Ego death became an attractive concept among spiritual seekers and psychonauts. It refers to temporarily transcending your sense of separate self and connecting to a broader, more inclusive consciousness.
This experience – sometimes also called “ego loss” or “ego dissolution” – can be scary, fascinating and alluring all at the same time. Besides, how often have you heard that ego is your enemy, the biggest limitation you need to get rid of?
In the spiritual world, ego is typically portrayed as something that stands in the way of your evolution. It limits your perception – especially if you overidentify with it. From this angle, ego death can seem like a liberating experience. It allows you to connect with your True Nature and realize that you’re one with the rest of life.
But does it mean you should actively try to get rid of the ego? Is this the best way to spiritual growth?
My own journey has left me wondering.
There were times when I experienced ego loss to a certain degree – and it felt wonderful. However, there were also times when my trying to “kill my ego” backfired. I ended up in a paradoxical situation where my ego was trying to eradicate itself.
I learned that trying to experience ego death at all cost may not be the best way if you’re a committed spiritual seeker. Luckily, there’s another option: making friends with your ego.
Before I explain how you can achieve this, let’s start with a fundamental question:
What is Ego?
The ego is a part of your psyche that creates your self-identity in opposition to the rest of the world. Ego is who you tell yourself you are, based on your memories, likes and dislikes and other information defining you as a separate entity.
Scientists explain that ego is an effect of the Default Mode Network (DMN) in your brain. As the name indicates, that’s the default state in which your cognition operates.
“The DMN is crucially important to the development of social functionality, the perception of time, remembering the past and simulating the future, and the separation of “self” and “other”. Writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, in his famous and widely quoted book The Doors of Perception, coined a theory on why the DMN evolved to be so intertwined with the ego, and consciousness as a whole: “In order to make biological survival possible, the vast amounts of incoming sensory data must be quickly and efficiently categorized and funneled through a reducing valve.” – Jeff Lebowe at DoubleBlind
As both Lebowe and Huxley noticed, ego evolved because it was necessary for our physical survival. From this angle, we can understand the ego as a process. It’s the “operating system” that selects and processes information for the purpose of survival.
One consequence of this is preserving your self-image whenever possible. The ego tries to ensure that the information getting through is aligned with what you already know, your memories and beliefs. In psychology, this is known as the confirmation bias.
But ego can be also understood as a noun, rather than a process. This is usually the case in the spiritual context. By ego, people often mean the image of yourself that emerges as a result of the DMN. In that case, the ego is meant as the story you tell yourself about who you are.
It’s the narrator in your head, saying things like: “Oh yeah, I know this, I’ve seen this before – it means this and that.”
Using your ego, for processing information results in a dualistic view of the world. This reinforces a sense of separation between you and everything else. It also enables dual concepts through which you explain the world – such good and bad, love and hate, right and wrong, etc.
When you identify with your ego, this duality becomes your reality. You lose (or maybe, never gain) the hunch that you might be something more than what the ego says. You never leap beyond identifying as a husband, a mother, a professor, a failure, an indigenous person, and so on. That’s fine as long as survival is concerned – but on the spiritual path, the point is to go beyond this type of identity.
This is where the concept of ego death comes to the stage. It seems that if you were free from the ego – even if just temporarily – this could open the doors to another plane of reality.
So let’s try and answer: what is ego death, exactly?
What Does Ego Death Mean?
Ego death – also known as “ego loss” or “ego dissolution” – means to “temporarily experience a complete loss of subjective self-identity.”
The term was used by Timothy Leary who, in the 1960s, experimented with LSD as a tool for psychological and spiritual growth. What does ego death feel like? Leary described it 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.”
Today, the term “ego death” is still most popular among psychonauts – the community of people looking for existential insights, usually through the use of mind-altering substances and/or practices.
What happens during ego death? Researchers explain that it is a temporary disruption of the DMN. Among other things, it can be caused by psychedelic drugs. Metaphorically speaking, psychedelics “cut the power” of the DMN and enable human psyche to function without it for a little while.
As a result, you’re left to experience reality without the “survival filter” that blocks certain types of information and magnifies others. Dennis McKenna, who’s been investigating the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs for decades, put it this way:
“A lot of what psychedelics do is they bring the background forward. (…) That’s a very valuable thing because there’s a lot going on in the background that we are conditioned never to notice because we think they’re unimportant; they are important. (…) So you can take your Default Mode Network offline and you can open yourself up to all these other things that you never pay attention to. And then you realize: “Wow, I’m missing a lot! These are very important, these are aspects of interaction with reality that I just never noticed before .”
