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Teaching Secular Buddhism and Prison Mindfulness with Martine Batchelor

Updated: May 23

In this episode, Martine Batchelor speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires, about her experiences working with those in prisons and teaching Secular Buddhism and mindfulness in prisons.

  • Developing the path of secular Buddhism

  • Practices for fear and anxiety

  • Working with those who resist meditation and/or (seemingly) don't care about the consequences of actions.

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Martine Batchelor was a Buddhist nun in Korea for ten years. She studied Son Buddhism under the guidance of the late Master Kusan. She translated his book ‘The Way of Korean Zen.’ Following Master Kusan’s death, she returned her nun’s vows and left Korea to live in Europe, where she studied insight meditation. She is the author of books showing her interest in various subjects, from Buddhism and ethics, “The Path of Compassion” to Buddhism and Women, “Women in Korean Zen”. Currently, she focuses on meditation and compassion in daily life, as in “Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits.” Her latest book is The Spirit of the Buddha’. Since 2013, she has stopped writing books to care for her elderly mother.

Nowadays, she writes articles about mindfulness of feeling tones (Vedana). One can be accessed here: She has been involved with the Silver Sante Study, teaching meditation, mindfulness, and compassion to seniors in France to see if this could prevent the decline of aging ( She is part of the Teacher Council of Gaia House. She is on the faculty of the Bodhi College. People often point out that her teaching is practical and precise, seemingly simple but profound. She is interested in photography and art (Martine’s Instagram) aDD LINK. She is a multichoice teacher interested in what works for people and helps them to develop their creative potential for wisdom and compassion for themselves and others. She teaches meditation worldwide, but recently, because of taking care of her mother, she has been teaching mainly in Europe.

Podcast Transcript

Vita Pires: 

Welcome to the Prison Mindfulness Institute's summit on Prison Mindfulness. I'm happy to be here with Martine Batchelor, a well-known author and teacher who was a Zen nun for 14 years in Korea and has worked in prisons. So welcome, Martine. 

Martine Batchelor: 

Surely it was only ten years in Korea. I only worked once in prison. 

Vita Pires: 

But you had some prison experience that left an imprint on you, right? 

Martine Batchelor: 

No, no. Also, I think my husband was, for ten years, a prison chaplain, so he kind of told me things. That one time in South Africa, we also taught meditation in prison. I'm also very interested in habits and, in a way, what habits might kind of take you to prison. And also, when you are in prison, and that's why the Prison Mindfulness Project is about how when you are in prison, you can work with the help of people so that those habits or those conditions that brought you there can actually be different once you come out, or even while you are in prison. 

Vita Pires: 

Would you say your approach to teaching matters comes from a secular Buddhist approach rather than teaching straight Dharma to people? I mean, secular Dharma is straight Dharma, but you know what I mean? 

Martine Batchelor: 

Let's say I will not strictly teach in a religious way, in terms of chanting, bowing, etc. I will not necessarily do this. Also, if I am in a place where people do this, I can happily do that. But I think when again if you are in a prison system, it very much depends what's the culture of the country. If you are more considered a religious person, or if you are considered as a helpful person.

I really like that in England, we have a very good association, which combines yoga and meditation in prison. And what they do is excellent. I'm very inspired by what they do. They have a newsletter where the prisoners write about their mindfulness and meditation experiences. 

What I find very interesting about the association's work is that they combine yoga and movement with meditation, which is mindfulness meditation. For people who don't have many opportunities to move and for people who are otherwise inactive, mindful yoga is a very good idea. 

What struck me the most about this is when the prisoners said that through mindfulness and yoga, they could experience themselves differently. I find it interesting when we get caught up in habits, such as harmful habits to ourselves and to others. We don't know, in a way, anything else. With these habits, we're going to experience unpleasant tonality. And then we're going to react from that. 

In prison, when one decides to do yoga and meditation and through the practice, you experience yourself differently. You experience yourself as calm. You experience yourself as kind. That's what I found very interesting when somebody said, "I never knew I could experience this." "I never knew I could experience calm." I never knew I could experience insight" or "I could experience loving-kindness" or whatever it is.  Mindfulness and yoga can help someone to have a different experience. And so then they can see, "Oh, this is possible for me too."

