Reconsidering Ego Death and the False Self

Is it true? Must my ego die? Is my sense of self merely a false self that needs to be dissolved? Must I negate my ordinary humanity and reside only in the eternal present? Are these ideas helpful as I journey inward? Do they deepen my communion with my true nature?

I’ve recently been considering these often promoted notions of ego death, the false self, and staying only in the present, while inquiring into my experience on the spiritual path over the last 30 years. I’ve discovered something very different than what these ideas seem to be pointing to.

I long believed these ideas to be true and spent years obsessed and battling with my conditioning. My obsession became a kind of spiritual narcissism as I tried to transcend or eradicate my false self, to stay in the present and hold onto the experience of an open non-dual vastness as the only true reality. I believed and was told that simply by staying in the present, this vastness would eventually negate or dissolve my false, all too human, self that was apparently filled with negative traits and qualities, that was unreal and that had no essential value.

It’s true that over time, through the humble action of surrender, the seemingly separate “I” did seem to awaken from its confines and begin to live and function in the awareness of an all-encompassing cosmic vastness spoken of in non-dual teachings. My being did begin to function more fluidly, centered within a separate body, submersed in a quietude and vastness. I found that this did not negate or diminish, but rather enriched my ordinary humanness and even my personality. Over time, this process has stretched my ability to function as a finite self within this larger interconnected sense of being that seems confirmed by meaningful interactions and synchronicities in my daily life.

Often, though, during this process, I pursued the goal of dissolving permanently into the vastness or becoming able to stay only in the present, only to find myself back in a meditative non-functional haze struggling and in conflict with my ordinary humanity. I believed the spiritual ideology that the painful patterns developed in me through childhood dysfunction and trauma were the ego that must die, and that the self I took myself to be was false. I didn’t notice how this harshness in my relationship with myself created a deep and painful schism within me that would last for years.

Gradually, I recognized the various ways I stressed and hurt myself with negative judgments, beliefs and assumptions about my human flaws and frailties, the innocent and allegedly non-existent self I was trying to transcend. Through the rigors of psychotherapy and embodiment practices I began to recognize, with a sense of empathy and compassion, those non-optimal emotional and behavioral patterns that originated in my childhood.

I began to see and feel that I was more than my conditioned personality, bound by its shadow aspects that included addictive, self-sabotaging behaviors, toxic emotions, and painful self-hating inner talk. I began to notice how this negative or self-hating talk at times took the form of the non-dual teachings that told me these aspects of myself were the “ego” that needed to die. These shadow aspects of my character did obstruct the freedom and authenticity I was seeking through my spirituality. But these aspects were not an unreal ego needing to die or disappear. They were my disowned humanity in need of love and guidance.

There is a judgment in some spiritual circles that psychology and psychotherapy are inferior to spirituality. I was told that trying to understand the past and work on the false self were like rummaging around in a garbage can; that only by continual abiding in present awareness would the ego fall like a house of cards. By trying to enforce these non-dual ideas on myself, by trying to remain only in the present, I was imposing an ideology on my authentic experience. It was a ruthless enterprise, lacking in self- compassion and doomed to failure.

I began to recognize that much of my present behavior and emotions derive from patterns formed through past experiences. I found deep satisfaction both in the stillness of being and in the process of my ordinary life. I learned to feel life’s energy and discern life’s loving presence pouring through my body. But this alone did not dissolve my underlying anxiety and felt deficiencies.

Eventually my attempts to force my spiritual ideas on myself failed. Feeling lost and defeated, I found an exceptional therapist with a spiritual background. But I was suspicious of teachers and authority figures whom, for years, I had blindly followed. Their teachings had often reinforced rather than addressed my inner division and psychological formation. It took time for me to trust enough to submit myself to the rigors of the psychotherapeutic relationship.

In the course of psychotherapy I discovered that much of my suffering and confusion is a result of a lack of a necessary self-knowledge that only psychological introspection and investigation make possible. I began to recognize psychology as an essential aspect of spirituality. I learned how my family dynamics influenced some of the dysfunctional patterns of my character. I recognized how my addictive or compulsive behaviors, my elevated self-presentation, and my drive toward material and spiritual success covered deep and at times debilitating feelings of deficiency. I began to see my whole life as a defensive framework against debilitating feelings and beliefs about myself. I saw how I had been trying to prove, through social and spiritual achievements, that these negative beliefs about myself were not true. And I began to witness with compassionate understanding aspects of myself I had previously labeled my ego and believed merely needed to die.