The result of such experience is that you’re able to see the “bigger picture.” When the DMN is “offline,” you take in the kinds of information that don’t seem crucial to the ordinary consciousness. This can have transformative power. A lot of people report experiences of connection with other life forms and seeing what is really going on in the present when their filters are off.
The idea of ego death appeared in many traditions, long before the psychonaut community emerged. The concepts of satori in Zen Buddhism, fana in Sufism or the “kiss of the death” in Judaism all bear characteristics of ego death. They refer to letting go of an ordinary state of consciousness – and tapping into a higher, divine one.
The concept also appears in psychology and studies of myths and archetypes. Ventegodt and Merrick argue that the Jungian idea of “psychic death” is, in essence, the same as ego death. Jung understood it as an important transformation of the human psyche, necessary for internal growth.
An idea akin to ego death also appears in Joseph Campbell’s study of the archetype of Hero’s Journey. In the second stage of the journey, the Hero typically needs to “surrender” their old sense of self before they can undergo a transformation. A similar concept is present in van Genepp’s theory of rites of passage.
Today, ego death is commonly associated with the use of psychedelic drugs. However, this isn’t the only way to induce that experience. Certain breathing techniques (e.g. holotropic breathwork) and deep meditation can enable ego dissolution, too.
Moreover, it seems that ego death is ambiguous. It may come in different intensities, meaning that the ego isn’t always completely “on” or “off.” It appears that the DMN may be tuned out to different degrees, allowing you to experience ego as a spectrum.
Psychologist and spiritual teacher John Welwood even went as far as saying that egolessness is, in fact, a common experience:
“If ego is awareness in a contracted state and egolessness is awareness in a relaxed state, it is clear that ego cannot exist without egolessness, which is its ground. (…) Everyone has little glimpses of egolessness in the gaps and spaces between thoughts, which usually go unnoticed. Ego is dying and being reborn at every moment. We continually have to let go of what we have already thought, accomplished, known, experienced, become.”
If you could slow down your experience and examine each passing moment, you’d see that your ego is always changing. You don’t hold exactly the same self-concept as you did a minute ago. Your ego received new information during that time, so it must have incorporated it in one way or another.
But isn’t this in opposition to what we said earlier about the ego? Isn’t the Default Mode Network focused on preserving self-image, rather than changing it?
To understand this, we need to dive deeper into how we frame the ego in the context of spiritual growth. This will allow us to answer the key question of this article:
Is ego really the bad guy that you should try to “kill”?
Should You Pursue Ego Death As a Part of Your Spiritual Journey?
I can’t put my finger on it – but I’m pretty sure I had glimpses into ego death.
On a few occasions in my meditation and during Transformation Breath sessions, my consciousness expanded. I wasn’t filtering information through my thinking self – the ego. Rather, I experienced myself as a part of everything I was noticing.
How does ego death feel like? To me, it started with realizing that the sensations of my body weren’t, at the core, any different from the sensations of people around me. I knew that we had more in common than not, and I knew it on a very deep level. In the breathing sessions, I could sense the energy fields of others – and I picked up on their emotions like they were my own.
I perceived what was happening in the present moment, clearly and without bias. I was processing my experience as it unfolded, without clinging to the notions of what it meant. My habitual filters confirming or denying certain information were gone. The sense of separation has dissolved and I felt intimately connected to other living beings.
Experiencing ego death in this way can be a wonderful experience. It can open your perception to the things that are usually pushed to the background by your DMN. You may discover that they are crucial – and that when you miss them, your view of reality is indeed limited.
Ego death may be one of the experiences that Jack Kornfield refers to as “transcendent states” in The Path With Heart. These can be very powerful events that give you glimpses into new planes of reality. They can inspire and motivate you to engage in spiritual practice because they show you what is possible.
However, they also have the potential to take you off track. You can easily start treating them as the only “worthwhile” spiritual experiences. But in and of themselves, those states don’t guarantee greater wisdom.
“The value of transcendent states is the great inspiration and compelling vision that they can bring to our lives. They can provide a powerful vision of reality beyond our day-to-day consciousness and guide us to live from the highest truth. The experiences we have of them can, at times, be profoundly healing and transforming. But their dangers and misuses are equally great. We can feel ourselves special for having had them; and the drama, the body sensations, rapture, and visions all can become addictive and actually increase the craving and suffering in our life. The most pervasive danger of all is the myth that these experiences will utterly transform us, that from a moment of “enlightenment” or transcendence, our life will be wholly changed for the better. This is rarely true, and attachment to these experiences can easily lead to complacency, hubris and self-deception.” – Jack Kornfield
I certainly experienced this in my meditation. After a few sessions where I witnessed my ego dissolving, I started expecting it to happen more often. Then, whenever my meditation felt “ego-driven” instead, I would discard it as mundane and meaningless.