Vita Pires: 

Right. So would you say that mindfulness helps people to get out of the habit of unhelpful reactivity, and unskillful reactivity, and it helps them repattern to react in a different way with more calm? 

Martine Batchelor: 

They're in a different environment. And so, because they are in a different environment, they will be in different conditions. The conditions in prisons are not necessarily great. My husband told me of a young man who came from a family, which we could say, was a gangster family. He was generally doing illegal things. He was often impulsive, and quite reactive. This behavior, was normal: shouting, being aggressive, etc. And then, because of that impulsivity and illegality, he ended up in jail. Actually, he was quite a nice person. Of course, as long as you do not provoke him in a certain way, he was really quite a nice, person. So in a way, what he had to work on was his impulsivity.

And so, there is work that has been done long ago in California. Some forms of therapy use meditation to diminish the sensitivity to unpleasantness. So they did this experiment where you would have people slander another person directly, in a controlled situation, to learn this is safe, this guy is not attacking me. 

Reactivity can occur with slandering or people looking at you a certain way. And one's reaction can be so strong that it's tough not to have the impulsion, attack, negate, annihilate. And if they were trying to reduce the intensity, having someone call me a bad name. And I learned I don't have to overreact. I can consider this differently. I can be with it in a different way. 

Mindfulness helps reduce the intensity. Not everybody, but some people are there because they are impulsive and overreact. And so, it reduces intensity. Also, they find ways because that's part of the teaching, which is about finding different ways to communicate and engage with others instead of being aggressive. 

Vita Pires: 

So, this project used mindfulness as one of the tools to get them to slow down and be more aware of that unpleasantness and not act on it? 

Martine Batchelor: 

I'm not sure; I read this quite a long time ago. 

Vita Pires: 

Mindfulness can do that, or it can help?

Martine Batchelor: 

Exactly. Combining mindfulness and meditation lowers the intensity and sensitivity but does not become insensitive but lowers the intensity. And then it also gives space. Sometimes, people get lost in ruminating and agitating, so the practices help slow down. And if you slow down a little bit, you can have a moment to consider: "Oh, I don't need to do it this way." 

That's what was so interesting about the letter in the Oxford Project newsletter. The prisoner notices, "Oh, I am less calm. I'm starting to be more reactive. So, let me practice more." "Oh, I have less loving kindness; let me practice more." They see that it helps them engage in more skillful and beneficial ways. 

Vita Pires: 

Within the prison classes that I teach, and I've heard from other people because we have an extensive network of people involved in this work, there is a fair amount of enthusiasm with people wanting to practice in the group. When they come to the class, they practice. They enjoy the guided meditations in the group. But then they don't practice on their own. And they report they don't. Still, they return to class weekly and depend on these 20-minute or less meditations. During COVID, there could be a large month gap before we see them again. And then you have to start all over again. They report that meditation is excellent, so how do you continue to inspire this sort of path quality, that this is something they could sustain? 

Martine Batchelor: 

What's interesting about the association in England is that they have a newsletter and letter of writing, give them two books, and have them write about the book. What happens with this group is that they meet with the teacher through writing. But the emphasis is more on sitting in their cell. 

Much of what I read from the newsletter is about people working alone in their cells. But to be able to do that, they need to be able to listen to it. They need to have the book. They need to be in a cell, even if sharing with somebody is okay and safe. I would like to know if the conditions in England and Great Britain are different than in America. 

From the newsletter and the letters that prisoners write, you have the impression that they do it daily. They say, "Oh, yes, I practice yoga daily. I meditate every day in my cell." So they last, waiting to meet with everybody. 

Vita Pires: 

One of the prisons I teach and is now on Zoom is in jail. So that's a very chaotic and boisterous environment. And also, they're coming and going a lot. The population needs to be more stable. But the other thing is, in America, in the US now, they are giving prisoners tablets to have extra material. Unfortunately, we have some material, but we need the security clearance to get our material onto the tablet. (*Note: as of 2023, we have our programs on tablets with over 90,000 prisoners enrolled)

They have access to certain apps. They have access to the apps that are teaching meditation. It's all like music; waves and dolphins jumping around are very relaxing. That helps them sleep. It's beneficial for sleep. But it's contributing to that dissociative state that they seem to, like, have just, you know, "Oh, I'm not here in prison anymore. I'm on a beach or something." which is understandable, but then there's kind of this quality of are they able to get to the training the mind part where you're working directly with your habits? Are you just creating another habit you must completely dissociate from to feel okay? 

