast, each of the resolution-keepers I interviewed brushed off the inevitable setbacks and got quickly back on track. Ms. Zatloukal says her clutter tends to grow around the holidays or big deadlines, but she just sets aside a little time to clean up and moves on.

Mr. McGuinness had a good excuse for missing some meditation time last July: His wife gave birth to twins. But he rebounded by switching his quiet time to the evenings after the babies fall asleep, he says. He has resumed meditating daily.

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