The Third Act – A Time to Practice Resilience

point lobos, california, cypress

Thriving on the Edge

It’s safe to say that plants are pretty resilient, despite the circumstances. They can be dry as a bone, falling over and wilted, and when they get a little water, they quickly bounce back.

In my last post, I talked about the third act in life, that time generally considered as retirement. Resilience was cited as one of the four qualities that centenarians (people who are over the age of 100) share, according to Dr. Mario Martinez in his book, The MindBody Code. The others are creativity, flexibility, and perseverance.
 

Bouncing Back

 
Resilience is most often defined as how we bounce back from change and challenges (Angela Maiers). Much has been written about teaching children this important skill. To make it in this world, they need to learn early on how to handle the ups and downs of life. They need to learn how to respond to change, challenges, and even failure.

Maria Konnikova writes about the secret formula of resilience in The New Yorker. In studies of children who faced adverse circumstances and remained resilient, researchers found that luck plays a part, usually in the form of a strong bond with a supportive caregiver or mentor figure. Other important elements are more psychological; these children have a strong sense of independence, are seekers of new experiences, and have a positive social orientation.

Most importantly, they strongly believe that they have some control over their fate, despite their circumstances.

Even if we do learn to be resilient when we’re young, the skills can be worn down as we age through the trials and tribulations of life. I would argue that retraining this capacity is just as important in our later years, especially in our third act.

As I look around at friends and family, I see many dealing with incredible challenges – a sudden job loss or illness for themselves or someone they love, not being prepared for the financial realities of retirement, or dealing with the care of aging parents.

How do we maintain resilience in the face of these challenges?

Centenarians are not just luckier than most. While luck does play a part in their long years, their capacity for resilience plays a bigger one. They’ve shifted from focusing on what’s happening “to” them to figuring out how to deal with what’s happening now – definitely a contemplative mindset.

They’ve learned how to accept whatever comes with compassion, grace, and even humour.

Perception also plays a part, for example, whether a situation is seen as traumatic or an opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, everyone has a breaking point. No matter how resilient we are, we can only take so much. But, we can start with the smaller challenges and reframe them.
 

Bouncing Forward

 
Beyond dealing with challenges, Maiers expands the definition of resilience by saying that it is also about how we “bounce forward”“going beyond what the naysayers say, and saying back: I matter.”

While most of us think that we lose value and the ability to do things and make a difference as we age, centenarians think the opposite. They believe that they still matter, they open their minds to what’s possible, and they pursue their passions, no matter what their age. Martinez cites several examples of centenarians who still planted gardens, remarried, volunteered for organizations, pursued art, etc.

Centenarians strongly defy cultural expectations around aging. They don’t let anyone else’s expectations determine what they do or don’t do. Being resilient in the third act means to actively seek novelty, to continue to learn and grow and pursue your passions.
 

An Example of Resilience

 
One of my heroes in the environmental movement was the priest, Thomas Berry. When I went back to school (at the age of 50) to study earth literacy, we were assigned to read some of Berry’s books.

For much of his life, Berry was a scholarly priest, director of The Riverdale Center for Religious Research and President of The American Teilhard Association. What I didn’t find out until much later was that Berry didn’t write his first book on the environment until he was 84 years old! That inspires me.

Author Bill Plotkin (Nature and the Human Soul) cites Berry as an example of true elderhood – “graceful, wise, serene, wild, and generous.”

Berry lived to the ripe age of 95 and Plotkin remembers visiting him when he was 91. Berry had suffered a stroke two years earlier. He used a cane and it was painful for him to walk, yet he seemed happy and welcomed Plotkin with warmth and graciousness. Berry’s continued passion for his work, his sense of mystery, and the wildness of his thinking surprised and delighted Plotkin.
 

How to be Resilient in your Third Act

 

1. Realize that you matter and still have something to contribute. Don’t pass time. Engage the space you’re in (Martinez).

2. Question the cultural expectations you have around aging, either self-imposed or imposed by others. If you think you can’t do something because of your age, ask yourself why not? Seek novelty. Bounce forward. It’s never too late to do most anything.

3. When challenges arise, shift the focus from what’s happening to how you will deal with it. Don’t be afraid to ask for support.

