Guest writer for Wake Up World
“Waking up is an endless losing what you think you know, like a wave of destruction that leaves nothing but what is true.”
Death is a word that we humans usually associate with darkness, mourning, decay, and general creepiness.
We spend our entire lives running away from, avoiding, and denying the fact that we will someday physically die.
However, the death that I’m talking about in this article isn’t the typical kind of death we fear.
This experience is known as “ego death,” and for every serious spiritual seeker, it is a pivotal part of the spiritual awakening journey.
What is the Ego?
The ego is a biological and spiritual tool that defends the belief that we are all separate “individual” entities.
As a result of believing that we are separate and isolated in this life, we suffer immensely.
The Ego and Duality
The ego – our sense of self – perceives life through the lens of duality.
Duality is the opposite of reality – it is the division of life into opposing forces such as love/hate, good/bad, right/wrong, and holy/sinful.
When we divide life, we suffer.
Instead of unconditionally accepting life in its wholeness, we slice it into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” experiences, people, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. Thus, we suffer.
As a result of our feelings of being separate from the Whole (which gives birth to duality), we also begin to reject ourselves.
Any thought, feeling, sensation, experience, or belief we have that is judged to be “bad,” “unacceptable” or “wrong” we suppress, avoid, and deny.
As a result of this repression, we fuel our Shadow Selves which become more twisted and monstrous the longer we keep them buried under shame.
Living through the ego can be observed in our world very clearly.
The depression, anxiety, mental illness, murder, hatred, greed, poverty, war, and environmental destruction we experience is all a reflection of our internal suffering. It is a loss of Soul.
And why do we suffer?
We suffer because of the separate self we carry (i.e., the ego) that believes it’s a little isolated speck cut off from existence.
What is Ego Death?
I’ve used the term “ego death” in this article because it’s the most popular phrase out there used for such an experience.
But the truth is that the ego can never really “die”; instead, it can be made conscious so that it’s no longer running our lives.
So how can we define “ego death”?
Ego death is the experience of temporarily transcending the ego, self, or personal identity.
This experience is the most mind-bending, awakening, awe-inspiring, peaceful, and unconditionally loving experience you could ever have.
Ego death is essentially an experience of embodying your True Nature (or returning back to who you really are), temporarily.
However, while the experience of ego death is indescribably beautiful, it can also be indescribably horrific for those who are not aware of the spiritual path, and for those who resist the actual experience.
Those who report ego death generally fall into two groups: those who found the experience illuminating, and those who found the experience tormenting.
I have experienced both states of pure ecstasy and pure horror – and let me tell you, it can turn your life upside down and inside out. (Whether that is a good thing is up to you decide!)
Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss
If you’re familiar with the psychonaut community (a collection of people who use psychedelic substances to access higher states of being), you would have heard of many “ego death” experiences.
Why? The answer is that shamanic plants such as ayahuasca, DMT, and psilocybin mushrooms are powerful gateways to the Divine experience.
Psychedelic explorers Dennis and Terence McKenna (who referred to themselves as the “Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss”) often mentioned the state of pure awe and also terror experienced in the face of ego death.
However, as Terence McKenna once said, the abyss must be approached with courage, because only then can you discover that the fear is an illusion:
Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering its a feather bed.
Ego death can feel scary because it is the ultimate threat to the ego: to die. To cease to exist, even for just a minute.
The ego creates intense fear as a defense mechanism to try and hold onto a sense of control and power.
However, to progress on our spiritual paths, we must understand the role of this fear, be mindful of it, and not permit it to limit us.
7 Stages of Ego Death
While ego death is not formulaic or necessarily predictable, it does tend to follow a pattern:
Stage 1 — Spiritual Awakening
In the first stage of ego death, we begin to “wake up” to life.
When we experience a spiritual awakening, we begin to search for more depth in life. Often, we ask big questions such as “what is my purpose?” “what is the meaning of life?” and “what happens after death?”
Spiritual awakenings are triggered by the sensation that something profound is missing in life and they’re accompanied by feelings of depression and anxiety.
Read more: You can learn more about the spiritual awakening process in our book »
Stage 2 — The Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul is inseparable from the spiritual awakening process.
When we experience the Dark Night, we become extremely conscious of our separation from ourselves, other people, and the Divine.
