What Is Ego Death (AKA Ego Loss)?

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What Is Ego Death (AKA Ego Loss)?


For psychedelic users and meditators alike, ego death is a kind of holy grail; many search for it, but few find it. It's a source of excitement and fear, destruction and renewal. Read on to learn about the different kinds of ego death, its positive and negative aspects, and how to use psychedelics to get there yourself.

For many psychedelic explorers, ego death is a kind of holy grail; it’s the reason for their quest, the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of psychedelics: symbolic death and rebirth. Many meditators also search for this enigmatic state. But what is ego death, and why is it so special?

There’s no simple answer. The concept of ego death (a.k.a. ego loss) is plagued with paradoxes—you destroy the self, but also strengthen it; experience a death, which in turn enhances life; transcend the psyche, while at the same time experiencing the psyche more clearly than ever. To further compound the confusion, there are two major definitions of ego death, and multiple avenues for achieving it.

Fear not - we will unravel all these mysteries and complexities. But first, we need to take a step back and define the ego.

WHAT IS THE EGO?

Sigmund Freud

The word “ego” comes from the Latin word for “I”, and was brought into modern usage by Sigmund Freud. Freud viewed the ego as the part of the self that mediates between the animalistic id and the moralistic superego. The ego takes the appetites of the id and transforms them so as to be acceptable to the superego. It then navigates the world to feed these appetites.

Carl Jung took Freud’s work and adapted it to his own theories. In Jung’s model, the self is made up of the ego, the shadow, and the persona. The ego is the part of ourselves we’re aware of—the thoughts, emotions, and memories available to our conscious mind. The shadow is the part of ourselves we’re not aware of—the “shadow” cast by the light of consciousness. The persona is what we present to the outside world—our “mask”. When the ego leaves parts of the self hidden and unaddressed, those parts migrate to the shadow.

Eastern philosophies like Buddhism have their own understanding of the ego. They tend to view the ego as a set of patterns inherited from the past, be it in this life or previous ones. Our conditioned thoughts, emotions, and behaviours make up the ego.

All three of these definitions of the ego—as the part that mediates between different areas of the mind, as the conscious segment of a larger complex, and as a set of conditioned responses from the past—will come into play as we delve into the topic of ego death.

WHAT IS EGO DEATH?

WHAT IS EGO DEATH?

Ego death is triggered by a profound disruption in the flow of normal consciousness, either by psychedelics or meditation. Ego death is the experience of “separating” from the ego and seeing the psyche as though from a distance; in reality, the part that’s observing is another part of the psyche, but one freed from the constraints and emotional baggage of day-to-day existence.

As Buddhist teachings emphasise, the ego is tangled up in attachments, desires, and fears, which prevent it from achieving true self-awareness. For example, John might be attached to the idea of himself as a good boyfriend, and may try bolstering this self-concept by encouraging others to see him that way. When he feels irritated or resentful at his girlfriend, he’ll smile and act nice instead of expressing his dark feelings. John’s attachment to a certain story forces him to hide parts of himself that don’t align with it deep in his shadow. And so his shadow grows, and John’s psyche grows more brittle.

When an experience of ego death occurs, a part of the self separates from the ego, gaining the ability to view the psyche from a more objective distance. If normal life is like walking along a forest path, ego death is like being yanked into the air by a helicopter. From the perspective of ego death, the self is illuminated in all its truth and complexity. If John were to experience ego death, he would travel to a place “outside” of his attachments. He would be unable to deny his true feelings, and be forced to confront the places where reality is at odds with his story. After an experience of ego death, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to return to ego attachments of the past.

The experience of ego death is different for those who have already resolved many of their ego attachments. Say John undergoes ego death, resolves many of his complexes, and then undergoes ego death again—what would happen?

He may look up from the forest below towards the horizon. Many who experience ego death don’t do so to resolve their psychological issues, but to open space within themselves to experience the divine.

THE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF EGO DEATH

THE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF EGO DEATH

Ego death can be a mixed bag. Many describe it as a beautiful and positive experience, one of the best of their lives; others find it painful and terrifying. Ego death is arguably not for everyone, or if it is, it’s not for everyone at all stages of their lives.

the negative aspects of ego death:

  • Ego death can force premature insight. Carl Jung said “Beware of unearned wisdom”. Ego death can force the mind to see parts of itself it’s not ready to face.

  • Ego death can be terrifying.

  • Ego death can be painful. It forces the mind to confront its ugliest aspects.

  • Ego death can be confusing. It can reveal truths so far advanced that the conscious mind is unable to parse them.

  • Ego death is chaotic and unpredictable. You never know when you’re going to reach universal truth, work through past trauma, or face your own dark side. Ego death is a wildcard, which expels you from the world of the stable and predictable.

  • For some, ego death can cause a total mental breakdown.

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If ego death includes all these downsides, then why do people even bother? Fortunately, the positives are at least as significant as the negatives.

the positive effects of ego death:

  • Hiding from the truth diminishes. Facing the truth, no matter how painful it may be, elevates and expands. Ego death acquaints you with the truth, opening up the possibility of a better life.

  • Ego death is an act of courage. Check out that list of negative effects—who wants to risk any of that? Someone brave enough to face the truth, that’s who. Willingly confronting the unknown requires tremendous courage. And when we practice courage, we expand into the world.