4. Remind yourself of the times you’ve been resilient in the past or look to someone who’s experienced similar challenges and bounced back. They can be a model of resilience for you.


 

Who has inspired you in their resilience?

 
Resiliency Matters by Angela Maiers on Medium

How People Learn to Become Resilient by Maria Konnikoava (The New Yorker)

Bruce Lee on Resilience via Brain Pickings
 

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The Third Act in Life, sometimes called Retirement

third act, retirement
 
In the hero’s journey, the third act is when the hero returns home, changed by the adventure of life.

The third act in a narrative, whether on film or in a book, is the falling action, where there is some kind of resolution and loose ends are tied up.

In life, the third act is usually called retirement – the final third of a long life, which usually begins around the age of 60 to 65.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my third act lately, wondering how I want to live in this last part of my life, where I’ll place my energies. There is a sense of not wanting to waste precious time. I want to live according to my values. I want to experience life and continue to contribute.

The word “retire” means to withdraw, to retreat to a safe place, to stop working. That does not sound appealing to me at all. Dr. Christiane Northrup writes in the preface to The MindBody Code by Dr. Mario Martinez,

The retirement age was instituted in Germany by Kaiser Otto Von Bismarck as a way to give people a state-funded pension so they could rest before they died. This was in 1880, when the average life expectancy after you turned sixty-five was only eighteen months. Now, it’s twenty-four years!

Of course, we have no idea how long our third act will be. It could last a day, a month, or thirty years. For some, the idea of not working at the job they’ve been doing for many years is very attractive and I totally get that.

The question still remains, how do we live the time we have left? How do we handle the aging process and the storms of life that will inevitably come up? How can we still contribute?

For many of the people I admire most in the world, there is no such thing as retirement. They continue to work in some capacity, with purpose until the day they die. When people ask me when I plan to retire, I say never. I’ve found what I love to do and don’t think of it as work.
 

Be an Intern

 
On a recent flight, I enjoyed watching the movie, The Intern, with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. The tagline is: “Experience never gets old.”

De Niro plays a retired, seventy year old man, recently widowed, who is still grieving the loss of his wife. He’s trying his best, getting up every day and getting out, doing Tai Chi, etc. Yet, something is missing.

He sees an ad calling for an elderly intern at a cutting edge new company run by Hathaway’s character. It’s a lovely movie where young and old come together and all learn from and are enriched by each other. We need more of that.

The elderly in our culture are simply not appreciated in the way that they deserve. With the possibility of living thirty plus years after retirement, this mindset needs to change. Those in their later years have a wealth of experience in both life and work and much still to offer. They matter.
 

Lessons from Centenarians

 
In The MindBody Code, Martinez outlines four qualities of centenarians (people who have lived over the age of 100) – resilience, perseverance, creativity, and flexibility. Over the next few posts, I’ll look at each of these qualities, beginning with resilience later this week.

Our culture tells us that there are certain acceptable ways to be in our elder years. Once you start paying attention, you will see these expectations everywhere. How many times have you said to yourself or someone’s said to you, you’re too old to do that? Question those things. What centenarians do is very simple; they don’t buy into cultural expectations around aging one bit.

When you hear the word “retirement,” what does it bring up for you? Is it something you’re excited about or something you fear?

If you’re already retired, how have you lived your retirement intentionally? What have you found most difficult? Has photography helped you in some way?

I hope you’ll join in this conversation as it will help me flesh out my own thoughts.

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Picturing Wonder

pacific sunset
 
While I’m lucky to live near the Great Lake of Ontario, I have a pact with myself to visit the ocean at least once a year. The sand between my toes, the ebb and flow of the tide, and the sunsets fill me with wonder – one of the nine contemplative habits that I focus on cultivating in my life.

Last month, I visited the Pacific Ocean and it didn’t disappoint. I experienced the sunset above with hundreds of others at Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Jeffrey Davis tracks wonder and in this blog series at Psychology Today – here and here, he describes three faces of this habit – wide-eyed, vertigo, and quiet. Below I picture examples of each.
 

