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What is Ego Death?

What do we mean when we use the term Ego Death? What is it that dies? Is this a good thing? What happens during an ego death experience? And what happens afterward?

Since you are browsing a website called Life After Ego Death, I am assuming that you have at least some idea what ego death might be. And it is a pretty descriptive term, indicating the definitive passing of something termed “ego,” or “the ego.” Now, both of these terms—ego and death—can be, and have been, interpreted quite widely. Let’s start by looking a little closer at the term, beginning with the death part. Then we’ll investigate what is meant by ego, and finally, we’ll take a look at the ego death experience itself, and what happens afterward.

About Death in an Ego Death Experience

Of course, in what we are describing here, the ego does not actually die. It merely dissolves for a short while, and then reconstitutes itself. Ego death then is a misnomer, but a very catchy one, so I will keep using it here. However, the term ego dissolution may be more accurate, and is also widely used. Or you might come up with crazy terms like “ego sleep,” “ego death and rebirth,” “radical self reappraisal,” “the phoenix of the ego,” etc.

Nevertheless, as with the competition between video tape standards—betamax vs VHS—it isn’t always the optimal solution that is adopted, but rather the one which has the most appeal, the most backing, or the most history behind it. And so we are stuck with ego death. Not that it’s much of a drag—for all its inaccuracy, the term ego death does evoke something quite special.

In the run up to ego death, it really feels as if you’re dying.

So what is it that dies, but doesn’t really die? What is this ego we keep referring to on this website, as well as in the psychedelic vernacular? Sure enough, it has had some different interpretations over the years. 

What is the Ego in an Ego Death Experience?

Most people might know the term as a part of words like egoism, or egocentrism, referring to a (typically undesirable) sense of self-importance that negatively impacts the experiences of others. You might say: “Look at the ego on that person!” In this sense, the ego refers to something a person has (too much of), in relation to their social environment. It is a concept that exists only in the relational sphere. Take away that context, and the concept becomes meaningless.

This sense of the word ego can get jumbled together with personality disorders such as narcissism and borderline—because one of the features of those disorders is that someone habitually puts their own self-interest before the needs of others—but interestingly not with avoidant personality types, which is strange as there seems to be a lot of ego present for those people, as well. The difference would be that the narcissist and/or borderliner would be more likely to display aggressive or inconsiderate behavior, whereas the avoider would just make themselves invisible. In a sense, this conception of ego has nothing to do with any objective or actual presence of ego, but more with certain outward manifestations that are considered unwanted, or maladjusted. It’s about observable behavior, and not about the actual presence or absence of ego. This, then, is not the ego we are talking about, when we are discussing ego death experiences.

Then there is the Freudian approach, where two forces pull on the individual with the ego being the decider between them, balancing the maximalization of pleasure with the perceived demands of one’s social environment. In this intrapsychic approach, that has little to do with one’s actual social sphere but happens internal to the person, the term ego describes something more like “the I,” or the “sense of self.” As for the two forces it balances, the id is responsible for the person’s baser desires and drives, whereas the superego is the dictatorial force that seeks—through shame and guilt—to control the person’s social persona and self-image, by mirroring society’s cultural rules and taboos. In Freud’s theoretical exposition, the ego is the force of reason that mediates between the two, charting a middle way between both these inner despots. A third dimension the ego has to manage is the external world, with its perceived demands and judgments. To achieve all this, the ego employs a number of mechanisms that include reason, ego defences, judgment, perception, memory, etc. In the process, it acts as the executive that decides what is real, and what is not. 

From this position, it is not a big step to the idea that the ego in effect co-creates the world you experience, taking as ingredients input from the id, superego, and the external world. Now, we are getting perilously close to mystical territory, as it implies that perhaps our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us aren’t objectively true. Perhaps we are, as British neuroscientist Anil Seth tells us, hallucinating our reality. And once we have decided that perceptions aren’t objectively true, that opens the door to the idea that perhaps perception itself is provisional. That perhaps we are not really seeing a tree, at all. Not only is the tree a construction of our perceptual faculties, those very faculties themselves might not have independent existence. It is possible that your perceptual faculties are dependent upon causes and conditions that may be known, and seen through, revealing some deeper underlying truth. Your whole body in fact might be part of the illusion, and that goes for all of perception, all of experience.

A third perspective on the ego supports this view. In Buddhist meditative practice, and indeed in Buddhist theory as well, the self is ultimately revealed to be “empty,” or without inherent existence. This insight, achieved through contemplative practice, is one of the three “marks of existence,” which lead to the unbinding of experience, or the realization of Nirvana. As Buddhism as a practical theory is concerned solely with the ending of suffering, and Nirvana is posited as an end to suffering, it does not comment on the ontological status of such realizations. In other words, Buddhism does not comment on whether something is ultimately “true” or not. On the other hand, several of the more mystical strands of Buddhism—and indeed of other religions as well—have reported that it is possible to drill down to the point where all dualities collapse into a single, pervasive, non-dual experience. In Hindu Advaita Vedanta terminology, this is referred to as sat-chit-ananda, or being-consciousness-bliss, implying that this isn’t a terrible experience to have.

To sum up, we can best understand the ego as the mental effort that goes into perceiving, stabilizing, and predicting ourselves and the world, in order to be able to optimally react to opportunities and threats. It’s a collection of processes which confer definite evolutionary advantages, and to which “the truth of reality” is perhaps tangential. When it comes to survival, we do not care for nuance.

