What is Ego Death?

There are many reasons people start a spiritual practice.

We may begin meditation, prayer or worship because of cultural obligations and family traditions, or traumatic life events that drive us to seek refuge from suffering. Some of us simply want more meaning in our lives, and others may even be looking for a subtle way to improve our financial, social standing or sense of self-worth.

But regardless of the motives, the end game for all authentic spiritual paths, whether we’re talking Buddhism or Christianity, Sufism or Kabbalistic, Occultist or Shamanic, is the same. It’s the death of the ego for a cause or spirit greater than one’s self.

This experience is known as Ego Death.

But to truly understand just exactly what Ego Death is, we first have to ask the question;

What is the Ego?

Understanding the ego can often be a difficult task, partly because there are a number of definitions for ego, as well as contexts within which each is used. While it’s not necessary to go into detail for each of these, I’ll briefly cover some of the main applications for the term.

In the West, there are typically three ways in which the term ego is used.

Ego in the Freudian sense is one of the three constructs of Sigmund Freud’s model of the psyche. Here, the Ego is the part of the psyche which is organized, and which mediates the (often conflicting) drives of the id and super-ego.

In the colloquial sense in the west, ego is used to denote egotism, an inflated self-concept, which is often considered unhealthy or unsociable. For example, you may have heard someone say: “I don’t like to work with him, he has a big ego.”

In the modern psychological sense, the term ego is sometimes used to denote a more broad view of self-concept. This may include personal achievements, personal narrative, and any identification with gender, race, or sexual identity.

In the East, the term is used more cohesively, though there are occasionally subtle differences between Eastern Spiritual views of the ego. It can broadly be defined as ‘the self’, or more specifically, the conditioned habits of an inherited body-mind. This may include the self-concept as described above, which is principally made up of all conscious or unconscious attachments or aversions.

When translated for a Western audience, this is commonly referred to as this “the feeling of I.” The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, for example, translates the word ego from ahamkara in Sanskrit, which can, in English, be slightly more accurately described as “the maker of the I.”

Because the Eastern view is a lot more all encompassing, some confusions may come into play when Westerners believe they have experienced an ego death during the temporary dropping of certain aspects of their self-concept.

To give an example, imagine John takes psychedelics with some friends. He has the feeling that the name John, and a lot of the memories he has of ‘John’ are not really his. However, during the experience, one of John’s friends says something that gets under his skin. “He always does this” John thinks, a little annoyed.

In this instance, while John has temporary loosened his grip on his identity, his emotions and behaviour are still largely being dictated by what we may consider ‘psychological karma’ or past imprints. Because the attachment to these ideas and this conditioning (i.e. ego), it’s not true to say that John was experiencing ego death.

For the sake of simplicity, for the rest of this article I’ll stick to the definition of ego as “the feeling of I.

 

What is Ego Death?

The concept of Ego Death emerged as a result of a number of schools of thought in the West, many of which had eastern influences.

In Western mysticism, the idea is seen as the point at which the soul dies and merges with God’s consciousness.

In many teachings, particularly those of Eastern Religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, permanent ego death is equated with enlightenment.

An important distinction should be made, however, as the idea of ego death as developed by Timothy Leary was influenced by LSD-induced mystical experiences. These experiences, while in some ways neurologically similar to those of long term meditators, are considered by many as fundamentally different, because of their impermanence.

To this end, we should recognise that the term ego-death may only be a momentary experience, though the ultimate goal of many traditions is a permanent experience.

Ego Death and the Default Mode Network

Science has been unable to pin down why or how we have a sense of self in the brain. It doesn’t appear to be located in any particular area.

Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher with Imperial College’s Center for Neuropsychopharmacology, explains that the default mode network (DMN) “seems to be the best candidate that we have for the biological underpinnings of the sense of self.” As far as we can tell, the DMN is key for self-referential processing, which also explains why an over active DMN has been found to be correlated with depression and anxiety.

However, if and when different areas of this network are working together to create the illusion of self, it means that the reduction of activity in the DMN would result in the loss of the sense of self, or ‘ego death’ and as a result unhealthy anxiety or rumination.

This appears to have been confirmed by a study that Carhart-Harris and colleagues published in 2012, which found that taking intravenous doses of psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms, reduced activity in the DMN.

American meditation teacher Gary Weber explains this in more depth in the following video with reference to his own personal story of more than 10,000 hours of meditation.

