#5 Ego and ego death
The ultimate guide to your ego and psychedelic-induced ego death. Probably.
|May 7, 2020||9||6|
I don’t remember when it hit me that I was dying. I couldn’t sit up, or even lift my head. A being was burying me under ground, and I couldn’t do anything to fight it. It felt horrible, like the worst kind of torture imaginable. I looked to my left, where a turbulent stream was separating me from my mother. I begged for help, but she kept staring at me blankly. The being buried me deeper, again and again, until I was so far underground that my body was completely suffocated by the weight of the soil. I felt like I was experiencing despair and helplessness in their purest, most lethal form, as the only person around, my mother, was watching it all unfold, so cruelly impassive.
The feelings kept getting worse, as the visuals changed and I found myself in complete darkness. Blue vein-like lights started appearing and formed an enormous being that was looking down on me with disgust, laughing at me and pretending to wank in my face. The humiliation was unbearable, and I felt like I was dying all over again.
My chest was heavy and burning with what felt like a big tumour that was keeping me from breathing. Before I could understand what it was, a huge bird-like creature swept down over my body, scooped the big red oval tumour out of me, and flew off with it. I was dying again, my body turning into ash, why a voice inside my head asked “Was that my ego? Did that bird take my soul?”.
What I describe above was my first experience of ego death, on what is conventionally seen as a low dose of 15mg of psilocybin. It may sound brutal (and it was), but what followed was the beautiful mystical experience I described in the previous edition, and a lasting feeling of equanimity regarding some unresolved childhood trauma that, in many ways, had defined me for most of my life.
Ego death is one of the most powerful experiences you can have on psychedelics (or meditation, although it takes longer to get there). If you asked Stan Grof, he’d tell you the main point of the psychedelic experience is to “create optimal conditions for the subject to experience ego death and the subsequent transcendence into the so-called psychedelic peak experience.”
But ego and ego death are often misunderstood, and I’ve certainly seen folks so keen to “kill” their egos without even knowing what they want dead, and how to put themselves back together after that. So, before we go into what ego death feels like and why you’d look for such an experience, let’s first acquaint ourselves better with our favourite enemy, the ego.
As long as we think of the ego as an enemy, something to be killed or destroyed, rather than a necessary part of ourselves, we’re probably going to struggle with it.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably caught yourself saying ego when you actually meant megalomania or vanity. But the truth is that ego is a very complex concept, and it often gets a bad rap.
Eckhard Tolle reminds us that ego is an evolution of consciousness, linked to our use of language for conceptual thinking. The richness of our culture is due to our ability to speak and write - but it has come at a price, which points to the polarity of the universe we discussed in the previous newsletter. By developing culture, we’ve lost our rootedness in being, or nature, and we started to have a relationship with ourselves. This is the birth of problems, as Jung highlighted in his essay The Stages of Life. As children, we existed at the whim of our instincts, and we had no problems. Then, we developed a sense of knowing, by recognising things and people and the context they manifest in. This is when our identification with our bodies, clothes and material things developed, as we recognised toys as ours and we threw tantrums when they were taken away. As our consciousness has evolved, so have our problems - but that’s not to say that the ego is at fault for them.
Ego is *just* an abstract function of your psyche
In my quest to better understand the ego I turned to psychology and psychoanalysis, and found the theories of Freud and Carl Jung (plus some juicy gossip about their relationship to remind me that they were also fallible humans).
The ego was first popularised by Freud as part of his theory of the human psyche, representing the awareness of one’s identity and existence, along with the id (a disorganised part responsible for our instinctual desires, like the libido) and the super-ego (the critical, moralising part that works in contradiction with the id). In describing the function of the ego, Freud said:
“The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that, normally, control over the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus, in its relation to the id, [the ego] is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength, while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often, a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide [the horse] where it wants to go; so, in the same way, the ego is in the habit of transforming the id's will into action, as if it were its own.”
But Carl Jung, who was open to mysticism and the idea that we were are more than repressed sexual deviants, developed a more sophisticated model of the self, which is still used today in psychedelic therapy.
(copyright goes to this guy, who also made this into a poster)
According to Jung, the ego is the center of your consciousness and identity: “a complex of ideas which constitutes the center of one’s field of consciousness and appears to possess a high degree of continuity and identity”. He also refers to the ego as “the subject of consciousness”, as “there can be no consciousness when there is no one to say: I am conscious”.
No wonder we’re so tempted to identify with it, when it speaks in the first person and makes such a compelling case for who we are, tricking us into identifying with aspects that are really not us. It tells us that we are nothing but a combination of our sense of style, our carefully curated Spotify playlists, our taste in movies, our friends or the type of holidays we take (Oh-my-god, I’m a total city girl).
“Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. In this respect the psyche behaves like the body, of whose physiological and anatomical structure the average person knows very little too.” - Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self
This, of course, is not to say that the ego is evil. The ego is not a thing. It’s a concept, an abstraction, the same way an hour or a mile are nothing but social conventions we use for the purpose of discussion - so that we understand ourselves better. Integrating our ego, as well as the other aspects of the psyche (shadow, anima/animus and persona) is the lifelong process of individuation, our journey to becoming whole and realising the self. Our purpose is not to kill the ego, but much like Freud was saying above, to learn to tame the rowdy horse.
