The term ‘ego death’ has been used over and over within the psychedelic community but what does it really mean? In Jungian psychology, ego death refers to a fundamental transformation of the psyche. In eastern spirituality, it’s referred to as the permanent loss of attachment to a separate sense of self. What ego death is not… is a journey to no self. The Self is always reachable in ego death.
The way I explain ego death here is situated in my studies of analytic depth-psychology and my research on the interplay between psychedelics and intuitive movement. Ego death, or ego dissolution, happens when the mind and body become freer of any past limitations, fears, or patterns. This is certainly a very profound and transformational experience of the psyche that can have a lasting impact with proper integration.
Let’s look at an example of a limitation. Let’s say that anytime you share your feelings with others you feel as though they don’t really hear you and don’t respond in a way that feels nurturing. In order to avoid the deeply painful feelings this brings up for you, you stop sharing your feelings with others. This is a protective mechanism called an ego defense. As time goes on, you begin to feel unsatisfied in your relationships and think nobody will ever “care” about you enough to really listen to you. You also start to notice that you’ve been having a lot of tightness in your throat, jaw, neck, and shoulder blades (the unconscious way of “keeping a lid on it”). You try everything to relieve the somatic pain but nothing helps and you continue to find yourself in this repetitive pattern with others.
In depth-psychology, this is known as a core relational trauma or also known in Jungian terms as a complex. It’s a limiting fearful pattern of the psyche that you learned early in your life that repeats itself. In psychotherapy, it may take you a very long time to come to understand and unravel this complex. When the ego becomes dissolved, or when ego death happens, this limiting pattern may dissolve away enough to where you see yourself outside of this trauma. You will quickly become aware that your belief that others don’t listen because they don’t care actually isn’t true and that this is only your perception of reality that was created from prior relationship experiences. You then realize that you play an integral part in repeating this pattern by not sharing your feelings with others.
Psychedelics can provide a direct channel to these parts of your psyche and may help you to gain this knowledge about yourself within a single moment. I want to stress the importance of integration here. If you have a significant insight during a psychedelic experience and you don’t do anything with it, it may again become lost in your unconscious, buried beneath a defensive barricade that may go untouched for years.
Stepping into ego death is stepping into the unknown – it requires a deep surrender. How you get there, can be a complex journey of encountering and tolerating overwhelming experiences. Though, to die, is to allow yourself to become reborn. Symbolically, we can think of this as going through the birth canal – a period of intense constriction and feeling uncomfortable – only to be born on the other side. [side note: the birth canal is a portal into another dimension, just saying.] When previously known parts of the ego, like the limiting belief I talked about earlier, become dissolved, a new sense of self is born. Let me be clear here that this can only take place when the mind, body, and spirit are integrated. The dissolutive properties of a psychedelic experience opens one up to the possibility of a new sense of self, one that is not conditioned by past limitations, fears, patterns, or suffering. The profundity of this surely elicits a state of awe.
My criticism of exiling the ego into the dungeons will be pretty apparent here. Too often in spiritual communities I hear that the ego is the enemy, which could not be further from the truth. The ego is part of the psyche that mediates and communicates between conscious and unconscious processes. Ego defenses are strategies that are unconsciously used to distort or manipulate realty in order to protect against unacceptable feelings and thoughts. In order to better understand this, let’s go back to my earlier example. If you have a belief that people do not truly listen to you when you share your feelings, an unconscious defense strategy may be to withhold your thoughts and feelings from others, especially those closest to you. This strategy protects you from feeling hurt and saves you from feeling shame associated with these feelings. However, there will come a time when this defense no longer works for you. You may realize that you aren’t able to foster any intimate relationships because of it. We can see that at one point, the ego’s strategy was absolutely brilliant but unfortunately, it’s keeping you from having the relationships you want now. In order to dissolve away parts of the ego (the hurt feelings), you must nurture the ego by letting it know that it no longer needs to protect you in this way. Psychedelic can dissolve away these limiting structures and allow you to see beyond them so that you can nurture yourself. Most often, there’s a sense of gratitude and self-love with psychedelic use…this is the nurturance you are giving to yourself.
If you’re someone who participates in ceremonies often or you’re someone who’s thinking about doing so, I highly recommend that you’re in long-term psychotherapy or working with an integration specialist so that when unresolved trauma comes up in these alternative states, that you have somewhere to take it, to hold onto it, and to have it witnessed. Relational traumas are tied to every aspect of our lives – they’re an unavoidable constant process that can dissolve away with the proper care and help from psychedelics, psychotherapists, and others. In addition to psychotherapy, I recommend participating in integration circles to further help integrate the material, to be further connected to the collective unconscious, and to be in community. Relationships can unfortunately result in relational trauma, but they are also the foundation in which that trauma is healed.