Sophie completed her M.A. in Psychology in Education at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City. She is currently pursuing her PhD in clinical psychology where she focuses on utilizing a depth psychological orientation to facilitate psychedelic integration. She has worked for The Psychedelic Education and Continuing Care Program in New York City that provides psychedelic integration education and continuing care programs as well as for Rythmia Life Advancement Center in Costa Rica, a medically licensed center providing therapeutic and ceremonial plant medicine programs. She loves co-leading As We Wake retreats, practicing yoga and meditation, drawing, hiking, snowboarding, surfing, swimming, spending time with family, and just generally spending as much time outdoors as possible. Sophie is passionate about spreading the message of Interbeing for the betterment of the planet as well providing integration support for those who have had psychedelic experiences and are looking to ground them into their day to day lives.
Meriah is receiving her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University's Spirituality Mind Body Institute. She is a transformational coach and interdisciplinary yoga educator. Over the past ten years, she has traveled the world hosting workshops, retreats, and sharing her love of yoga, personal development, and the cultivation of conscious connections.
Angel Hu is a leadership consultant based in New York City. Trained as an Organizational Psychologist, Angel uses research-based methods to help clients improve organizational performance in a number of areas including innovation, organizational culture, and leadership capabilities. Angel earned her B.A. in Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles and her M.A. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. She spends weekends sitting in silent retreats and throwing clay at the pottery studio.
Tomas Frymann is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Dr. Lisa Miller’s Psychology and Spirituality Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests center on the study of consciousness and self-transcendence, with an emphasis on investigating the potential for self-transcendence to be taught conceptually through a framework of Interbeing informed by modern science, along with experiential practices, in service of driving social progress and improving life quality. Tomas’ core inspiration lies in helping create a world in which The Golden Rule - treat others as your self - is instilled in the very fabric of how we understand our identity. Outside of his academic work, Tomas competed as a professional skimboarder. He brings his love for the ocean and nature into applied curriculum development, leading workshops and retreats revolving around the exploration of life’s big questions amidst natural settings.
Kendra is a masters candidate at Columbia University, Teachers College. Having studied neuroscience and film undergraduate at Wellesley College, she's taken refuge in the Interbeing Lab after pursuing the philosophies of epistemology and phenomenology, the intersection between neuroscience and meditation, and 23 years of meditative practice. She is interested in Interbeing and transcendence out of a belief that people can live wonderful lives by understanding what it is to access these parts of the mind.
Brendan is a post-bacc student in psychology at Columbia looking to pursue a doctorate degree in clinical psychology. He is especially interested in masculinity and understanding the way that this concept interacts with many other social categories. He received his B.A. in Humanities & Augustinian Studies from Villanova University. Within the Interbeing Lab, he is interested in looking at Interbeing through the lens of the Arts, especially poetry and music. In his free time, he writes and performs his own music.
Sean is currently completing his masters degree in Psychology at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College Columbia University. He is passionate about the research that can be done at the intersection of science and spirituality.
As an undergraduate at Duke University, Gigi studied positive psychology, the neuroscience of religion and atheism, and the psychology of mindfulness. After graduating Duke with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience, she went on to Columbia University to study Clinical Psychology with a concentration in spirituality and mind-body practices. Gigi is focusing her studies on self-transcendent experiences and transformative learning for adults. She has been practicing mindfulness meditation for 3 years and teaching for almost 2 years. Her meditation journey began during her sophomore year of college, and since then she has undergone intensive meditation training while living at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery and on silent retreats at Insight Meditation Society. Over the years, she has accumulated over 500 hours of formal seated meditation practice and studied meditators including Robert Thurman, Sharon Zalzberg, andJohn Kabat-Zinn. She began teaching meditation while serving as the President of the Buddhist Meditation Community at Duke University, and continues to teach through workshops around New York City. She also works for the meditation teacher training company Unified Mindfulness.
With a B.A. in Humanistic Psychology from McGill University Laura is the Founder of Wisdomshare, an internationally renowned, women's empowerment initiative, and is the Head of Educational Programming and a Major Accounts Executive at InteraXon Inc., one of Toronto's most successful tech startups. Laura is an expert in the fields of 'Wisdomsharing' and Transformative Technology. Well known for public speaking at popular wellness and technology conferences globally, she has devoted her life to educating individuals and organizations on the neuroscience of contemplative practice and the role that technology can play in enhancing wellbeing. The underlying belief which drives all of her work is that through connecting with one's own innate and learned wisdom, and sharing that with others, one can reconnect to self worth and their infinite potentiality.
Ziyu is currently a Master’s student in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College Columbia University during the day, and a child who loves to stare at the stars with a camera or a paint brush in hand at night. Dedicated to capturing moments of wonder and serenity, she finds great joy in painting, videography, meditating and being a part of the Interbeing Lab. In her free time, she loves to travel, especially to places that are freezing cold and studded with starry night skies.
A five-point Likert scale is used to measure responses, with the anchors ‘strongly disagree,’ ‘disagree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘agree’, and ‘strongly agree’. The following prompt is used to orient participants to the task:
“The following series of statements have to do with your experiences, beliefs, and behaviors relating to the ultimate nature of being. There are no right or wrong answers. Please indicate the level to which you agree or disagree with each statement. Answer as honestly as possible.”
The final scale items are listed in the table below:
1. I am unique and yet one with other beings.
2. The deepest part of my identity exists as all beings.
3. I have had an experience in which I realized that no being is separate from another, although each is unique.
4. Awareness of my ultimate nature leads me to act with goodwill towards everyone.
5. I am one way the universe experiences itself.
6. I experience myself as a being of the universe, not just as a human being.
7. My life choices are guided by an awareness that the universe exists through each living being.
8. I often experience my consciousness as woven within nature.
9. I take notice of profound similarities between myself and other forms of nature.
10. When with animals I experience myself as part of a greater family of life.
The Interbeing Scale: Measurement of Personal Identity Attitudes Regarding the Fundamental Nature of Being
Tomas Frymann. Sean Groark. Sophie Whitney. Joshua Lipson. Laura Sniderman. Simon Choi. Fabio Markovski. Lisa Miller.
Keywords: Interbeing. Consciousness. Non-Duality. Self-Transcendence. Nature Connectedness. Open Individualism. Psychedelics. Spirituality. Oneness. Mystical Experience. Thich Nhat Hanh. Personal Identity.
The present research sets forth to define the construct of Interbeing through a contemporary psychological frame, and to develop and validate an Interbeing Scale (IS) for measuring Interbeing as a psychological construct. The IS is constructed as an attitudinal measurement of Interbeing oriented personal identity - measuring beliefs, experiences and behaviors regarding an individual’s sense of fundamental sense of being in relation to others, nature, and the cosmos. The following definition of Interbeing is proposed: ‘Describing all beings as the transformation of a universal system of relationships, undivided by separate selves.’ Cross-disciplinary convergences on Interbeing are discussed, as well as points of divergence from related constructs. Scale items were generated and refined using the Iterative Process Model of scale development. Content validity, validity of response processes, internal structure, and reliability were assessed via expert reviews, cognitive interviewing, exploratory factor analysis, Cronbach’s alpha, and inter-item correlations. The data indicate that the IS is a valid and reliable attitudinal measurement of Interbeing oriented personal identity.
