An understanding of “ego”. Check. A decision about when the ego comes into being. Check. Choosing what death personally represents. Check. Now, all that remains is to take a look at “ego death” itself. Let’s begin.
Like confused adolescents and adults the world over, my first choice of comprehension aid is the internet. Specifically, Wikipedia followed by a barrage of googled terms and questions.
The head of Wikipedia’s entry for “ego death” cites two interpretations of the idea. The first frames ego death as something that occurs as part of a person’s development, as a transition from one state of mind to another that occurs multiple times throughout a life. The second frames ego death as a momentary transcendence of self. It hints at ego death as an experience of oneness, that is, a foregoing of individual identity in favour of a connectedness with with the universe.
We could label these two branches as a process-orientated and a presence-orientated definition of ego death respectively. The former is concerned with the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. The latter is concerned with an isolated moment, with a single point in time rather than a journey through it. The presence-orientated version of ego death is the one we’ll take on first.
One way to begin thinking about it is the idea of immersion-vs-detachment. I’ve used this imagery before to help myself understand the creative process. I’ve said that, for me, the creative process is a continuous cycle between immersion in experience and a detachment from it.
The first example of this that comes to mind concerns in-groups and out-groups. Taken to an extreme, dependency on an in-group can result in the disintegration of individual identity. You shape-shift and assume the form of that which is assigned to or demanded of you by the group. This is the opposite of what Paul Graham calls keeping your identity small. It’s allowing one part of your identity to enlarge and swell to such a degree that it extinguishes all others. Think of how a great tree sucks up all the nutrients from the soil surrounding it, making it very hard for others trees and plants to flourish in its shadow, and in some cases, killing that which is in its vicinity. That’s akin to what can happen when one identity overpowers all others.
That’s the insidious side to the momentary loss of self. Another side is the one described above, the loss of self that manifests itself as a connection with the wider universe. I’ve only come across this explicitly via the work of Alan Watts. Consider this passage from Still the Mind, especially the last sentence:
“…deep listening. Very few people ever really listen, because instead of receiving the sound, they make comments on it all the time. They are thinking about it, and so the sound is never fully heard. You just have to let it take over you completely, and then you get into the samadhi state of becoming it.”
All of those examples provoke a contrast; smallness next to bigness. Perhaps that’s how this momentary ego death is manufactured, via an intense focus on our size relative to a chosen entity of much greater size?
Of course, there are other doorways to ego death, besides mindfulness and meditation. External aids like psychedelics can (apparently) help to elucidate that state. By going on a trip you can end up seeing the world from a perspective other than your own. I don’t claim to understand to understand exactly how this works, or claim to be able to adequately reproduce that feeling using mere words. Language follows thought, it is not a precursor to it, so it’s very hard to portray visceral experiences and strong feelings.
As well as identifying with an in-group, mindfulness, meditation and psychedelics, there’s another way to achieve momentary ego death: approaching the boundary between life and death.
Do you remember that extreme planking craze? The most memorable instance of it is this.
Do you think that the guy, with one hand behind his back, looking down at a forty-plus storey fall, had a sense of self? Do you think that, in that moment, his ego was dead? I do. You can’t have a sense of self when you’re face to face with your own mortality. And I bet that when he shuffled back onto the building, stood up and thought, “I didn’t die!”, thoughts about himself came flooding back.
Go and watch any video in which people do crazy shit. The same process applies. In that moment of madness, their ego is flat-lining.
Finally, we can consider the idea of masks in relation to ego death. My contact with the idea of masks is twofold. First, from experience in secondary school. I was part of a drama production, and one of my roles was a fox—it was an interpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which made use of various animals. On one of the rehearsal weekends, I was instructed by my teacher to go outside and “be a fox”. So there I was, a fourteen year old kid, outside an arts centre on a Saturday afternoon, figuring out how to slink around like an orange predator. (Dissonance was provoked by the fact that the fox is nocturnal, so if I had really wanted to play my role and “be a fox”, I’d of found a nice spot and slept for a few hours.)
My second contact with the idea of masks came from reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro. The final chapter is entitled “Masks and Trance” and it remains one of the most disturbing—and illuminating—things I’ve ever read about the human psyche. I’ll refrain from exhaustively reconstructing Johnstone’s ideas and instead post this passage, which I think reveals the central point of the chapter, and of Johnstone’s approach to improvisation.
“It’s not surprising then to find that Masks produce changes in the personality, or that the first sight of oneself wearing a mask and reflected in a mirror should be so disturbing. A bad mask will produce little effect, but a good mask will give you the feeling that you know all about the creature in the mirror. You feel that the Mask is about to take over. It is at this moment of crisis that the Mask teacher will urge you to continue. In most social situations you are expected to maintain a consistent personality. In a Mask class you are encouraged to ‘let go’ and allow yourself to become possessed.”
Now, I know I said “Finally” a few paragraphs ago. That’s not happening now. See, the above passage from Johnstone’s book brings up two more instances of ego death which I hadn’t considered.
The first is the medium of dance. If you watch any master of this expressive art, it’s hard not to get the sense that the dancer has surrendered themselves to the rhythm. They’ve stopped being themselves and are allowing their body to become whatever shape or movement the music is demanding of them. I could direct you to any number of examples, but the point is, masters of dance move according to the will of an external force. If the music is smooth and gentle, their movements take on a grace and fluidity that alters via gentle bends, instead of fast jolts. If the music is aggressive and urgent, louder, with more abrupt beats, so too is their movement. The dancer then moves with a pow-pow-pow in time to the beat, as opposed to a da, da-da-da, da-da, daaaaaaaa.
The second instance of ego death brought to mind by the Johnstone passage is the idea of possession. Specifically, the possession necessary to achieve a superior creative state. It’s like waiting for the visitation of a daemon, or for inspiration to strike. It’s visualising inspiration as an entity which shows up and takes over.
This concept of daemon-driven creativity aligns in some ways with the concept of presence-orientated ego death. It is surrendering yourself to a feeling, a sense, an insight, an emotion, and letting it—not you—determine where you go and where you end up.
As I type this, I begin to wonder: how much does this idea of ego death—the temporary cessation of self—correlate with a flow state? Flow, a concept coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, has six elements:
“1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
2. Merging of action and awareness.
3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.”