Wide-Eyed

 
purple sand
 
When we think of wonder, it’s mostly the wide-eyed kind, that child-like, naive form, full of innocence, awe, or astonishment. It tends to be a rare event, often startling. It stops us short and begs us to notice and appreciate.

I experienced this type of wonder in California when I saw the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach in the Big Sur area. It filled me with excitement and I photographed it in all of its abstract wonder. It also aroused my curiosity and I discovered that the colour of the sand was caused by manganese garnet in the hills being eroded and washed down the creek to the beach.

Many photographs are created with the goal of capturing just these types of awe-filled moments; beautiful scenes that tend to come along once in a blue moon and when we’re in exotic places. We all love these moments. They create a sense of meaning, a feeling of being alive.
 

Vertigo

 
VertigoWonder3
 
This is a face of wonder that emerges from a crisis or disruption or challenge, or even a block in the creative process. It’s a time of “fertile confusion,” as Davis calls it, sometimes unwelcome and often uncomfortable, like when an accident, job loss, or diagnosis catches us short.

Or, it could arise in a more subtle way, a general malaise that says I can’t go on living this way or I just don’t know where to go with this or what to do next. It feels like we’re out of balance and can’t see clearly. We might feel fearful or we might feel a sense of something new and exciting on the horizon. It’s a time of wondering and pausing and questioning, of living in uncertainty.

In that disorientation, we can feel delight and confusion, joy and fear, exhilaration and anxiety simultaneously. Who am I? Where am I? Who might I become? Where might I go? How will I get through this? ~ Jeffrey Davis

This time of vertigo invites us to wonder about possibilities not apparent before – to reframe our world in a brand new way. We might write, create a piece of art, or take a trip to gain perspective. We might take time to grieve a loss or do nothing but patiently wait for answers to emerge.

To me, the image above reflects this feeling of vertigo, as well as seeing in new ways. I noticed the way the sheer curtain at a friend’s place reflected and merged with the greenery outside.

Sometimes, writing about our photographs can help us uncover those possibilities. What we photograph often reflects what we’re thinking and feeling and may provide clues as to the next steps to take. It can help us to see themes or patterns or threads in our photography. This is the premise behind the visual journaling workshop, Once Upon a Time: Our Photographs have Stories to Tell.
 

Quiet

 
QuietWonder
 
This is the contemplative face of wonder, where we see the beauty in ourselves, others or our everyday life exactly as they are, without judgment. It’s when we notice the subtle, everyday moments that make life meaningful, like the way the blue sky reflects in these glasses and the sunlight creates intermingled shadows.

It’s noticing and appreciating simple moments, the touch of another’s hand or the lifelines on your partner’s face. Quiet wonder feels satisfying. In these moments, life is enough just as it is.

This is the face of wonder that is often not acknowledged, yet it’s available to us every single day. By tapping into it, we can greatly increase our satisfaction in life. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says that we don’t stay with our positive experiences long enough, but if we do we can rewire our brains for greater happiness.

People don’t recognize the hidden power of everyday experiences. We’re surrounded by opportunities — 10 seconds here or 20 seconds there — to just register useful experiences and learn from them. People don’t do that when they could. ~ Rick Hanson

Photography is one way to do just that. We notice, stay, and appreciate an experience of quiet wonder, decide how to frame it, and then click the shutter. Neurons are firing! It’s not absolutely necessary to take the picture, but I see that click as a way of cementing the experience, honouring the moment. It’s a way of cultivating quiet wonder every day.
 

Which face of wonder have you experienced lately?

 
If you are not yet a subscriber, I invite you to sign up for my bimonthly letter where, in addition to my latest posts, I provide photographic examples of quiet, contemplative wonder, an exercise, and what’s inspired me lately.

Discover the “surprising science behind the remarkable effects of water on our health and well-being” in this book, Blue Mind, by marine biologist Wallace J Nichols, one of my favourites from 2015.
 

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Intertwined

intertwined

Branches intertwined
The river lies behind them
Spring will be here soon

 

In a previous post, I talked about the difference between perception (pre-thought) and intuition (pattern language) and how to practice increasing your perceptual awareness. Here, I’ll give an example of how it works.