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” - Albert Einstein (NY Times, 1972)
“The self is made only of non-self elements. There's no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.” - Thich Nhat Hanh (Shambala Sun, 2006)
‘Who am I ultimately? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die?’ These questions are inherent to an individual’s existence. The way they are answered orients one’s relationship to others, to nature, and to the universe. At the core of each of each of these inquiries is a more fundamental question: whether or not there exists a separate individual self (Cloninger, Svrakic, Przybeck, 1993; Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005; Robins, 2010). Across disciplines, the findings of modern research have increasingly supported the unambiguous stance that is communicated in the above quotes by Einstein and Thich Nhat Hanh: although it generally seems otherwise, no such separation exists. To the best of scientific knowledge, the universe arose from a singularity, and no evidence suggests that the continuation of that singularity, including as all conscious beings in the present moment, is anything but fully connected - despite the commonality of intuitive feelings to the contrary (Borde & Viliken, 1993). The present research sets forth to create a measure of psychological attunement to an awareness of the simultaneous connectedness of all existence, and uniqueness of all beings.
If the universe were constitutionally split along boundaries dividing each individual, the self-entity defined by those boundaries would be called the ‘separate self.’ Most people are intuitively mind-body dualists, and believe in a separate self (Bering, 2006). The separate self is typically presumed to come into existence suddenly at conception, ontologically disjointing itself from its parents and from all else, and in the process creating a numerically separate individual (Kolak, 2004). The properties of the ‘separate self’ have been characterized by Susan Blackmore as 1. The experiencer of experiences, 2. The initiator of actions, 3. Unified, and 4. Continuing. (2012). As such, the dualist notion of a separate self is of an object which appears at conception, that has an individual's experiences, accounts for their free will, is fundamentally set apart from others, and continuously bound to its own channel of subjective experience. A common type of statement involving separate self would be ‘I came into existence from nothing, and when I die there will be nothing again (or I’ll go to an afterlife).’ This statement supposes that while there were things existing before the person was born, the core separate self was not derived from any of those things. Often the boundaries of the separate self are simplistically presumed to be the boundaries of the physical body, or are said to be the boundaries of an individual soul entity existing in the non-material plane (Richert & Harris, 2008). The common denominator to either religious or secular notions is of some aspect of each person that fundamentally separates them from all others.
Respected figures across history have posited that such separateness is in fact an illusion, and that all life (mental and physical) is connected (Moevs, 1999). Aside from this claim about the basic nature of reality, is the psychological claim that personal realization of this fact is instrumental to the alleviation of suffering. Contemporary academics have bolstered the credibility of this assertion with a span of empirical articles addressing the role that Interbeing awareness may play in fostering healthy psychological development, inspired engagement with meaningful work, ethical leadership, and a balanced identification with both the self and the collective (Robins, 2010; Marques, 2013; Marques, 2011; Marques, 2010; Gunlaugson, 2009). Marques proposes that moment-to-moment awareness of Interbeing sets the stage for appreciation, respect, and reverence for all life (2013). Conversely, he asserts that the notion of separateness gives rise to an ‘us-versus-them’ orientation to members of perceived outgroups - a precondition for degradation, discriminiation, and unethical behavior (2010).
Other researchers have highlighted how Interbeing awareness is particularly relevant to environmental engagement. Anderson and Guyas argue that the way humans understand their basic relationship to the earth is at the heart of what shapes our ecologically oriented behaviors (2012). Given the state of environmental crisis that is projected to befall the planet if our current environmental attitudes persist, Lim asserts that a revolution in humanity’s understanding of itself, aligned with Interbeing, is necessary for the prevention of mass ecological devastation (2018). Paralleling the idea of such a revolution, ‘Intervelopment’ and ‘The New Interbeing Economic Model’ have been created as theoretical frameworks for conceptualizing social and economic systems in which ‘mere sustainability’ is supplanted with the creation of regenerative systems that give rise to lasting social and ecological wellness (Bailey, Heon, & Steingard, 1993; Manga, 2008).
The role of Interbeing has also been discussed in the fields of social justice, education, and health care. In the social justice domain, Interbeing has been upheld as a framework for moving humans past the idea of having ‘enemies’, and creating solidarity between all people - along with an inherent individual drive toward the greater good (Digby, 2002; Asher, 2019; Phillips-Anderson 2019). In education Interbeing has been put forth as a tool for inspiring teachers to more deeply connect to a shared field of meaning with their students (Gunlaugson, 2009). And in health care it has been identified as a construct underlying an ideal mindset for caregivers, fostering compassion and transpersonal connection (Sitzman, 2002).
METHODThe Interbeing Scale was developed following the Iterative Process Model, a generalized model of scale development formulated by Chatterji (2003).
Figure: Iterative Process Model (Chatterji, 2003)
The particular sequence of developmental steps that were carried out for the Interbeing Scale are laid out in the figure below. Figure: Interbeing Scale developmental process outline
PHASE I: Specification of Assessment Context Specifying Construct Meaning - What is Interbeing?: Based on the literature of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who coined the term, the following formal definition of Interbeing is proposed: ‘Describing all beings as the transformation of a universal system of relationships, undivided by separate selves.’ The quote below from Thich Nhat Hanh captures the spirit of this definition:
“The food I eat was once the sunshine, the rain and the earth. I am the cloud, the river and the air at this very moment, so I know that in the past I was also a cloud, a river and the air... Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; you can only inter-be... You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” - Thich Nhat Hanh (The Other Shore, 2017)
The Interbeing Scale is a metric of individual’s attitudes towards the fundamental relationship between themselves and other beings, nature, and the cosmos. Hovland (1960) characterizes the three components of an attitude as beliefs, experiences, and behaviors - each of which are captured by the Interbeing Scale. In characterizing Interbeing, it is notable that Buddhist practitioners following the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh refer to Interbeing as an ‘awareness’. By the Oxford dictionary’s definition an awareness is “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact” (Awareness, 2019). While it may be premature to designate Interbeing as fact from a scientific perspective, there is growing evidence to support its factual grounding derived from the fields of biology, philosophy, cognitive science, abnormal psychology, physics, and deep ecology (Maturana & Varela, 1991; Morin, 1992; Smith, 1998; Cilliers, 2002; Gazzaniga, 2005; Diehm, 2007; Woerman, 2011; Oizumi, Albantakis, & Tononi, 2014; Yaden, Vago, & Newberg, 2017; Nordbotten, 2018).
In pertaining directly to phenomenological being, the term Interbeing conceptually extends beyond the interconnectedness of ‘things’ to explicitly encompass interconnectedness at the level of consciousness - the intimate first-person experience of existing (Nagel, 1974). Because people intuitively tend to be dualists (categorically differentiating mind from matter), Interbeing is an important term for unambiguously identifying connectedness at the level of consciousness (Bering, 2006). Use of terms such as ‘oneness’, ‘unity’, or ‘interconnectedness’ leave open the possibility of meanings restricted solely to the domain of matter. Forstermann and Burgmer, for example, showed that most adults maintain a dualistic belief that mind and matter are separate, despite scientific advances demonstrating the connectedness of all matter and energy (2015). This common dualistic intuition underscores the importance of having a terminology to explicitly specify a consciousness-encompassing notion of connectedness. For this reason, Interbeing is unique and useful in directly referring to an understanding of connection that applies not only to matter but to phenomenological beingness.