Martine Batchelor: 

When I was in prison in South Africa, I was talking about mental patterns and I was talking about daydreaming. It was fascinating because there was a young man, a prisoner, and he said, "Yes, if I dream too much, then when I come back to the reality that I am not over there, but I am in the cell, and it's difficult, I feel a lot of frustration." And "If I don't do it at all, then I become quite miserable." And in a way, we agreed that he needed to do it up to a point. 

And in a situation where they are, some pleasant tonality is helpful. And at the same time, not too much, because it can become frustrating when you return to reality. It could be different with different populations. Especially now with COVID. You are between four walls. You are in a rather unpleasant situation. So it's okay to experience some relaxation. It helps them sleep and allows them to be more mellow, kind of toward themselves and others. Who knows? 

And then, at the same time, not everybody will be in the same place. In a way, some people want to wait the time out. Then, they will do strength building or the apps on the tablet, and other people in the teaching may speak to them. And then, with those people, there could be more possibilities to work in terms of insight, habits, and things like that. 

We were a wide and varied population. In a way, in the same way, if people come on an evening for meditation outside, some people the meditation will speak to them, and some people it might not speak very much to, but you can still, in a way, help them to be calmer, can relate to the more relaxed. 

It depends on the population, the possibility, and how to ensure this. People are often interested in mindfulness if you talk about it in terms of a thing changing or talk to them so that they can look at the conditions present. What is going on? And will they be interested in that kind of disco? That has to be quite simple and practical. 

Vita Pires: 

Yeah, I recently played because we can play tapes on Zoom now for people, and a lot of times, the audio is so bad they can't hear us talking. But they can listen to that tape because we can blast the volume. When I go into prisons, I tend to ask a question like, "Does anyone here experience anxiety?" And everybody always raises their hand. "Is it a major problem for you?" And everybody raises their hand. 

Anxiety is pretty prevalent with their conditions like "When am I going to get out?" Everything is taken away from you. So there's a lot of anxiety. So, giving them some basic breathing skills to cope with the anxiety allows them to have the experience that they can lower their nervous system agitation quickly. 

We also do some progressive relaxation methods taught by this professor in Florida, Gua Gu. They love those because they all feel completely chilled out and relaxed by the end of the 30-minute tape. 

They even went to this one prison in the South to get the correction officer to download the tape and give it to them on their tablets. So then they watched it every day. So they were developing. They developed a whole practice around this one progressive meditation on relaxation. So they had been doing that for, like, six months. And then I thought that was great. But then that's all they wanted to do. 

I thought, well, I'll introduce something. I taught something about change. We did a meditation on change. I played somebody with a tape on change. And several of the guys said, "Well, the minute the guy started talking, I just went into a state of complete sleep." They dissociated. They said they loved it, but he didn't hear the teacher's word about change. 

And they said, "When you rang the bell, and I came back." And so, all I asked was, "Did you notice a change from when you started?" One guy said he had gone off into Fantasyland. The other guys said, "No, I don't like that. I want to go back to the relaxation tape. I don't want to think about change." 

Martine Batchelor: 

You could give them relaxation because that's what they need. Then, suggest to them to notice when they are anxious and when they are not. And then you could talk about the three levels. You could say, "You are anxious. Is it light? Meaning if you wait it out for a few minutes, 10 minutes, it passes?" 

Check-in with: How is the anxiety? Notice when it arises? And if you don't allow it to loop in your mind, it's gone. Or if they go back to their breath, it's gone. Or if they do the loving-kindness meditation, it's gone. Or if they do the relaxation, it's gone. What is it that triggers the anxiety? Can we say that sounds trigger anxiety? Is it triggering anxiety? Is it a feeling which triggers anxiety? Then, they could notice what triggers it. And what helps it to pass. 

Relaxation helps this to pass. Watching the breath may allow it to pass. And then to look at the intense level of anxiety when they are really in it because there was a strong contact with something. And then that's the way it is: you are very anxious. It's tough. It will pass in a day or two or by the end of the day. Can you create space so that you don't amplify more than it is? In a practical way. Would they then say, "Oh, I don't want to look at my anxiety."? I don't know. 

