It’s slippery, but in this article, I use research to define Ego as an intermediary between the real world and other parts of your psyche and talk about how psychedelics interact with the ego from a scientific and an anecdotal point of view.
What is the ego?
The ego is the part of your psyche which is responsible for dealing with reality, but in doing so it must mitigate the wants and desires of other parts of our psyche, making its job difficult. It also allows us to identify with, groups, skills we might have, possessions we own, and generally identify in general. The ego is a hard to define concept so you better read on where, at the risk of confusing the topic further, I will attempt to explain. I think it’s important to understand what the ego is as Ayahuasca and other psychedelics make you aware of the boundaries of your Ego.
Ego is a slippery thing to define and identify, but I think by looking at a few definitions we can start to get an idea for what it is.
Ekhart Tolle has said that ego is,
“Ego is our identification with form, ideas, status, talents and even events“Ekhart Tolle – www.tolleteachings.com
On the same web page, he also says,
“The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and other collective identifications. None of these is you.”
That seems quite clear, and Ekhart has introduced the idea that these identifications are not really you. I also alluded to this above when talking about being the observer. But, I know that there is more to the ego than this from reading around the net so, let’s look at what others say.
Freud had a theory, which seems to hold some weight for me and my experiences, based on ‘The ID’, ‘The Ego’, and ‘The SuperEgo’. In this theory Ego is,
…the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.Saul McLeod – simplepsychology.org
However, this quote needs some unpacking. From it we can see that the ego is an intermediary between The Id and the Super Ego, but what are these and how does the ego interact with them?
- The article says that The Id is the instinctual part of us that responds directly to our impulses. In some (not all I should note) people it can be aggressive, selfish and is often pleasure seeking. It has no contact with the outside world as it is within our subconscious and as such doesn’t change much.
- It also says that The Super Ego constitutes the values and morals of society (learned through the person’s parents and upbringing) and is responsible for persuading The Id away from impulses which society frowns upon and looks to aim it towards more moralistic ones.
Ok this is starting to make sense. The ego in this description is the part of our psyche which is attempting to satisfy the wants and needs of The Id and The SuperEgo – an arbitrator perhaps. Our article by Saul also describes its function in this way,
The ego operates according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave.
This theory has some weight for me because in the past I have felt like the ego is very closely related to my instincts (The ID as Freud would say) and my ability to do analysis, problem-solving and decision making. At times I thought they were the same thing.
So, we can see that the ego is complex which is probably why it’s hard to wrap our heads around. On top of that, it’s also not normally able to be ‘observed’. Ayahuasca and psychedelics allow you to observe (and in my experience dissolve) your ego, but also other methods like meditation. Not things that everyone is doing all the time. At least not in my world.
How do psychedelics interact with your ego?
There are two ways to answer this. From a Neuroscience point of view and from an anecdotal and spiritual point of view.
The Default Mode Network:
Recent Neuroscience research suggests that one’s ego resides in the ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN) of the brain.
- The DMN is a network made up of multiple, physical regions of the brain, which under psychedelics has less activity than normal.
- One way we may be able to interpret this is when the ego is ‘disabled’ we are able to experience such things as ‘one-ness’ with other people and nature.
- Another interpretation of this data is that while the DMN is disabled new connections may be able to be made – potentially rewriting your neural pathways in your brain.
It is theoretical at this point, but I think it’s more than going in the right direction. There are two resources which serve to explain the above paragraph more.
The first is a video by Michael Pollan in which he talks about his book (How to Change Your Mind) and the research of Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris (and others) in relation to the DMN. Michael says in the below video, that The DMN is a sort of conductor of brain activity and more specifically that it’s involved in
- the executive functions of the brain,
- connecting to older areas of the brain,
- is involved in self reflection,
- where your mind goes where it’s worrying,
- about thinking of the future and/or the past,
- and that it’s involved in theory of mind which is critical to moral and ethical reasoning.
After watching this video you will see the parallels between what he’s saying and the concepts of Freud I mentioned above. It’s a great introduction, but if you want something closer to the original science then check out the second video below. In it, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris presents his research into the DMN and psilocybin. This is the work which Michael is talking about, so it is a more direct version and probably more accurate, however harder to understand.
In the below video Dr. Carhart-Harris summarizes research on the DMN by saying that,
“ego is the emergent property of a self-organized activity in the DMN”
and that it is involved in,
- Complex mental imagery,
- Mental time travel,
- Theory of Mind,
- and Metacognition.
Dr. Carhart-Harris has a lot more information but as far as this question is concerned we’ll stop there.
In summary, Neuroscientists, as far as they understand, believe that the DMN is the seat of the ego and that it is possible that when its activity is reduced we are able to get some distance from our ego and potentially make new neural connections and experience what it is like when our ego is not in control (one-ness).
