Born Again: The History of Psychedelics and Ego Death

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on October 11, 2017

Even in casual conversation, ego is seen as that coked-up Los Angeles desire to talk in rapid tones about yourself and your accomplishments, to project your wants and your abilities. For some people, egocentrism is almost an aspiration; to others, it is nothing short of an irresistible impulse. But to a certain group—not, as you’d think, restricted to day trippers and the dressed-up yuppies at Burning Man—ego is something worth getting rid of entirely. People will embark on faraway tourism just to get a piece of egoless existence, to experience what is called “ego death.”

More than just being a trend or something a remarkably drunk girl once told me about in a bar, ego death is rooted in ancient desire. Before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung gave it a name, people were convinced there was an alternative state of being that would provide clarity and empty the mind of daily concerns. It was covered in length in the 8th century Bardo Thodol, more commonly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Sufi Muslims referred to it as fana, “to die before one dies.” The Talmud, a 1st century Jewish rabbinical text, calls it the “kiss of death.” The book explains that it is not a “forceful separation at all” but rather more akin to “removing a hair from milk,” ridding the desirable of the unwanted. “Fortunate,” Moses is quoted as saying, “is the one who dies a death like this!”

While indigenous cultures utilized substances like ayahuasca to achieve the state, these ancient texts largely referred to using methods like meditation. As the Talmud put it, ego death necessitated having the desire to “cleave to God so strong that [the person’s] soul leaves the body.” Modern attempts, though, have used tools like LSD and psilocybin to try and achieve this desired state. People have been so mesmerized by the experience that research restarted on alternative methods of achieving ego death in the middle of the 20th century. In 1964, after Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (née Richard Alpert) and Ralph Metzner were kicked out of Harvard for their studies on LSD and psychedelics, they published The Psychedelic Experience. The book was a guide for achieving ego death based on and responding to the Bardo Thodol. Their intentions were clear:

“When Freud coined the phrase that the ego was ‘the true seat of anxiety,’ he was giving voice to a very true and profound intuition. Fear of self-sacrifice lurks deep in every ego, and this fear is often only the precariously controlled demand of the unconscious forces to burst out in full strength.... It is possible to cut beyond ego-consciousness, to tune in on neurological processes… to become aware of the enormous treasury of ancient… knowledge welded into the nucleus of every cell in your body. Modern psychedelic chemicals provide a key to this forgotten realm of awareness.”

In keeping with proto-texts on ego death and the nature of the spiritual and controlled context of indigenous rituals, Leary, Dass and Metzner recognized the importance of both an internal desire to experience ego death and the setting in which the trip took place: 

“The drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key—it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. It depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including [their] personality structure and… mood at the time. Setting is physical [and]... social—feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural—prevailing views as to what is real…. [Setting’s] purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness…. For the unprepared… those who anxiously cling to their egos, and for those who take the drug in a non-supportive setting, the struggle to regain reality begins early and usually lasts to the end of the session…. You must be ready to accept the possibility that there is a limitless range of awareness… that awareness can expand beyond the range of your ego, your self, your familiar identity, beyond everything you have learned, beyond your notions of space and time, beyond the differences which usually separate people from each other and the world around them.”

Individuals studying ego death in the mid-century often referred to the ego as the participant in a “game,” an element of the Jungian concept of psyche (personality) engaging with human-designed rules and social constructs not inherent to our humanity. Ego death doesn’t mean we can escape these games permanently since we inevitably have, at the end of the process, to return to these rules and restrictions. People must become reborn. Ego death is not “the Liberation of Nirvana, but chiefly a liberation of the ‘life-flux’ from the ego, in such a manner as will afford the greatest possible consciousness and consequently [a] happy rebirth.”

Tibetan Yoga and the Secret Doctrines, edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz and published in 1958, explains:

“[It takes a] very experienced and very highly efficient person… to prevent any break in the flow of the stream of consciousness [during the trip], from the moment of the ego-loss to the moment of a conscious rebirth.... The ability to maintain a non-game ecstasy throughout the entire experience is possessed only by persons trained in mental concentration… to such a high degree of proficiency as to be able to control all the mental functions and to shut out the distractions of the outside world.”

Someone must not only be open to the experience, they must also be prepared to hold onto it for as long as they can. Leary et al. break down the three stages of a trip and how easy it is to slip back into the game:

“The first period… is that of complete transcendence… beyond self. There are no… sense[s] of self, no thoughts… only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom from all… biological involvements…. The second period involves self… in sharp exquisite clarity or in the form of hallucinations.… The final period… involves the return to routine game reality and the self.... For most persons the [hallucinogenic]… stage is the longest. For the initiated the [ego death] lasts longer.”