While Interbeing recognizes each person’s being as entirely interwoven within a universal system of relationships, it does not assert that the universe is itself a higher entity with a phenomenological existence of its own separate from its constituents. As such Interbeing is distinct from constructs such as ‘higher being’, ‘supreme being’, or ‘God’. In fact, core to the awareness of Interbeing is the understanding that nothing can exist on its own, separate from relationship to parts outside itself. This understanding is outlined in the following quote:
“The elements that make up the world are patterns of dependency and interweaving. In other words, they are relationships. When we are fully aware, we see that there are only relationships. All relationships are patterns of interaction. So they are, by definition, dynamic; they are patterns of change. There are no individual things, but only ongoing processes. These processes are made up of other, constantly changing, processes. All of reality is combinations of patterns of relationships in process. This is the foundation of "interbeing" a term defined by Thich Nhat Hanh.” (Robins, 2010)
The theory of Interbeing affirms both the oneness of all existence as well as the uniqueness of each being. It describes the universe (subjective experiences of consciousness included) as being fully connected, yet does not postulate about the particular nature of informational access between one unique area of the universe and another. As such, Interbeing does not make the claim that particular individuals have special abilities to directly access the contents of other’s minds. Claims such as these about functional access to information fall under the inquiry of disciplines such as information science and the psychology of sensation and perception. Should various distant forms of communication be proven, however, they could lend support to the notion of connectedness intrinsic to the theory of Interbeing.
The intersection of universal connectedness and local uniqueness gives rise to the personal identity tenets of Interbeing. The way that the Interbeing theory interprets the co-existence of connectedness and uniqueness can be described as follows: a fully connected system of relationships (the universe), arises experientially one-by-one through each unique instance of subjective consciousness that exists (for example, the discrete conscious experience of you as a reader, right now - followed in the exact same moment by the discrete experience of someone else near you). This description emerges from identifying the total universal system of relationships as the holder of each instance of consciousness, rather than a separate individual self as the holder of consciousness. It is helpful to identify that each experience of consciousness is what it uniquely is by nature of differing from others that it is not (Tononi, Boly, Massimini, & Koch, 2016). For example, to experience a moment through the eyes of the reader of this article is not to experience a moment through the eyes of a dog, a fly, or of any other person existing simultaneously. Thus, within a single global moment of time, once the focal point of consciousness has manifested as the experience of one particular individual it must then become not that individual to occur as the experience of a different individual. If an individual associates her personal identity (her sense of ‘I’) with the greater system of relationships that simultaneously arises as all consciousness, she then assumes an Interbeing oriented identity. She might state a belief along the lines of the following (written by the author for the purpose of this article):
‘A clock ticks. I am my individual self - and in this very moment I will also leave this particular self to be, one-by-one, every other self existing simultaneously. The clock ticks again. The next moment has arrived. I am back at this particular individual self, and I will not have functional memory access to all of the other selves I have been. It feels like I’ve only been this particular self all along. Despite feeling isolated to one lifespan of memories and actions, I am aware that my ultimate identity will also exist through all other unique self experiences simultaneously. As such, I hold all other beings as equally important and true instances of myself.’
Integrated Information Theory (IIT), a prominent conceptualization of the relationship between information and consciousness, is a useful theory for considering how Interbeing may be described in technical terms. IIT proposes that unique subjective experiences occur wherever there is a local peak in integrated information (for example, a brain is a local peak in integrated information because of the density of connected information processing occurring within the brain) (Tononi et al., 2016). IIT may be considered alongside the empirically supported notion that all information in the universe is ultimately connected - even if distant information may have levels of remove from or intangible consequences on other information (Borde & Viliken, 1993). Taking the connectedness of all information together with IIT, a picture is painted of a universe that is simultaneously ‘analog’ and ‘digital’; an oceanic-like structure of relationships, which individualizes itself - actualizing as every existing ‘particulate’ instance of consciousness within a single moment. Borrowing from the language of physics, within any given moment the focal point of consciousness could be said to be in a ‘superposition’ of every discrete individual having an experience at that time.
Specifying Category of Measurement - How will Interbeing be Measured?: Interbeing is a theory of personal identity. It is associated with beliefs about the nature of personhood, which may be experienced directly via non-ordinary states of consciousness. The beliefs and experiences associated with Interbeing are in turn related to individual’s behaviors. As such, the Interbeing Scale is constructed as attitudinal measure. As specified by Hovland (1960), attitudinal measures encapsulate an intersection of beliefs, experiences, and behaviors.
Specifying Population - What sample is used for data collection?: Whether implicitly or explicitly, each person has a sense of fundamental separateness from or connectedness to other conscious beings. As such, we conceptualize Separate Being vs Interbeing identification as an axis along which all people fall. In the current study, we use an MTurk sample of the general population in the United States - aiming to capture responses from individuals across the spectrum of non-identification with Interbeing to identification with Interbeing. Research shows that the general population in the United States tends to endorse dualistic notions of consciousness, which are opposed to Interbeing based notions (Bering, 2006). As such, we expect that the average individual’s score on the Interbeing Scale might be negatively skewed.
Experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness is expected to contribute to higher scores on the Interbeing Scale. Such experience would include, but not be limited to experiences arising from practice in meditation, a natural attunement to spirituality, near death experiences, and psychedelic experiences (Yaden, Haidt, Hood, Vago, & Newberg, 2017; Cloninger, 1998). Followup studies using the Interbeing Scale, explicitly targeting populations with identifiably varied levels of experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness, will be useful for further investigating the relationship between Interbeing identity and non-ordinary states of consciousness.
Specifying Scale Purpose - Why is an Interbeing Scale Needed?: Despite the wide berth of writing on the topic of Interbeing, the construct itself has not yet been formally defined or operationalized in an academic context. The purpose of the present research is to define the construct of Interbeing through a contemporary psychological frame, and to develop and validate an Interbeing Scale (IS) for measuring attitudes (a culmination of beliefs, behaviors, and experiences) towards personal identity aligned with Interbeing.
The Interbeing Scale will be particularly useful for investigating the long term impact of temporary non-ordinary states of consciousness. Clinical trials involving psychedelic interventions are currently being developed for mental health purposes, and are a reliable way of introducing non-ordinary states of consciousness for those who have no previous experience with them (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012; Nichols, Johnson, & Nichols, 2017; Hartogsohn, 2018). The Interbeing Scale would be particularly useful as a tool for investigating the relationship between perception of personal identity and the healing process involved with inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. Previous research has shown that mystical experience is a mediator of symptom reduction in treatment resistant depression (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016). Mystical experiences are associated with a shift from dualistic to non-dual perception of consciousness, and non-dual perception of personal identity is the basis of Interbeing (Berman & Stevens, 2015). Mystical experiences themselves, however, are typically fleeting (Berman & Stevens, 2015). As such, the Interbeing Scale will be a useful tool for increasing scientific knowledge regarding the relationship between a particular mystical experience, an individual’s lasting sense of Interbeing identity, and their mental wellness over time.
Knowledge regarding the relationship between induction of non-ordinary states of consciousness, a shift in perception of personal identity towards Interbeing, and sustainable improvements in mental health, could in turn be used to inform the design and improvement of clinical interventions. For example, if it were found that the sustainability of symptom reduction caused by mystical experiences was mediated by Interbeing identity, interventions could be designed to facilitate effective translation of mystical experience into Interbeing identity.
PHASE II: Specification of Assessment Operations
Specifying Domain and Sub-domains - What theoretical landscape does Interbeing cover?: We propose that the domain of Interbeing is comprised of these three related yet distinct subdomains, each with their own empirical and conceptual grounding. These subdomains are self-transcendence, nature connectedness, and open individualism.