In other words, the ego is like a political movement, or a contemporary media outlet: a process we absolutely rely upon, even though it hides and distorts reality as it is, in order to present us with clear and actionable information. We rely upon it so much that we hardly ever notice its smooth and quiet presence.

So What is an Ego Death Experience?

What we generally refer to as ego death in its complete form, is the dissolution of apparently separated, localized, and temporal experience. Any experience is experienced by an experiencer, implying a sense of separation between the experiencer and whatever is experienced. In what is paradoxically termed an ego death experience, all sense of such separation has melted away, and so the term “experience” does no longer quite fit. Even something as uncontroversial as existence is now called into question, because, in this ultimate state of ego death, there is no scope for it. Ordinary concepts such as time and space have broken down, with everything happening all at once, all in the same placeless place. There is a sense of immediacy, infinity, and eternity. There is no longer a “you” experiencing a “world.” You both are and aren’t everything. For some people, it may seem that there is just nothing, and it couldn’t be otherwise.

In this experience—I am going to insist on using paradoxical language—there is a sense of being fully known, and fully accepted at the same time. Whereas, in the run up to the ego death experience, there usually is a lot of fear, owing to the rapid undressing of the ego—you might even call it ego rape—such discomfort is now completely soothed, as you meld with that which knows you more intimately than you could ever know yourself. There is often the sense that some ultimate truth is finally revealed, throwing your life into disarray, upon re-entry. 

There is a complete return to your “source,” which is also frequently talked about in near death experiences, where there is nothing but love, bliss, and lightness. In fact, the similarities with near death experiences are all over the place. There may be insights into the past and the future, meeting of acquaintances who have died, telepathic experiences, or the high speed download of cosmic information. Generally, there is the sense that you have come home, and are free to experience deep rest. 

When ego death experiences don’t go all the way, the ego still loosens up enough to make you experience quite extraordinary things, such as alien realms, encounters with entities, and supernatural knowledge you didn’t imagine possible. I suspect that shamans do their magical work inside, and in cooperation with, these realms, and that it is possible, over time, for a person to get better acquainted with the particular entities and environments they encounter. To learn the rules and specifics that are conducive to success in these realms.

From a non-dual perspective, however, these experiences are just as illusory as the “hallucinations” of our normal waking consciousness. Or, all experiences convey primarily the level of insight with which they are experienced. If you experience the world as a struggle between good and evil, chances are that such struggles are a theme for you in your overall psychological make-up. 

In a psychedelic ego death experience, the processes of ego are forcibly dialed down from their usual crescendoed pitch. As these processes are supported and sustained by some deep-seated belief that they are indispensable to our survival, we experience profound terror, and feel as if we are really dying.

After Ego Death—The Inverse Journey Back into Experience

Returning from an ego death experience involves the processes that make up your ego regaining their usual strength, which is often accompanied by a strong feeling of relief. Things start once more to make sense, your surroundings become more recognizable, and even thinking starts up again. Many people report feeling profoundly thankful that there is something, rather than nothing. Often, any experience—any touch, sound, sight, taste, or smell—is interpreted as deeply blissful. Even bodily pain can feel like the most exquisite thing. Absolutely any experience confirms that, the mortal fear of ego death notwithstanding, you are in fact still alive, still here to have the experiences that are associated with life as a human being.

The re-entry phase can be very different for different people, and it may also vary at different times in your life, if you are (un-)fortunate enough to experience ego death multiple times in your life. Some people retain a glorious afterglow for weeks or even months, while others experience some type of mourning. Most people feel spurred to make immediate, sometimes radical, changes in their lives, to reflect their new insights and outlooks, while others are content to bask in the afterglow and simply change their approach to the ingredients in their lives, for instance by being less anxious or stressed about their lives, or more generous with their time, praise, and attention. Some people don’t remember much about their experience at all, while others are able to recount theirs in graphic detail. Some report that they retain a connection to the more transpersonal aspects of their experience—being able to talk to deceased people, for instance—which usually fades, the further the experience recedes in time. 

And some people just aren’t the same, afterward. They may experience difficulties fully engaging with their lives, for whatever reason. They may sever relationships, quit jobs or studies, become involved with some type of spiritual community, or spiritual doctrine. They may start believing in conspiracy theories, and view themselves as soldiers in some guerrilla war, aiming to wake other people up to their new-found beliefs. And some people experience frightening and destabilizing flashbacks, reactivations, or a general lack of grounding, that wasn’t there before they had the experience. Some might suffer so much from these symptoms, that they (or their environments) feel like they need more help than is immediately available. They may end up in psychiatric care, or drifting from spiritual community to spiritual community, with nobody really able to help them. 

Life After Ego Death, the book, was written for people who struggle with the aftermath of their ego death experience, and for those that care for them. The overall aim of the book is to honor and build on the ego death experience they had—and to go right back to the experience of being loved, or the insight that the ego is in some way not essential to being human—allowing that experience to begin to properly inform the rest of their lives. It may be the case that some form of psychedelic grounding needs to happen, before this is possible, and the book describes several ways of bringing such grounding about. Ultimately, the book points to the possibility of sagehood, of using the ego death experience as a way to become fully present for absolutely everything that life has to offer. 

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