‘Ego death’ is something that is often name checked in psychonaut communities, forums, and message boards. However, it is starting to appear more and more often in the wider world. This is partially due to psychedelics finally being allowed back into the medical and scientific arena after a long hiatus.
This re-introduction implies it is a subject we will continue to hear about as the field grows. In that case, it is probably best to get acquainted with ego death. What is it? Do you want it? How can it be achieved?
What is the ego?
To understand ego death it is best to start by defining the ‘ego’ itself. Nowadays, we associate the ego with negative attributes such as ‘big-headedness’ or even narcissism. However, we all have an ego, and it is neither definitively good or bad.
In Western culture, the general understanding of what the ego is is based on Sigmund Freud’s definition, with some Eastern philosophy mixed in for good measure. Freud, (AKA Father of Psychoanalysis, Austrian, 1856- 1939) defined the ‘Ego’ as a mediator between the ‘Id’ and reality. The Id represents the basic and instinctual desires inside all humans, such as hunger, aggression, libido— and seeks only pleasure and gratification.
Freud used the analogy of the Id as a horse, and the Ego as its rider. The Ego must hold the reins and steer the wild Id to reach a happy medium between what is desired, and what is possible— in terms of the society you inhabit, and the beliefs/morals you hold. In this way, the ego plays an incredibly important role in how societies and communities function, for it helps the individual determine between what is right and wrong, based on what they learn in their lifetime.
Why would you want to experience ego death?
On the flipside however, the ego’s duality can also be seen as a negative. Critics of the ego maintain that this ‘good or bad’, ‘right or wrong’, ‘love and hate’ binary is responsible for a lot of unhappiness. In always trying to categorize, and make divisions, the ego creates unnecessary problems, where instead there could be acceptance, and enjoyment, of the here and now.
Ego death, then, is championed by those who feel the ego is a destructive force. However, the description of it as a ‘death’ does not make it seem overly appealing, especially to those who are new to the concept.
As the ego is part of us, it can’t really ‘die’. Many people panic when they draw the Death card when having their fortunes read, however, what it actually symbolises is a rebirth— the ending of the old ways and starting of the new. Similarly ego death is more about the transcendence of the self and moving forwards. For many it is synonymous with the Eastern concept of Enlightenment.
A lot of what makes up our ego is an arbitrary concept, e.g. our names, our gender, where we are from— it is a narrative we make up ourselves, as an attempt to understand our place in the world. In theory then, it should not be so difficult to shed….
Psychedelics and ego death
Ego death can be achieved via a few different routes. Zen practises and transcendental meditation are said to be effective, but of course they take much time and self-discipline. Psychedelics, such as psilocybin, on the other hand, are often used as a shortcut to achieve the same goal of ‘ego death’, or transcendence of the self. Within the psychonaut communities online there is much discussion on the ways in which ‘ego death’ can be achieved using shrooms, LSD or other psychedelics. These discussions have been prevalent since the second wave of psychedelic research began in the 1950s, with advocates such as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary et al, all discussing similar experiences as the forum-surfers today.
In 1964 psychedelics advocate Leary described ego death as:
“…complete transcendence − beyond words, beyond space-time, beyond self. There are no visions, no sense of self, no thoughts. There are only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom.”
For similar, but maybe less expressive descriptions of ego death, why not check Reddit…
How does ego death feel?
The decision to try and achieve ego death should not be taken lightly. To leave behind your entire sense of self and identity can be incredibly traumatic for some. For others it is beautiful, but for no one is it easy. There are many who describe it as the turning point of their lives, a magical moment when they realised the interconnectivity of the world, and managed to let go of unnecessary fears. However, for some it is a terrifying experience, as they are forced to confront the meaningfulness/ meaninglessness of everything, finding themselves torn from familiarity.
Ego death— it’s a marathon not a sprint
Once this has occurred, the picking up of the pieces depends on the individual themselves. In this respect discussing ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’ of ego death is difficult because it is so subjective. It is important to remember however, that whatever the intensity of you experience, it is only the first step on the path to a new way of being, it is not a cure-all or a solution.
“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones.” Alan Watts (1915-1973)
If you follow Watts’ insight, and aim for ego death, it should be viewed as a tool that you learn to use and become familiar with. It is not a destructive idea, but one of growth.
Is ego death permanent?
Ego death can be as permanent as you let it be. If you dismiss your experience you can come down, move on, and just be left with memories. Permanence is more likely if you chose to integrate what you felt during ego death into your everyday life, and continue to explore transcendence.
Is ego death painful?
Ego death is not a physically painful event.
How long does the moment of ego death last?
The length of ego death during a trip varies between individuals. Often the moment itself can feel like an eternity— but those who have experienced it say it can last between a few seconds and a few hours.
*Disclaimer: This article is an exploration of the concept of ‘ego death’ based on the available research sources, and should not be taken as advice. The field of psychedelic research is still expanding, and we hope our readers would reach out to friends, family or mental health resources if experiencing any issues mentioned in this article.