For years I had imagined that if only I stayed in the presence of spiritual teachers, attended their talks, workshops or retreats, read their books, used their practices to impose their ideas on myself, by some magical spiritual process, some shaktipat or transmission, I would experience sudden enlightenment. Then my deep feelings of insufficiency, the very sense of “me” itself, would disappear, and I would be free.

Now I learned the necessity of practicing self-love, self-care, boundaries and ethics, and the importance of accepting and embracing rather than denying and negating my humanity. I learned that I needed a maturity and wisdom that some from psychological understanding, growth and integration, not the magical spiritual/psychological bypass of the death of a supposedly false self. And I began to regard my human self, which included my personality, as an innocent being, a creation of the universe, worthy of love.

I found that love is an essential tool for recovering and maturing the innocent, young aspects of myself I had misperceived and rejected as being essentially flawed. I began to soberly feel and accept my human flaws and deficiencies, and to nourish myself with love instead of always seeking love and acceptance elsewhere. Gradually my capacity to accept and love myself grew.

This misperception and consequent rejection of my supposedly false self were the opposite of love. Yet they drove my spiritual life for years. This misperceived self – young, immature, innocent – could not heal and mature until I embraced it with loving awareness. This became my spiritual practice.

My attention gently began to turn toward actively loving myself unconditionally, no matter what I did, what I said, or how I felt. I began to tell myself things that I was waiting for others to say so that this deficient sense of myself would one day feel secure. It was hard to let go of the anti-ego, self-as-an-illusion teachings I had so long embraced. I now call it my awakening out of non-dual ideology.

The shift from feelings of intolerance and self-judgment to self-love and acceptance was profound. My practice of extending love towards aspects of myself that I had previously judged and rejected began a process of maturation, leading to a new sense of being at peace, at ease in my skin, and of feeling whole. This developed into a mature recognition of my self as a whole human being, not a false self that had to die or merely be transcended. Today I feel a greater capacity to experience the fluid sense of the finite within the infinite and also to accept my human pains and flaws. I experience the happiness that comes with my ability to accept and love it all.

This took years. There is no sudden integration. Becoming whole takes a lifetime, and perhaps more. I’m not suggesting that everyone must undergo psychotherapy. I am saying that deep psychological integration requires deep introspection and self- examination that includes the past as well as the present. When this is bypassed, the result is often an un-integrated or theoretical spirituality.

Now terms like “ego death”, “dissolving the false self,” and even “living only in the present”, seem naïve to me. They imply a sense of intolerance, even violence toward one’s humanity, especially towards the young, innocent aspects of self often beaten down by criticism and self-hate. These often-rejected aspects of self yearn for the love, the caring presence, even the divinity of one’s own heart. The result of giving and receiving this within one’s self is a natural maturation through love.

I’ve discovered that it’s healthier and more spiritual to include and love “me” as I am, rather than try to eradicate “me.” Spiritual ideologies of self-negation are no remedy for core feelings of deficiency that often begin at a very young age. Such ideologies cannot remove the barriers and misperceptions that separate “me” from the deepest, most natural sense of myself and keep me from discovering my unique self and place in life. For me the spiritual process requires self-love, not self-annihilation. Instead of seeking a death or dissolution of a false self, I now enjoy a greater capacity to be at ease with myself and know the simple joy of being fully human.

About Dr. Sara Kendall Gordon (Pralaya)

Dr. Sara Kendall Gordon, L. Ac., DAOM (a.k.a. Pralaya) lives and practices in Marin County, California. Since 1993, she has maintained a private practice as an acupuncturist and herbalist. Her consultations focus on restoring optimal health using functional medicine and nutritional based therapy. Her acupuncture treatments are enhanced by her biodynamic cranial skills and body centered guided meditations.

A fully certified Realization Process practitioner, Dr. Sara Gordon facilitates a regular Monday evening workshop and meditation. Adyashanti gave her the name of Pralaya while she was assisting him in the creation of the Open Gate Sangha. She has also been inspired by, HWL Poonja, Cheri Huber, and Judith Blackstone, PhD.