If the ego has an address, it’s your DMN
Jung also believed that consciousness is selective, and the ego is the part of the self that selects the most relevant information from the environment and chooses a direction to take based on it, while the rest of the information sinks into the unconscious.
This reminds me of the reducing valve that Huxley talked about, when he said that “in order to make biological survival possible, the vast amounts of incoming sensory data must be quickly and efficiently categorised and funnelled through a reducing valve.” This is what neuroscientists found in the Default Mode Network in the brain, the orchestrator of the self we discussed in the second edition of the newsletter.
Some papers point to the ego being a construct of the salience network and the DMN: one helping you discern the bodily states triggered by the world and the context they appear in, and the other to narrate your experience based on your memories and imagination, and to understand others (theory of mind).
Robin Carhart-Harris believes that the DMN develops with age, starting around the age of five. It’s when our sense of I-ness starts to develop, as separate from the world, beginning to create what neuroscientists call the “self-model”: a series of predictions about ourselves, built over a lifetime of experience.
The real psychic birth, Jung wrote in The Stages of Life, happens in adolescence, which he called “the unbearable age” (and we can all agree). That’s when our egos assert themselves “without stint or moderation”, determined to prove their separation from the parents.
Over time our brain connections become more rigid, along with our self-model, as we lose neuroplasticity. So if we’ve been depressed or anxious, this will only get reinforced because the lens (the self-model) we see the world through is one of sadness or fear. Because our brains are such brilliant predicting machines, we continue to see ourselves and the world in the same way, unaware that there even is a lens tinting our view.
Thoughts and the story of you
"Thoughts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and thoughts go out of our minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Over Soul)
The issue with the DMN is that, when left to its own devices, it produces a constant stream of thoughts. This is the restless monkey mind that Buddhists talk about, or what Tim Urban talked about in his article on procrastination. It’s the internal chatter we’re all so familiar with, whether it’s ruminating about a mistake we made years ago or worrying about the future. If we don’t pay attention to it through practices like meditation, this constant stream of thoughts becomes the story we tell ourselves about ourselves - and we believe every damn word of it.
Eckhart Tolle defined ego as identification with your thoughts, and said “the greatest unhappiness doesn’t come from circumstances, but from the unhappy narrative in one’s mind”. We tell ourselves a story about who we are based on our experiences and how others relate to us. And because we identify with it, and believe it to be fixed, this, in turn, shapes the way we see and behave in the world - which only reinforces our story. It becomes our self-model without us even realising it.
In creating these stories, the ego is constantly looking for reassurance that it exists, and it does this through comparisons to others. What it’s trying to find is superiority - how you’re funnier, better dressed, more popular, more intelligent than most.
But what happens when you can’t be better than others? The ego will still try to make you feel superior by taking on a victim identity, which is just as powerful. While you may not feel smarter, funnier, more attractive than others, your ego will make you feel morally superior, without you being aware of this. As Duncan Trussel says in a link I’ve included at the bottom, the ego loves a pity party, and when your victimhood becomes a part of your identity - Look at me, I just got broken up with :( - it’s just as bad as thinking you’re the bee’s knees.
Sometimes your ego needs to die a little in order to be healthy again
To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.” - Eckhart Tolle
There comes a point in all our lives when unhappiness catches up with us. That pesky feeling of gosh I hope there’s more to life than this - good news, there is! And in order to improve our lives, sometimes radical transformations need to happen through moments of clarity when we can see ourselves for what we truly are. These moments of fundamental shift in personality have been labelled as ego death by Buddhists, or psychic death by Carl Jung, implying a return to the natural self - the one that lives in unity, interconnectedness and love (like we talked about in the previous edition).
According to Stan Grof, a symbolic confrontation with death is often a vital part of spiritual growth - an old way of living has to die. In the book The Pyschedelic Experience by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), they describe ego death as:
“... one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, and to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.”
If the ego is our faulty operating system for this world, then ego death can be the much needed hard-reset that allows us to reorganise and function better.
So you don’t want to kill your ego. You just want a better relationship with it.
Psychedelics and ego death
“It appears that when activity in the DMN falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away” - Michael Pollan
Ego dissolution experiences often occur in the context of mystical states in which the ordinary sense of self is replaced by a sense of union with an ultimate reality underlying all of manifest existence—the famous ‘cosmic consciousness’ experience.
Jung said psychedelics cause “a lowering of the threshold of consciousness”, which we can see as a lowering of activity in the Default Mode Network we discussed in #2. This allows for new connections to be made in the brain, which helps us see things differently.
Ego death is a process of conscious suffering, a death of the “false self” so that the true self can emerge.
