Psychedelics, Ego Death, and Mystical Experiences

Jun 19, 2024 | Mindfulness

Psychedelics and Ego Death

Have you recently spent some time around a psychedelic or spiritual community? If so, you’ve probably heard about “ego death”. 

It’s likely you’ve heard of this term spoken with pure reverence, as if the ego is a common enemy that must be vanquished.

Why is this? 

Is an ego death truly a guaranteed path towards winning the spiritual lottery free of cost or risk? (Hint: not quite!)

Ego death has become a bit of a buzz phrase recently. According to Google Trends, the number of search queries for “ego death” has grown steadily since late 2009. Interest skyrocketed in July 2020 (curiously close to the outbreak of the COVID pandemic) and again in November 2021.

Clinical research into the topics of ego and consciousness have also expanded. John Hopkins University recently added the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research to their prestigious campus. 

One of the five questions Imperial College London and their Centre for Psychedelic Research hopes to answer in the future is, “what is consciousness?”

But what exactly does ego death mean and how does it relate to consciousness? Which definition of the ego are we trying to send to the afterlife? Why do so many people speak of it as the ultimate, life changing experience?

And can cannabis induce ego death? Or is it only the highest doses of DMT that can get us there? 

Spoiler alert: ego death can happen in sober states!

Psychedelic plant medicine just makes getting there a bit easier. 

In our latest blog piece, we’ll be discussing what people may be really looking for in an ego death, why it can be so profound, and some of the risks involved with “killing” your ego. We’ll also be reviewing the latest science and theory behind how psychedelic cannabis affects the ego. 

What is the Ego, and why are people killing it?

Before we can talk about why people would want to kill their ego, let’s review a few of the most common definitions of the ego. I think all of the definitions are flawed in some way. Yet, each definition provides its own unique flavor on the topic.

I also believe that most people do not want to “kill” their ego, whichever definition we use. I will continue to touch on this throughout this piece, but I think what most people want is to either a) dissolve the ego temporarily to discover their true self, or b) reframe their relationship to the ego.

Whichever ego we are talking about, the ego is a tool. One we want to understand better, become friends with, and learn to appreciate. 

Something I worry is not mentioned enough is that when you dissolve your ego, you also have to put it back together again. Without an ego, we would become mentally ill.

Failure to effectively put your ego back together again can lead to manic depersonalization, detachment from reality, and even temporary psychosis. These occurrences are extremely rare, but they do happen.

Our ego’s may not be perfect, but they are a necessary part of our lives. They have been there for us from a young age and have given us meaning and purpose. Because of this, I will refer to ego death as ego dissolution from now on. 

If you are engaging in this type of journey, or you already have before, it’s critical to work with a psychedelic integration coach or a psychedelic therapist to ensure your ego dissolution experience is a positive one. 

It’s also extremely important to ask yourself what your “why” is. Why are you seeking an ego dissolution experience?

If you don’t have a clear answer to that, we hope this piece will help. 

Freud’s Ego

The Ego in a Bubble

The unified concept of the ego was first coined in 1920 by Sigmund Freud in his famous essay, Beyond The Pleasure Principle. Freud was a physiologist, a medical doctor, a psychologist, and is known as the father of psychoanalysis.

Although the term ego was widely used before Freud, people used it in a variety of contexts and it lacked a cohesive, specific definition. 

Freud brought specifics to the term, and also created a more detailed framework of the “unconscious” mind in the process.  

According to Freud, our experience of reality can be whittled down to a human psyche that exists in three parts. Each part competes for the “steering wheel” of our behavior, actions, and personality.

  1. Id
  2. Ego
  3. Superego

The “id” mostly refers to survival and animalistic instincts such as the drive for food, thirst, sex, pleasure, and aggression. It is driven by the pleasure principle, which demands immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. 

Unlike the ego or the superego, we are born with the id. It’s the drive behind the most primal aspects of ourselves. 

Have you ever noticed how aggressive, demanding, and impulsive a three-year old human can be? This is partly because they have strong emotions and don’t have the language skills to express them. It’s also because their behavior is mostly driven by the id and its desires. 

Newborn babies do not have an ego or a superego yet. The ego does not start developing until age three, and the superego does not begin emerging until age five. 

The superego is essentially the opposite of the id. It’s all about morals, societal standards, and righteousness. It’s what eventually grows to suppress the urges of the id and helps us function in society. 

The ego, the part of the psyche with a bounty on it, is what helps us strike a balance between these two. It operates on the reality principle, where your ego is “always trying to balance what your impulsive id wants with what is realistic and acceptable.”

Is this the ego people mean when they talk about dissolving it? I think in most cases, this would not be wise for obvious reasons. The Freudian ego is what allows us to delay gratification, something strongly correlated with better life outcomes.