Figure 1: Interbeing Domain Specification
Self-Transcendence: Self-transcendence refers to the experience of expansion and dissolution of individual boundaries, and the corresponding shift towards a more unitive, all-encompassing sense of identity (Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck. 1998; Hood, 2001; Koltko-Rivera, 2006; Reed, 2008). The altered sense of identity accompanying self-transcendence is captured by terms used to describe these experiences, such as ego-dissolution, unitive consciousness, and oceanic boundlessness (Cloninger , Dragan, Przybeck., 1993; Dittirich, 1998; Vollenweider, 2001). These commonly agreed upon aspects of self-transcendence reflect the identity shift, and corresponding quality of experience central to Interbeing. They suggest that a deep identification with others and the universe at large, which Interbeing is predicated upon, follows from dissolution of the traditional view of separate self.
Self-transcendence can be achieved through a number of methods, including meditation, prayer, communion with nature, and the use of entheogens (Nour, Evans, Nutt, & Carhart-Harris, 2016; Urgesi, Aglioti, Skrap, & Fabbro, 2010; Vago & Silbersweig, 2012). It is seen as a central goal of most meditation practices, and empirical evidence has shown it to be a consistent outcome of practice among experienced meditators (Gifford-May & Thompson, 1994). A growing body of literature has linked self-transcendence to numerous indicators of psychological and spiritual health, including higher levels of resilience, purpose in life, sense of coherence, spiritual well-being, and self-reported general mental health (Coward, 1996; Lundman et al., 2010; Reed, 1991; Thomas, Burton, Quinn Griffin, & Fitzpatrick, 2010)
Nature Connectedness: The domain of nature connectedness refers to a sense of relationship to the whole of nature. It does not refer just to a connection with natural or wilderness settings, but rather to a system of relationships which encompasses all humans, non-human life, and inanimate material. However, some models blend the restrictive and encompassing meanings together, such as the Connectedness to Nature Scale (Mayer & Frantz, 2004). The CNS has items ranging from a wilderness context (“I often feel a sense of oneness with the natural world around me”) to a more philosophical context (“When I think of my life, I imagine myself to be part of a larger cyclical process of living”). While previous research, such as that using the Inclusion of Nature in Self scale (INS) has investigated the relationship between self-conceptualization and nature, the Interbeing scale explicitly emphasizes the identification of one’s phenomenological consciousness with nature (Martin & Czellar, 2015).
Higher levels of nature connectedness have been empirically linked to numerous components of psychological health, including general wellbeing and mindfulness (Howell, Dopko, Passmore, & Buro, 2011). When examined more closely, the relationship between nature connectedness and wellbeing was found to be mediated by self-reported meaning in life (Howell, Passmore, & Buro, 2013). A meta-analysis concluded that individuals who reported higher subjective nature connectedness tend to also report higher life satisfaction, vitality, and general positive affect (Capaldi, Dopko, & Zelenski, 2014). Evidence also suggests that beliefs in oneness, broadly defined, are linked with higher environmental concern and increased donation amounts to pro-environmental groups (Garfield, Drwecki, Moore, Koortenkamp, & Gracz, 2013).
Open Individualism: Open Individualism is a philosophy of personal identity, which posits that there is only one ultimate subject of all experience (Kolak, 2004). The subject of all experience is not, however, understood to be a separate person or entity apart from all of the individual experiences that comprise the universe. Rather, it is understood to be all subjective experience itself, wherever it occurs - whether as human consciousness, animal, or other. Open Individualism arises from the position that there are no fundamental boundaries dividing individuals. Without true boundaries, the different experiences of unique individuals are understood to be different aspects of a single conscious whole. Open Individualism posits that the existence of a fundamental dividing line existing between different conscious beings is no more real than the existence of a fundamental dividing line existing between the unique waves of an ocean or territories of a country (Kolak, 2004).
Attaching the notion of self - of ‘I’ - to the entirety of existence is the consequence of Open Individualism. The following excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, ‘Please Call Me By My True Names’ (2004), captures the sense of Open Individualism inherent to the awareness of Interbeing:
“Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone. I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive. I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly. I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.”
Open Individualism is directly contrasted with Closed Individualism - the traditional view that an individual person consists of one complete entity that is fundamentally separate from all other individuals. The idea of fundamental separateness between individuals rests on the assumption that a fixed boundary delineates each person from others. This boundary is often assumed to be the boundary of the physical body, of the brain, or of a personal soul (Bering, 2006). While such a boundary is often assumed without question based on normative self-experience, skilled practitioners of meditation report that the experience of self-boundedness is illusory (Epstein, 1988; Travis & Shear, 2010).
Specify Scoring Method - How are responses measured?: A five-point Likert scale is used to measure responses, with the anchors ‘strongly disagree,’ ‘disagree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘agree’, and ‘strongly agree’. The following prompt is used to orient participants to the task:
“The following series of statements have to do with your experiences, beliefs, and behaviors relating to the ultimate nature of being. There are no right or wrong answers. Please indicate the level to which you agree or disagree with each statement. Answer as honestly as possible.”
PHASE III: Instrument Design Instrument Design - How were scale items generated?: Scale items were generated and revised in an iterative process involving focus group meetings, consultation with Order of Interbeing senior monastics, consultation with Interbeing and scale development researchers, and cognitive interviews.
Focus Group: A broad sample of literature on nature connectedness, self-transcendence, open individualism, and popular literature written by Thich Nhat Hanh was surveyed. A table of sub-domain indicators was subsequently created.
Table: Interbeing sub-domain indicators, specified along feeling, belief, and behavior dimensions (Hovland, 1960)InterbeingSub-DomainsNature Connectedness(Relationship to Nature)Self-Transcendence(Relationship to Universe)Open Individualism(Relationship to Others)General Indicator
Expresses a sense of non-dual relationship between self and the natural world.Expresses a sense non-dual relationship between self and the cosmos.Expresses a sense of non-dual relationship between self and other conscious beings.DimensionFeelingBeliefBehav.FeelingBeliefBehav.FeelingBeliefBehav.Sub-Indicator Kinship with Nature, Affinity for NatureNature Relatedness, Inter-connectionLoving Care for Nature, Animal Compassion Mindful,Boundless, Oceanic Dissolution,AweNo-Self, Non-DualitySelflessness, Non-judgmentalityMystical Experience, GoodwillUnity, Golden Rule ReligiosityPerspective Taking, AltruismSub-Indicator When in nature feels a sense of love and kinship. Believes that all consciousness is an expression of nature.Shows loving care for all of nature.Feels union with the universe.Believes the conscious self is not separate from the universe.Acts with mindfulness of being embedded within a greater context.. When with others experiences a sense of shared self.Believes there is just one subject of all experience.Connects to others as if they are other instances of oneself.
The item pools generated included an approximately even distribution between three dimensions: the relationship to nature, to the universe, and to other beings. The nature dimension represents the perception of personal identity being a part of a natural process underlying all organic and inorganic material, and consciousness (e.g., ‘I often experience my consciousness as woven within nature.’). The universal or cosmic dimension represents the perception of personal identity having a non-dual relationship to the greater cosmos in which humanity is embedded (e.g., ‘Deep down, I belong to the universe, not just the human species.’). The interpersonal dimension represents perception of personal identity tied to an overarching context that exists as all beings at once (e.g., ‘The deepest part of my identity exists as all beings.’).