A 2008 study done at Johns Hopkins University seemed to take note of these texts. Leary and his co-authors stressed that people must be experienced with hallucinogens to eventually achieve ego death—that they had to practice and essentially know what they were getting into. Though the 36 subjects in this study were “hallucinogen-naïve,” they reported “regular participation in religious/spiritual activities” and were given “eight hours of preparation.” The study took place in a “living room-like environment,” establishing a comfortable setting where participants were lying down. Researchers can be thought of in this situation as taking the position of a guru. Subjects were put in a space—given headphones playing music and “encouraged to close their eyes and direct their attention inwards”—that limited distraction. 

Perhaps because of the consistently high dosage, without giving participants slow entry into the feeling of tripping, results showed that only 58 percent of the subjects met the “criteria for having had a ‘complete’ mystical experience.” The study did state, though, that the subjects who had achieved this state remained changed when observed 14 months after the experience. 

The researchers wrote, “The psilocybin session was associated with significant increases in ratings of the personal meaning of the experience, the spiritual significance of the experience, and well-being or life satisfaction during the experience. No volunteer rated the experience as having decreased his or her sense of well-being or life satisfaction at either two months or the 14-month follow-up.”

Subjects had fascinating responses when questioned about ego death. One felt “a non-self… held/suspended in an almost tactile field of light.” Another said they felt “freedom from every conceivable thing including time, space, relationships, self.... It was as if the embodied ‘me’ experienced ultimate transcendence—even of myself.” The eight-hour preparation that subjects received is clear as they discuss tripping, feeling “the utter joy and freedom of letting go[,] without anxiety[,] without direction[,] beyond ego self.” Some even spoke of rebirth and the possibility of discomfort during ego death: “[I felt] the experience of death, which initially was very uncomfortable, followed by absolute peace and being in the presence of God.”

The researchers did explain that even though these subjects experienced ego death, they did not feel a change in “personality, affect, quality of life, or spirituality.” This was surprising given that these “measures… presumably assess similar domains.”

This was something the same researcher, R.R. Griffiths, decided to explore in his next study. In 2011, he addressed the subject again, this time doling out psilocybin in either increasing or decreasing dosages. He found that “the acute and persisting effects of psilocybin were generally [an]… increasing function of dose.” Griffiths also noted that “the ascending dose sequence [showed] greater positive effects.” 

Participants were given the same eight-hour preparation and put in an identical comfortable setting for the trip. Fifty percent were involved with spiritual activities. Participants reported increased “life satisfaction” and “persisting positive mood,” especially when given increasing doses. Interestingly, most in the increasing dose category responded that they would want to experience the highest dose test again; only 22 percent of the descending dose group “rated the highest dose session… as the most personally meaningful… and spiritually significant.” 

Researchers explained, “These findings suggest that the ascending dose sequence is somewhat more likely than the descending sequence to produce long-lasting positive changes in attitudes, behavior, and remembered mystical-type experiences. Thus it appears that having experience with lower doses facilitates the likelihood of having sustained positive effects after a high dose.” 

Leary and his co-writers, though discussing LSD and not psilocybin, appear to be correct when they said it is important to be familiar with the experience of tripping before achieving ego death. 

Family members, friends, colleagues and similar “community observers” rated change in the subjects as positive as well, consistent with what the participants themselves said. “72% of volunteers [fulfilled] criteria for having had a ‘complete’ mystical experience at either or both of the two highest dose sessions…. At the 14-month follow-up… 94% [of participants] rated the experience as the single most or among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their life.”

A third study, again by R.R. Griffiths, showed similar confirmation of what Leary and his co-authors said, finding that supportive environments were conducive to ego death. And a Swiss study in 2016 demonstrated that instances of “mystical experiences” among subjects was higher with psilocybin than it was with LSD, making one wonder if Leary’s experiments would have been even more significant had he chosen to study mushrooms.

* * *

In a sense, ego death is all about the rebirth. The “success” of the former is really contingent on how it affects and shapes the latter. Ego death is not a finality; the body and mind both continue on after its brief appearance. Carl Jung explained in an interview with the BBC in 1959 that the psyche—the totality of the individual—is “not under [the] obligation to live in time and space.” He argued for the “continuation of life, a sort of psychical experience” after death. 

