How meditation and psychedelic drugs could fix tribalism

Yes, seriously.

What if I told you that the solution to political tribalism was astonishingly — almost embarrassingly — simple?

Maybe, just maybe, it all comes down to believing that everything is one.

According to a series of new studies on the belief in oneness by Kate Diebels and Mark Leary, psychologists at Duke University, the basic way we understand the universe, and our place in it, goes a long way in determining how we relate to other people. By “oneness,” the authors mean a belief that everything in the world is part of the same whole, and that the illusion of separation is just that — an illusion.

And it turns out “belief in the oneness of everything,” as they put it, is a profound and potentially revolutionary perspective for these awful times.

It’s impossible to talk about “oneness” without careening into hippy-dippy platitudes about peace and love and harmony on earth. I get it. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that our lack of oneness, our inability to see the world through the eyes of other people, to find some ground for mutual understanding, is likely our biggest moral failure.

If simply changing our orientation to the world could radically transform our politics, we should know about it, even if we can’t quite achieve it. Plus, there is actual science to back this up, so it isn’t merely an exercise in metaphysics.

So in that spirit, let’s take a look at the research, its implications, and two tools that might help us cultivate oneness right now.

The power of belief

If “belief in the oneness of everything” sounds fuzzy, well, that’s because it is. But it’s a perfectly sensible worldview.

Scientists like Albert Einstein and spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama have argued that everything that exists is fundamentally connected, interdependent, part of the same substance or process, and that the sense of separation we feel is an illusion born of self-consciousness.

We can certainly debate whether or not this is true, but an even more intriguing question is what are the consequences of believing it? Until now, we haven’t had a reliable test of this proposition.

Diebels and Leary published two related studies in the June 2018 issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology with a total of 513 participants. In the first one, they established how often their participants actually thought about “oneness”: 20.3 percent of participants replied “often” or “many times,” while 25.9 percent said “seldom” and 12.5 percent had “never” thought about it.

They created a scale to measure belief in oneness, which consisted of the following six items:

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.

To gauge belief, they asked each participant to rate how easy it was for them to believe each of the six statements on a 5-point scale (1 = very difficult for me to believe this is true, 5 = very easy for me to believe this is true). The higher a person scored, the less solipsistic they were, which is to say, their identity extended beyond themselves to include the broader world. But not just with the natural world; they also felt more connected to other people, people they’ve never met.

If the primary obstacle to empathy is an incapacity to identify with someone else’s experience, it’s easy to see how viewing the world in this way might resolve — or at least mitigate — that problem.

The second study explored how someone’s value system was impacted by belief in oneness. They found, unsurprisingly, that greater compassion for other human beings scaled with the intensity of the belief in oneness. So the more someone believed that everyone and everything was connected, the more likely they were to recognize the humanity they shared with other people.

Leary, one of the researchers involved, is careful not to overstate the significance of the findings. “Although believing in oneness is clearly associated with personal and social benefits,” he told me, “strictly speaking, we do not know for certain that having a belief in oneness causes these beneficial effects.”

“It’s possible that people who come more easily to such a belief differ from people who don’t,” he added, “so that they are already more concerned about other people and the natural world even before developing the belief.”

To say definitively that belief in oneness is the cause of an extended empathic circle, participants would need to be randomly exposed or not exposed to arguments that might change their beliefs. But the evidence we have now is tantalizingly suggestive.

So what are the political implications of all this?

Antidotes to tribalism

Phrases like “tribalism” and “identity politics” are probably overused these days, and their application often obscures more than it reveals. But we definitely have a problem. A 2016 Pew Research Center study, for example, showed that roughly 40 percent of Republicans and Democrats believe the other party’s policies are so dangerous that they pose an existential threat to the nation.

This divide mostly manifests across party lines, but that’s because our system is designed to activate that particular identity. The cleavages run much, much deeper than party, and you can break them down along a number of dimensions — race, geography, income, education, etc. When group identities solidify, everyone outside our immediate experience can become an “other,” a member of some out-group whose well-being has nothing to do with our own.

Even as parties appear more ideologically diverse than they once did, contempt for the other side has only intensified. Much of this is the result of living in a fragmented information landscape, in which news consumption is tantamount to shopping. If you have a particular worldview or are invested in a particular ideological story, you know where to go to have that worldview and story beamed back at you — conservatives go to Fox News, liberals to MSNBC.

Where, then, does that leave us?

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.

The question now is how do we cultivate belief in oneness?

