The We That is Me


Studio window, South Boston

When I was growing up, neuroscience believed that the human brain develops during a critical period in early childhood and then remains relatively unchanged.

The scientific consensus has now changed. Neuroplasticity is the new norm, the belief that human brains continue to form and change throughout the course of a life.

Whew. Turns out I’m not out of line in being convinced I am not the same person I was at 20. Thank god!

It also gives credence to the idea that we are each a “we” instead of an “I” in a way to goes beyond gender fluidity. I’m a we, and the we that is me keeps changing.

Neuroplasticity has other implications as well. Raised in a religious home with very specific rituals and practices, I was euphoric to leave those childhood constraints behind when I dove head first into the infinite expanse of artistic expression. No rules! No constraints! Or so I thought.

It turns out rituals have their own power, and I just did a swap. I show up at the studio every day regardless of how productive I am feeling. I start my day with a meditative practice. I prepare surfaces in a particular way, align my supplies just so. My rituals in the studio are not that far afield from my mother’s daily scripture readings and her Sunday sacraments. We both use very particular actions in service to the primary passion in our lives.

From Scientific American:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work…


Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true. While some rituals are unlikely to be effective – knocking on wood will not bring rain – many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.

What has become increasingly clear to me over the last few months is that there is an added benefit to the rituals in my life. These private actions are an essential part of my psychic immune system, a necessary defense against a landscape of poisonous politics, toxic kleptocrats, liars and nihilists. This isn’t a call to retreat from being a street fighter and a good global citizen. Those things are important to me. But it does mean that I have to develop a new set of skills, ones that allow me to hold my life in balance. To get good at the both/and instead of the either/or. To be informed and action oriented while holding close—through ritual and intention—to the sanctity of the inner life. It’s me being a we.

9 Comment

  1. Deborah,

    What a beautiful reflection. This deserves to be read by everybody who cares about being a light in this moment of encroaching darkness.

    Michael

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Michael, thanks so much for your words. I know you know of what I speak.

  2. Jane says: Reply

    Yes, Deborah, so uplifting, helpful, encouraging and a reminder that there are many many people who believe in nuance and possibility. Here’s to mindfully embracing a both/and world!!

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Thank you Jane!

  3. So beautifully said Deborah. Love your phrase “psychic immune system.” And your words on the importance of ritual. Love the way you fled home based religious rituals to enter studio based artistic rituals. Interesting thoughts to ponder. Susan

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Thank you Susan. I can’t believe how long it took me to see the parallels.

  4. a young lama i know (who has recently dropped out of ‘being an incarnation’ in order to pursue his real interest, which is medicine) once rather sagely said, “You’re always you, and that doesn’t change; and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      That’s a great one. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

  5. marcia says: Reply

    so true – your photo touched my heart !

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