How does the Dark Night often lead to ego death?
The Dark Night of the Soul is a period when we feel utterly lost, lonely and isolated from others. It is the accumulation or culmination of our suffering.
Deep down, we know something has to drastically change in our life, but we don’t know what or where to look.
Often, this experience culminates in a sudden ‘pop’ of the ego bubble – like the cork from a wine bottle suddenly releasing pressure.
Read more: 7 Omens That Herald the Dark Night of the Soul »
Stage 3 — The Spiritual Seeker
Eventually, after experiencing a spiritual awakening and Dark Night of the Soul, we stumble into the field of spirituality. We start experimenting with different spiritual practices and find that some alleviate our suffering.
We become obsessed with reducing the suffering we have been carrying and explore many different fields such as energy healing, zen, yoga, astrology, mysticism, etc.
Stage 4 — Satori
The word “Satori” is a Zen Buddhist word that means “momentary enlightenment.” Satori is a small glimpse into your True Nature, or Consciousness itself; a moment when your ego completely dissolves.
For some, this experience is scary, and spiritual growth stagnates. But for others, the Satori experience is deeply life-changing, and spiritual growth continues.
Many describe Satori as being the result of a kundalini awakening.
Read more: What is Kundalini Awakening? (19 Intense Symptoms) »
Stage 5 — The Elder Soul
After a certain period of time, we begin to develop spiritual discernment. We discover the gimmicks and spiritual bypassing practices that keep us trapped in the cycle of pain, fear, and separation, and learn practices that open us to the Divine. As we begin to experience more soulful maturity and reconnect with the higher Self, we learn the virtues of self-discipline, patience, and focus.
Read more: Higher Self: 11 Ways to Connect With Your Soul »
Stage 6 — Dissolution and Deconstruction
In this stage, we begin to surrender all that we are not.
This stage is not just about identifying our destructive and limiting beliefs and behavior patterns but actually letting go of them and letting the light in.
Grace, discipline, trust, courage, non-attachment, humility, and love all play an important role in this process.
Stage 7 — The End of the Search
Finally, we come to a stop. We realize that all that we are, and all that we need, can be found right Now.
The search to become something, to lose something, to find something, and to accomplish something perishes.
We see through the illusion of looking for truth, joy, peace, and love in any place outside of ourselves.
We see the truth that we are mirrored in all beings and all things.
We experience interconnectedness and Oneness.
While the ego still exists, we become aware of the ego as simply a tool; not the Truth of Who We Are.
Transcending duality and the grip of the ego, we develop the capacity to give unconditional love and acceptance.
This is the state of ultimate inner peace, freedom, and what people refer to as “enlightenment,” yet those who experience this know that no possible label or mental construct can describe such an experience.
The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T. S. Eliot
FAQ About Ego Death
If you needed more clarity, here are some answers to common questions:
What does ego death feel like?
Ego death is an intense experience that can alternate between feelings of horror and ecstatic bliss. While one person may experience nothing but terror, another may experience only cosmic Oneness. But often, most people experience both extremes while undergoing ego death.
What happens after ego death?
Usually, ego death is such a paradigm-shifting and mind-blowing experience that a person’s life will change forever. What happens after ego death often involves a lot of soul searching. The person will be inspired to seek a deeper sense of meaning and purpose and will embark on a spiritual quest for answers. Most people forget about the importance of spiritual integration after this experience – which is crucial to make the most of it!
How to experience ego death?
Some people deliberately seek out ego death to try and achieve a mystical experience. However, a word of caution: this experience can be extremely dangerous for those unprepared (see: spiritual emergency). Once you’ve checked your intentions, you’ll be pleased to know that there are quite a few paths to ego death. Some examples include attending long meditation retreats, entering altered states of consciousness through mystical paths like dancing or chanting, and ingesting psychedelic substances. For serious spiritual seekers, almost every mystical tradition offers pathways to ego death.
Ego death is a serious, purging, profound, and shattering experience.
It is so deep and so beyond anything we have experienced in this life, that it changes our perception of existence in a single moment.
I hope these “stages” have helped you to understand it better.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a beautiful quote to ponder about death itself:
Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die – and find that there is no death.
– Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now)
Ruminate on this process, and let me know what you think.
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