There may be unique situations involving a Freudian ego where dissolving it, or changing someone’s relationship to it, might be beneficial. Let’s take someone who grew up with extremely strict parents. Their Freudian ego may have developed in a strict way too. It may have come to believe that natural drive such as sex, pleasure, or aggression are bad all of the time.

If this were the case, they may struggle to pursue relationships, joy, or be unable to stand up for themselves. In this case, dissolving the ego and becoming aware of how it holds you back can help. Once you begin to put it back together again, you can do so in a way where the ego is not so strict in its beliefs.

These situations are rare however, and dissolving the Freudian ego is not what most people are looking for. Just picture a bunch of adults walking around with the impulse control of toddlers!

Jung’s Ego

Carl Jung, a Swiss Psychiatrist who founded Analytic Psychology, defined the ego as something much more profound in our lives. This may be what many people are referring to in ego dissolutions. 

As part of his own three models of the psyche (including the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious), the ego plays a central role in our sense of identity. 

Jung saw the ego “as the center of the field of consciousness which contains our conscious awareness of existing and a continuing sense of personal identity. It is the organizer of our thoughts and intuitions, feelings, and sensations, and has access to memories which are not repressed. The ego is the bearer of personality and stands at the junction between the inner and outer worlds.”

Jung’s ego plays a major role in our sense of self, our personality, and our motivation. Jung’s ego perceives meaning and assesses value. In this way it promotes survival and makes life worth living. It’s a part and expression of Jung’s much bigger self, as seen in the image below.

Jung's Model of the Self

Considering the importance of Jung’s ego and its role in our lives, is it really wise to dissolve it entirely?

The answer is cliché, but true. 

It depends. 

Only you can know. We recommend that you work with a psychedelic therapist on whether something like this would be beneficial for you, or not, is your best bet to try to figure this out.

For some people, especially those whose ego developed during stressful or traumatic times, it may be beneficial. One of the saddest parts about a rough childhood is that our brains, our egos, and our self-models (series of predictions/ simulations about our environment formed during childhood, and cemented as we become adults) can become accustomed to the turmoil. Most of the emotions we feel are the brain’s “best guesses about its internal state.”

If we spent a lot of time in childhood sad, we will be tilted towards sadness as adults. If we were always anxious as kids, we will tend to be more anxious as adults. This aspect, the self-models we developed as kids, may really be what most people are looking to dissolve. 

It may not be our entire sense of self that needs dissolving, but just the series of predictions that predict sadness or pain.

There are of course some people who would benefit from complete Jungian ego dissolution. Take someone who was never allowed to be themselves as a child. They had to be a parent to a sibling, or an honor roll student, or drop out of high school and start working to support the family.

As adults, these people’s ego’s may be far out of alignment from who they really are. They may not know their true self, or their essence. Perhaps a lot of who they are or could be got repressed to The Shadow. (Curious about the Shadow, Shadow Work, and Psychedelics? Read more here!)

An ego dissolution experience may help them find their authentic self and incorporate their shadow. But it’s a case-by-case basis and only a psychedelic therapist can really help you figure out if this is you. 

The risks of dissolving the Jungian ego (and not putting it back together again in a healthy way) include a loss of meaning in life, an inability to delay gratification, depersonalization, and a loss of motivation to engage socially or professionally. If you can’t perceive meaning or assess value at all, then what is the point of life? Or anything? 

If you really think about it, the unyielding desire to erase your sense of self sounds a lot like radical dissociation and permanent psychosis. Jung’s ego is extremely valuable in our lives. Although it may require some tweaking for certain people, it seems like there are very few people who truly need to dissolve the ego. 

As for what Jung thinks?

He would not say that we need to dissolve our egos to heal. Instead, he would say that we should try to understand and strengthen the ego in order to access deeper parts of our psyche. This allows us to become more authentic and helps us discover our truest self. Although ego dissolution may be one way to find your authentic self, it is not the only way. 

Self-awareness and mindful meditation can help us get to know our egos better. Talk therapy with a therapist you feel rapport with can help. Even playing your favorite sport or engaging in creative endeavors can temporarily dissolve your sense of self as you lose yourself in a flow state.

Psychedelics can certainly help, but they are not the only way to work with and get to know your Jungian ego. 

The Buddhist Ego

Buddhist Ego

Although the Buddhist definition of the ego is a bit abstract, and not quite as encompassing as the Jungian ego, I believe there’s a lot of value in discussing it.

The Buddha first began his teaching with The Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth is a simple, yet harsh truth of reality. Suffering in life is inevitable. If we are alive and conscious, we will experience suffering. The second Noble Truth states the suffering is intensified by resistance, longing for what we don’t have, and craving permanence in an impermanent world. 