Over thirty weekly focus groups were then held with five students from the Spirituality Mind-Body Institute at Columbia University, who had volunteered to contribute to the scale’s development. At each focus group existing items were revised based on discussions of item clarity and validity, and new items were generated. Approximately once every four focus groups the existing item pool was administered to a group of MTurk respondents, along with a series of graphics designed to depict the awareness of Interbeing in a rich visual format. Items which had non-significant correlations with the graphics were flagged for revision. The final item pool generated by the focus group included 65 items, capturing the various attitudinal facets of Interbeing identity.
Table: Interbeing and Separate Being graphics used for correlation with preliminary Interbeing Scale item poolSeparate Being Graphic 1Interbeing Graphic 1
Separate Being Graphic 2
Interbeing Graphic 2
Consultation with Senior Monastics of the Order of Interbeing: Six senior monks at Blue Cliff Monastery, who had trained directly with Thich Nhat Hanh (N=6), were consulted individually for feedback on the scale items. Feedback that was consistent between multiple individuals was taken into special consideration. This included feedback on wording related to the coexistence of oneness and uniqueness, on concepts of self and universe, and on interfacing between Buddhist and secular language. Following feedback the items were revised accordingly.
Consultation with Interbeing and Scale Development Researchers: The updated item pool was reviewed by a group of researchers who had published on the topic of Interbeing or on scale development (N=6). Items were rated for relevance, clarity, and conciseness on a four-point Likert scale. Qualitative feedback was also provided where the researchers found a notable problems. Items which had a mean score of below three in any of the categories were revised or eliminated, taking into account the qualitative feedback suggested. For example, a change made for clarity and conciseness included changing the item ‘Although all beings are unique, I believe ‘I am you and you are me’ is literally true.’ to the revised form ‘I am unique and yet one with other beings.’ After revisions an item pool of 37 items remained.
PHASE IV: Validation of Measures
Validation - How was item quality demonstrated?: Validation of the Interbeing Scale was conducted via cognitive interviewing, expert interviews, assessment of inter-item correlations, and exploratory factor analysis.
Cognitive Interviewing: For cognitive interviews a purposive sample (N=20) was used. The participants were known by the authors, and chosen for their varying levels of spirituality. The participants were interviewed by the first author. After reading and indicating the degree to which they agreed with each scale item, participants answered the prompt ‘What was your thought process when answering the previous question?’ Interviews were conducted over the phone and responses were transcribed verbatim by the interviewer as the participants vocalized their thought processes. Problems uncovered by the interview were assessed and used for item revision.
Table: Problems uncovered and revisions based on the cognitive interviewsOriginal QuestionParticular Problem(s) Uncovered by InterviewQuote from Interview Regarding ProblemAction TakenRevised QuestionImplication‘My mind is entirely woven together from elements that were once part of something else.’‘Mind’ interpreted as referring to thought rather than mental experience.
“Mind is very limiting. This question is asking about how I think.”Replace the term ‘mind’ with consciousness.
‘My consciousness is a continuation of what was once part of something else.Question more specifically referring to subjective experience.‘’I am you, you are me - and we are both unique’ is an awareness I experience’.‘I am you and you are me’ not interpreted in the literal sense of personal identity.“I agree, although I don't fully get it. Is that empathy? I think that's empathy.”Changed to a belief statement about identity including the term ‘literally’.‘While each being is unique, ‘I am you and you are me' is literally true.’Less room for interpretation unrelated to personal identity.‘My existence belongs to a universal web of relationships - not a separate self or individual soul.’Unclear reference to a personal relationship with a greater context subsuming one’s identity.“I don't understand what existence ‘belonging to a web of relationships’ would be.”Used common terminology, ‘human being’ to refer to the category associated with belongingness of one’s being.‘I experience myself as a being of the universe, not just a human being.’More readily interpretable reference to categories of ontological belonging.‘The awareness that self and other are not fundamentally separate connects me to a feeling of universal love’.1) Confusion based on negative wording ‘not fundamentally separate’.2) Phrase ‘universal love’ identified as too grand in regards to considering ‘self and other’.1) “The wording is confusing. I keep reading it wrong. So, not fundamentally separate. Does that mean connected?2) “I find that the use of the term self and other makes this more effortful to interpret... it’s hard to jump into universal love from just two individuals (self and other).”1) Use of positively worded reference to a sense of identity beyond the individual self, ‘my ultimate nature’.2) Replaced ‘feeling of universal love’ with the more modest behavior oriented phrase ‘act with goodwill towards everyone’.‘Awareness of my ultimate nature leads me to act with goodwill towards everyone.’1) Less cognitive load in item interpretation. 2) Less extremist statement, more daily life oriented.
Table: Sample of item interpretations fitting intended measurementItemInterbeing vs Separate Being Oriented ResponseParticipant Quote Regarding Thought Process‘The deepest part of my identity exists as all beings.’Interbeing Oriented“I really believe in the idea of my identity being embedded within a larger context.”
“I think of the word namaste, and greeting someone as honoring the deepest part of them, and the part of them that is the same in everyone. So I do think there is a part of us that is the same in everyone, some level of subjectivity.”‘The deepest part of my identity exists as all beings.’Separate Being Oriented“I have not had this experience that my identity exists like through other beings, or as other beings. I very much experience it as an individual.”
“To me, the deepest part of my identity is something I share with only myself and that no one else could ever understand.”‘I have had an experience in which I realized that no being is separate from another, although each is unique.’Interbeing Oriented“I believe that though everything is interconnected - on the deepest fundamental level - that doesn't mean that there isn't a level of uniqueness within that broader context. I've had many experiences but the one that I felt the strongest was a near death experience where I was in a near fatal car accident and I felt time slow down and I felt a complete peace and connection to all that is but I still had my own unique awareness of that experience.”
“This reminded of when I was at a mosque many years ago and I had looked at somebody singing and chanting and I felt at once so different from this individual and at the same time that I belonged to the same world.”
“I came close when I was feeling like I was moving into other people's experiences and particularly feeling the interconnectedness of blood relationships, particularly my sister and mom.”
“I have had that experience through looking at another person's eyes and through a loving kindness meditation.”‘I have had an experience in which I realized that no being is separate from another, although each is unique.’Separate Being Oriented“We are physically bound by our bodies so we are separate from each other. I don't think we are intrinsically connected in any way. I think connectedness is a choice you make and cultivate with a person. I don't think that connections exist between people without that cultivation. I don't think they exist at that cosmic level.”
“I guess I'm coming to believe we are all connected and all people are equal but I don't really feel like we are one being.”
“I disagree because this idea (nor any regarding interconnectedness) has never crossed my mind in any compelling, significant manner.”‘I am one way the universe experiences itself.’Interbeing Oriented“I am the universe and the universe is me. I strongly agree. Each one of us - plants, animals, beings - are just an iota of an experience for the universe.”
“I just like that idea. It makes sense. That's my best guess at what consciousness is.”‘I am one way the universe experiences itself.’Separate Being Oriented“I don't see myself as that important that I am this 'one way' that the universe experiences itself. I think that places a lot of importance on me.”
“I'm not sure I'm confident that the universe has something we can define as an experience. At least not in the way that I can conceptualize as experience. At least in the way that I think of in my human lens of experience.”‘I take notice of profound similarities between myself and other forms of nature.’Interbeing Oriented“I see myself and nature as continuous with each other, and that I am not separate from nature. I see profound similarities because we are the same.”
“I often think of people as animals, animals as plants. I often look at people and think of whether they are being like a cow or being like a frog.”
