“Waking up is an endless losing what you think you know, like a wave of destruction that leaves nothing, but what is true.” ~Unmani
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’ll be talking about in this article isn’t the typical kind of death we fear. The death I’ll be referring to is the most beautiful, precious, illuminating, awe-inspiring, expansive, enlightening and paradigm-shattering experience you could ever go through. This experience is known as “ego death,” and for every serious spiritual seeker, it is a pivotal process to go through.
What is the Ego?
In order to understand what ego death is, we must first understand what the ego is.
As we elaborated on in the article “What is the Ego?” the ego is basically our sense of self or our identity. The ego is a biological and spiritual tool that was created by and 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 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. The result of the dualistic ego is judgment, hatred, condemnation, and alienation. While we accept some things, we reject other things. While we love some people, we hate other people. Instead of unconditionally accepting life in its wholeness, we segregate it into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” experiences, people, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. Thus, we suffer.
As a result of our perceived separation from Spirit, and the duality lens we see life through, 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, angry and perverted the more we “lock” away.
The product of 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. Our internal suffering is solely the product of the ego that believes it is separate from others and life itself.
What is Ego Death?
Ego death is the experience of transcending the ego, self or 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 completely (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.
If you are 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. This is because 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 approach 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: complete destruction, if only for a minute. As a defense mechanism, the ego creates intense fear. However, in order 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
Ego death happens in stages, and if courageously pursued, results in the experience of Nirvana, Oneness or Enlightenment.
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. Our process of spiritual awakening might be triggered by a life crisis, a tragedy, a chronic illness, or simply the natural process of soulful maturing. 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 are accompanied by the feelings of depression and anxiety. 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. 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. Read more about 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 is completely shed. For some, this experience is scary, and spiritual growth stagnates, for others, it is deeply life-changing and spiritual growth continues.
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 and more soulful maturity, we learn the virtues of self-discipline, patience, and focus.
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 them go and letting the light in. Grace, discipline, trust, courage, non-attachment 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 perish. 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. 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 unconditional love and acceptance for all things. This is the state of ultimate peace, freedom and what people refer to as “enlightenment,” yet those who experience this know that no possible label or mental construct can encapsulate such an experience.
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 your 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