This is the irony in pursuing ego death. The hunger for this eye-opening experience can easily become just another shiny object for your ego to chase.
“”Kill the ego” is a phrase that is easily misinterpreted. Who is identifying “ego”? Who is killing whom? Who is seeing whom as the problem? Who is right and who is wrong? Who is making these decisions? There are two things we can count on where egocentricity is concerned – One: It is very clever; Two: Its only job is survival. Ego will take anything- ANYTHING – and use it for its purposes, even the notion of killing/dissolving/transcending/accepting itself. You can see the danger, spiritually speaking, of misinterpreting “kill the ego.”” – Cheri Huber
Another thing is that, in daily life, you simply need your DMN. It’s practical. Your sense of self allows you to navigate relationships, draw boundaries and formulate goals or aspirations – even the spiritual ones. Western psychologists and Buddhist teachers agree on this.
Buddhism is commonly thought of as a tradition that encourages “abandoning the ego.” But in fact, it sees the ego as an important mechanism which helps us attain higher and higher levels of happiness. The real quest isn’t to erase the ego. It is to make it function better, without identifying with it.
The experience of egolessness can be an organic result of this process. But it comes as a consequence of all the work done before, sort of a by-product – rather than a goal you should strive towards.
The Buddhist abbot Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains that a healthy ego is actually helpful:
“If your ego functions are healthy and well-coordinated, they give you a consistent sense of priorities as to which forms of happiness are more worthwhile than others; a clear sense of where your responsibilities do and don’t lie; a strong sense of your ability to judge right and wrong for yourself; and an honest sense of how to learn from your past mistakes for the sake of greater happiness in the future.
From this perspective, egolessness would be a disaster. A person devoid of ego functions would be self-destructive: either a beast with uncontrolled impulses, or a neurotic, repressed automaton with no mind of her own, or an infantile monster thrashing erratically between these two extremes. Anyone who tried to abandon ego functioning would arrest his psychological growth and lose all hope of becoming a mature, responsible, trustworthy adult.” – Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Maybe the problem isn’t so much in the ego itself – but in the relationship we have with it? It seems like it’s the overidentifying with the ego that limits us. If we can gain some perspective on the story it tells, we may be able to live balanced spiritual lives without killing the ego.
Meanwhile, you can also work on reshaping that story – i.e. helping your ego evolve into more skilful forms.
Your next step on the spiritual path may be to make friends with your ego, rather than kill it. What if you could look at your ego as a teacher, rather than an enemy?
Why You Should Make Friends With Your Ego Before It Dies
Experiencing ego death has the potential to be healing. It allows you a glimpse into a broader consciousness and may inspire you to continue the spiritual practice.
When your DMN is back on, you may feel like your system has been “rebooted” and brought into balance.
But pursuing ego death also has its traps. It may easily turn into the ego chasing its own tail, trying to “kill itself” for the purpose of proving your spiritual worth. On top, it’s also possible to not be ready for ego death – especially when it’s induced rapidly by psychedelic drugs.
Tapping into the expanded consciousness and then coming back to the “mundane” reality can be soul-wrecking for some. Consider this psychonaut’s account of his post-ego death experience, quoted by James Nolan on Vice:
“The truth can leave you miserable. You lose interest in things, people drift away, you question your career. It’s been years since [my ego death] happened – I still think about it daily. I wasn’t ready for the experience. I was left in a state of manic insanity – I kept thinking the trip wasn’t over.”
Framing ego death as the “Holy Grail” of your spiritual journey also holds another trap: spiritual bypass. The term was coined by John Welwood to describe the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
In other words, the idea of ego death can become a means for covering up your psychological issues, instead of facing them. This can happen when you experience low self-esteem, self-depreciation or even self-hatred. When you see yourself as unworthy – and then add the belief about “ego being the enemy” on top of that – it becomes easy to mistaken your low self-esteem for a sign of successfully eradicating the ego.
I went down exactly that route. One summer, I worked in a mountain lodge, in an environment that was less than healthy. Some colleagues and the sheer amount of hours spent working violated my boundaries all the time. I was always on, filling in for missing staff and constantly working overtime.
I suffered – but I never found it in me to stick up for myself. I explained my suffering away as the fault of my ego, which was trying to impose its preferences on me. In response, I tried to “kill it” and give up my sense of self to better serve the team and our clients. I thought I was doing the right thing: letting go and surrendering, as my spiritual path demanded.