The other day I spent some time sitting at the river on a spring-like day, although it’s still winter according to the calendar. One of the first visuals to come into my perceptual awareness was the interconnection of lines, created by the branches. I stayed with this perception and photographed exactly what I saw. The haiku poem above simply describes what I saw.

Next comes intuition, which adds language and the title “Intertwined” immediately came to mind. At this point, I hadn’t applied any meaning to the photograph.

 

Making Meaning

 
I began to do some visual journaling exercises on what the word “intertwined” meant to me.

First, stream of consciousness writing to become aware of what was in my mind. I wrote about the decisions and choices we make and the impacts they have, constructive or destructive. Often, we’ll never know. Every choice takes us in a different direction.

I wondered how we could be more intentional in our choices, yet still knowing that we’re bound to make some that will have destructive consequences. They’ll branch out in ways that we hadn’t intended.

Everything we do and don’t do leaves a wake. Everything that is alive and moves in the world, all the winds and worms and wrens and willows leave in their passing some kind of similar wake. ~ Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise.

We’re all intertwined, like these branches. There’s no getting away from it.

In the end, I wondered if we kept in mind the consequences of our choices and the fact that life is so short, in fact could end at any moment, would we be more careful? Would we let things go more easily? Be more forgiving of ourselves and others?
 

Seeing Patterns

 

I also noticed that this theme of being “intertwined” has been coming up for me lately in similar photographs, like here and here. There is a pattern. This tells me that this is a concept I should explore further, for my own personal awareness or possibly a photo essay.

This is the type of work we’re doing currently in the visual journaling workshop, Once Upon a Time: Photographs have Stories to Tell.

 

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The Power of Gratitude

Gratefulness
 
Gratitude is a word that has become something of a cliche. It can seem pious in the face of some of the many tragedies happening on a daily basis or the difficulties we face in life. Yet, the practice of this one word has incredible power to reframe and even overcome difficulties.

Brother David Steindl-Rast is a monk known for his teachings and writings on the subject. In this On Being podcast episode, he speaks of gratitude as a choice, an action that we can take in every moment. We don’t need to be grateful for everything. That doesn’t make sense and is impossible. However, we can still practice in every moment. And, it starts with beholding.
 

It arises from attention.

Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, it arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. ~ David Whyte, Consolations

David Steindl-Rast uses the phrase “Stop. Look. Go.”

This is similar to my advice to pause, focus, and connect in photography.

First, we stop. Then, we look. We behold. We pay attention. What’s happening? It’s at this point that we discern the opportunity in the moment. How can we respond to the moment, rather than react to the circumstance? It’s at this point that we go – act on the opportunity. If the experience is a difficult one, the opportunity lies in what we have to learn, or how we can grow, or whether we need to take a stand.
 

We feel grateful when we feel we belong.

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing. ~ David Whyte, Consolations

Anxiety and judgments stifle gratitude.

 
Difficult circumstances make us feel anxious and we often get stuck in negative thoughts. However, if we recognize and feel the anxiety, knowing that this feeling means we are on the cusp of something new, and that we have choices in how we respond, then gratefulness will follow.

Judgments about our circumstances – this is good, this is bad – also stifles gratitude. In this thought-provoking article, David of Raptitude offers a practice of radical acceptance to try when you find yourself judging your experience.
 

Gratefulness leads to joy, not the other way around.

 
Steindl-Rast says that being grateful as a conscious choice almost always sparks joy.

It is not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful. ~ Brother David Steindl-Rast

Consciously embody this thankfulness and then feel the joy that comes up. Remember that feeling and you’ll experience it more often.
 

Practicing Gratitude through Photography

* Notice and pay attention to what is most meaningful in your life.

* Practice reframing by learning to see subjects we normally find ordinary or uninteresting or not worthy, in brand new ways.


 
I encourage you to listen to this entire podcast. And then, practice by stopping, looking, and going, as a conscious choice. Stay with the joy. How does it feel?
 
Resources

David Steindl-Rast – TED talk and On Being Podcast

Photography – A Cause of Health (and Gratitude)

Dotti on Focusing on Gratitude through Photography

12 Exercises to Master Gratitude via Louis Schwartzberg
 

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The Difference between Perception and Intuition

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We see a flash of colour that catches our eye. It’s a colour we like – green – so we pay attention. Then, the thinking mind puts a label on what we’re seeing. It’s a green leaf.