Anecdotal description of Psychedelics interacting with ego:
So we know what Science understands of the interaction of psychedelics and ego, but what is it like to observe your ego or indeed have it dissolved or killed while on psychedelics?
Well, in the case of Ayahuasca I can describe you my experiences. Between 1-2 hours after drinking Ayahuasca, sometimes less, you start to see lights and visions. As the Shaman sings Icaros (songs) your visions start to become more intense. The guidance of an Ayahuasca Ceremony in terms of the things you may cover while tripping can sometimes (emphasis on sometimes) be controlled by focussing on an intention.
In one particular ceremony, I experienced Ego Dissolution (not quite as extreme as Ego Death) after focussing on a general and all-encompassing intention, that being “show me what I need to know”. I wrote about the entire trip experience in this post, but here are the paragraphs relating to.
I was then shown my ego. It seemed to be under attack or that’s how it felt. It might be more accurate to say that it was being poked and prodded and investigated and I think this caused some mild anxiety. Hence the feeling of insecurity I felt and my feeling of being attacked….
I had a vision of my torso. Muscles tensed, vibrating a lot. It felt like my ego was enraged. My torso was changing colors, yellows, reds, greens and shaking violently. I started to feel anxiety. Anxiety I remember feeling at various times in my life. When someone made fun of me, when I was worried or scared by my Dad. It was a familiar feeling.
Next Ayahuasca antagonized my ego further. I think in an effort to further define it for me, so I knew what my ego being triggered felt like and could relate to all those times I had felt those similar feelings before. I became fierce. The aggressive part of my ego was on display. I was sitting up at this point and remember flexing my back muscles in preparation for a perceived conflict. I felt detached from it though. I could perceive it as something separate from me. I was at arm’s length from my enraged ego.
I think this is what people call ego dissolution….
What is an Ego Death and what does it feel like?
Although I don’t think I have experienced it myself, from research around the net an Ego Death is when you’re ego undergoes a symbolic death.
Under the influence of psychedelics, you feel as if you have no self. You are able to experience your ‘true self’, i.e. that which you are that is not your ego. Often people describe this as a ‘one-ness’ with people, nature and the potentially even the universe depending on how hard you are tripping.
This is different from what I experienced. I had more of a dissolution of my ego which actually felt like a lot of anxiety. I had the feeling or idea that this is perhaps because I wasn’t ready for an ego death. Perhaps the anxiety I felt during the ceremony was my ego hanging on, getting rattled, becoming aware that it was being ‘observed’ and poked and prodded. Maybe when my ego is in trouble it makes me feel anxiety as a way to remove myself from this particular situation.
What does Ego Death do for you?
An Ego Death allows you to experience who you are when your ego is not present. Does that confuse you more? It should for most people who haven’t experienced it. Why? Because your ego is probably in control 99.9999999% of the time and you actually have no idea what it is like for it to not be in control.
When your ego is not in control, I have experienced it briefly during meditation, you feel energized somehow, you feel good, you feel like a weight is lifted from you. Even when I have achieved it only for a few seconds it lasts with me for hours afterward.
Is Ego Death permanent?
No. Ego Death is a symbolic death. Your ego doesn’t actually die and never come back, however it might be severely less powerful than before. Don’t fall into the trap that playing with psychedelics does not cause permanent change, however. These are very powerful life changing substances. In the case of Ayahuasca, and while your ego won’t be gone forever it may have other long-lasting effects.
Here’s a good example for you. I have, previous to taking Ayahuasca, never been a spiritual person, never considered my own existence before, but now I am and I do.
I came to Ayahuasca in order to work on some thought patterns I wanted to eradicate and thought I had found an answer. I did indeed get a lot of help from Ayahuasca on these patterns, but now I have to integrate a new world view – one that encompasses the spirits and demons. That is quite the head fuck let me tell you. I’ll be dealing with this one for a while. Writing helps, hence the blog:)
Is it Egoic to chase Ego Death?
There also seems to be a strange and yet totally understandable desire for Ego Death. After my first 5 days (3 ceremonies) of Ayahuasca I took 6 months off any intense psychedelic trips. I didn’t even smoke a joint. I had some alcohol but I would say 8-10 beers every 2 months. Not much at all.
When I next came to do Ayahuasca I remember that in the weeks beforehand I was very much looking forward to it and wanted to ‘breakthrough’ into other dimensions and have a crazy time like I had been reading about. While I didn’t covet the ego Death I was coveting a crazy experience. My ego was in control and wanted what everyone else had been experiencing. I’m trying to say that ego is pervasive and even those who perhaps should know better fall into its trap.