Everything To Know About Ego Death — From What It Is To How It Happens
Call it enlightenment, call it a transcendence; ego death is one of the most profound (and sometimes frightening) experiences someone can have in their life. We asked the experts what ego death really means, how it happens, and how to achieve it.
What is the ego?
To understand ego death, you first have to understand the ego. According to psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, the ego is a sense of self that you develop at a young age. And as Shannon Kaiser, spiritual author of the forthcoming book Return to You, adds, the ego relates to your feelings about your own importance and abilities.
"It's how you identify and what you identify with—like who you are as a person, whether it's gender identity, what your beliefs are, your morals," Nuñez explains.
She notes that famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was the first to popularize the idea of ego in the modern world, and in psychoanalytic theory, it's defined as "the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity."
Without getting too caught up in the psychological aspects, you can think of your ego as the image you hold of yourself, which affects everything from how you perceive the world to how you behave around others.
What is ego death?
Ego death is the (often instantaneous) realization that you are not truly the things you've identified with, and the "ego" or sense of self you've created in your mind is a fabrication. In some instances, it can offer a profound feeling of peace and connectedness with all that is, as the walls of separation the ego creates come crumbling down.
In other cases, and especially if your ego resists this "death," the experience can be very scary and result in a sense of detachment or disassociation, Kaiser says. "Often a complete loss of subjective self-identity occurs, causing depression, anxiety, and fear—but the more in touch one is with their spiritual core, the easier the awakening will be," she adds.
Ultimately, ego deaths are not a casual experience but rather quite the opposite. It changes the course of people's lives entirely. When one comes through on the other side having released all the things they've identified with, with only their true spirit left, Kaiser says, they begin to live from a place of pure love.
How ego death happens
Ego deaths are different for everyone. With that said, Nuñez notes some common reasons or "triggers" for ego death include psychedelics, certain meditations, sound baths, as well as out-of-body experiences.
For some people, though, an ego death could happen somewhat spontaneously, not unlike the initial moment of a spiritual awakening, as you have that first realization that your soul is something different from your ego.
From there, ego deaths tend to have a handful of common steps or stages.
Stages you may go through
- The spiritual awakening: The first stage of ego death is the initial moment of awakening in which you wake up from the ego's power over you, Kaiser says.
- The dark night of the soul: As you navigate your newfound understanding, you begin to "question everything and realize things are not as they seem or as we've been taught," Kaiser says, noting this can feel like a complete loss of identity. "The space in between can feel like a death, and it is, energetically," she adds.
- Exploration & curiosity: In this stage, you begin to explore more and fill the void with things that are in line with your soul or highest self. As Kaiser explains, "It's important to note that although ego death seems like a killing of the ego, what actually happens is a loss of being subjected to its 'power' over you. As your ego dies off, you start to live from a place of more love and light."
- Soul growth & enlightenment: As the dust settles and you soften into your new way of being, you realize more about your true nature and live in a higher vibrational state, Kaiser says. "You have cleared many of your old patterns and are now embodying much more light and a simpler, more purified divine you," she adds.
How to achieve ego death
If you're looking to experience ego death for yourself, it's first important to look at what your objectives are, why you want to get rid of your ego, and how you plan to do it. Again, this is not a casual experience and should not be taken lightly.
With all that said, some ways to "induce" ego death involve spiritual practices that help you reach transcendental states, such as meditation or breathwork exercises, Nuñez explains. Certain retreats and workshops may offer specific practices tailored for this, she notes.
It is also worth noting that psychedelics are a popular avenue for ego death, with 2016 research1 finding a strong correlation with psychedelics and ego death. The study authors write, "Ego-dissolution is a key phenomenological feature of the psychedelic experience," adding that participants who reportedly had ego deaths often also reported feeling at one with the universe during a psychedelic experience.
And of course, there are other, less instantaneous ways to begin fostering a more enlightened way of being without suddenly shattering your ego, such as studying spiritual texts, learning from healers and spiritual thought leaders, and putting what you learn into practice.
But ultimately, as spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth, "The greatest miracle is the experiencing of your essential self as prior to any words, thoughts, mental labels and images. For this to happen, you need to disentangle your sense of 'I,' of Beingness, from all the things it has become mixed up with."
Experiencing ego death is life-changing, intense, and sometimes terrifying, but it can also lead you to your soul's nature and allow you to live a life in harmony with your deepest truth. So whether you're in the throes of your own ego death right now, or are just getting started, in the words of Kaiser, "There is no need to worry—the real you is emerging."
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.