Vita Pires: 

They were very interested in understanding. We presented some of Judson Brewers' material on neuroscience. They get interested in the neuroscience of how it happens in the body. Then, they start to notice those mechanisms. It's good not just to keep it with the neuroscience but to bring it into the practice of noticing the sensations because then they have the lived experience rather than just thinking about the mechanics of it. They can work with anxiety in that way. 

There certainly isn't one cure-all. There's a practice called straw breath, where you exhale longer. Then, when you explain that this activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response occurs. Short inhales activate the nervous system, which is the opposite of relaxation-- but could energize you-- if you need that. Participants tend to report that knowing this is interesting.  

The other thing that stood out was that I brought some neuroscience studies from Brown University. The researcher stated, "It's 22 minutes that you have to do a meditation to change the gray matter in your brain." And then I talked a bit about the gray matter that would help you with this or that. And a half year later, I said, "What else do you remember from anything in this class?" Two of them said, "I remember that 22 minutes idea! so I actually set my timer to do 22 minutes." And this person stated they were pretty changed from doing this practice. 

Martine Batchelor: 

So again, you know, some people will say, "Oh, this makes sense. I can do it. I can try it." 

Vita Pires: 

Yeah. So it was beneficial. I like those three levels you talked about. I'll use that idea because the participants love more information about the method. And the women, who all have a significant problem with anxiety. Another question: I've done this, and a lot of people out there do this. When we go to prisons, we integrate mindfulness with other things. 

For example, mindfulness and writing, mindfulness and poetry, mindfulness and neuroscience, and it's like the sandwich approach. You got a sandwich, and you're putting mindfulness on as the mustard, and everything else gets to be the dominant topic. For example, a facilitator gets excited about giving a lecture with PowerPoints on neuroscience and all this stuff about the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. 

But then the mindfulness and meditation start receding. And the class is just an exciting download of ideas. And so, that's more and more prevalent. What do you think about that idea? Adding to your sandwich's main ingredient with just a bit of mindfulness.

Martine Batchelor: 

Well, we could look at it with neuroscience, you kind of like bringing interest. So, yes. And then after that, it's making the message that not the only way it works is with 22 minutes, that you know, but you can do it five minutes daily. Can you do it for five minutes every day? And what difference does it make? These different tools will catch people's interest but also take them a little out of themselves into new areas of interest. 

Like doing poetry, I mean, I had somebody who was very depressed. And he said he found a solution that was similar to finding meditation. But he said what helped him was Haiku poetry from Japan, the three phrases on anything you see outside in nature. And then, after that, he went out every day and wrote a three-line poem on something he saw outside. But he said this was transformational because it took him out of himself. He became more aware of nature. And then, at the same time, he was creative. 

How can you combine poetry and creativity with meditation so that, in a way, they complement each other? It complements the poetry. In terms of neuroscience, it is more interesting. And then the message has to be odd. 

But if you want some change, it has to be regular. There is a question of meditation, sitting meditation. Because the participants are in prison, they generally don't have much movement. And so, that's why I thought what they did in England combined yoga and meditation, and yoga was relatively stationary in your cell. What was good was that there was movement at the same time as meditation. So, the people who love just to sit still could do as much meditation as they want. But some people really can't sit still. There is also that to consider. 

That's why meditation in movement, as in yoga, or tai chi, or whatever, also has to be considered because, for some people, just sitting still can be wonderful. And for some, it might be a challenge. And so, it's like they can have walking meditation, but it might not be fun in your cell. So, there is also that aspect in terms of meditation. 

Vita Pires: 

Yeah, that reminds me. That's true. In a women's class that we teach now on Zoom in the jail, the women are very agitated. They also come in, and they're in these tight (physical) situations. We do a fair amount of yoga with them to start because they love it even though we're just like getting them to sit in their chair and do these kinds of stretches and stretch their arms up, and they say, "Oh, that feels so good." because they're so constricted and bodies are contracted. That only adds to the agitation. 

We first tried to do meditation, and then it was like, Nah, they need to move a little bit and get this stuck like agitation out of the body. That's a large part even though it's pretty challenging to do on Zoom with a group that can't hear us, the microphone problems, and then they're far away from music, you know, and then we're trying to do that in this little box for them to see. They do it. They want to do more of that. And then they're willing to do a little bit of meditation. They can relax a little bit more. 