“I just notice what's around me, I think especially when it comes to nature. I think of tree branches looking like the veins of lungs.”
“The inside of a tree looks like our own fingerprint. The way we dance is like the way that trees sway in the wind.”‘I take notice of profound similarities between myself and other forms of nature.’Separate Being Oriented“I take notice of similarities between me and other human beings. I compare myself to human beings - not to nature.”
“I rarely, if ever, become aware of emotional or spiritual similarities between myself and other forms of nature. The thought that I, a separate human being, am present in nature always dominates other such thoughts.”
“I'm too wrapped up in my own head to see the similarities, even if they do exist.”
Expert Interviews: Expert interviews were conducted with a population of psychedelics researchers (N=5), chosen for their academic expertise and familiarity with their own and other’s non-dual experiences of consciousness. Content Validity Indexes were calculated based on content relevance, clarity, and conciseness. CVI scores were expected to be somewhat lower than would be typical for scale items because of the challenging nature of capturing atypical perceptions of consciousness using interpretable language. One of the expert validators, Dr. Bill Richards, captured the nature of this challenge in his general feedback:
“You’ve taken on a challenging task, though it may well lead to a valued research instrument. As I’m sure you know paradoxicality and ineffability reign supreme in these transcendental states of consciousness which are often claimed to go beyond the limits of language and the usual concepts that structure our views of reality... Nonetheless, I believe we need to work at the growing edges of science, including social science, and do the best we can with human language and assessment procedures. ”
Items with CVI scores of greater than .6 were retained. Of the 37 items evaluated 17 items, listed below, fit this criteria. Despite the particularly challenging nature of creating items that would be affirmed by researchers of varied spiritual and religious backgrounds, the scale-CVI for items included in the final scale was calculated to be .81.
Table: Item pool with CVI scores greater than .6ItemCVIIncluded in Final ScaleI am unique and yet one with other beings.1yesI seek settings in which I can feel at one with nature.1noI have had an experience in which I realized that no being is separate from another, although each is unique.0.93yesI often experience my consciousness as woven within nature.0.93noWhen with animals I experience myself as part of a greater family of life.0.93yesI am you and you are me' is a type of awareness that guides my daily actions.0.93noAwareness of my ultimate nature leads me to act with goodwill towards everyone.0.86yesI gaze at the night sky to feel connected to my deeper origins.0.80noThe deepest part of my identity exists as all beings.0.73yesI am one way the universe experiences itself.0.73yesAll beings are one with nature, whether or not they are aware of it.0.73noThere is no individual self which either passes on to another stage or suddenly stops existing at death.0.73noI take notice of profound similarities between myself and other forms of nature.0.66yesMy life choices are guided by an awareness that the universe exists through each living being.0.66yesI experience myself as a being of the universe, not just as a human being.0.66yesI look deeply into the eyes of animals to connect to our shared existence.0.66noMy existence is held by the universe, not by a separate self or soul.0.66no
Inter-Item Correlations: An inter-item correlation was performed, with a selection criteria of omitting any item that did not correlate with at least one other item at r > .4, or that correlated with at least one other item at r > .8, to avoid inclusion of unrelated items or items that were redundant. No items were found to have inter-item correlations of either r > .8 or r < .4. Thus, no items were deleted based on the criterion of inter-item correlations.
Exploratory Factor Analysis: An exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was conducted using an online sample of workers from the United States on Amazon’s data collection platform, Mechanical Turk (N = 277). A single factor representing Interbeing based identity emerged, accounting for 64.46 percent of the total variance. To produce a brief, coherent, practical scale that would be easily integrated into questionnaire batteries for both clinical use and research, items with factor loadings below .75 were omitted. After the resulting omission of seven items a final scale of 10 items remained.
Table: Exploratory Factor Analysis (n = 277): Total Variance Explained
ComponentInitial EigenvaluesPercent Variance Accounted ForCumulative Percent Variance Accounted For16.44664.46164.46120.6156.15470.61630.4884.87975.49440.444.39979.89450.4334.33384.226
Cronbach's Alpha: Internal consistency for the IS was good, with a Cronbach’s alpha score of .94 for the overall scale. The internal consistency for interpersonally-based items was .87, for cosmic-based items was .84, and for nature-based items was .86.
PHASE V: Evaluation of Evidence
Overall Evaluation - Does the evidence support the utility of the scale?: The overall evidence supports the validity and reliability of the Interbeing Scale. Cognitive interviews (N = 20) showed response processes aligned with the intended interpretation of items. A scale CVI score of .81 (N = 5) demonstrated a high level of item relevance, clarity, and conciseness endorsed by experts in related fields. An absence of inter-item correlations below .4 or above .8 indicated that the scale items were neither unrelated nor overly redundant. Exploratory factor analysis (N = 277) revealing factor loadings of above .75 for all final scale items, and 64.46 percent of the total variance accounted for by the first factor, showed high cohesion between the scale items. Lastly, internal reliability was demonstrated via an observed Cronbach’s alpha score of .94.
The final scale items are listed in the table below, with (i) denoting interpersonally-based items, (n) denoting nature-based items, and (c) denoting cosmic-based items:
Table: List of Interbeing Scale final itemsI am unique and yet one with other beings. (i)The deepest part of my identity exists as all beings. (i)I have had an experience in which I realized that no being is separate from another, although each is unique. (i)Awareness of my ultimate nature leads me to act with goodwill towards everyone. (i)I am one way the universe experiences itself. (c)I experience myself as a being of the universe, not just as a human being. (c)My life choices are guided by an awareness that the universe exists through each living being. (c)I often experience my consciousness as woven within nature. (n)I take notice of profound similarities between myself and other forms of nature. (n)When with animals I experience myself as part of a greater family of life. (n)
This paper set out to define and operationalize Interbeing, proceeding from Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of a personal identity rooted in the connectedness not only of all things but of all phenomenological being, transcending the notion of a separate self. It is important to emphasize that while Interbeing could be framed as an ideological position about the nature of reality, or an experience of self-transcendence, we approached Interbeing specifically as a personal identity stance informing individual’s attitudes. To this end, we constructed the Interbeing Scale to encapsulate individuals’ beliefs, experiences, and behaviors consonant with a sense that all conscious beings are the transformation of a universal system of relationships, undivided by separate selves. Through an iterative process of scale development, which included factor analyses, inter-item correlations, cognitive interviewing, and expert reviews, we arrived at a 10-item scale with a Scale Content Validity Index of .81 and Cronbach’s alpha of .94. Interbeing is a higher-order construct, not to be confused with related but non-coterminous constructs such as self-transcendence, boundary thinness, and absorption. While some of these, when regarded as trait-level personality dimensions, might predispose individuals to higher scores on the Interbeing Scale, Interbeing itself is not conceived of strictly as a personality trait, but rather as a stance reflected in experiences, beliefs, and behaviors across a collection of related domains. These three domains, selected after intensive theoretical and empirical review, are self-transcendence, nature connectedness, and open individualism. The sense that one is part of nature, that one is at one with the universe, and that one identifies all conscious beings as equal instances of herself are all reflections of Interbeing. In recent times, the discussion of personal identity and its everyday relevance has become increasingly common in both popular discourse and academic psychology. The trend toward taking the role of subjective experience seriously, which fueled the fall of behaviorism, the ascendancy of individual difference studies, and the birth of consciousness studies, continues apace. However, its foundational questions, among them—What does it mean to be a conscious self?