  • Ego death brings us to the extremes of emotion, be they sadness, joy, guilt, or excitement. Whatever the orientation of the experience, the basic nature of ego death is one of life-affirming wholeness and intensity. Ego loss is the opposite of depression, and can be a beautiful, euphoric experience.

  • Ego death can make you a better person. If you process and integrate the lessons from the experience, you can fix many of the blind spots and weak spots in your behaviour.

  • Ego death can remind you of feelings you once had but forgot, and can introduce feelings you’ve never before known. Ego death expands you as a person, both in the direction of the past and the future.

THE BUDDHIST VIEW OF EGO DEATH

THE BUDDHIST VIEW OF EGO DEATH

There are various definitions of ego death, each corresponding to a different method for attaining it. Western psychedelic culture tends to define ego death as a discrete experience, while Eastern meditative practices tend to view it as a lifelong (or multi-life) journey, which culminates in the permanent destruction of the ego.

The end goal of Buddhism is personal enlightenment or “Nirvana”. This is a form of ego death where life continues, but not from within the ego. Rather, the ego is seen as a tool to be used consciously and wilfully as necessary. Buddhists identify seven factors as essential on the road to enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation, energy/determination, effort/joy/rapture, relaxation/tranquillity, clear awareness, and equanimity.

Many Buddhists pursue meditation as a lifelong practice. Through this, they develop the ability to experience ego death. They may even learn to live within this state.

PSYCHEDELICS AND EGO DEATH

PSYCHEDELICS AND EGO DEATH

Pursuing ego death through meditation can take many years. There are advantages to this; the slow, gradual nature of this path offsets the risk of Jung’s “unearned wisdom”. If you spend years preparing for ego death through meditation, you’ve earned it.

That being said, some of us don’t have years to spend meditating. A faster, albeit riskier alternative is psychedelics.

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Psychedelics are substances that cause disruptions in the flow of normal consciousness, colloquially called “trips”. If the trip is strong enough, it can cause ego death. In general, you’ll need a high dose to catalyse ego death.

Psychedelics alter the normal neural patterns of the brain, causing usually disconnected areas to “speak” and well-worn superhighways to go dark. Neurologists have identified the “Default Mode Network” in the brain, which is active in normal waking state. Psychedelics cause this network to dim, and more arcane brain regions to light up.

There are several different kinds of psychedelics, and each can produce a unique “flavour” of ego death. People’s experiences on these substances vary widely, but we’ll sketch the distinctions in broad strokes to give you a general idea of what to expect. This list is not exhaustive, as there are other psychedelic substances capable of inducing ego death.

PSILOCYBIN

Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. To produce ego death, dried mushrooms should be taken in doses of at least five grams. There’s no way to fatally overdose on psilocybin—the worst that can happen is a stomach ache or nausea. To avoid this, you may want to turn your mushrooms into mushroom chocolate, as this can help settle the stomach.

With psilocybin, the keyword is love. Mushrooms are a safe substance to start with, as they generally restrict themselves to truths you’re ready for, and tend towards positive emotional effects. They’re a good beginner’s path to ego death, though a new user would be wise to experiment with much smaller doses first.

LSD

To undergo ego death, users will need to take multiple LSD tickets (a.k.a acid). This should only be attempted by the experienced; LSD is more dangerous than shrooms or DMT, and can more easily cause adverse psychological effects. A high dose of acid can be compared to a hurricane blasting through your house; it’ll clear out all the cobwebs, but could also tear down the door, or if it’s built on shaky foundations, the house itself. LSD can expose any truth, no matter how dark or how unprepared you might be for it. That being said, by exposing yourself to greater risk, you may also open yourself up to greater heights.

It’s generally wise to experiment with mushrooms before trying acid. When you do try acid, start with small doses before going in for ego death.

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DMT

To experience ego death with DMT, the user needs to have a “breakthrough” experience. This can be hard for some minds to manage. Those who do breakthrough describe it as finding a tunnel in reality, travelling through it, and exiting on the other side. Once there, the truth reveals itself. Sounds bizarre? It does indeed. But it’s how DMT users consistently experience ego death.

AYAHUASCA

Ayahuasca is an Amazonian brew made from a DMT-containing plant and another plant containing a harmine group. These two chemical families come together to produce one of the most powerful psychedelic effects known to humanity. Some experience the presence of a god/goddess who guides them on their journey. Most strong ayahuasca trips include some form of ego death. The experience is more intense than shrooms or acid, but is likely to be “softer” on the psyche than acid.

SALVIA DIVINORUM

Salvia is unique among psychedelics. It’s in a different chemical group than other popular varieties, and its effects are distinct. A breakthrough dose of salvia makes the user feel transported into a different world where they might experience visions, forget their entire former life, and even forget that they’re human. Few psychedelic experiences can produce the level of ego loss possible on salvia. Salvia has a reputation for being less pleasant than other psychedelics—users used to the “warm glow” of psilocybin may feel anxious and disoriented on salvia. That being said, a subset of users find the experience of salvia consistently enjoyable.

With psychedelics, caution is the rule—start with small doses, even if it means you may not experience ego loss the first time out. Once you’re used to a substance and its effect, you’ll be more prepared to go all out and have your ego shattered.

Arielle

Written by: Arielle
Arielle is based out of Toronto, Canada and loves topics relating to the brain. When not writing she enjoys making art, learning about bioremediation, and trying to prevent the robot apocalypse.

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