Ego Death VIII: Enlightenment

This is the eighth and final episode of a series on ego death. Read episodes onetwothreefourfivesix and seven.

In Ego Death VII, we reached a fork in the road; we discovered two possible interpretations of ego death. The first, which we covered, was concerned with the present-orientated version. The second, which we’ll cover now, is concerned with the process-orientated version.

I suspect you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey. It looks like this:

Campbell calls this the “monomyth”. Essentially, it’s the archetypal story that underlies a lot of our stories and cultural myths. There’s a simpler version which I prefer:
Campbell describes it as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder (x): fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won (y): the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (z).”

How does this apply to the concept of ego death? Let me explain by modifying the diagram above.

We’ve said that the ego is composed of your set, stable and shifting beliefs through time. It’s also related to your physical existence. Ego death occurs when these beliefs cease temporarily (as discussed in Ego Death VII) or are permanently transformed. Hence the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. But how are they permanently transformed? In Campbell’s monomyth, it is primarily by the opposition of an external force. The hero fights the villain. The forces of good are pitted against the forces of evil. In most other domains, the opposition is internal, your own self.

For example, look at the process of learning. What is it but the repeated attempt to kill your ego? Your reading and learning is nothing more than the attempt to undermine the foundation of your own understanding and perception of the world. You kill your ideas and models in the hope that they will be reborn as something stronger and better. This is true at every level of belief. But the difference between each level lies in the relative difficulty.

Learning about business or history or psychology or ducks alters surface level beliefs. It doesn’t take too much to do that. Those beliefs and models are fairly ephemeral and don’t tie into your concept of self too heavily. But the closer you get to the centre of your beliefs, the harder this change—and in the end, ego death—is to bring about.

Imagine philosophy as split into two branches that correspond to the two modes of life; action and reflection. Practical philosophy is concerned with actual living, with how you deal with human problems like anger, jealousy, sorrow and desire. Reflective or contemplative philosophy deals with thinking about how you deal with these problems. The end of contemplative philosophy is the cessation of your current self. But not in order to destroy and make extinct, but as a necessary step on the pathway to evolution or growth. Think about it. To be “better” or attain a higher level—I’ll let you think about what that means—it is necessary to leave your current self behind. To become that you have to leave this behind.

There’s two ways you can imagine this process. You can imagine it as similar to an epiphany; the consequence of a singular, monumental insight whose effects send a tidal wave through your belief system and models. Or you can imagine it as a gradual accumulation which results in a significant change. Every day, you die a little and are reborn a little. 

As I think about everything we’ve covered in this series, I can’t help but going back to our three circles that represent our ego.

There’s one more thing to incorporate that completes the model we’ve been building of ego death: the differing rates of refresh or rewrite. Our shifting beliefs change rapidly in response to our continued contact with reality. Our stable beliefs change less frequently, but when they do, it’s more of a major event. Our set beliefs rarely, if ever, change. And it is with this group of beliefs, the set beliefs we have about ourselves, the world, and our place within it, that ego death is truly associated.

I’ve talked before about the idea that children are multiple people, and that to become grown is to choose who they want to continue to be. Most, after making that choice at the gateway between childhood and adulthood, never look back. They continue as they are until they perish. But the idea of ego death, in both its presence- and process-orientated versions, is about making that choice again. It’s about seeing who you are by becoming someone or something else, either temporarily or permanently. 

It is said that enlightenment is the death of the ego, its dissolution into nothingness. In my mind, that’s a normative model; something we can strive for but never really achieve. A more realistic model of enlightenment is one in which we destroy our ego, not permanently, but repeatedly, in the hope that, like a phoenix, it rises again from the ashes.

The end of this repeated cycle is ultimately compression. Naval Ravikant put it perfectly when he said that his aim to scrape away layers of identity. When we’re young and foolish, we identify as a man or a woman, as black or white, as a football fan or a book lover, as a student, as whatever. But the process of ego death, of birth-death-rebirth, is about shedding the identities and labels we affix to ourselves and leaving ourselves with nothing but the essence.