Martine Batchelor: 

Exactly. To me, you have to consider the conditions they find themselves in. And so, what's a way that will lead to that meditation posture? Also, you have to think of movements. 

Vita Pires: 

So, what did you learn about yourself when teaching prisoners in South Africa? Did you learn about your own practice? 

Martine Batchelor: 

No, what everybody learns in terms of going to prison, and my husband, that's what he learned. Immediately, I learned the same, and everybody. We talk about these kinds of work you might stumble on too, that they are just like you and me. 

We often think that people in prison are bad. Some of them have done medium bad or especially bad action. But in terms of who they are, they are just like you and me. And some of us, if we had been illegal in some way or reacted impulsively in some other way, we, too, could have been there. And so the teaching about working in prison is that they're not bad. They are not monster-ish. They dress like ordinary human beings. And due to various conditions, some could be biological, some could be societal, some could be conditional, some could be emotional, then they end up there because, of course, the harm. I mean, that's the thing. They've caused harm. They might have caused harm intentionally. They might cause harm unintentionally. 

My husband was pleased that some people were in prison. Because some people want to be removed from public places for some time because of certain intentionality. Otherwise, many people have just made the wrong turn, or the wrong action, etc. So that's something that one learns when one goes to work in prison. 

Vita Pires: 

Yeah. And to rewind it a bit when you were talking about the Haiku. I used to teach in Juvie Hall for a while. The kids had a lot of energy and were wild, and they liked to lie down and take a nap when we did guided meditations. I thought that was okay because it let them get a nap. They felt safe enough. They felt safe enough to take a nap here. They need a nap. 

I tried all kinds of things. Meditation wasn't working. I brought in some games. I brought in music. They could listen to music and try to listen to it mindfully. I brought in different kinds of yoga. I was surprised. They were young kids from 13 to 19, but their bodies were so stiff and tight from being caught in this fighting stance. 

I'm a Kundalini teacher, so I would do fast yoga with them, energetic and doing all kinds. They liked that. But the thing that landed with them was when this young man who was co-teaching with me said, "Let's try Haiku." And I was like, "Haiku?" But then he introduced it. He had them write it every week. It was absolutely beautiful. 

They got into it and wanted to do it every week. They would just spontaneously, every week, create a haiku as we went around the circle. It was great. I know that other people have done that, too. Somebody sent me a whole book of Haiku that the prisoners had written in her class. She had formed it into a book. It was beautiful. Yeah, Haiku is excellent. 

Martine Batchelor: 

Yeah, creativity is also because, you know, you're there. You're being condemned and judged by society in some way. You are not feeling great in general. You can be creative in some way. That's why when some people do theater play projects in jail and how people will do that, a lot of the time, it's, in a way, immense. They have self-worth and well-being, but they also have the ability to be creative. And you are also sharing something with others. 

Vita Pires: 

Yeah. The kids in there would always mumble. They would mumble. And finally, it was getting bad. I said, "So, what's going on with the mumbling?" They said, "Oh, everybody says that to us." And I said, "Well, why is that?" And one kid said, "Well because nobody ever wants to listen to us." And then I said, "Well, I do." And this was a really tough kid, and he said, "Thank you, Miss." 

Then the whole class opened up, and they didn't mumble anymore because they got just a little confirmation from me that I did want to hear what they had to say. It was okay to talk and speak out about whatever you were feeling. So, it was great. It was sad that they were mumbling so much that way because people didn't want to hear them. They wanted them to shut up instantly and say they were boisterous. 

I was talking to someone yesterday, and she was talking about when she was a youth at risk. She said she had the attitude that she couldn't care less about the consequences. In other words, she would do whatever she had to do. She was going to get up in somebody's face, or punch him out, or beat him up, or rob them, or steal from them, do whatever. 

It got pretty extreme because she had to do what she had to do. She also wanted the power of doing what she had to do because she said, I've had everything bad happen to me, so consequences mean nothing to me. Because what's the worst that could happen? She said you could kill me. And as far as I was concerned, then just bring it on and kill me. She had that attitude. 

