So far, I’ve been using the word “ego” to describe pretty much everything about us that isn’t pure consciousness (soul, god, divine essence, Christ consciousness, what-have-you.) The ego is all the impermanent stuff that we mistake ourselves for on a regular basis unless we get a swift kick in our asses: Career titles, genders, nationalities, and belief systems, to name a few. There are also physical things such as biological sex and race which are equally illusory, but they don’t fall apart in the same way that those other things can. For the purposes of this post, it’s the mental stuff we’re talking about: Generally, the ego is all that you think you are/how you present yourself to others on a psychological level.
An ego death is what happens when the constructs of your identity collapse all at once. At this point, we tend to acutely see how such constructs are binding everyone else around us as well: We’re divided and hurting one another over quite literally NOTHING. During all this, we also usually get a taste of reality (as much as can be experienced while still in a human body, anyway), and it can feel really incredible.
But it also hurts. To compare, it’s like watching an elaborate sandcastle you’ve worked on for your whole life get washed out to sea. Except you’re naked, living inside the sandcastle, and you’ve never been fully exposed to the elements. Oh, and you maybe sort of knew that the ocean was out there, but you had no idea how big and powerful it was. You more or less thought that you could build a good enough sandcastle to withstand the force of the ocean. This is a pervasive cultural myth that gets continually played out in our individual minds: “Build a strong enough sandcastle and the ocean won’t ever get you.”
From where I sit today, I can say that on the other side of it, it’s like “oh so what; it’s just a sandcastle.” But if you have no idea that the ocean is out there and you’re happily tinkering away, adding more details to the sandcastle in order to reinforce it, you’re probably in for a rude awakening.
Ok, is that enough metaphoring for now? I think so.
The Ego and World Structures
The ego death goes by many different names, none of which are very comforting. Carl Jung called it the “psychic death.” Sometimes it is referred to as “the abyss” or “the great death” or “annihilation” or “death before death” depending on what tradition you’re looking at. Regardless, we’re talking about all the same feelings, and yes, it is a big deal.
The ego death gets a whole lot of attention because it’s intense and dramatic, and before the unconscious ego dies, it totally feeds on drama. However, this drama is understandable: For much of humanity (and especially for those who wield institutional power), the unconscious ego is still in the driver’s seat of thought, action, and emotion.
The ego is the source of all non-survival based conflict. It’s why some eight dudes hoard an absurd amount of wealth and resources and why they freak out when someone says “hey, that’s not okay.” It’s why power is rarely if ever relinquished willingly. It’s why we never feel like “enough,” why we can’t seem to love ourselves and one another and embrace the fact that we are truly all one family. It’s just a whole lot of ego constructs that keep us believing we are all very different and separate and more-or-less-deserving than others.
The ego must be constantly propped up. This happens either internally with our own thoughts, or in the form of recurrent external validation. When this consistent inflation goes away (perhaps because you’ve interrupted the thought stream intensively enough during meditation, had a full-on awakening, or lost everything in your life at once), the ego starts to die. It tends to not go quietly—after all, it wants to live just like everything else. It makes a scene, sometimes outrageously using your mind and body to hold itself together (hello catastrophic manic episode).
Here’s one way I remember to have compassion towards “the worst” individuals on the planet: Everyone who increases the suffering on Earth is doing so simply because they are trying to keep their flimsy sandcastle upright. These are deeply insecure and immature individuals. The threat of death is around every corner for them, because they are aware on some level that none of what they have is permanent. It’s always going away in some form or another, and they have continually rejected the part of themselves that is still and timeless.
Make no mistake: It does not feel “good” to be in a place of great institutional power unless one has developed themselves a great deal. Most people seek out this kind of power precisely because they haven’t developed themselves and are using Earthly control as a substitute. Generally, they feel closed and lonely and often quite bored. The underlying state of consciousness for them is fear, and that is very sad for them.
Mental Health & the Ego
From a spiritual perspective, much of what we perceive as depression and anxiety is a result of the conflict between the ego and the soul/pure consciousness, which is always speaking. If we choose not to listen to this part of us, that doesn’t mean it shuts up. Ignoring it results in pain on many levels; it has us chasing crumbs of nonsense left and right.
