When it comes to certain spiritual experiences, words truly fail. One experience in particular dominates in conversations on psychedelic and spiritual experiences and is hard to put into words. Self-transcendence, the mystical experience, the unitive experience, ego-death, non-dual awareness, nirvana, enlightenment, satori, kensho, rigpa, samadhi or the experience of oneness – all names for the same concept. What is this experience? How does it come about? And what does it mean?
At the core of this experience is the loss of our everyday sense of self. Our experience of the world around us is structured so as to give the impression that there is a self at the centre of it. Sights, sounds and smells don’t just arise and hang in the air, they feel as if they are happening to someone. The self believed to be at the centre of consciousness seems to have experiences, if something is seen it is seen by the self, if a thought arises it is the self that is thinking that thought.
The sense of self also divides the world in two. Certain features of experience and of the world are experienced as belonging to the self while the rest is relegated to the world outside the self. In this way, our typical experience of the world is far from one of “oneness”.
As well as providing our experience with a certain structure, the self gives us the sense of feeling like the same person over time. We feel this self to be the unchanging nucleus of our mind, the “I” that stays the same as our body and mind changes throughout life. In certain religious traditions it was believed to reflect an immortal soul that is not only unaltered by our experiences in this world but can even survive death unscathed. We imbue the self with a sense of permanence and solidity but the fact that the self can be transcended suggests it may be far more ephemeral than we like to think.
Glimpses of Selflessness
Despite the widespread illusion that the self remains unchanged throughout our daily lives, we routinely experience moments of selflessness. When in deep sleep, you are no longer there experiencing the world. When lost in a gripping movie, you can lose the awareness of being a person in a room watching patterns of moving lights, and are transported into a disembodied witness of a fictional world. Once these moments are over, however, the mind retrospectively fills in the gaps and gives the illusion that the psychological sense of self was there all along.
What Are We If We’re Not a Self?
Science shows us that, rather than being disembodied souls that come into the physical world, we are patterns in reality being flung into existence by the laws of the universe. Living systems are patterns in physical reality, we exchange our physical parts with the world around us resulting in a complete turnover of our material makeup every decade. We do this by consuming parts of the world around us, making us more a feature of reality that is inseparable from the universe itself, rather than a separate creature inhabiting a universe. What’s more, your body has more bacterial cells living in it than animal cells. While not human, we depend on these creatures for our survival–are they part of your sense of self? Our biological understanding of life shows us that our sense of having an identity that is separate from the world around us doesn’t fit well with the facts. What seems more accurate is that the evolution of the universe produces living patterns that claim to be separate, even though that would be impossible.
Why Do We Have a Sense of Self?
As evolved organisms, having a concept like the self that can be used to differentiate us from the world around us is crucial for survival. The physical organism and the psychological sense of self that appear in the mind are not the same thing, through they are related. The sense of self largely consists in the mind pointing to the organism and part of its experience and labelling them “me” as opposed to “not me”. It detects a pattern that does exist but imbues it with a false sense of solidity. This creates the illusion that, at the centre of this process, there is a solid, stable “me”, one that feels like it might be able to survive the death of the body. In reality, they’re just the pattern. As organisms, we evolved to tell stories about the world that were useful for survival but that don’t match up with objective reality. The self is one such useful fiction.
The Default Mode Network
It takes a lot of activity to keep the illusion of the self going. Since there is no pre-existing objective called “the self”, we can understand the felt sense of self as synonymous with certain processes in the mind – The self is a verb, not a noun, it’s something the mind of the organism does, not what it is. In the human mind, it is tied up with the process of mind wandering, evaluating memories and considering the future in ways that are aligned with the organism’s interests. A constellation of brain areas known as the default mode network appear to underpin these abilities and are therefore crucial to perpetuating the illusion of the self.
Brain cells in the default mode network have a high density of chemical receptors that are sensitive to serotonin and related compounds, known as the serotonin 2A receptors. If you think of psychedelic compounds as a key, these receptors happen to be the lock in the brain into which the key fits and, when this happens, a psychedelic experience is triggered. The effect of a psychedelic on the brain cells in the default mode network is to disturb their typical activity, impairing the ability of the brain to engage in the mind wandering that props up the illusion of the self.
When these thought patterns fall away there can be a full confrontation with the nature of experience in the present moment, an experience lacking in a self that is separate from everything else in experience. With the usual patterns of thinking out of the way, there is a wordless appreciation of, and identification with, the fact of existence. One can realize that they never were the voice in the head saying “I, me, mine” and are instead the same kind of thing as everything else in reality.
Why should we care about self-transcendence? If your sense of self doesn’t give you any trouble, why should you be concerned to get rid of it? Even if your sense of self is not pathological, it’s functioning takes us away from optimal well being in the present. Why would such a ubiquitous feature of our minds serve to make us less happy that we might otherwise be? Our thought processes were forged by evolution, which teaches us how to survive, not how to be happy. Evolution only makes us happy if it happens to keep us alive and reproducing. Our sense of self is tied up with concerns for the organism’s survival, with anxiety, rumination and fear. The Buddha teaches us that when we drop the sense of self and the attachment that comes with it, there is full liberation from suffering. For creatures like us that tend to suffer as a result of our deluded sense of what we truly are, the freedom from suffering that comes with seeing through the illusion of the self seems like something worthy of attention.
In Search of Psychedelic Ego-Death
In psychedelic circles, many seek for the states of consciousness discussed here. This is unsurprising and can be part of a healthy exploration of one’s mind, but there is also the risk of the ego treating it as just another achievement to be sought after. States of self-transcendence are typically experienced during higher-dose psychedelic experiences. Psychonauts who aim to explore these psychological states would therefore be well advised to have the concept of harm reduction front and centre in their minds. These states should only be explored after one is very familiar with the psychological terrain of a psychedelic experience and knows how to surrender to challenging experiences. Going into the experience with the intention of observing whatever arises can take one into this psychological space. Cultivating a meditation practice before and after such an experience is therefore advised.
The Selflessness of Consciousness
What effect does a brief period of selflessness during a psychedelic trip have on people once they’re back to normal, everyday consciousness? For some it can trigger an interest in meditation that can be used to access these states again without chemical assistance. For others, it may be nothing more than a memory or a strange story of what it was like to not exist or to be one with the universe. The self is always an illusion, even as you read these words, as this can be seen in any moment of life if you know how to look for it. Learning to cut through this illusion through meditation is one of the most valuable ways you could spend your time here as a living creature.