Though he was speaking about physical death, his words can also be applied to ego death. He explained that the “totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious,” can be separated out from the physical body, that there is space between the game-playing ego and ego-less identity “that seeks to maintain a balance between opposing qualities while constantly striving for growth.” 

The ego, he said, was simply “the part that links the inner and outer worlds together, forming how we relate to that which is external to us.” And if we’ve experienced a state of complete integration with the external, the ego-free state of feeling at peace with the world and with our fellow inhabitants, this “balance” arguably shifts in a positive direction—something backed up by research done by R.R. Griffiths and others. Though the ego is brought back to life, it can be reformatted to interpret life differently and change its goals and interpretations of the external.

This was seen as early as 1977 in the book The Human Encounter with Death by doctors Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax. The text focuses, as many modern hallucinogenic and psychedelic studies have, on the emotional changes in cancer patients after trips. Grof’s previous work in Europe showed “that the experience of ego death in psychedelic sessions is the most powerful remedy against suicidal tendencies.” (He did make a distinction between cancer patients who were experiencing “an understandable response to a most difficult life situation” and psychiatric patients whose “symptoms… [were] pathological emotions [that could] usually be traced back to early childhood, and where the individual is frequently instrumental in complicating his or her own life.” Griffiths’ studies made sure to select subjects without psychiatric or medical complications.)

Grof and Halifax’s methods were not restricted to those typically used in studies of psychedelics and cancer patients, exploring those elements that they had ascribed to psychiatric patients: “recall and vivid reliving of traumatic childhood memories; facilitation of emotional and intellectual insights; [and] corrective emotional experiences.” Such therapies are “conventional psychotherapeutic approaches” that would be used in typical therapy. 

The study’s methodologies, and perhaps to some extent its results, can then be theoretically extended into the wider realm. Psychiatric and ego imbalances engage with a theory Grof developed called COEX systems. This refers to how “an emotionally significant event becomes imprinted in the memory structures,” resulting in either positive or negative thought patterns that become reinforced. This is now known as “negativity bias,” the finding that “when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature… have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.” When we are exposed to negativity, we are more likely to see future experiences as negative, even more extremely than they actually are. Grof called this initial negative imprint as a “COEX root,” the place from which grows other negative feelings if the events have “similar… visual, metaphoric, or affective impact.”

By uprooting such systems—through therapy, ego death or both—it is theoretically possible to rewire the brain into being less likely to interpret things as negative or unpleasant. The studies of LSD and psilocybin’s mystical effects seem to back this up, suggesting that the rebirth following ego death does, in fact, have a lasting effect on individuals who experience it. Grof and Halifax’s research agrees:

“The LSD session seems to represent a deep intervention into the dynamics of COEX systems… a shift from a psychological dominance of a negative COEX system to a state where the individual is under the influence of a positive memory constellation…. In those individuals who have gone through the ego death and rebirth followed by a unitive experience, the pre-session symptoms were frequently drastically mitigated or even completely eliminated…. It seems that this profound experience, usually referred to as the psychedelic peak experience, may constitute a new and powerful means for eliciting profound therapeutic changes and for facilitating restructuring of the personality…. Depression dissolves, anxiety and tension are reduced, guilt feelings are lifted, and self-image as well as self-acceptance improve considerably. Individuals talk about experiencing themselves as reborn and purified; a deep sense of being in tune with nature and the universe replaces their previous feelings of alienation…. Individuals experience a new sense of empathy and warmth toward other people and perceive the world as a fascinating and basically friendly place. Everything in the universe appears perfect, exactly as it should be…. Individuals usually see the world and themselves in terms of spiritual energy involved in a divine play and tend to perceive ordinary reality as essentially sacred.”

These words are remarkably similar to the experiences that Griffiths’ subjects said they’d had as a result of psilocybin tests. It seems that even the earliest experiences of ego death, the ones reaching back into the 1st century through Leary, Ram Dass and Metzner’s work and into modern research, all have commonalities suggesting the experience of ego death and rebirth has long-term significance on the individual. Though certainly without the deeply religious implications, it seems to be a version of the description of Indian nirvana: “a state of perfect quietude, freedom, highest happiness.” 

It’s understandable to see why people will go to great lengths to achieve ego death, hoping for the continued hold of this state of being over their normally game-playing ego state. A true shift in psyche, in this context and perhaps even overall, depends on the existence of both the state of ego death and the change that follows it. Ego death without rebirth is just how Leary and his co-authors explain it: just a phase in a trip. But for those who can hold onto the right phase, it is a state desired by many.

Charlie Tetiyevsky is a nonfiction writer and poet based out of Los Angeles.

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