It’s not that we’re trying to be all of one or the other (soul or ego). It’s more like the ego is in the driver’s seat and your soul keeps saying “please let me take over.” But the ego’s on a preset course—a highway that everyone else is on—too afraid to let the soul have a turn at the wheel. What if it drives you off a cliff? What if it takes you off the highway and onto a road where there’s no one and nothing and you’re out there and the car breaks down?
The ego continually says “No, we are staying on this highway no matter how congested and terrible it gets,” and the soul is like “Just trust me.” This conversation is ongoing, and yes, it makes you neurotic AF.
This dis-ease is different than the depression brought on by traumatic life events and sick cultures. These kinds of depression are created and sustained by the fact that the body carries old pain physically, mentally, and energetically. Additionally, we tend to leak our pain into one another/pick up other people’s pain when we aren’t too aware. I’ll have to discuss all of this in another post or series of posts.
When it comes to depression and Western culture, let’s go with this: Sometimes you’re trying to heal old wounds (like, really old: Your great-grandparents’ wounds, even). Sometimes you’re seeing right through our sick culture and feeling totally unmotivated to be a part of anything. And, far less occasionally, but sometimes, your whole ego is totally collapsing. There are other reasons and gradations regarding depression, and sometimes this alllll happens at once, such as in an awakening.
If you’re not sure which of these things you’re dealing with, I have a simple suggestion: Go balls to the wall. See a doctor, get some books of spiritual wisdom, take the medication, sit and breathe, eat nutritious food, get some exercise and be gentle towards yourself and journal. Do all kinds of things, just like you would if you were trying to heal any other part of you. Google a bunch of stuff about how you’re feeling and see what other experiences resonate. (Seriously, the Internet is a fabulous tool if you can manage not to get lost in it—just like the mind itself.) Do it all if you can, and the way out of depression will be revealed at some point.
Unfortunately, if it’s an ego death, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to do these things. All bets are off. It happens quickly. Your psychic shell is cracking and a kind of energy is going to start pouring through you that is indescribable. You’re going through a thing that not very many people will understand or know how to respond to. It’s going to happen how it happens.
If it is at all possible for you to drop your formal obligations immediately, please do so. An ego death (and the whole process of awakening, for that matter) isn’t like dropping acid, even though it’s become sort of popular to equate the two. You don’t just get to sleep it off and get back to work feeling a little clearer, a little lighter. The process transmutes every fiber in your being; it makes clear what is real and true and eventually moves you towards peace and power.
Signs of the Ego Death
I want to sum up a few of the key aspects of my personal ego death in case you think you’ve had (or are having) one. Keep in mind that this whole thing may be felt differently depending on how much inner work we’ve done, and also because the universe is very mysterious and playful. Some people don’t resist the ego death and some people do. I don’t know why some can stay calm and others can’t, but I suspect mine was so intense because I’d constructed a pretty defensive, rigid ego from a young age. I did this to protect myself and my tender little feelings; that’s always why every rigid ego is built. I also had a pretty “pish-posh” attitude towards spirituality, which did not help.
So, while mine was totally out of whack, please remember that plenty of buddhas and mystics have gone through the experience and managed not to end up permanently insane. (On the contrary, this is a step towards becoming more sane than ever.) They had conscious knowledge of what was going on and an understanding of energy, whereas I did not, and you may not either.
Anyway, here goes:
- A psychological heaviness and intensity that feels unbearable. It’s not a panic attack. It’s not a depressive episode. It’s just… bigger. It’s all-encompassing; it’s tone is truly that of annihilation. It’s dense. It lacks the raw tearfulness common to healing/depression—not that you won’t cry; it’s just that you’ll be strangely “far away” from the crying. Mostly it’s a pervasive, enormous sense of nothingness that you have not been trained to feel comfortable in. Later on, provided we stay on the path rather than running back into the imagined safety of avoidance, we learn how to relax into the nothingness. But this first taste of it is like the ocean carrying you out to sea. Not only do you not know how to swim; you don’t even know what water is. One of the core delusions of my first major manic episode was that I was—somehow, some way—going through a black hole. That’s honestly still the best way I can think to describe it. If you feel like you’re going through a black hole, your consciousness is probably expanding and your unconscious ego is probably dying.