—continue to defy a neat resolution. Without weighing in on the metaphysical dimensions of this question, the present study hopes to further the investigation of how people relate to their experience as conscious selves. One of the dimensions along which people’s relationship to selfhood varies is the degree to which they feel identified with the broader whole encompassing all conscious experience—that which we call Interbeing. The Enlightenment Western approach to the self, reflected in the atomistic views of both secular and Western religious folk metaphysics, has led mainstream psychologists to take the assumption of a separate, ego-sized self for granted. Even among researchers and thinkers who acknowledge the social, ecological, and physical reality of interdependence, a personal identity stance grounded in separateness is considered to be normative. However, truth value aside, it should be expected that people differ in the scope of things they identify with as part of their self—a dimension of difference that has largely been neglected in psychology research, and left to academic philosophers. The Interbeing Scale makes it possible to empirically explore this dimension of variation in the context of psychology. In addition, the availability of the Interbeing Scale will allow researchers interested in consciousness and personal identity to assess Interbeing as a correlate, a factor, and a dependent variable in a range of correlational and experimental analyses. It would be reasonable to hypothesize, for example, that Interbeing correlates with absorption (Tellegen, 1974), but the strength of this relationship has yet to be established. Baseline Interbeing might also be suggested to predict strength of response to certain psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological interventions. Moreover, Interbeing’s relationship with various aspects of wellbeing, as well as different psychopathologies, might illuminate the ways in which different senses of personal identity have different adaptive profiles, and distinct downsides. Researchers interested in these relationships are encouraged to incorporate the Interbeing Scale into their studies. While Interbeing poses many interesting questions as a dimension of individual difference, it is perhaps an even more valuable construct relative to its implications for well-being and ethical behavior. In the ancestral environment, it was likely adaptive for individuals to develop and wield a strong sense of individual, distinct self—to the exclusion of identifying with a wider whole. In Why Buddhism Is True, however, Robert Wright describes how an array of such evolutionary adaptations have left contemporary humans anxious and disconnected, and describes the methods developed by Buddhist practitioners to dial them back (Wright, 2017). Indeed, Daniel Kolak’s I Am You, the foundational text of open individualist ethics, chalks up the ontology of separate being as the source of nearly all preventable suffering (Kolak, 2004). Experiences of oneness with the universe or greater whole, and the beliefs that often result from them, have been shown to promote appreciation for life, positive mood, self-acceptance, concern for others, and concern for social and planetary values (Doblin, 1991; Schneeberger, 2010). Recently, a bevy of studies from the world of psychedelic research have pointed to the same set of conclusions over multiple time points (Krebs & Johansen, 2013; Nicholas et al., 2017). Meanwhile, Yaden et al. (2016) have linked the “overview effect”, which famously inspired astronauts to humanitarian zeal out of identification with humanity and the earth as a whole, to the construct of self-transcendence, a component of Interbeing (Garan, 2015; White, 1987). Another thread in the ethical implications of Interbeing can be traced through the world of Buddhist ecology, drawing directly on Interbeing-centered teachings. David Barash’s Buddhist Biology (2013) describes how Buddhist insights into the interconnectedness and intersubjectivity of all natural systems anticipates and corresponds to contemporary views in ecological science and activism, while David Loy’s Ecodharma describes how they can be harnessed toward more responsible planetary stewardship (2019).
Overall, the clinical and ethical implications of Interbeing—whatever its stimulus—appear to be formidable. Given that Interbeing is a stance that can evolve out of experiences and new beliefs, it is worth considering the possibility that promoting higher levels of Interbeing would be of benefit to both individuals and society. While our primary concern in this paper is with Interbeing as a psychological construct, we consider the publication of the Interbeing Scale to be of a piece with wider trends in the natural sciences that emphasize connectedness and relational identity as the basis for living systems, consciousness, and the physical universe. Without denying the uniqueness of objects and experiences, scholars of complex systems, evolutionary dynamics, and ecology frame separateness as an emergent, relative property of systems and their interrelated components (Cilliers, 1998; Nordbotten et al., 2008; Tononi et al., 2016). In an echo of Buddhist philosophy, the complexity theorist Edgar Morin conceives multiplicity and unity as non-contradictory properties of complex systems (1992), while the computer scientist Brian Cantwell Smith writes that, “everything that exists … lies in the middle distance, an intermediate realm of partial engagement with and partial separation from, the enveloping world” (Cantwell Smith, 1996). If human individuals are both unique and inextricable from all things, should it not be possible for someone to identify with different levels of the ‘zoom’, from thoughts-in-the-moment, to ego, to universe? Far from crowding the landscape of higher-order personality constructs, the operationalization of Interbeing as a psychological construct has the potential to expand research psychologists’ realm of inquiry, equipping them with the tools to approach questions previously left to philosophers of mind and religious scholars. Despite the challenges that remain in characterizing the nature of subjective experience, personal identity and sense of self need not be thought of as black boxes. The Interbeing Scale is an opening shot in an attempt to normalize the scientific study of these phenomena, without denying their remarkable texture and variation.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSI would like to express my deep gratitude to Dr. Lisa Miller, my research supervisor, for her years of academic and personal support, her encouragement and guidance, and for being a truly inspiring exemplar of embodied spirituality. I would also like to thank Dr. Madhabi Chatterji for her warm-hearted support, insightful critiques, and enduring patience in the scale development process. My grateful thanks are also extended to the Interbeing Lab group, Dr. Miller’s Psychology and Spirituality Lab, to the monks of the Order of Interbeing, to friends and family, and to the numerous researchers and professionals - all of whom generously volunteered their time to provide feedback on the Interbeing Scale items. I would like to acknowledge Columbia University, and the professors and peers in the Clinical Psychology program, for creating the rich academic environment in which this research may flourish. Lastly, I would like to thank Sophie Whitney for the countless hours, when most needed, of theoretical discussion, impromptu feedback, creative thinking, and emotional nurturing.
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‘What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die?’ These universal questions are inherent to a person’s existence. The framework from which they are answered defines the core of an individual, and strongly influences their relationships, experiences, and behaviors. In this article, Interbeing is explored as an optimal framework (scientifically supported, personally beneficial, and socially beneficial) for addressing the nature of personhood. The concept is generally characterized as a theory of personal identity that emphasizes the connected nature not only of all things but also of all subjective experience. An empirically based framework for defining the construct is delineated, with the overarching domain divided into three sub-domains: self-transcendence, nature connectedness, and open individualism. A formal definition of Interbeing is proposed as the following: ‘The awareness that there exists just one entirely connected process of nature, experiencing all individuals as unique instances of itself.’ Cross-cultural convergences on Interbeing are discussed, as well as its divergences with associated constructs. The implications of Interbeing are explored in relation to science, spirituality, religion, suffering, and wellbeing. Empirical evidence supporting the framework of Interbeing is expounded, along with a proposal of its potential to support individuals and groups in developing health, wellness, and social functioning.
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
- Albert Einstein (NY Times, 1972)
“True self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements. There's no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh (Shambala Sun, 2006)
The core question of identity pertinent to self-transcendence and Interbeing is whether or not there exists any aspect of the self which separates a person from all other things and minds (Cloninger, Svrakic, Przybeck, 1993; Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005; Robins, 2010). The above quotes from Einstein and Thich Nhat Hanh communicate an unambiguous stance - although it generally seems otherwise, no such separation exists.