And then I said, "Well, what changed that for you?" And she said, "Well, I got this book of poetry from Anne Sexton called Live or Die." And she said, " Anne Sexton just said something like you can live or die but don't poison everybody in the process." And she said, for some reason, that just woke her up. And she said, "I realized I can't live this way anymore." 

And then she started going to Barnes and Noble and getting into the Self-Help section. She found the Tibetan Book of the Dead. She was attracted to that and started reading it, and then her whole life changed. But you know, she had an attitude that consequences don't matter. I've come across that quite a bit. She was like, "Whatever. I had to kill. It doesn't matter." 

Martine Batchelor: 

They've experienced things that we have not experienced. We'll see if you can have, like from a young age, you are in an insecure place, which is harmful, which is aggressive, then the only thing that you can manage is to survive. And also, you hurt and harmed in many different ways. And on top of it, if the people who have harmed them are not punished, then they cannot see consequences, though it seems to happen for some people. 

It can also be very understandable considering the condition. There is this beautiful book that is not about meditation, but the way the person works, to me, is so meditative. So huge and so insightful. It's called [?]. And actually, it's a family therapist to a family therapist or wrote a book to train people in that. 

They talk, especially one author, about working with teens. And the way he works with Tim is actually to emphasize what's good about them. And to highlight what's good about them, you have to listen to them to find something he can say, yeah, that's good of you to have done that to help your friend. And so he spent a lot of his time listening to these teens who were hurt by others and then hurt others. 

The way it works, it's not mindfulness or meditation. This example was so Buddhist and insightful. This approach is so caring. Of course, mindfulness yoga and other different things can help. But what kind of attitude do you bring? Because the most important thing is that you see the person's humanity. And then you can help them experience their humanity and also experience their good qualities. So, how can they flourish? How can they experience good quality and become more confident in that? 

Vita Pires: 

That's beautiful. I was going to ask a question. Do you have any advice? But that is excellent advice. Always remember humanity and humility. 

When I go to jails, jails are unstable. You get a different group of people every week, and you may only have one shot to say, "Okay, here's something." because they want something. They're coming to the class because they are suffering and they need some help. They want something. 

Martine Batchelor: 

One thing that I found everybody gets in two minutes is the way I describe grasping. What is the problem with thought, emotion, or sensation? It's a fact that we grasp at it. And by grasping at it, we amplify it. So generally, what I do is that I take something, and then I hold on to it like this. And then I say, "What will happen if I do this?" And if I do this for any length of time, I first get a cramp in the arm. So, grasping creates tension. But the worst thing is the second part, which is that I cannot use my hand for anything else because I grasp at it this way. 

So, what's the solution? You could cut the end, which is drastic, or you could get rid of the object. But the object is not saying, "come come come grasp at me." Meditation helps us open the hand so that we can move the object. You can still use the object, but you're not grasping at it. 

People then understand that if I grasp something, it stops me from doing something else. And at the same time it amplifies, it magnifies what is going on. And so, mindfulness meditation allows us enough calm and clarity to use different things without grasping so much. So then, we don't amplify so much. 

Then, the two words I recommend noticing as a signal are when we say "never" and "always." As in, "You always do this." "I am always like this." I then inquired, "Do they do it every second, every hour, every day, every week, every month?" Generally not. And then, people can catch themselves. 

Vita Pires: 

Yeah, that's beautiful. I'm going to use that. That's great. Thank you. That's a tremendous visceral, somatic example that can help land that whole process that you could talk about for a long time, but you can get it by simply gripping the hand like that. I love that. 

Our time is about up. Thank you so much for your generosity in coming in and doing this. Again, probably, a lot of these tapes will be played for prisoners. And so, that's helpful. And so once again, I was so delighted to see you. If anyone wants more information about Martine? 

Martine Batchelor: 

Vita Pires: 

Also, I'm going to put in a pitch for you. Martine has some great courses on Tricycle. I've attended several of them, and they're all very excellent and filled with insights. 

Martine Batchelor: 

Then, one book that the prisoner finds useful is Let Go. 

Vita Pires: 

Oh yeah, well, your Let Go book is really good. That digs into habits of habitual formations and responses and how to work with that. So that's a great practical book for working with the critical problem we all have. Thank you, Martine. It was great to see you. 

Martine Batchelor: 

Likewise. Thank you for your wonderful work. 


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