But what exactly is resisting? What longs and craves for what we don’t have? Buddhists would say it’s the ego. It’s the ego that craves and longs, and it does so because it deeply craves for a belief in a solid self. It’s a compulsive misconception that constantly asserts self-existence, usually through reference to some kind of other. “I love hot weather”, or “I don’t like tomatoes”. 

It is addicted to meaning and reference points. It does provide us some sense of security, but it can fail us when something happens that challenges its belief in permanence. I.e., the loss of a family member. 

Buddhist ego dissolution falls in line with the third and fourth Noble Truth. This involves recognizing that permanence is an illusion, and that suffering can be minimized by living a life without extremes or resistance. Buddhists call this ego dissolution “enlightenment”, and it can be attained through consistent meditation. 

Although this is not the ego dissolution most people are referring to, I do believe there is value in studying the Four Noble Truths in greater detail if you are thinking about dissolving your ego.

Everyone reading this has gone through hardship and suffering (me included). By accepting that this suffering is part of life, and that resistance to current and future suffering will only add to the intensity, we can actually free ourselves to live with more joy, love, and happiness. Even if they are impermanent.

Maybe What You Are Really Looking For is a Mystical Experience

Mystical Experiences

You may also be looking for something more general or abstract than an ego dissolution. It might just be a mystical experience you are looking for. 

According to Abraham Maslow (of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), mystical experiences are “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mythic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” 

He saw them as a way of becoming something bigger than ourselves and thought they could provide strength during periods of suffering or struggle in life. What’s shocking is that Maslow never actually took psychedelics!

An ego dissolution is one of four types of mystical experiences, according to Trish Blain’s classification of The Four Forces. She says that all mystical experiences can be classified by four powerful desires that all humans have. These forces are theoretically behind most human motivation.

  • Connection

“Everybody wants to belong, to be loved, and be in love” – Blain

  • Expression

“Everybody wants to be unique and be seen and heard” – Blain

  • Purpose

“Everybody wants to be part of and contribute to something greater than themselves” – Blain

  • Growth

“Everybody wants tomorrow to be better than today” – Blain

Unfortunately, childhood can teach us that we sometimes have to trade-off between these desires to get what we want. Children trading expression for connection is all too common. Blain would argue that we need to embody all of these desires at the same time to live a full, authentic life.

This framework can also be really helpful for mapping a mystical experience before or after a journey, or helping you decide if an ego dissolution experience is actually what you are looking for.

Most current psychedelic research on ego dissolution is centered on the connection type of experience.

Similar to Samadhi or Kenshō from Zen Buddhism, it is the feeling of losing our sense of distinct individuality and feeling “oneness” with the universe. In certain contexts, this type of experience can be extremely healing, and fill us with a deep sense of connection with those around, nature, and the world

But what about the other mystical experiences?

It’s not uncommon to have a mystical experience where our inner point of consciousness becomes the whole universe. It’s a feeling of “I am all and everything”. Not to be misconstrued as some sort of conceit, it’s actually just a deep release and embodiment of expression.

Sometimes, a mystical experience can become one where we view the world as full of meaning, intention, and direction. It’s almost as if the true nature of our life is revealed, and we see the butterfly-effect like patterns behind a bigger picture. This is a mystical experience that fills you with purpose.

What if your experience was full of electric energy, and euphoria? As if we were a mere conduit for the universe’s infinite energy? This would be a growth type of mystical experience. Ecstatic dance is known to illicit this type of experience, even in sober states. 

It’s also common to experience some or all of these types at the same time. 

Much like many of the theoretical types of ego dissolution we discussed above, these mystical experiences have incredible healing potential, and some level of risk.

By learning about these types of mystical experiences, you might be more prepared for these types of journeys.

We also hope that now that we have covered the most pertinent types of egos, ego dissolutions, and mystical experiences, you might better understand what you are actually looking for.

Maybe you have been seeking an ego dissolution experience, but you weren’t sure what that actually meant. As you can see, it can mean many things. We believe that learning about the varieties of egos and mystical experiences can help you with intention setting. 

If any of these types of experiences resonated with you, then setting an intention for the specific type of ego experience can guide your journey towards there. If you are working with a psychedelic therapist, they can help you zone in on which type of experience may be best for you if you are still unsure.  

Julian Bost

Julian Bost is a Development Specialist and Psychedelic Sitter for Kinesthesia Leadership and Holistic Therapeutix, a Psychedelic Freelance Writer, a Psychedelic IFS-Therapist in training, and a volunteer for the Nowak Society of the greater Denver area. Julian’s experience includes stints with Psychedelics Today, REMAP Therapeutics, and the Integrated Research Literacy Group. Although his background was originally in economics, he has spent the last several years focused on psychedelics, chronic pain, and mental health. He has studied this intersection through the lens of cognitive psychology, human anatomy, and neuroscience. He also has over 15 years of experience resolving his own pain and injury as a lifelong athlete.

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