In religious terms, the theoretical self entity which would account for our separation is referred to as the ‘individual soul’, and is thought to persist after death (Bering, 2006). In secular language, it is more vaguely referred to under the umbrella term ‘self’, and is not thought to persist after death (Richert & Harris, 2008). The common denominator to both types of religious and secular thought is some aspect of each individual that is fundamentally separate from all else. This ‘separate self’ is typically presumed to come into existence suddenly at conception, and to stay, unchanging, with a person across their life. It theoretically ‘holds’ their subjectivity and numerically individuates them from others (Kolak, 2004). The properties of the ‘separate self’ have been characterized as 1. The experiencer of experiences 2. The initiator of actions 3. Unified 4. Continuing. (Blackmore, 2012*). A common type of statement involving separate self would be ‘I came into existence from nothing, and when I die there will be nothing again (or I’ll go to an afterlife).’ This statement supposes that while there were things existing before the person was born, the core separate self was not derived from any of those things.
The notion of a separate self that binds perspective to an individual mental channel is what restricts one’s sense of personal ownership to just some experiences but not others. The egocentric confines that delineate which experiences do or don’t fall under personal ownership have a strong bearing on how an individual values those experiences. Simply put, experiences that fall within the ego’s presumed confines tend to be valued much more highly than those that do not. This self-centered valuation process is posited to be both evolutionarily adaptive (under certain circumstances) as well as the source of nearly all preventable human suffering (Kolak, 2004*). The persistent experience of moving past the notion of a separate self is the basis of self-transcendence, along with its associated perception of personal identity, Interbeing.
What Interbeing Is
“The food I eat was once the sunshine, the rain and the earth. I am the cloud, the river and the air at this very moment, so I know that in the past I was also a cloud, a river and the air... Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; you can only inter-be... You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh (The Other Shore, 2017)
Interbeing is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh that describes a particular awareness of personal identity - that each person’s body and mind are entirely woven within an ongoing universal process. No part can exist separately from relationship to parts outside itself. This understanding is outlined in the following quote:
“The elements that make up the world are patterns of dependency and interweaving. In other words, they are relationships. When we are fully aware, we see that there are only relationships. All relationships are patterns of interaction. So they are, by definition, dynamic; they are patterns of change. There are no individual things, but only ongoing processes. These processes are made up of other, constantly changing, processes. All of reality is combinations of patterns of relationships in process. This is the foundation of "interbeing" a term defined by Thich Nhat Hanh.” (as quoted in Robins, 2010*)
An ‘awareness’ is by definition “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact” (Oxford Dictionary*). Interbeing may be categorized as an awareness because it can be derived both perceptually (through meditation or sensory experience) and rationally (through contemplation or logical deduction) (Yaden, Vago, & Newberg, 2017*). Those who arrive at the awareness of Interbeing describe it as a more veridical form of identity than is perceived in everyday life. Its main conceptual components - interconnectedness and the relational basis of mind - are also supported by the foundational discoveries of modern science, lending credence to understanding it as a ‘situation or fact’.
The conceptual basis of Interbeing is articulately described in numerous sources, but to our knowledge no succinct definition of the term itself exists. We aim to fill this need by proposing a formal definition of Interbeing as the following: ‘The awareness that there exists just one entirely connected process of nature, experiencing all individuals as unique instances of itself.’ Core to this definition are three elements. 1) Self-Transcendence: there is no separate self isolating an individual from the interconnection of all things (‘just one entirely connected process’). 2) Nature: humans are a part of the same all-encompassing process and laws that give rise to all of nature, including the galaxies, planets, trees, and animals (‘of nature’...). 3) Open Individualism: this single connected process holds not only all things but also all experiences, along with their intimate first-person quality (‘experiencing all individuals as unique instance of itself’). In sum, the idea captured by Interbeing is that a single connected process exists through the first-person perspective of all beings, and is our ultimate identity.
Sub-domains: Self-Transcendence, Nature Connectedness, and Open Individualism
The domain of Interbeing is in large comprised of these three related yet distinct subdomains, each with their own empirical and conceptual grounding: self-transcendence, nature connectedness, and open individualism. The literature underlying each of these subdomains contributes to a fuller understanding of the concept and qualities of Interbeing, as well as its impact on personal wellness and social functioning.
Self-transcendence refers to the experience of expansion and dissolution of individual boundaries, and the corresponding shift towards a more unitive, all-encompassing sense of identity (Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck. 1998; Hood; 1975 Koltko-Rivera, 2006; Reed, 2008). The altered sense of identity accompanying self-transcendence is captured by terms used to describe these experiences, such as ego-dissolution, unitive consciousness, and oceanic boundlessness (Cloninger et al., 1993; Dittirich, 1998; Vollenweider, 2001). These commonly agreed upon aspects of self-transcendence reflect the identity shift, and corresponding quality of experience, central to Interbeing. They suggest that a deep identification with others and the universe at large, which Interbeing is predicated upon, follows from dissolution of the traditional view of self.
Self-transcendence can be achieved through a number of methods, including meditation, prayer, communion with nature, and psychedelic drug use (Nour, Evans, Nutt, & Carhart-Harris, 2016; Urgesi, Aglioti, Skrap, & Fabbro, 2010; Vago & Silbersweig, 2012). It is seen as a central goal of most meditation practices, and empirical evidence has shown it to be an extremely consistent outcome of practice among experienced meditators (Gifford-May & Thompson, 1994). A growing body of literature has linked self-transcendence to numerous indicators of psychological and spiritual health, including higher levels of resilience, purpose in life, sense of coherence, spiritual well-being, and self-reported general mental health (Coward, 1996; Nygren, Aléx, Jonsén, Gustafson, Norberg & Lundman. 2010; Reed, 1991; Thomas, Burton, Quinn Griffin, & Fitzpatrick, 2010)
The domain of nature connectedness refers to the sense of deep identification with the universe or process of nature unfolding. While the exact language may change from person to person, the experience is one of unitive consciousness and subjective feeling of deep connection with the whole of nature. It does not refer just to natural or wilderness settings, but to a deeper meaning of the word nature. However, some models blend these meanings together, such as the Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS; Mayer & Frantz, 2004). The CNS has items ranging from a wilderness context (“I often feel a sense of oneness with the natural world around me”) to a more philosophical context (“When I think of my life, I imagine myself to be part of a larger cyclical process of living”), both of which fit into the Interbeing framework.
What makes Interbeing distinct from nature connectedness as a construct is its emphasis on one’s identification with nature, and not simply one’s connection with it. From an Interbeing perspective, the whole of nature is literally a part of one’s identity or self. Previous research, particularly the Inclusion of Nature in Self scale (INS), has examined this idea as a related construct to nature connectedness (Martin & Czellar, 2015). Because of the heavily interrelated nature of the two constructs, it is reasonable to propose they would share similar psychological benefits.
To examine these benefits more specifically, higher levels of nature connectedness have been empirically linked to numerous components of psychological health, including general wellbeing and mindfulness (Howell, Dopko, Passmore, & Buro, 2011). When examined more closely, the relationship between nature connectedness and wellbeing was found to be mediated by self-reported meaning in life (Howell, Passmore, & Buro, 2013). Additionally, one extensive meta-analysis concluded that individuals who reported higher subjective nature connectedness tended to also report higher life satisfaction, vitality, and general positive affect (Capaldi, Dopko, & Zelenski, 2014). There is also evidence suggesting that beliefs in oneness, broadly defined, are linked with higher environmental concern and increased donation amounts to pro-environmental groups (Garfield 2013).