This entry was posted in Contemplative Essays, Volume 1: Issue 4. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Reconsidering Ego Death and the False Self

  1. gordon sherry says:

    Your article really resonates with me and confirms some of my doubts about the current fashionable thinking. I would like to rephrase that old adage “We are spiritual beings having a human experience” to :”We are spiritual beings learning how to live as human beings.”

  2. Don Salmon says:

    A beautiful and most sincere article.

    Regarding nonduality and individuality, you may be interested in looking at the writings of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa (also known simply as “the Mother”) on the psychic being. One particularly good place to start is with the Mother’s writings on education (all their writings are available online at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram website).

    She has an essay on “Psychic education” (“psychic” referring to the soul and not to occult phenomena) which is one of the most beautiful “integrations” of non dual spirituality and evolutionary/integral spirituality I’ve ever read. I came across it in 1976 and have rarely found anything more beautiful. It encapsulates an entire lifetime of sadhana if read slowly and silently.

    Finally, you may be interested in the rather remarkable connection between one of the most creative movements in neuroscience (interpersonal neurobiology, or IPNB for short) and this understanding of the psychic being.

    Jan (my wife) and I have a very simple overview of IPNB on our site, http://www.remember-to-breathe.org. We bring out Dan Siegel’s exercise of “the wheel of awareness” as the center, the primary fulcrum of our site, and refer to it as the “core.” That core is essentially the psychic being, though we don’t mention it explicitly on the site.

    I’m not aware of any other 20th or 21st century writings that go into such detail on the relationship between the individual, universal and transcendent spirit as those of Sri Aurobindo (the Mother focused more on teaching the practical realization of what he wrote about). As for his writings, for most it may be easiest to start with his letters to disciples on sadhana. A. S. Dalal has a number of good books with selections from his writings, including “Living Within”.

  3. Deena says:

    This is an important topic, one which seems to perpetuate a lot of suffering among spiritual seekers. Akin to the ideas of bliss and love and even enlightenment, which are pursued as conceptual ideas which keep seekers seeking something other than this… The dangling carrot… And as long as we genuinely believe there is a deficient self here who needs to be healed or understood or protected, there will be a seeking away from the felt experience of being here, with all sensations, thoughts, and energies that seem threatening to the belief in a deficient self. In my work with Scott Kiloby and The Living Inquiries, we are invited to look for the self we believe exists who needs self love, better boundaries, etc., and in this profound investigation we are able to meet our experience directly and discover the inherent emptiness of the apparent self. That said, it is not a way to escape our apparent humanness or continue seeking to destroy the self, etc. Instead I have experienced more effortless compassion for the experience of this person, Deena, and more relaxed joy in the full experience of being. I invite you and your readers to give them a try.

    • Dr. Sara Kendall Gordon (Pralaya) says:

      Dear Deena,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.
      I had a question regarding your comment; “..we are invited to look for the self we believe exists who needs self love, better boundaries, etc….and discover the inherent emptiness of the apparent self.”
      Are you saying that we don’t need self-love and boundaries?
      Are you saying that the self is only empty and nothing else?
      Would you please clarify?
      Warmly,
      Sara

      • Deena Wade says:

        Sara,
        In the linear world of thought, it can seem to be an either/or predicament. What I’m suggesting is that what we might call self love and better boundaries is no longer needed as a strategy to protect ourselves or feel better or create a perceived sense of control, for example, when it is seen through direct investigation that the self we thought was wounded or unloved doesn’t actually have a distinctly findable self center that exists outside of present experience (thoughts, visual images, sensations, energies). Talking about this, however, only adds more beliefs and conceptual ideas. It is only in the looking for one’s self that this inherent emptiness can be directly experienced and when it is, a falling away of the need for strategies to love the story of self occurs because it becomes clear that who/what we are is beyond any story (yet paradoxically includes the story) and is love itself. Again, this all sounds like more non-dual ism’s that are useless as beliefs – only cause more suffering as conceptual dangling carrots – the key is to look for one’s self and I have found The Living Inquiries a powerful tool for this purpose. I am one of Scott Kiloby’s Senior Facilitators and would be happy to do a session with you so you can see how they work, if you wish. Best…