As a result, I exhausted myself so much that I fell sick with bronchitis and had to stay in bed for three weeks. Trying to disregard the ego only caused more suffering. At the same time, it allowed me to cover up my real issues – the inability to speak about my needs, demand more time off and set boundaries.
After that summer, I started wondering – was ego really something to get rid of? Or maybe it had a valid role to play? Maybe it was possible to take a friendlier approach rather than trying to “kill the ego”?
In Radical Forgiveness, Colin Tipping suggests such an approach. He mentions two different ways of framing the ego. One is to see it as “the enemy” that stands in the way of spiritual growth. From this perspective, it only makes sense to get rid of it.
But there’s also an option to see ego as the “loving guide,” as Tipping calls it:
“The other, friendlier way of looking at the ego – which I find equally tenable and, to be truthful, more attractive – holds that, far from being our enemy, the ego is a part of our soul that acts as our guide in the World of Humanity. Its role is to provide opportunities in our lifetime that will fully test our ability to fulfil the mission we carefully planned before we incarnated, the primary purpose of which was to experience a certain agreed-upon amount of separation. When we have reached the degree of separation we signed up for, the process of awakening can begin. That’s when we are likely to find Radical Forgiveness. (…)
The only value in having human experience is precisely to live through such things as the ego provides: belief in duality, separateness, pain and suffering, guilt and fear. Our ego gives us the opportunity to embody these feelings by creating experiences like abandonment, betrayal, abuse, rejection, divorce, physical illness, disability and so on.
Our ego, then, in this model, is the guide that will take us on all these exciting journeys into separation, pain and discomfort. It does so not out of malice or for the sake of its own survival, as many spiritual teachers maintain, but because it loves us and knows that we need these experiences for our spiritual growth.”
From this perspective, ego has a crucial role to play in your spiritual journey. Through making you experience separation and discomfort, it shows you what your True Nature isn’t. By creating a contrast with the higher, unconditional plane of experience, it provides the circumstances for waking up and consciously entering the spiritual journey.
Ego is the darkness without which you wouldn’t appreciate the light. However, “darkness” doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong. It can be seen as a friend, a natural part of being human, and as a loving guide that helps you navigate life.
From this place, what do you choose? Do you prefer to get to know your ego as a friend – or try to “kill” it as the enemy?
What If Your Ego Could Simply Be Quieter?
In psychology, there’s a concept of a “quiet ego.” It has the main characteristics of the “healthy and well-coordinated” ego functions that Thanissaro Bhikkhu spoke about.
Wayment and colleagues, who researched the quiet ego thoroughly, define it as follows:
“The quiet ego refers to a self-identity that transcends egoism and identifies with a less defensive, balanced stance toward the self and others. (…)By quiet ego we do not mean a “squashed” or “little” ego. Instead, the quiet ego constructs a self-identity that is neither excessively self-focused nor excessively other-focused—“an identity that incorporates others without losing the self.””
This definition frames the ego as the operating system we all have – something normal. However, it also points out that this operating system can function in different ways. The ego doesn’t have to reinforce the sense of separation as the only way of imagining the self. According to the definition above, the quiet ego can produce an identity that incorporates others without losing the self.
Can you see the similarity with the transcendent experience of ego death? What if being one with all life is possible without eradicating the ego?
I think of the quiet ego as an operating system that runs so smoothly that it doesn’t bother you anymore. It doesn’t constrain your awareness, because it’s not screaming for attention. Instead, it works quietly in the background, like a well-oiled machine. It allows you to hold a broader perspective of reality than what is usually thought possible through the lens of ego.
Weymant and colleagues identified four main characteristics of how quiet ego functions:
- Inclusive identity: “Inclusive identity refers to the degree to which one identifies with others, views the self as the same as others, considers oneself to share personal qualities with others, or otherwise to include others within one’s sense of psychosocial identity.”
- Perspective-taking: “Perspective-taking involves an ability to shift attention away from the self (Cassell 2002; Davis 1983), which facilitates not merely compassion but a conceptual understanding of the conditions of those for whom one feels compassion by virtue of inclusive identity.”
- Detached awareness: “Detached awareness is largely a non-defensive sort of attention, very similar to the concept of mindfulness (Brown and Ryan 2003). By focusing on the immediate moment without preconceived notions of what one should be doing or of ideals about how the moment will turn out (Brown and Ryan 2003), clears a space against defensiveness, allowing one to acknowledge undesirable qualities of oneself or one’s actions. (Brown et al. 2008)”
- Growth: “Growth effects a similar kind of acknowledgement by shifting focus from the immediate moment to longer-term, humanistic personal growth.”
The alternative to pursuing ego death may be to develop a quiet ego – or, to make friends with your ego without identifying with it. This approach doesn’t require you to despise ego. Instead, you can acknowledge it as something neutral.