This is an example of perceptual awareness followed by intuitive awareness followed by conceptual awareness.

Today, I’d like to focus on the difference between perception and intuition, based on the fascinating book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, on the marvels and flaws of our intuition, as well as other sources, cited below.
 

Perception

 
In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, the authors describe that flash of perceptual awareness as “sudden, occurring out of the blue, sometimes shocking and disorienting; clear, detailed, rich, still, buoyant.”
Perception is sometimes confused with conceptual thought or even intuition (another form of thought), yet it is different from both because it is not thought. Perception comes before intuition. 

It is conscious awareness – pre-thought.

It is the space between our thoughts and arises from our senses.

Perception is the foundation of contemplative photography and I’ve written about it often in this space – From Perception to Thought, Perception and the Brain, and More on the Flash.

With contemplative photography, we photograph the perception. In the example above, I photographed my initial perception – the flash of green through the opening.

We all have perceptual awareness, but for many of us it lasts for only a fraction of a second because our minds quickly take over to label the experience. We can learn to stretch out that space and stay longer with our perceptual experience.

Staying with our perceptions is one of the ways we can listen to our inner teacher, which I wrote about in last week’s post. It’s simply a matter of noticing them.
 

Intuition

 
Perception

So many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Yet, intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. ~ Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Intuition is a type of thinking and is usually contrasted with reason or conceptual thinking. Kahneman refers to these two modes of thinking as System 1 (intuition or thinking with our body) and System 2 (reason or thinking with our mind).

Many of us value one system over the other. Culturally, reason trumps intuition. Yet, the two work best when they go hand in hand, complementing each other. Some of us are not very in touch with our intuition, the knowledge in our bodies. We’re in our heads so much that we miss the sensory experiences in the moment.

Intuition is simply, the story we create when we recognize patterns. It is similar to perception in that it’s automatic, effortless, and quick. It’s often sub-conscious.

Intuitive thinking is perception-like, rapid, effortless. … deliberate thinking is reasoning-like, critical, and analytic; it is also slow, effortful, controlled, and rule-governed.” ~ The Trouble with Intuition, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris

Most of us think that our reasoning mind rules the show. Yet, Kahneman’s studies turn that idea on its head. He and his research partners have shown that sub-conscious intuition is the source of most of the judgments and choices we make.

We use intuition to help us think more effectively. It allows us to give our minds a rest. For example, we see an object on a desk and intuitively know that it is a lamp without having to think too hard about it. The name is stored in our memory bank.

Intuition is also used to create stories when we recognize patterns from our experiences. For example, we often form judgments about people from first impressions based on one interaction or a facial expression. This is due to experiences we’ve had in the past. Although our intuition may be right, there is also the chance that we are wrong. Perhaps the person is just having a bad day. On a different day, you might have a completely different experience of that person.

We have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes our way. ~ Daniel Kahneman

The stories we create from our intuition are always based on limited information and may or may not be true. We can be prone to jumping to conclusions based on flimsy evidence. Kahneman says that jumping to conclusions is worth it if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the cost of being mistaken is small; much more risky if the stakes are high, for example, losing a relationship.

Intuition is often based on feelings of liking or disliking, or interest, rather than evidence. We build our stories and we believe them. A sign of maturity is when we realize that our stories are not reality; that our feelings are often distorted.

Kahneman’s advice: Don’t simply trust intuitive judgment – your own or that of others – but don’t dismiss it either. This system is the origin of much that we do wrong, but it is also the origin of most of what we do right. How can we avoid intuitive errors? Recognize that our intuitive judgments may not be right, slow down, and question the judgments. Call in reason for more evidence.

Contemplative photography can help us practice this by teaching us to slow down, pay attention, see what’s there, and notice our perceptions and our intuitive judgments. Then we can ask ourselves, what are we missing?
 
Resources

How our Minds Mislead Us via Brain Pickings

10 Things Highly Intuitive People do Differently via Huffington Post

The Trouble with Intuition by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Michael Wood and Andy Karr
 

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