You are adrift in a kaleidoscopic swirl of brilliant colors and patterns. Then, you lose touch with where your body ends, and the world begins. You can no longer form coherent thoughts. Then, suddenly, you give up the struggle. A moment later, you’re gone. All that remains is everything. Reality doesn’t stop. The sensations, colors, and patterns continue to unfold, illuminated by the light of consciousness. You disappeared, and existence remained. However, there is no trace of division or suffering. Just a perfect, blissful wholeness. This experience is precisely the reason the psychedelic industry is studying how ego death is therapeutic.
The Origins of Ego Death
Ego death is a widely-reported experience that can occur when one takes a psychedelic. Further, it involves the complete loss of one’s psychological sense of self. The term was introduced into the psychedelic discourse in 1964 in a book called “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.“ Its authors were Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass. The book describes ego death as a state of “complete transcendence–beyond words, beyond space-time, beyond self. There are no visions, no sense of self, no thought loops. Indeed, there are only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom”.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Similarly, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was The Psychedelic Experience‘s theme, was written to help people navigate the death process. As a Tibetan Buddhist text, it deals with that particular religion’s belief systems around rebirth. It informs the reader that once one dies, they pass into the bardō, another realm that enters after death and exits when one undergoes rebirth. Also, in The Psychedelic Experience, Leary and his co-authors present this death-rebirth process. The intermediate journey in the bardō is a metaphor for a psychedelic trip involving ego-death. The authors attempted to repackage the teachings around what to expect and how to act during the natural death process. Thus, applying it to the different aspects of ego-death during the psychedelic experience.
Measuring Ego Death Scientifically
The ego-death concept had staying power in the tight-knit psychedelic community, becoming mainstream science when clinical research with psychedelics resumed. In recent years, scientists have constructed scales that they use to measure the presence and intensity of an ego-death experience. One of the most widely used scaling methods is called the Ego Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Ego death goes by many names: ego-loss, ego-disintegration, ego-dissolution; all of which point to the same core experience and emphasize different aspects of death. Ego dissolution–or an out-of-body experience–is arguably a better-suited term to measuring the levels of ego loss than the all-or-nothing character of death. The EDI requires participants to respond to eight statements with how strongly they reflect the nature of their experience. They include:
- I experienced a dissolution of my “self” or ego.
- I felt at one with the universe.
- I felt a sense of union with others.
- I experienced a decrease in my sense of self-importance.
- I experienced a disintegration of my “self” or ego.
- I felt far less absorbed by my own issues and concerns.
- I lost all sense of ego.
- All notion of self and identity dissolved away.
With such a scale, scientists can attempt to quantify your ineffable subjective experience. Some find this innovation exciting while others see it as a fool’s errand. Despite the impossibility of truly capturing the experience, such a scale makes it possible to bring these breakthrough experiences to the lab to study.
Different Types of Self
Given that the self is a psychological construct rather than a tangible element, it makes sense it is complex. A core aspect of the idea of self is ownership of the body. Making the perception of one’s body through the senses is a crucial part of selfhood. Researchers call this the multi-sensory or embodied self. Then, there’s the voice in your head. The storytelling part of yourself weaving together the past into a compelling narrative, telling tales of what you will do in the future. This point of view has been called the narrative self. Some researchers have proposed that ego-death may not affect each aspect of self equally . What’s more, individuals might access different kinds of ego death through various methods, such as meditation or psychedelics.
Connectedness and Ego Death
If one thinks of reality as a network, we can see what we are from two perspectives. For instance, from the standpoint of the nodes, some separate individuals happen to be connected. On the other hand, from the God’s eye view, there’s just the network – the nodes wouldn’t exist without it. During an ego death experience, one can lose perspective of the individual and perceive the whole interconnected structure. A loss of ego, therefore, increases a sense of connectedness. If the ego is only partially dissolved, this can take the form of a self-connected to the world around it, others, and even parts of itself. Psychedelic researcher Rosiland Watts has argued that this increased connectedness is mostly responsible for much of the psychedelic healing states of ego loss can cause.
Separation: The Mechanism of Suffering
The Buddha taught its followers suffering arises because we don’t see reality. As a result, we cling to it being a certain way that it is not. Ultimately, paining us by the deluded task we have set ourselves. We construct images of things being a certain way, for all time, and we suffer when they inevitably change. At the center of this uncomfortable process is an image of ourselves, set apart from the world. It’s just an image, but we take it to be real. We take ourselves to be truly apart from reality and proceed to engage in a struggle of ego. If one lets go of clinging to divisions of this kind, they can see through the illusions of separation and suffering. This process is what happens during ego death.
Trauma, Anxiety, and Depression
Throughout many generations, civilizations had to engage in attempted separation from the rest of the world. As a result, we developed psychological capacities to move on a spectrum from feeling very safe and connected to feeling afraid and disconnected. Fear signals it is not safe to be open to the world, resulting in us closing off from it in an attempt to self-protect ourselves. This void of vulnerability increases the sense of separation, the sense of self, and as a result, feelings of suffering. Traumatic situations push us further and further down this path. As a result, leaving us with chronic anxiety or depressed hopelessness.
Self Transcendence and Our Natural Healing Intelligence
Experiences of self-transcendence can lead to temporary states in which there is no suffering. In fact, self-transcendence can happen by cutting through the psychological concept of self through which suffering is typically mediated. While such ego-death experiences do not last forever, they can also unlock long-term healing and growth. Life has a natural homeostatic or balancing tendency. So, suppose you cut yourself – your body automatically knows how to heal itself. This sense of recovery is a core feature of the physical body but also the mind. Once one experiences self-transcendence in a safe environment, they often become more connected to the world. This connectedness opens up a process that can disrupt unhealthy psychological barriers with the outside world and open up finding a healing balance with one’s environment.
Healing Through Ego-Death
Nevertheless, your sense of self exists to keep you safe. It makes you feel separate from the world, stopping you from behaving in ways that would jeopardize your survival. However, it can imprison us when it becomes overactive, trapping us in painful separation from the rest of the world. This closed-mindedness leads to anxiousness, depression, or other mental health conditions, such as addiction and eating disorders. States of ego-death result in blissful experiences which suspend suffering for a time. Accordingly, the tranquil period of ego death shows people they don’t have to be stuck forever in the psychological prison they had created. There is another way to exist in the world. By breaking down the barriers of separation, ego death allows us to tap into our natural healing intelligence and bring us into a healthier relationship with the rest of reality.
RS CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR – DR. JAMES COOKE
Dr. James Cooke is a neuroscientist, writer, and speaker, whose work focuses on consciousness, with a particular interest in meditative and psychedelic states. He studied Experimental Psychology and Neuroscience at Oxford University and is passionate about exploring the relationship between science and spirituality, which he does via his writing and his YouTube channel, YouTube.com/DrJamesCooke. He splits his time between London and the mountains of Portugal where he is building a retreat centre, The Surrender Homestead, @TheSurrenderHomestead on Instagram. Find him @DrJamesCooke on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, or at DrJamesCooke.com.