When I asked Leary this question, he said we ought to do it the way we would any other belief: “teach people the merits of believing it.” And you can make the case for oneness on secular, scientific, or spiritual grounds, meaning it can be tailored to people with different preexisting beliefs.

Psychedelics and meditation

Allow me to suggest two additional remedies: psychedelics and meditation.

In his latest book about psychedelics, Michael Pollan argues that we face two enormous and related problems as a society right now. The first is an environmental crisis, which he says stems from our perceived distance from nature. For all its trappings, the modern technocratic world has encouraged us to treat nature as an object, something to be mastered and instrumentalized.

The second problem is tribalism, or our impulse to reduce the world to a zero-sum contest between “us” and “them.” Both of these problems are about disconnectedness. As Pollan told me in an interview, they’re “about seeing the other, whether that other is a plant or an animal, or a person of another faith or another race, as objects.”

But if you can step back and view the world as alive, as something of which you’re a small part, and if you can see fellow human beings as sharing that condition, then it becomes much more personally painful to abuse the planet or mistreat other people.

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay for Vox about my own experience with ayahuasca, a plant concoction that contains the natural hallucinogen known as DMT. It exploded my emotional barriers and, for a moment at least, connected me to something much bigger than myself. I’m still not sure what that thing was, or what it meant — all I can say is that I felt unimportant and totally liberated from the petty vanities that normally dominate my consciousness.

This experience wasn’t a psychological panacea. My ego persists, and checking it remains a daily — often losing — battle. But the event altered my self-understanding at a deep, instinctual level, and the more we learn about the neuroscience of psychedelics, the more common this experience seems to be.

Robert Wright has made a similar argument about the power of meditation in his book Why Buddhism Is True. “One of the things that’s most lacking in the world is not emotional empathy, it’s cognitive empathy,” he told me in a recent interview. Emotional empathy is more about sharing a physical feeling with someone, as though their emotions were contagious, whereas cognitive empathy is about understanding another person’s perspective. “We have trouble seeing things from the point of view of other people,” he says. “That is more urgently needed than emotional empathy.”

Meditation is a corrective to this problem. By focusing your mind on the present, you start to see your thoughts and emotions as fleeting waves. Which is why seasoned meditators often experience a loss of the sense of self and a greater awareness of other people, and other forms of consciousness.

Buddhist philosophy holds that the “self” is illusory and that our suffering is the result of clinging to impermanent objects, like feelings and thoughts. For Buddhists, the belief in a fixed self traps you in a delusion about who and what you are. If you meditate long enough, if you pay attention to your moment-to-moment experience, this story dissolves and you discover that all things are fundamentally interdependent.

Losing a sense of self, some Buddhists argue, is not the same as feeling oneness with the whole world. You could just as easily conclude that life is interdependent in the sense that life depends on other life for survival, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all is one. Regardless, using psychedelics (ideally with a trained guide) or practicing meditation as a means to drop the illusion of selfhood puts you halfway to realizing that other people aren’t so “other.”

But this is hard to do. We’re stuck with brains that evolved under very different conditions: For most of human history, we lived in small groups, and as a result, we’re wired to see the world in tribal terms. Tribalism is just a collective outgrowth of egoism; it’s about placing a wall between one group and another, just as the ego places a wall between an individual and the world.

No, this won’t fix everything

There are real fights in the world over resources and power and how these goods ought to be distributed in society. These disputes, and the values driving them, are unlikely to fade away. Indeed, if everyone valued the same things equally, there would be no need for politics in the first place.

But there is utility in understanding what a less tribal world would look like and how we might build it. We have these tools right in front of us, tools that expand consciousness and cut through the illusion of selfhood, and now we have evidence that shows their potentially transformative effects.

As Leary told me, “for people who wish to promote more egalitarian views in society, this research suggests that fostering beliefs in the fundamental oneness of all things — or at least in the oneness of all living things — may nudge people’s sentiments in a more positive direction.”

Moral and political principles are based on a whole range of more fundamental beliefs about other people and how the world works. If this research is right, “oneness” is one of these core beliefs, and we should do everything we can to teach and cultivate it.

Does that mean everyone should shoehorn LSD into their morning cereal? Absolutely not. In the long run, meditation is a safer and more sustainable path to self-transcendence.

Maybe it’s quixotic to say that the world would be less atomized and more compassionate if everyone meditated and took psychedelics, but that doesn’t make it untrue. On the contrary, there’s every reason to believe that that’s exactly what would happen.