How to Experience Ego Death

Psychedelics

As I’ve touched on, psychedelics, despite their criticism, are the fastest and most consistent way to have an ego-death experience.

Notably, spiritual teacher and former Harvard professor Ram Dass, who wrote The Psychedelic Experience with Timothy Leary, changed his views towards psychedelic use on the path towards Enlightenment as he deepened his practice.

In a lecture in 1976, Ram Dass said that “psychedelic chemicals have a capacity to cut through places where you are attached and clinging, to set them aside and show you a possibility. The problem is that they don’t allow you to become the possibility, they only show you the possibility.”

Popular psychedelics that have been purported to cause ego death experiences include psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and Ayahuasca.

Spiritual Practices: The Four Yogas

There are a number of spiritual practices that claim to ultimately result in ego death. For clarity, I’ll characterize them under the three Yogas mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and the fourth as included in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Obviously keep in mind that while emphasis on each of these paths will vary depending on the individual and traditional, they are not mutually exclusive, and there is a degree of overlap.

 

  • Karma Yoga (The Path of Action)

 

Karma Yoga believes that right action, doing the morally right thing, is a form of prayer or spiritual practice and can result in the dissolution of the ego. This practice is all about making your daily actions aligned with your spiritual philosophy. This may be living a life of service or selflessness, such as providing for others.

 

  • Bhakti Yoga (The Path of Loving Devotion)

 

Because we come from an individualist culture, Bhakti Yoga, which is focused on worship, is often the most difficult path for Westerners to grasp. It can however, be the one that leads to the most fundamental change with regard to sense of self. In this path, practitioners are committed to cultivating the highest love for god in any form that may be culturally appropriate. Another way to consider this is the act of seeing the divine in everything around them.

In Hindu culture, any deity is a manifestation of Brahman (the Absolute), which is why they are generally more tolerant to the worship of many gods. Bhakti Yoga is commonly done through prayer, meditation, chanting, and surrender.

 

  • Jnana Yoga (The Path of Knowledge)

 

The path of knowledge, Jnana Yoga, is focused on pursuing the ego with self-inquiry questions such as “Who am I” and “To whom do these thoughts arise?”

This yoga was introduced to the West by the Indian sage Ramana Maharashi in the 20th century and is heavily geared towards meditation and contemplation. Different forms of Jnana Yoga have been further popularised by non-dual teachers such as Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, Mooji and Rupert Spira.

 

  • Raja Yoga (The Path of Meditation)

 

The use of the Raja Yoga can sometimes be confusing as in some contexts it is used to refer to the goal of yoga, as opposed to a path of yoga. I’ll include it here as Raja Yoga is explicitly focused on the control over mind and emotions, and can therefore to some degree be considered a prerequisite to the other three paths of yoga.

This is because concentration is required for deep practice of either action, devotion or knowledge. Most schools of thought will emphasise the necessity for concentration practice as the foundation of any spiritual path.

To practice Raja Yoga, any form of single-point focused meditation, whether on a physical object such as a sight or sound or an abstract object such as the idea of god, is required.

 

Ego Death Symptomns

  • Feeling of unity or connectedness with everything
  • Sense of self drops away
  • Intense experience of joy
  • Deep feeling of stillness
  • Deep feeling of love
  • Mystical experience of reality

Ego Death Warnings

There are some strong overlaps between Ego Death and the Western idea of Depersonalization, though the difference appears to be a matter of identity, ability to function, and self-reported measures of meaning and wellbeing.

For this reason it’s important to consider what Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young, who has worked with the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says about depersonalization. Young calls depersonalization “Enlightenments evil twin” and states that the difference between the two is determined by feelings of connection to the universe and the richness of experience.

When people are experiencing depersonalization, their world is typically dull and they feel incredibly disconnected, and even lonely. When someone is undergoing an enlightenment experience, the opposite is true – they feel more connected, more alive, and subtle experiences are much richer and fuller than they previous where.

To see more about what Shinzen Young says about distinguishing between the two experiences, and how to mindfully ensure that an intense practice doesn’t begin to learn toward depersonalization, check out this video.

If you feel like you are undergoing either Ego Death or Depersonalisation, it’s highly recommended that you get in touch with either a psychiatrist or a well-respected meditation teacher, preferably both!

What are your experiences with Ego Death? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is a freelance writer and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age.

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