How do you make your ego quieter? In my experience, it’s akin to a parent comforting a crying child.
When a child cries, that’s because it hurts. This means it needs loving attention and acknowledgement of its feelings. Trying to ignore or forcefully shut the child down can only work short-term. If a parent doesn’t acknowledge the child’s pain – it’ll keep coming up in one form or another.
The loving way to quiet the child is to give it the attention it needs. It seems to be the same with the ego. The way to turn down its volume is by listening to what it has to say with compassionate, non-judgmental attention.
How Making Friends With Your Ego Really Looks Like
Paying attention to your ego doesn’t mean you have to follow what it says. Your only job is to hear its voice, without being driven by it.
This way, you may start seeing your ego as the “loving guide” Colin Tipping talked about.
When you become more aware of how your ego operates, your relationship with it may start changing organically. Awareness is always the first step to change.
“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” – Sheryl Sandberg
To transcend the limits your ego currently creates, you need to notice them first. What’s the practical way to do that? In my experience, it all starts with emotional awareness.
By feeling your emotions exactly as they are, you connect to your moment-to-moment experience. Feelings can only happen in the present. If you focus on them, you lower the chance of believing what your ego says. This puts you in a position to witness your ego without reacting to it.
As a result, you become more honest with yourself. You may start seeing those aspects of your ego that are deemed “ugly” by most people. But your task is to develop a non-judgmental attitude to them. See them for what they are – a by-product of your DMN, and not a defining part of who you are.
Recently, I spoke to a good friend on the phone. I consider her very successful and always a few steps ahead of me. Consciously, I’d been telling myself (and her) that I’m happy for her successes. Unconsciously, my ego compared me to her all the time.
This produced jealousy which I managed to hide for a very long time. However, in our last conversation, she shared so many successes that my jealously became too strong to cover. I couldn’t deny it any longer – I was jealous of her “doing better” than me.
The first step to notice it was feeling what was happening in my body. As she spoke, the heat arising in my chest and solar plexus became hard to ignore. This signalled how insecure and inferior I felt next to her.
Once I opened myself to the feelings, I was able to hear the voice of my ego. I did my best not to judge it, but simply be aware of what’s going on. After I admitted the experience of jealousy, I could start working with it. Just by noticing the mechanism, I can tell it’s not helping me to compare myself to my friend.
Now, I’m much quicker to notice whenever my ego “turns on the comparison machine,” as Niklas Göke once put it. Thanks to this, I can choose not to believe the thoughts my ego produces.
By tuning in to your feelings you, too, can become more receptive to the voice of your ego. Once you hear it, you can be with it the way you would with a distraught child. Give it your full attention. Don’t despise it, but also don’t make decisions based on its urges.
Simply be mindful of how it behaves. That’s the first step to a quieter, more balanced ego that may guide you on your spiritual path.
“[W]hen pain and discomfort arise, it’s because they are required. They are valid because they are forms of communication that have a necessary and valuable function.
This insight invites us to alter our perception of pain and discomfort. We now entertain the possibility that pain and discomfort are our friends, not our enemies, and that they have come to assist us, not hurt us. The way they assist us is by focusing our attention on a specific aspect of our physical, mental and emotional experience.” – Michael Brown, The Presence Process
Instead of Chasing Ego Death, Make Friends With Your Ego
Ego death can be an enriching experience. It may give you a glimpse into those aspects of reality that you can’t perceive day-to-day. It can provide a sense of wonder, connection with your True Nature and be a beautiful, mystical experience.
I don’t deny the value of this. However, I think that if you’re a committed spiritual seeker, working with your ego rather than against it, may be more insightful and rewarding.
Trying to get rid of your ego carries all kinds of traps. Enhanced self-hatred, spiritual bypass or getting addicted to the “spiritual high” while discarding the seemingly mundane, everyday experience – these are just some examples. Maybe the experience of ego death is worth risking them.
But I want you to know that there’s a gentler and more compassionate approach. You have a choice.
If you decide to make friends with your ego, you can treat each step on your path as valid. Even when the ego screams for attention, you can remember that this is just a part of being human.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the ego. It’s your attitude towards it that matters. You can fuel it with acceptance and compassion, and turn the ego into your guide.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t transcend the ego or experience what’s beyond it. By all means, be open to that. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to chase ego death for your spiritual journey to count.
You can keep progressing on your path, embracing your ego as just another thing to be aware of. Then, one day, you may notice it naturally fading away. But it won’t be because you “killed it.”
When the ego has taught you all it had, it may naturally move to the background – allowing space for the organic experience of egolessness.
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