- The irresistible desire to cling to anything. You’re drowning. Anyone who seems present and balanced is someone for you to try and grab hold of. Anything that might save you from yourself is embraced (drugs, alcohol, sex.) It’s like a mad grab to become less conscious, to return to the familiar world.
- … But those things don’t feel the same, and sometimes they don’t work. Drinking made me uncoordinated but didn’t get me “drunk.” Other favorite ways to numb out were slow and uninteresting.
- Extreme defensiveness. Your ego tries to defend itself by lashing out at people, just like a wounded/dying animal lashes out at those who try to help it.
- Acute sensitivity to others. With the shell broken, you’re picking up on everyone else’s signals, and there is pain everywhere. You may feel the tremendous need to help the entire world. You can’t—not now, anyway.
- The feeling that you’re losing your mind (up to a point). For about a week or so, I was checking in with others: “Do I seem okay? Does what I’m saying make sense? Do I look okay?” And they’d be like “yeah sure, you’re just going through some rough stuff.” When I stopped asking was when I was way gone. I didn’t need to ask anymore, and that was precisely when I had truly lost my mind. By then, hearing that I wasn’t well was absolutely horrible. I knew what was going on in the Universe; I understood it innately. I couldn’t explain it, but I did know, and being told otherwise felt like the ultimate betrayal from my fellow humans.
Notice how this description closely mimics what is known as a manic episode and/or a mixed episode. I speak from the perspective that all things are “spiritual” (or not spiritual; whatever, words are weak), and so I’m more likely to talk about “episodes” in these ways than in “chemical imbalance” terminology.
It’s not my role to decide for another if what they’re dealing with psychologically should be medicalized or not. My point is to say, “just look.” Look at this total universe and what is happening in this world, and decide if it feels appropriate to take on the “disorder” label.
If it does (and really, it might be appropriate for a while), please make sure you’re aware enough to drop it when it’s time to let it go. Don’t make the disorder into a part of a new ego, or it may never want to go away.
Lastly, an ego death isn’t something that just happens one time and then life’s all good-and-peaceful. (Maybe it was for Eckhart Tolle and some other super-lucky people over time, but that is not the common experience). The ego is continually chipped at, and then one day, there’s the tipping point.
If you stick with it, one day you’ll be like “okay, I guess I’m going out to sea.” This is what it is to surrender: You trust that it really will be okay to let go of yourself and get to work on learning how to paddle with life’s currents rather than clinging to the shore and continually rebuilding that sandcastle.
Ego Death and Rebirth
On a personal note, I’ve made it to age 30! I’m posting this from a coffee shop on Lopez Island, where I’ve taken myself camping. I thought I would be all immersed in the forest, sitting in half-lotus by the ocean or some shit, but I felt called to post this thing. This is part of flowing with the currents: I’m not attached to sitting when I feel like writing; I’m not attached to writing when I feel like sitting.
In hindsight my 20s feel like a battlefield wherein I’m bloodily crawling towards nothing in particular. It’s just me struggling and stumbling, trying not to feel every single one of my wounds. As others pass me, I’m like “no this is fine! I’m good! Really! I’m getting a college degree and everything! Everyone drinks a lot in their 20s right?”
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it really feels like I’ve made it by the skin of my teeth. As a young teenager (or maybe even 11 or 12), I kinda thought I would just kill myself at some point in my late 20s. I don’t know why I thought this. I wasn’t depressed. I was actually pretty happy, all things considered. I just foresaw that I might be done—not in a resigned fashion or in a fit of agony. Just like, ok, I did Earth as a human and now it’s onto the next thing.
The interesting thing is that my unconscious ego did die in my late 20s. The hospital was a part of that death. The steps leading up to that—letting notions of a career, self-concepts, narratives, beliefs, and opinions go—those were all part of it. Giving up drinking and ending my marriage and were the tipping points.
As I was entering that manic episode—before I lost all insight—I knew that’s what was happening. I have no idea what would’ve occurred if there had been someone in my life who got it. There was so much energy involved in it that I don’t think I could’ve just sat with it at all. And to be fair, there were many people who alluded to having some understanding, but obviously no one could drop everything to be my shamanic healer. One friend said to me in passing, “it’s like you’re birthing this weird alien baby.”
I knew she was right on some level, but I did not know that the alien baby was a new me. I also didn’t know that this new thing would necessarily kill off the old one.