  4. Well said! Beautiful. So important and I love the way you express all of this.

  5. Scott Kiloby says:

    Hi Dr Kendall, I can’t speak for Deena. But I will speak on my own behalf. To say that the self is only empty and nothing else is to whitewash the experiential understanding down to two really dead concepts. Empty and nothing. The actual experience of not being able to find a self, if it avoids the kind of bypassing that is often seen in spiritual seeking, can be a wonderful discovery back into being human, where one becomes even more sensitive and compassionate, able to discern conventional boundaries, able to speak more freely how one actually feels and thinks about a given situation. I believe the nondual concepts that are thrown around have gotten confusing, so that the mind merely says finding no inherent self somehow means empty and nothing. This is not my experience at all, nor is it the experience of most who have done the Living Inquiries.

    As they say in certain schools of madhyamaka buddhism, the emptiness of self is not an empty space or a nothing. It is the seeing through of the belief in a self that inherently exists, as fixed, separate and objective on its own side. That kind of self tends to create the suffering. When that kind of self is seen through, the conventional designation of self with all its conventional boundaries remains. It’s only the inherent nature of things that is seen through.

    As Deena suggested, trying the Living Inquiries and bringing a direct experiential approach goes farther than simply suggesting that this is about nothingness or emptiness like a blank space. I feel that this kind of thinking comes mainly from Western notions of emptiness as if its a vacuum, a void. And that’s not the taste of no self one experiences with the inquiries. Give them a try. Nice article.

  6. Scott Kiloby says:

    The kind of looking that avoids bypassing, which I’m suggesting, is really all about love

  7. Scott Kiloby says:

    Oh, and quite often, I’ve seen the setting of boundaries become a way to do a bypass around having to feel certain feelings like fear that are not based in an immediate, rational threat, but are based in the belief in a self, conditioned from childhood to want to avoid pain. Leaving an abusive relationship or saying “no” where appropriate may be a great boundary setting. But setting boundaries as a way to avoid facing deeply buried wounds coming from a belief in self that is nothing more than a script from childhood, to me, is bypassing.

  8. Dr. Sara Kendall Gordon (Pralaya) says:

    Dear Deena and Scott,

    I appreciate your responses very much.
    I’m new to this format, and very grateful to have an opportunity at refining my communication on this rich subject.

    My essay was not an attempt to discredit non-dualism in favor of psychotherapy. It was a critique of that misguided use of non-dualism to invalidate psychotherapy and deny our essential human and psychological nature. I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Yes, it is possible to use anything, including psychotherapy and spirituality, to escape from painful feelings and emotions.
    My essay above is pointing to how I found myself using non-dual concepts and practices to do just that.

    Though I haven’t been exposed to your particular process called the Living Inquiry, in the past 30 years, like many of my generation, I have studied, practiced and experienced rituals, mantras, initiations, empowerments, transmissions, methods, processes, tools and techniques offered by very respected and well meaning teachers. They are all very valid and beautiful. I have experienced their wonderful purpose; opening the limited, finite sense of self to the vast, core ground of being. the infinite s

    There is nothing wrong with processes per se; they are tools pointing to and even allowing us to experience the deepest sense of ourselves. They help us cultivate feeling awareness and stretch our capacity for openness, internal contact, subtlety, steadiness, balance, etc. They deepen us into the most fundamental aspect of our consciousness throughout the life long continuum of realization. But these processes and the extraordinary experiences and perceptions they make possible, in my experience, are not the whole shebang.

    I found that I am still a human being who has basic needs for love, care, ethics, boundaries and more. I must grapple with, understand and integrate my formative life experiences and the patterns they set in motion. If I do not become conscious of them, I remain unconscious in them, unable to live as my deepest self and let them pass. Psychotherapy is one way of doing this deep and meaningful work. My emotional and psychological self is as essential a part of my totality, as my deepest “empty” self. In all my experience there has been no shortcut method or process to human maturity. It takes many years.

    Why would I want to reduce the Self to any one thing or quality, to make a goal and acquisition out of a life long attunement to an inexhaustible mystery?

