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Psychedelics and ego death

What does ego death and ego dissolution feel like during a psychedelic journey?

Ego dissolution and ego death


“I felt like I had melted into the floor; like I was a part of the floor and R. was gone. I didn’t know my name, or anything else about myself anymore. It was terrifying.” This was how my friend R. described what happened to her during an ayahuasca experience. Such experiences are referred to as ego death or ego dissolution. They may occur when one goes into a deep meditative state, during childbirth or a near-death experience, or during a psychedelic journey. Different people experience ego death differently and each person’s experience is unique. Some have described it as being absorbed or sucked into a bright white light, being a speck of dust in space, being burned away, or ripped apart by wild beasts.


Ego deaths can present themselves in a myriad of ways during a psychedelic experience, but they have one thing in common – they all involve a dramatic deconstruction or temporary destruction of personal identity.


The brain and ego death

Psychedelics like psilocybin or ayahuasca reduce the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN) – an interconnected group of brain regions that psychiatrist Matthew Brown describes as the system that “reminds you that you are you.” The DMN is responsible for our “default mode” of perceiving ourselves, others and the world, and plays a key role in sustaining our personal identity, or “ego”. If DMN activity gets drastically reduced, then we may experience ego death, where our sense of “me consciousness” dissolves and awareness of self disappears temporarily.


What does ego death feel like?

Ego death is often disorienting, frightening and humbling. It can feel like you’ve completely lost control of all your bodily senses, thoughts, and emotions. I’ve never had dementia or been paralyzed, but when I look back on my experiences of ego dissolution, I can’t help but draw comparisons to what I’ve read and heard about dementia and paralysis. When it’s happening, it feels as if my memory, my ability to make decisions, to move, to speak, and to think, have ceased functioning. On one occasion, I was nothing but a beating heart, a lump of organ meat on the ground. All I could think about was the sound of my breath – each breath a single beat that prevented the heart (which was all I was) from stopping. What’s ironic is that despite the terror, there is something immensely liberating about the vulnerability of this ego-less state, of being rendered absolutely helpless and powerless, and stripped of all mental constructs and resources.


Returning from “death”

When it happens in the right setting, under the guidance of experienced and ethical facilitators who are well-acquainted with the state, returning from ego death can be exhilarating. There’s a feeling that one has actually survived a real death, and typically a person feels awe and gratitude for having come through the other side with life and sanity intact. This is why spiritual seekers and psychonauts welcome ego death. Upon returning to the land of the living and landing safely on both feet, one frequently becomes intensely aware of the fragility of life, and there is a newfound understanding of what’s essential.  


Degrees of ego dissolution

In my work, I meet people who are curious and eager to experience ego death with psilocybin. I always let them know that they do not need to have a full-blown ego death to receive the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin. Because psychedelics lower DMN activity, most people who take magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, LSD, ibogaine, or any other psychedelic will experience some degree of ego dissolution. Their sense of “me-ness” will diminish and they often experience more cognitive and emotional freedom than they do when they are in an ordinary state of consciousness. You don’t need to have a complete ego death to benefit from a psychedelic experience. In fact, having a full ego death before one is ready for it can be jarring and can leave one feeling disassociated and traumatized.


Building up to increased dissolution

According to Shannon Kaiser, author of “Return to You” says that with ego death, “often a complete loss of subjective self-identity occurs, causing depression, anxiety, and fear – but the more in touch one is with their spiritual core, the easier the awakening will be.” If it’s your first time working with psychedelics, go slow. More or more often isn’t always best. You will experience what you need to when you are ready for it, and this may or may not include a complete ego death. The beautiful thing about entheogens is that if we approach them with the right intention, they will meet us where we’re at and help us move through the difficulties in our lives or see the problematic aspects of ourselves that we most urgently need to address, before helping us transition to the next stage of our evolution. Practices like regular meditation, in particular sunyata, or emptiness meditation, fasting, breathwork, or floating in sensory deprivation tank may help prepare your mind to fully loosen its grip on the ego. Ongoing work with psychedelics can also improve your mind’s ability to ease into states of reduced internal chatter, which can increase your chances of experiencing greater ego dissolution.

However, even if you never experience ego death, you’ll still learn useful lessons, on a physical, emotional, psychological, or soul level when you approach psychedelics with reverence and humility. The ego is like a city constructed of a gazillion little boxes. There’s a box called “my name”, another called “my culture”, there’s “my gender”, “things I like”, “things I hate”, “my people”, “those people”, “my religion”, “my politics”, “good”, "bad" etcetera. Rather than chasing the ego death experience, a gentler and more sustainable way to achieve psychospiritual growth with psychedelics is to learn to step outside each of these boxes for a little while in order to get a broader view of self and life.

By Michele Koh Morollo, NUMEN NoSC Therapies 


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