By having your ego dissolved and then put together, you become aware of the models that create this sense of “you” and the world. This is reflected in Stan Grof’s description of psychedelic-induced ego-death: “an experience of destruction of everything that the person is, possesses, or is attached to. Its essential characteristics are a total annihilation on all imaginable levels… Subjects face agonising tension increasing to fantastic proportions and develop a conviction that they will explode and the entire world will be destroyed”.
Of course, none of that will actually happen. But when threatened with dissolution, the ego will do anything to convince you that if you kill it, it’ll take you down with it. This is resistance, and people often encounter it on psychedelics when faced with something the ego doesn’t want them to see because it would threatened the self-model.
Jungian psychiatrist Ronald Sandison explains these defences of the ego to unconscious material as “probably a desire to avoid the unconscious, a wish to be made well from outside which is contrary to the need for understanding and accepting the unconscious which LSD or analysis demands”.
But the way you resist the dissolution can be very valuable, and if you are in therapy, it can help you understand your defences in day-to-day life. Jungian analyst Margot Cutner suggests that the form and intensity of LSD-induced defences reveal something about a person’s psychopathology: “In fighting the drug, defence mechanisms, which play a part in the patient’s make-up anyway, seem usually to become reinforced and thus made more clearly distinguishable for the analyst”.
Challenges and benefits of ego death
Although ego death is one of the most beneficial, healing events, very rarely it can seem disastrous, and it can be understood as a calling to kill oneself. But it is not you who wants to die, but a part of yourself that doesn’t serve you anymore.
When I came out of the experience I described at the beginning of this text, I was convinced that the universe had given me permission to kill myself. But with guidance I understood that, instead, the universe was asking for a part of me to die: the one identifying with my childhood trauma, which I was wearing as a badge of honour that allowed me to remain a powerless victim of events occurring in my life. I only realised this in the days and weeks following the experience, when I noticed that previously traumatic memories from my childhood weren’t affecting me anymore. That part was finally gone, along with my desire to die.
How you respond to ego death depends so much on your circumstances, and how well prepared you are. For example, ego death might be the first time you experience feelings or memories you’ve been repressing for years. If these experiences have been extremely traumatic, or you’re not used to sitting with difficult feelings, you will probably face a lot of fear and pain. However, with the support of a guide, you will come out stronger, and these issues will likely be resolved for good once they’ve been experienced.
The dissolution of your ego might also show you your own behaviours for the first time in an objective way. You may feel shame and disappointment - but with proper guidance you’ll be able to move past these feelings constructively and find the motivation to change.
Without your familiar ego around, you might experience yourself so differently that you won’t recognise yourself. Even though this new image of you is of a free being, unburdened by anxiety, depression or other issues you were familiar with, you might feel terrified of this unknown aspect. Or you may dissolve into the ecstasy of the moment and feel the happiest you’ve ever been.
After the experience, your beliefs about yourself and the world might change - and if your environment doesn’t support this growth, you may struggle in between your old self and the new you that wants to come out. My biggest mystical experience was an enormous catalyst for change, and one of the reasons you’re reading this today. But it also made it almost impossible for me to remain in advertising, to soothe myself with food or alcohol, or to continue living as an atheist. It changed my life in ways that were profound and challenging, as I had to learn new ways to be.
But all of these experiences can be attenuated by 1 - using a guide to take the psychedelic therapeutically, and 2 - working with a psychedelic integration coach (hello, that’s gonna be me soon!) afterward to make sense of it all.
Reconstructing the ego
Ego death is probably not something you want to face alone, especially if you’ve never taken psychedelics before. A trusted guide will recognise what you are going through and, when faced with the dissolution of your ego, can support the function of the ego for you to keep you grounded and reassure you by holding your hand.
In Confrontations with the Unconscious, Jungian psychologist and psychedelic researcher Scot J. Hill proposes that the therapist could attempt to enter the patient’s experience with questions like “what do you see?”, “what are you feeling?”, “who are you screaming at?”. If the patient is reliving a horrible trauma, this way they will know that this time they are not alone in hell - and just this could be so very healing.
A therapist or guide will also tell you that, coming out of the experience, your immediate task is to slowly rebuild your ego. This requires a lot of grounding, and simple routines are so useful in establishing a bit of normalcy again. If the experience left you with big questions regarding who you are, making your bed every morning and eating at the same time can do wonders.
The value of reconstructing is not to return to where you were before, but slowly integrate the insights into your life so that you can get closer to how you experienced yourself after ego death: a bit freer from social conditioning, kinder, more loving, more creative, and more connected to everything in the world. And better pals with the rowdy horse that is your ego.
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” - Julian Barnes
Dept. of further investigation
This beautiful documentary about how the Harvard professor Richard Alpert became the beloved spiritual leader Ram Dass: Becoming Nobody (you can get a free 7-day trial on the platform to watch it)
Please watch Midnight Gospel on Netflix
If you liked this post, please feed my ego by liking it, leaving a comment and sharing it with others who might enjoy it. Or support me on Patreon.
And if you’ve had ego death experiences, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below or by replying to this email.
See you next time,