An ego death experience is generally scary on the way in, and relieving on the way out. It is a profound glimpse behind the curtain of your existence, and one that is likely to throw you a curveball or two while you’re trying to make sense of the experience.
Often derided as “instant mysticism” by people who walk more gradual spiritual paths, we might expect a psychedelic ego death experience to lead people to greater religious sensibilities, away from atheism and away from the reigning scientific materialist paradigm. Or we might expect experiencers to become sages that start new religious movements, based on their discoveries.
But the ego death experience can make you feel all kinds of things in its wake. It can make you enthusiastic about changing your life, to reflect more of the reality you have discovered. It can make you feel disoriented, where you don’t exactly know which way is up, anymore. This disorientation can deepen into disenchantment, disengagement or dissociation. And experiencing ego death can also make your ego stronger.
Let’s have a brief look at what can go wrong for people in the aftermath of an ego death experience. These states are described in more detail in the book Life After Ego Death.
Disorientation after Ego Death
An ego death experience can lead to quite a lot of disorientation. For one thing, it has now become obvious to you that your “normal” way of perceiving life and its meaning is not the only way, or even the one that is conducive to optimal happiness in your life. How should you reconcile these two view points? Can they even be reconciled? Are they the only possible view points, or are there yet others that should be taken into account?
As perception and meaning are the core on which everything else is built, this can be quite destabilizing. Now, nothing is clear anymore. Many of the little life decisions that you never thought twice about are now elevated to existential anxiety status. At a certain stage, it becomes hard for you to understand how others go about their daily lives, or how you yourself did, only recently.
There is an accompanying sense of fragility, and a sense of being very much alone with this, that can make you question whether this ego death experience was so great, after all.
Disenchantment after Ego Death
As disorientation is left unresolved, you can get disenchanted with your old life. Increasingly unable to fit yourself in the molds of polite society, and increasingly isolated, you can begin to become enamored of philosophies that allow you to tear yourself away further and further.
You have experienced directly the love of God, and realize on a fundamental level that there is nothing really to strive for. If there is nothing to attain in the grand scheme of things, why should you keep running in the same hamster wheel with the rest of the unenlightened people?
It starts to make eminent sense to disengage from your old life. Theories that tell you that you’re already enlightened, and that you just have to realize it, or that you’re stuck in a simulation, only make this easier. The trouble with this is that you are using them to stop engaging, instead of learning more about this deeper dimension of existence you have experienced. If the question of your meaning in life is not addressed soon, there is a risk that you stop developing, resulting in stasis that can last for years.
Dissociation after Ego Death
For some people, the energetic emanations from the ego death experience are so unsettling that they feel increasingly unsafe in their own skin. Similar things can happen after engaging in powerful energetic yoga practices, such as laya yoga, or kundalini yoga.
Strong bodily or energetic phenomena can arise without warning, often when you are sleeping, or otherwise at rest. It can seem like you are pulled into another ego death experience, and it generally feels like something that is out of your control. Needless to say, these experiences can be profoundly scary, and can cause you to feel quite ungrounded for a while.
Although these experiences generally pass with time, if they are given plenty of space to occur, it’s very likely that you are not aware of this, making the fear much worse. A common defense mechanism is to try to avoid such discomfort by dissociation. You might have the sense of shutting down, or shutting off, at random moments during your day, which doesn’t help, to put it mildly.
What you really need to do here is work on your grounding, on being totally present for as much of your experience as you can. It may be that you require help with this, and finding loving friends, family, or professionals who can support you with this can be crucial.
Ego Inflation after Ego Death
And, for some people, having experienced ego death results in a stronger ego. We can discern two types, a normal ego inflation, and a pathological one. Let’s start with the normal one.
You can feel rather privileged to have been shown something that has been hidden for most of your life, and would likely still be hidden if it weren’t for your ego death experience. That may also mean that other people have no idea about this, which puts you in an excellent position to play the role of prophet, guide, or guru. The fact that this extraordinary truth has been revealed to you, and not others, surely must mean that you are somehow special, no? You may create a whole story about how things really are, and how you have some central role to play in spreading awareness about this, which can result in a slightly blimped up ego.
As long as you haven’t burned any significant bridges, haven’t gotten into serious debt, and haven’t made yourself into the second coming, things are probably still manageable. The spectrum of ego inflation ventures into pathological territory fairly quick, though. Its end point is at a condition called solipsism, where you genuinely believe that you are the only one who is real. Other people – friends, debt collectors, etc. – are just a conjuring trick of your mind, and you can make them go away with a mere thought. Until it finally dawns on you that this is not quite how things work, and you have created rather a difficult reality for yourself.
How to Cope with the Negative Consequences of an Ego Death Experience
All of the aforementioned problems have one thing in common. They rely to a certain extent on the power of ego to make sense of, avoid, or strengthen whatever has been shown in your ego death experience.
Now, the ego has an important job. It mediates between the demands of the organism on whose behalf it operates, and the demands of the environment. It is responsible for communicating what is deemed important to the organism, and for moving towards pleasure and away from pain.
We have been working at molding, equipping, sanding, beautifying our egos for decades, to the point where we are utterly identified with our creation. We become it, and it becomes us. So it’s no surprise that the ego is tapped to make sense etc. of such a momentous event as the ego death experience.
But even though it’s the go-to method of sense making, it’s not actually what works best for this situation. In essence, we need to adopt the same attitude we needed when we were undergoing the ego death experience: trust and let go. We need to be O.K. with whatever is being shown us, and trust that we will eventually emerge a better, more integrated person.
This is the main message of the Life After Ego Death book, which goes into much practical detail on how exactly you might go about doing this.