You surrender to the great black void and all boundaries blur like watercolors on a canvas, blending the hues of self and other into an intricate dance of unified grayness.
The ego, our guiding companion or our relentless captor, could embrace its own demise for a brief while, temporarily stripped bare and set aside for the naked truth to emerge beyond all facades.
Could ego death be a descent into madness, a perilous tightrope walk into oblivion? Or is it a sacred portal, opening doors to uncharted realms of insight and transcendence?
Is the dissolution of our ego necessary for the ultimate development of healing and self-actualization? Can psychedelics help lay our egos to rest once and for all?
These are the types of questions we would like to address in this article, especially when it comes to managing expectations and preparing for a therapeutic psychedelic experience.
What Really is The Ego?
The ego has come to mean many things. Originally, the term was coined by psychologist Sigmund Freud to refer to a part of the mind that mediates between the individual’s desires, impulses, and the constraints of reality.
According to Freud, a human’s consciousness could be split into three categories: the Id (originally meaning the “It”), the Ego (meaning the “I”, and the Super-ego (meaning the “Over-I”).
In Freud’s framework, the id is the aspect of the self responsible for more primal motivations surrounding survival and desire, such as bodily impulses to eat, self-preserve, and procreate (think Mr. Hyde of Jekyll and Hyde).
The ego then refers to the aspect of a person’s identity who acts and responds within social constraints, trying to both meet the needs of the id and appease the ideals of the super-ego.
Lastly, the super-ego is essentially synonymous with the word “conscience,” and refers to the aspect of the self that has internalized moral concepts and attempts to live and weigh the self and life through a set of moral ideals.
Nowadays, the word “ego” has come to represent something a little bit different in broader terms.
The ego as discussed in this article will refer to a person’s self-concept and singular identity. This encompasses one’s instinctual needs, awareness of the demands of the external world, and the aspects of the self which makes decisions.
The ego is responsible for maintaining a cohesive and stable sense of self, as well as integrating one’s experiences, memories, and beliefs into a coherent identity.
The ego encompasses and is responsible for:
- Personality and preferences
- Judgment and assessment
- Self-concept and individual identify
- Calculation, decision, and action
- Discrimination between safety and danger as well as relevancy and irrelevancy
Most importantly, the ego is absolutely necessary for being able to function, survive, and experience life through a human perspective.
Right in line with Aldous Huxley’s “reducing valve” theory of the brain, our ego is formed out of the need to sift through an infinite amount of stimuli and decide what actions and thoughts are most conducive to our wellbeing in any given context.
The biggest misconception about the ego seems to arise from the negative connotations associated with the word “egotistical,” which is used to describe someone who ironically lacks a deeper self-awareness, acts selfishly, or exhibits a level of narcissism.
It’s important to note that there are layers to human consciousness, and many people find themselves stuck in one mode throughout life, unable to see beyond their own self-concept, which is why many seek out ego-dissolution.
For the sake of simplifying this insanely complex topic, we will refer to the aspects of consciousness which go beyond the ego as “the higher self.”
Rather than a guardian angel or a wise, intuitive aspect of the self, the higher self is a pure observer or perceiver of reality, beyond all action, judgment, and self-concept.
During meditation, you may tap into this consciousness which is pure perception characterized by absolute stillness and peace. We will revisit this later in the article.
This brings us to “ego-death,” the misconceptions around this phenomena, and why so many people so badly want to “kill their ego” in an attempt to solve life’s problems.
Understanding The Truth About “Ego Death”
Ego death is a term commonly used in the context of psychedelic experiences and spiritual practices in which the individual’s sense of self, identity, and boundaries dissolve or temporarily cease to exist.
It is often described as a feeling of interconnectedness with the universe or a sense of merging with something greater than oneself.
During ego death, individuals may undergo a loss of subjective self-identity, a sense of timelessness, and a dissolution of their usual attachments, desires, and beliefs.
Ego death experiences can vary in intensity and duration, ranging from fleeting moments to extended periods of profound psychological transformation.
While this may sound like a beautiful experience—and it certainly can be—for many, the dissolving of control and identity can be terrifying and disorienting (and even traumatizing).