    I do so deeply appreciate your heartfelt invitations, answers and responses.
    Thank you,
    Sara

    • vickie saratore says:

      lovely to hear someone voice the desire to embrace the human condition while still moving in the direction of social and spiritual development. one trap begets another most certainly…no matter how beautifully wrapped the package.
      we will never “figure it all out” and that’s the beauty, the awe of being in this divine mystery. pema chodran says. “your only job is to learn to love yourself unconditionally” and isn’t that true? quietly observing the ego keeps us out of war with it. if we choose unconditional love then we have to include all of it, even our cranky ego. like you said so beautifully…..we’re just human.
      this is good stuff sara..thanks so much

  9. David Kent (anada) says:

    For those who are interested, this is quite a nice article, and points up a common trap. From my view, the “ego death and the false self” are not tools, but rather discoveries instead. The point is that clinging to the ego or false self is just another act of clinging. Trying to accomplish “ego death” is very problematic, and perhaps destructive in itself, and certainly not a useful tool. The “ego death” is a story that attempts to explain an experience. The experience itself is very liberating, and perhaps a useful signpost of near-enlightenment. But attempting to gain enlightenment by pursuing “ego death” is backwards, and practically useless. i used to describe this as trying to push the river. Trying to push the river is another act of clinging to a false story.

    The ego or false self is just another story, an “answer” if you will. The question “who am i?” is incredibly useful, but any answer you come up with (or borrow from others, or even from spiritual teachers) will NOT be useful in attaining enlightenment. The act of questioning is a tool, while an answer is just a story. We have experiences, but the stories of, or explanations of, the experience are again (sigh!) just stories. However, we are living lives, and stories are how we think, how we “understand”. Stories are useful in a practical sense of how to drive a car, or open a door, or interact with another, or solving a differential equation, but not so useful in “understanding” or “achieving” enlightenment. i can say that David Kent died while i was driving a car from home into Santa Rosa while listening to a Robert Thurman tape, but that is just a story. Another story is that i realized that “David Kent” is just another story. Another story is that “David Kent,” the story, was never born and will never die. These stories are attempts to “explain” an experience, but no experience can be truly explained in language, although we have to try when we wish to pass on experiences to others. Again, the map is not the territory. Trying to build a house on a map is quite problematical.

    Enough for now?

    Have a cup of tea, but telling me about it will not quench my thirst — anada

  10. A.L. Waldo says:

    Thank you SKG! I really liked your article. I can tell you have given these things a great deal of careful, studious thought.
    I read all the replies you were given and enjoyed everyone. Of course some more than others. People need to really think more deeply about these things. Our past always influences our present and our future. Thanks lots. ALW

  11. Janet says:

    Just reading your article again and the interesting feedback/discussion that followed. . . . I understand that you are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but rather, are presenting an essay on that inner WAR that can occur once we’ve had a taste of who we really are, but have not yet fully integrated it. The ‘carrot’ dangles because the experience of our true nature has been known . . . and yet. . . here we are still ‘apparently’ slogging through the ups and downs of reactive conditioning . . . If there is no one here, why do we still feel like crap? What are we to do, and HOW?

    For years I grappled with an equally destructive counterpart to the non-dual teaching of no self, the teaching that says “THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO.” No, of course the problem is not in these teachings – they are beautiful and point to the truth – but rather in how the mind uses them . . . . Like you, I found that I could rest in deep stillness and bliss only to emerge and run into the onslaught of unhealed emotions that limited this expression of who I am. This practice – for me – was a way to avoid a lot of what was speaking inside my heart . . . Like you, I found that deep psychological work and inquiry has been the vehicle for the unfolding into that truth of knowing who I really am . . .

    So thank you again for stepping out with your articulate and heartfelt voice – I look forward to the next ‘blog’!

    • Sara Kendall Gordon says:

      Dear Janet,

      I so appreciate your thoughtful response to my essay, and your honest description of your struggle in this territory.
      I feel that acknowledging and accepting our struggles and limitations allows us to remain humble and develop compassion towards our self and others.

      Warmly,
      Sara

  12. Ivy Rivard says:

    Dear Sara,
    It is a holographic state when we wrap together ALL of our experience here and live with the supposedly “unreal” self as well as the politically, or should I say the “Spiritually” correct version of the self. I appreciate your explanation of your journey from this “approved” state of denial of all that is not enlightenment oriented, to a more inclusive state, an integrated state, a state of actual experience rather than idealogical experience. Ivy

  13. Per Gotberg says:

    Dear Sara!

