Psychological implications of a belief in “oneness”

The belief in “oneness”–that everything in the universe is part of a fundamental unity–is the core teaching of many religions and most mystical traditions. Duke University researchers were curious as to how this world view might influence a person’s mental health, so they conducted two studies to measure it and understand its possible effect.

The first Duke study established a belief index based on the following statements. Each was given a 5-point scale, where 1 equals “very difficult for me to believe this is true and 5 equals “very easy for me to believe this is true.”

  • Beyond surface appearances, everything is fundamentally one.
  • Although many seemingly separate things exist, they all are part of the same whole.
  • At the most basic level of reality, everything is one.
  • The separation among individual things is an illusion; in reality everything is one.
  • Everything is composed of the same basic substance, whether one thinks of it as spirit, consciousness, quantum processes, or whatever.
  • The same basic essence permeates everything that exists.

Those people who scored high in the oneness scale (about 20 percent of participants) tend to identify with a much larger circle of life outside themselves. They feel connected to nature as a whole, as well as to people they never met.

The second study examined the “self-views, attitudes, personality, emotions, and behavior” of those who held a belief in oneness. It correlated with universal concern for the welfare of animals, for the fragile state of the environment and for the struggles of human beings beyond the immediate circle of friends and family. The unity belief also correlated with a certain spiritual or esoteric understanding of the world.

The Duke researchers caution against thinking that a belief in oneness causes these positive qualities in the individuals studied. But we can speculate how much better the world would be if more people acquired such an expansive view of life.

Sean Illing, writing for Vox, considers the possibility that oneness is a balm that might heal the deep political rift that currently divides the country: “Tribalism feels like an intractable problem, something that runs so deep it’s not clear what we can do about it. But the research above points toward something like a solution, namely getting more people to believe that everything is one.”

So education, whether religious or secular, might help spread the idea (and the experience) of the interconnection of all things. Or, as Illing suggests in his article, something “stronger” is needed, such as meditation or psychedelics.

Soul Wisdom Therapy offers a monthly meditation group, Awakening to Spirit.

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