People desire to “kill the ego” for any number of reasons, but some include feeling stuck, bored, or uninspired in life, or feeling helpless in the face of a particular problem.
Ego death (essentially meaning “death of the self”), has become quite a mainstream idea with purported benefits for eradicating individual suffering and elevating to extraordinary levels of creativity and originality.
However, it is important to understand the integral human necessity for the ego and that psychedelics do not dissolve it permanently.
Psychedelic experiences, rather, temporarily allow us to put the aspect of ourselves that is usually in the driver seat into the back seat or even in the trunk.
When it comes to psychedelics in the brain, that temporary shutdown of the ego is most likely occurring experientially during the shutdown of the default mode network, which is the brain’s system responsible for self-referential thinking and mind-wandering.
Interestingly, overactivity of the default mode network has been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, which explains why psychedelic medicine can be so effective in treating those conditions.
Most importantly, after an “ego death” experience, you always come back to mundane perception eventually, in which your identity is very much alive and intact. To put it plainly, if you are alive, your ego still is too.
Instead of seeking complete annihilation of the ego, the therapeutic potential of psychedelics lies in temporarily suspending its dominance, allowing individuals to explore alternative states of consciousness and potentially gain unique perspectives.
By understanding the role of the ego and the limitations of ego dissolution, we can approach psychedelic experiences with a more nuanced and reverential perspective.
Reaping The Benefits:
Ego Dissolution vs. A “Regular” Psychedelic Experience
In spite of the dichotomous comparison here, the experience known as ego death is actually experienced along a spectrum of intensity during the psychedelic journey, ranging from brief clarity to total disappearance for longer durations.
Benefits of Perceiving Beyond The Ego:
- You get to experience death before actual death and willfully engage in the rebirth process.
- You gain a deeper appreciation for life, even in its mundane form.
- Your priorities can shift and reorient toward deeper meaning and significance.
- You can release attachments and gain a more objective perspective on your life.
- You can see beyond your social conditioning and defense mechanisms.
Benefits of a “Normal Psychedelic Experience”:
- Enhanced creativity
- Amplified perception and sensitivity to external stimuli
- Intensified awareness of somatic and emotional states and sensations
- Insights into the self and one’s life history
- All the other benefits listed in the “perceiving beyond the ego” list
As you can see, you can absolutely experience profound therapeutic benefits without experiencing an ego death, and it is important to remember that expecting or trying to have any particular type of experience may set you up for disappointment.
The most important things to consider when trying to have a beneficial and successful journey are to trust the medicine, surrender to the experience, and having the right tools and support to get you through safely.
The Importance of Support & Integration
Considering that we have little control over where the medicine takes us during the journey, it’s best to prepare as though you might experience an ego death while also managing expectations.
The ego death experience is inherently difficult. To be able to transmute the experience into something meaningful and productive which can positively inform day-to-day life takes great awareness and deep integration work.
Oddly enough, many people end up using an ego death experience as a way to prop up and gratify the ego later, as that aspect of the self seeks to make sense of and incorporate this into the previous mode of identity.
And importantly, not everyone is ready. Those who have a significant history of trauma or have trouble letting go of control may find that an ego death is ground shattering enough that they come up against what we call a spiritual emergency.
That is why the presence of a supportive and neutral guide can help mitigate psychological, emotional, and physical risks associated with such a level of intensity and unknown variables.
We will leave you with the three practices which can help anchor you during a psychedelic trip (or any intense experience for that matter): the breath, a mantra, and a pre-set intention.
Seeking Professional Support on Your Psychedelic Journey?
Here at Psychedelic Passage, we provide supportive resources and tools for intentional psychedelic journeys, so that our clients can safely navigate any mind-altering medicine from a place of preparedness.
We connect you to our network of pre-vetted psychedelic facilitators who support and guide you throughout the preparation stage, the ceremony itself, and integration for well-rounded professional support.
As we’ve discussed in this article, the mind—as resilient and incredible as it is—is also fragile in many ways, and if not provided with the right support system during what could be a vulnerable and intense time, could have dire consequences.
We encourage you to use our resources page to find more information on the vast topic of psychedelia and also to book a consultation with us if you are ready to be supported on your psychedelic journey.