    Thank you for your generous and insightful sharing. Your story shows a good example of how light is stronger than darkness, love stronger than hatred. Myself being a familytherapist on the spiritual path can only confirm your findings; the legacy of pain that we all carry over is nobody´s fault , there is no one to blame, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with anyone. Only in the light of love this legacy (the original sin..) can heal, reconcile and dissolve.

    Warm regards
    Per

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  15. Max says:

    This is a great article. It really resonated with my experience.

    A couple years ago I went on a very effortful campaign to reach enlightenment, after having a peak experience and believing it was my destiny to reach enlightenment quickly. This was the most frustrating endeavor I’ve ever set out on, but it was also probably the greatest mistake I’ve ever made. After many failed attempts to transcend, completely deny, or otherwise get rid of my ego, hopelessness set in and I called out to God in great pain.

    I had to learn a different way to walk, and how I started to walk looked oddly familiar. It was remarkably similar to how I used to live before I became spiritual. Before I really knew what spirituality was about, I’d had crisis periods and had spontaneous (organic!) healing. Back then I knew how to soul search when I needed to look inside, and setting out on the spiritual path obscured that very natural introspection I used to do. This sort of soul searching is freakishly ordinary, and sometimes I feel like many ordinary, non-seekers get it better. They’ve not lost this very natural ability to esoteric teachings about transcending ego and the pile of extra conditioning that often comes with it. That said, these esoteric teachings have helped me a lot, but only after having to learn the same hard lessons that you did Sara.

    So why does this happen to so many seekers? Is it a natural phenomenon which, at the end of the day, helps us grow? For me, becoming a spiritual egomaniac has really helped me know myself better, but what I’ve found is that I feel EXACTLY like I used to before I became spiritual. I feel like myself, but now I have a greater awareness of my conditioning and wounds, as well as intermittent periods of deap peace and no-self. I don’t feel like a spiritual me, but rather that most ordinary me whom I knew before I set out on this path.

    Loving myself has become very important. A moment of loving and accepting myself does more than all that effort I made to transcend myself. I still really find useful instructions like “let your self die”, but if this action is not rooted in acceptance (love), then it falls flat on it’s face and I find myself chasing demons in my head, haha.

    Thanks for the post,

    Max

    • Max says:

      I want to add to my above comment.

      I think self-denial is a fine path which can really help, but I have a hard time knowing how much it helped me. If self-denial serves people for a time, then there comes a time when it cannot work anymore. For me, this was when I had what the buddhists call a direct realization of emptiness. After that, I could sense that in anything I looked at, there was no self (all the while still getting intermittently caught by delusion of self).

      At that point, I had to start learning to walk without effort. I think these sorts of practices can really help, but there comes a time when all the effort must be unlearned, and if we’ve gone and conditioned ourselves moreso, then unlearning this effort can be difficult and particularly tricky.

      For me, it’s now crucial to accept myself and not try to get rid of myself. There is a way to follow no-self (and no-problem) and abide in it, but it doesn’t involve the spiritual effort that many people know.

      Max

  16. I enjoy your honesty and support the opening of love. In a way, you actually seem to have awakened to this simple approach because you exhausted the nondual concept. That is the point, as I see it, of the nondual teachings that point to annihilating the ego. It is the self concept which is annihilated, and with this obstruction removed, the Self, which is love, is recognized. Of course the conditioning that makes up the personal expression may or may not be undone, but naturally we are human on the one hand, and as awareness pure, we can say we are not human on the other hand. This understanding is not a matter of belief. Its a matter of practical application. If we had to get rid of the body to realize the pure awareness that exists prior to all form and manifestation, then this entire appearance would not appear to appear. The paradox revealed in the nondual perspective is that we right now are not a thing that was ever born or could ever die, as a non thing doesn’t exist in that capacity, and right now this human experience is occurring. It all comes down to a process of identification. An unreal separate self wouldn’t need annihilation as it is unreal to begin with. That’s the point of the ancient saying about the rope and snake. We don’t need to kill the snake to realize it is actually a rope, by realizing the snake is in truth a rope, we kill the false idea. Maybe kill is too harsh a word for some, but anyway, you grock the point, I’m sure. Blessings.

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